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james franco

Dear James,

Everyone here is talking about you—myself included. Most of it is the expected back-and-forth, will-he-won’t-he sort of thing, though, personally, I like to imagine you will, and that (because you are, I assume, exactly like your character on Freaks and Geeks), you’ll be slumped over in the back of Intro to Doctoral Studies carving something like “Disco Sucks” into the faux-wood desk with a penknife. We look over at each other all like “whatever” and after class we get some beers and talk about the Astros or Hart Crane or Anne Hathaway (Coming to visit? Really? That’s awesome! I guess we can all get together and go bowling or something). On the other hand, fantasies of us being best friends aside, I have what feel like legitimate fears of you stealing my girlfriend or having no one ever want to talk to me at parties. Either way, for better or worse, the idea of you coming here seems to imply that if you do everything about being here is going to change.

Why is that? I mean, you seem pretty cool and I like your movies, but you’re really just some dude like everybody else, right? Being in workshop with you isn’t going to make me famous, nor am I going to end up on Judd Apatow’s speed dial, no matter how good the on-screen chemistry between me and Seth Rogan might be… So, again, I ask, why does it feel like you are about to change everything for all of us just by showing up? And why do we all care so much if you do?

The obvious answer, James, is that you will bring each of us a little closer to a world we can’t help but feel simultaneously excluded from, enchanted by, and critical of, that is, the world of celebrity. Like you are going to show up and give each of us a membership card and some dark sunglasses and we’ll all have to start dodging paparazzo on our way to have lunch or to teach comp in a windowless room somewhere on campus. And sure, I think everybody wants this a little bit, that is, to be recognized, but at least in my mind as writers we are inclined to want this a little bit more.

Of course, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think I’m safe in saying that writing is a public endeavor, especially the writing we do here; we write for our friends and our teachers, the members of our workshop, journals and presses, and even when we write for ourselves, we often write with some public image of ourselves in mind. Perhaps more than any particular aesthetic or literary tradition, we are a generation of writers struggling with the legacy of self-mythology, of having to construct—intentionally or unintentionally—a public identity for ourselves as writers in a culture that seems largely uninterested in the construction of our identities as writers. This “tradition” goes back, to my knowledge, at least as far as Whitman, who staged photographs with cardboard butterflies, posed with children, grew a beard, dressed to fit the image of the “everyman,” the version of himself he wanted us—yes, us—to remember. And when we read Leaves of Grass we can’t help but feel like the task was to build a self so deeply into the culture surrounding it that the two became completely inseparable.

Lyn Hejinian has a great essay about this—maybe you’ve read it—called “Who Is Speaking?” In it she reminds us that, “At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing.” Here, Hejinian suggests we have an awful lot of responsibility as writers to be the masters of our public selves, which is surely something that’s been on your mind recently, hasn’t it? Maybe more than anyone else I can think of, James, are you confronted with “the relentless necessity of inventing [yourself] anew as a writer every day.” We already “know” you, or at least the “you” that you’ve chosen to share with us; we cried and cringed with you in 127 Hours; we laughed with you when we watched you laugh as you watched episodes of 227 in Pineapple Express; and we made our serious face when you made your serious face at Toby Maguire in Spiderman—“Now let’s see whose behind the mask”—right?

So, to be honest, I don’t know why I’m even telling you any of this; I’m sure when you get here we can have a long conversation about post-confessional writing and the conflation of autobiography and self-mythology or J.D. Salinger and how refusing to participate in the creation of a public image can become a public image in itself. You already know, I’m sure, how we have become so aware of ourselves as potential members of this mythologizing that we are completely helpless to our participation in it. I saw you the other week on The Colbert Report, you said it yourself, we need to be skeptical of celebrity, there’s something seemingly dangerous about it; we might lose sight of ourselves, get lost, or take advantage without ever really intending to do so.

I think the real reason why we all care so much about you is not that we all want to become famous writers, but that we have all been struggling to accept that we won’t, not because we are not good enough, or that we are not deserving, just that it’s improbability is a part of our everyday lives. Even just in terms of this program, there are a ton of super-talented, brilliantly gifted writers here, but are we all going to “make it”? Will each one of us make our mark in literary history? Will any of us? How could we?

