Revisiting Twin Peaks – by James Franco
Recently, I’ve been hearing a whole lot about David Lynch, and not from the Lynch camp or concerning any new projects (what’s it been, eight or so years since Inland Empire?). Rather, I’ve been hearing about Lynch from people who have been re-watching Lynch’s work, especially Twin Peaks. I was in junior high when the series came on, and I was more interested in watchingBeverly Hills, 90210 (the first incarnation, with my man Luke Perry as D-McKay).
But even my young, culturally stilted self couldn’t help being aware of the phenomenon that wasTwin Peaks when it hit prime time. The first season was a juggernaut of creative innovation that television had been waiting for, as the response from critics and viewers clearly showed.
James Franco Remembers Philip Seymour Hoffman
The last time I ran into Philip was at Bar Centrale, a theater restaurant, when he came in with a group that included Chris Rock, Zach Braff, and a bunch of great stage actors. At the time, I had read that Philip had gone to rehab for heroin. I was shocked, because you don’t think that a person who absolutely everyone acknowledges as great, would have such problems. But that was foolish, because addiction cares nothing for personality. It is an illness, not a matter of will, class, intelligence, or lifestyle. I have no idea what happened to Phil before he was found dead, but a friend of mine told me they saw him the day before he passed and he looked happy. This says to me that Philip was not someone who had given up. He didn’t throw it all away. He was just someone—a very special someone—who was sick. His death is shocking to us because his greatness made him seem invincible. At the very least, all the incredible art he gave us should warrant him another chance.
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Werner Herzog Writes Poetry with Film, Writes James Franco
Here’s the thing about Werner Herzog: He’s both old and new school. His technique is largely self-taught because he never went to film school. Werner grew up in the mountains of Bavaria, Germany, in an area so rural that his first telephone conversation happened when he was 17. He saw a couple of short films as a child, projected on a wall. They meant little to him. He began by writing poems, but in his late teens he had a spiritual epiphany and realized that film would be his medium. Werner wanted to write his poetry with film, but he had no money to do so.
That lack of funds for filmmaking early in his career seemed to have left an impact on his process. Queen of the Desert—the film I just worked on with him and Nicole Kidman—was shot on a digital camera. But even though we could shoot as much as we wanted with little expense, Werner would stop after we got one or two good takes and say, in his distinct German accent: “When I was young and working as a stone mason, saving money for every scrap of celluloid I could, I would be happy with this, with one good take, because film was like gold.” After a week, he seemed to loosen up a little. Sometimes we would do four or five takes, luxuriating in the freedoms of digital technology.
Werner always claps the slate himself. This job is usually relegated to the second assistant camera operator, but Werner wants to be in the middle of everything. He wants filmmaking to be a material process—something closer to a moving sculpture than a performance caught through a lens. He wants the movie to reveal the human struggle, the human condition, human passions, and he wants his hands all over it, deep in its essential tissue.
What of the Ottava Rima in Byron’s ‘Don Juan’?
Lord Byron’s use of ottava rima—a form of poetry with an ABABABCC rhyming pattern—in his mock-epic poem Don Juan stems from his belief to deliver seriocomic material. The poem builds up content, alternating rhyming lines then cinches with a facetious end. Byron first used ottava rima in 1817 for Beppo: A Venetian Story—a good match for the extensive and quasi-exotic love story. So, it’s natural that he took up the same seriocomic tone of the ottava rima a year later, when he wanted to satirize Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey forms that he had just been using. Eventually this project turned into his long satiric poemDon Juan, a long and erotic adventure tale told in 17 sections. Regardless of how or why Byron decided on ottava rima for Don Juan, the form undoubtedly influenced the poem’s content through tone, pace, and lineation.
For a poem, Don Juan is a new approach to content, breadth, and action. In his essay, “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel,” Bakhtin claimed that all forms of literature look forward to the novel and that in times when “the novel reigns supreme, almost all the remaining genres are to a greater or lesser extent novelized.” In drama, examples include Henrik Ibsen, Richard Hauptmann, the entirety of Naturalist drama, and epic poetry like Childe Harolde and Lord Byron’s Don Juan.”
