James Franco is an enigma. His breakout roles in the excellent short-lived TV series Freaks & Geeks and the freshly-minted stoner classic Pineapple Express cleverly flaunt his good looks and comedic chops. His portrayal of Harvey Milk’s distressed lover in Gus Van Sant’s Milk showcased an emotional depth. His upcoming collection short story collection would suggest that he has a brain. In Erased James Franco which MOMA screened as part of its Modern Mondays film series, more layers of the actor were hastily revealed, none of which we’ve seen before.
Carter, a New York-based multimedia artist, directed the film shot it over the course of a day in an empty Parisian studio. In the blank, airy space, Franco reenacts scenes from two of Carter’s favorite films — Julianne Moore’s allergic housewife in Safe and Rock Hudson’s ailing heartthrob in Seconds. It’s hard to discern which is which if you’re unfamiliar. Franco also does Franco (more on this later) by revisiting scenes plucked from his entire acting career. The good, the bad, and the weird are on full display, but not in the dazzling way we’d expect. The results are far less than stellar, and Franco seems to have trashed his talent. As the actor explained during the post-show Q&A that’s exactly what Carter intended. “We discussed the project for about a year and I remember he told me to give ten percent,” Franco joked. “Maybe he said fifty. But I think I did ten.”
The same way Robert Rauschenberg famously asked Willem de Kooning to erase his pencil sketch in 1953, Carter tapped Franco to downplay his skills. “It struck me as an interesting experiment,” Carter explained at the Q&A, “to see what would happen if I took this talented actor and had him frame these beloved actors in a different time and space.” Instead of full-fledged immersion in the characters, however, we see Franco’s reenactments stripped of story, emotion, and time. In each scene, he acts alone, and if he says something, it’s without context. In short, this is a series of fragmented scenes with bleak, inane moments occupying most of them. Here’s Franco walking down a hall, or there’s Franco sipping a cup of milk. Sometimes Franco breathes heavy or maybe he cries — but about what? You’d have to know his filmography. So if there’s a point to all this, it’s that there’s no point at all. Franco even concurred, “It’s definitely not about the things that push a movie forward. The little things that get looked past in a film, like a phone call, breathing heavy, walking around, or whatever, are really what the focus is on.”
Carter claims he was familiar with Franco’s work from the outset, but to prepare for the mind-boggling project, he studied the actor’s entire catalogue. Creepy? Perhaps. The two had met once briefly before but apparently the respect was mutual; Franco digs Carter’s artwork and the partnership blossomed from there.
Franco, meanwhile, is aware that the film is esoteric. (“You’re still here?” he cracked when the lights came on.) But he still sees it as extremely relevant: “Sometimes when you’re an actor, just the idea of being somebody else is so bizarre,” he said. “This was a fun way for me to just do nothing and get away with it.” And he relished the chance to rewrite the past. Projects that he’d rather forget (Never Been Kissed, anyone?) were easily glossed over, hammered out, and thrown away, all at Carter’s urging. Therapeutic for him? No doubt, and according to Franco, it’s his “favorite performance of any that I have ever done.” But we can’t help but wonder how he’ll look back on it down the road. Our advice: When you’re feeling arty, stick to wrecking rooms with Dave Eggers. Destruction is more fun to watch.