America is filling up with post-MFA-ers (I am about to become one myself), small presses, journals, blogs, and people generally convinced that their decades of diary writing qualifies them to be the next Emily Dickinson; which is to say, now, more than ever, is there an abundance of people interested in writing, no matter how (relatively) small the writing world might sometimes seem. The writing community we are responsible for inventing, and inventing ourselves within, seems to be constantly growing and in every direction imaginable.

The response to this is that we have started to accept that our ideas about “making it” will have to change. Success can no longer necessarily mean having your poems or stories in The New Yorker or getting a teaching gig at Iowa; it’s become about finding (or even inventing) a community in which your writing has meaning and is meaningful. So, maybe we’re all so interested in you coming here because we’re worried your presence will remind us of the thing we’ve been struggling with the most; our continual extinction within our abundance; our wanting to “make it”—whatever that means—and knowing we can’t, at least not in the way that we once believed we could, and that you, James Franco, already have.

And I’m not trying to accuse you of anything. It’s pretty normal to get a few MFAs and PhDs, ones that have landed a story in Esquire, poems in Lana Turner, and published a collection of stories on the same press as unknowns like Vonnegut and Hemmingway. We all want to be students forever, James; no one can blame you for that. If anything, the person most implicated in all of this is me; I am writing this hoping that you’ll actually read it, that you will send me an email saying something like, “Hey, I read your letter. Let’s get together sometime and drink beers and talk about the Astros and Hart Crane.” That one day I’m flying out to California on your private jet, book deal in the works, and everybody, and I really mean everybody, will be talking about me.

Sincerely Yours,

Eric Kocher

If James Franco’s first name had been Ben, it would take very little to convince me that he is, in fact, the 24-hour multimedia reincarnation of the original King of Enterprise and Toil, Benjamin Franklin, whose parades through Philadelphia at the dawn bell with a wheelbarrow full of already-completed paperwork resemble Franco’s continuous and uncanny stream of films, art exhibitions, grad lit classes, short stories, and appearances on soap operas.  Sam Anderson rode the wave briefly over the summer, and wrote a telling profile for New York Magazine, concluding,

Plenty of actors dabble in side projects – rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism – but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.

Except for, well, Franklin. Anderson continues,

This fall, at 32…he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.

Anderson’s quippy exaggerations nonetheless point up the outrageous nature of Franco’s juggling act.  But it begs the appropriate question: is this seeming jack of all artistic trades still a master of none?  Anderson smartly points out the lack of virtuosity in much of Franco’s work, particularly his fiction. He doesn’t, however, attribute it to being thinly spread, but to a more organic transitional period that besets every artist’s life. Ultimately, “He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.” Regardless of the quality of his work, his unabashedly zealous desire to work inspires me.  Would that we could all be so tireless.

While many, including Anderson, may consider Franco’s entire professional life (this might be redundant—he doesn’t seem to have any other kind of life) to be a piece of performance art, I want to talk about two actual such pieces.  In Franco’s fashion, two films—Howl and 127 Hours—are currently playing that have cast him as the lead, and each has the potential to establish Franco among the upper echelon of screen actors.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on the inception, production, and delivery of Allen Ginsberg’s euphoric masterpiece exists across a series of evenly paced set pieces.  The film begins as a seemingly reticent Ginsberg stands before an eager crowd at the now legendary Gallery Six in San Francisco, preparing to read for the first time those famous and often parodied opening lines. We return to this scene periodically as the entirety of the poem is eventually read across the film.  The rest of it alternates between the obscenity trial (with a Hamm-like performance from Jon Hamm and well placed cameos from Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels), which ultimately serves an interpretive function, an interview with Ginsberg circa 1957 in which we glean most of our biographical information, flashbacks to his life pre-”Howl,” and an hallucinogenic rendering of the poem itself from animator Eric Drooker.  This is by far the biggest risk of the film, but I don’t agree with the Times‘ A.O. Scott that it was “nearly disastrous, the one serious misstep in a film that otherwise does nearly everything right.”