The Wolves of Hollywood, by James Franco
This is, more or less, how I imagined the genesis of The Wolf of Wall Street went down:
Marty and Leo wanted to work together again, of course; they have a great track record stretching back to Gangs of New York. When their relationship began it was mutually beneficial but they were coming from different directions: they were both talents, but at the time Scorsese was the critically overlooked doyen of crime films and scholar of cinema history, while Leo was the former critical darling whose entire identity was eclipsed by his Beatle-sized, world-dominating fame. Scorsese could get his decades old dream project made and Leo could work with his directing hero. Gangs was not the best of their outings, but at least it brought them together, and their films got better, culminating in the long due triumph of The Departed. By the time the duo got to Wolf I’m sure they were as in synch as the ATL Twins as far as how they worked and the kind of material they wanted to explore.
So, while Gangs was not their best outing, it led to The Departed winning several Academy Awards, including Best Director. (An aside: Did the .44 magnum/pussy cameo in Taxi Driver keep him from getting the Oscar until he was 64?) And I’m positive that with this long-anticipated repairing, they got their money. A superhero-sized budget, because they’re Leo and Marty, and their films do well both financially and critically, so if you’re a dude with some money to burn from stocks or oil or computers or wherever you’ve made your pile, why wouldn’t you want to get a piece of that game? So, they have the dough and they can do anything they damn well please because the money is independent and fuck it, they’re Leo and Marty and who the hell is going to tell them, “no?” This combo shits out Golden Globes like they’re going out of style (maybe they are? Heh heh) and people go to their dark, masculine dramas in the same numbers that they go to see dudes in tights with big Ss and bats on them. If they want to show Leo doing cocaine bullets out of a faceless girl’s ass, fuck it; if they want a ten minute Quaalude sequence (the best part of the film, funny as hell!), fuck it; and if they want their scumbag protagonists to go largely unpunished… FUCK IT, THAT’S LIFE.
James Franco on the Dark Appeal of Blackfish
Everyone seems to be talking about Blackfish, the new documentary about killer whales trained to do tricks for humans at amusement parks. More specifically, it’s about orcas in captivity at Sea World that have violently turned on their handlers and spectators. The reason being, the more politically incorrect among us might posit, is that they are killer whales.
You could say this is an activist film of sorts, but the animal rights messages of the film are well taken because they are brutal and demand attention from the viewer. And is it that crazy to think that giant, highly intelligent marine mammals should not be placed in captivity? They live in familial units that are arguably tighter than human families, and they even speak in their own language and dialects. So, when individuals from different pods are mixed together and sandwiched into tight performance pools, things can rapidly become tense and hostile.
It’s all unpleasant but equally compelling stuff, but at some points I was left wondering the point of it all which has left me with a series of lingering questions: Does the documentary take aim at the wrong target, Sea World? And if we extend what seems to be the film’s thesis to the hypothetical extreme of all Sea Worlds and similar waterparks being closed, leaving no killer wales in captivity, would this solve all the whales’ problems? I’m no specialist or expert on the subject, but many of the whales’ natural habitats have been damaged or destroyed over the years, so if we save the hundred whales in captivity as the documentary seems to be pushing for, would we really be doing anything meaningful? Or is the doc’s purpose to get us on the ethics of keeping animals captivity for human amusement, especially extremely intelligent species? Maybe that’s the point of the film?
Who Is ‘Her’? – by James Franco
Spike Jonze’s Her is a story about the death of human love masked as a love story between a man, Theo (Joaquin Phoenix), and his sexy artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson’s voice). Theo works as a professional surrogate letter-writer, a profession that’s equal parts emotional detective, jaded but secretly hopeful voyeur, and empathetic poet. His specialty is the intimate love letter, so his letters give voice to the feelings for the couples that hire him. This service, one set in an unnamed metropolis in the near future (and was shot both in Los Angeles and Shanghai to give the grey and pastel Google-age sheen to the exteriors) provides a parallel for Theo’s eventual relationship with his OS, an ethereal and exponentially hyper-intelligent lover who says everything he wants to hear, just like Theo’s letters do for his clients. The central questions of the film are existential: What does it mean to be human? How do we define emotions? Can something digital, and programmed, have a personality? How valuable are our bodies in the dawning age of total digital immersion?
The Monster in Mysterious Skin, by James Franco
Greg Araki’s film Mysterious Skin (2006) is an adaptation Scott Heim’s novel about two eight-year-old boys in Kansas who are molested by their baseball coach. The movie avoids the usual clichés of molestation narratives by presenting the two vastly different lives that resulted from the same trauma. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes a hustler who grows increasingly reckless in his sexual behavior, while Brian (Brady Corbet) is so deep in denial he believes he was abducted by aliens instead of sexually abused. The depiction of the child molester is especially interesting because he is not portrayed as a monster. One of the most curious aspects of the film is the attractive depiction of Coach: because the film is presented through the subjective perspectives of the two boys, Coach is seen as each boy would have seen him. He seduces them, and thus he seems more like a friend, rather than a sexual threat. But this is also the only perspective that the audience is given so there are no cracks in Coach’s appealing façade. This kind of positive exterior is precisely what the molester wants within the diegesis of the film. There are a few ancillary elements in the film that suggest the abuse has damaged the boys—Neil’s attraction to horror films, Neil’s rape near the end of the film, and his denial of the severity of any of the events—but the odd thing, especially for a film by a gay filmmaker, is that the implied repercussions of the child abuse are activities associated with a sexually active gay youth. Because Brian and Neil grow up as sexy young men and do things that any curious young person might do, it is as if the film is making a connection between sexual preference and abuse. The monster at the center of this film is so attractive that he seems blameless, and he turns the boys not into pathological wrecks, but into attractive sexualized portraits of young men.
Why Walt Whitman Was the Original Kanye West, According to James Franco
In this age of social media, self-promotion is the name of the game. We all have our little avatars, our little pictures and texts that we put out into the electronic world, that we hope get “liked.” Walt Whitman too was a self promoter, a performer, a purveyor of self.
“I exist as I am, that is enough,” says Whitman in the 1855 version of “Song of Myself,”
If no other in the world be aware I sit content
And if each and all be aware I sit content (“Song of Myself,” 46)
These enlightened sentiments are typical of Whitman in thisr first edition of Leaves of Grass, but these renunciations of investment in fame are not wholly true. Whitman’s actions show that he decidedly did care if readers were aware of him. After the initial publication of Leaves of Grass, a run of 800 copies, he wrote at least three anonymous reviews, both touting and criticizing but ultimately publicizing in the boldest kind of language his own work. The following quote from an articlehe he wrote for the United States Review in 1855 called “Walt Whitman and his Poems” shows another view Whitman had of himself:
Who then is that insolent unknown? Who is it, praising himself as if others were not fit to do it, and coming rough and unbidden among writers to unsettle what was settled, and to revolutionize in fact our modern civilizations? … You have come in good time, Walt Whitman! In opinions, in manners, in costumes, in books, in the aims and occupancy of life, in associates, in poems. (“Walt Whitman and his Poems,” Whitman)
Ambigu-Gus Van Sant – by James Franco
Gus Van Sant’s first film to be released in theaters was Mala Noche (1985), based on the memoir of the same title by Portland poet Walt Curtis. It depicts Walt as a gay convenience-store employee attracted to a Mexican migrant worker. His most recent film, Milk (2008), portrays the life of gay activist,politician,and martyr Harvey Milk. (I played Harvey’s partner, Scott Smith.) Van Sant has made 11 feature films and a dozen shorts and music videos between these two movies, but only one other feature and one short—My Own Private Idaho (1991) and his segment from Paris, Je T’Aime,“Le Marais,” (2006)—center on gay characters and themes. Despite this lack of explicitly gay-themed films, Van Sant is hailed as one of the foremost gay directors working today. Part of this reputation undoubtedly derives from a desire to claim his high quality and original films for the gay community simply because he is a gay filmmaker. But there is another side to Van Sant’s oeuvre that is neither gay nor straight but subversively queer in its ambiguity. Van Sant inserts this queer sensibility in both gay and straight narratives that then de-centers any clear kind of sexual identity for his work as a whole.
Van Sant’s films embrace both classic Hollywood archetypes and queer cinema styles,usually set in his hometown of Portland, to create a unique amalgamation of trashy-chic timelessness. His characters and themes undermine the notion of fixed identities, experiences, and themes. At his queer best, Van Sant usually is dealing with young people, and seems primarily interested in the young white male: his sexual desires, his talents, but primarily the social pressures upon him. Often his characters are freighted with heavy emotional, economic, or addiction burdens—but they hardly ever struggle with identity. The characters are relaxed about who they are because they are almost invariably cool. Van Sant’s aesthetic is confidently queer in its refusal to categorize, in its overarching hipness of look and subject matter that is both in your face and elusive.