I’m going to disagree with not only the first part of that claim, but also the latter part.  There is one grating thing that, for me, Howl misses. The film does well to emphasize that much of Ginsberg’s poetic energy sprung from his (questionably) unrequited love for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.  But each of these figures is presented as a stiff, Don Draper type, rather than as the real madmen that they were.  For a movement so devoted to the lovely power of the human voice, these characters have a combined total of—get this—zero lines.  Not only does this serve to render Ginsberg’s love unrealistic, it does a disservice to the Beat generation and what it stood for. Both Kerouac and Cassady come off as leering fraternity brothers, in a malicious way. The real Beats were assholes—just not that kind of asshole. Ginsberg himself claims in the interview portion (granted, the entirety of the dialogue is drawn from historical record, but this was still a directorial choice), “There is no Beat Generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” I don’t think anyone, including Ginsberg, believed that in 1957. Regardless, Franco’s performance across these set pieces is every bit as “impressive [and] beguilingly sensitive” as Ann Hornaday claims in her Washington Post review.  The film is worth seeing for that alone.  What is more, with the sudden recuperation of the perpetually “in production” adaptation of On the Road, we may see a great Beat Generation film sooner rather than later.

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Whatever hype I had encountered about 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, spoke to the climax, what David Denby of The New Yorker has dubbed “The Scene,” namely the re-creation of Aron Ralston’s brutal extrication from a dire encounter with a rock.  If you’re like me, then perhaps the most excruciating element of this experience is the anticipation.  When is he going to get trapped?  Is now the time when he will begin cutting?  Are these screams going to be even more blood-curdling when he hits the nerve? But Danny Boyle spends this time of nervous anticipation artfully juxtaposing crowds and solitude, noise and silence in a way that prepares the stage for Ralston’s spiritual crisis (in all, Boyle stylistically airs it out on a premise that could have come off as, well, boring). Regardless, you will throughout the film sit with your hands (for which you are suddenly very grateful) at the ready to cover your eyes, pull at your hair, or just wring for minutes at a time.

Generically, 127 Hours can be compared to Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, but while Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless treks to Alaska out of a rejection of society (not to mention everyone who loves him), Franco’s Ralston is passionate about the wilderness.  He’s not escaping; Canyonlands is his “home away from home.”  But his love and positive enthusiasm (when his co-worker tells him to have a good one, he replies, “Always do.”) are put to the ultimate test over five days, as his ordeal transforms from a race against time to free himself from the rock without dying of thirst into a spiritual journey through his conscience, memories, and hopes for the future.  He “has nailed himself to his own special cross” (Denby), eventually realizing that “this rock has been waiting for me for thousands of years.”  This is Ralston’s Trial, and it is ultimately a parable about embracing life.

The beauty of Franco’s performance resides in his preservation of Ralston’s quirkiness amid desperation.  This story is so powerful because we know that this is a regular guy who has done something extraordinary.  But Franco and Boyle were brilliant not to locate the human universality of the story in the unfathomable circumstances but in Ralston’s personal experience.  Faced with death, he repents, remembers times of love, and laments unrealized future ones, all via nicely placed flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations.  But the nuance here is important—Ralston’s not a bad guy.  He loves his parents, misses his ex-girlfriend (whom he apparently did slight), and laments his vainglorious subconscious wish not to have anyone know where he is.  His life wasn’t in shambles, hence his happy-go-lucky attitude that pervades the first part of the film.

His transformation, however, is no less remarkable.  His family knows he loves them, so he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness for wrongdoing; rather, he, and we all can identify with this, apologizes into his camcorder (which, for much of his ordeal, serves as a Bakhtinian superaddressee, a God-figure) “for not acknowledging you in my heart as much as I could.”  This was powerful, and had me weeping, childlike.  The acknowledgement of a higher power becomes more palpable the deeper into crisis he becomes. As he agonizes, his bellows of “Please!”—to the rock, to the camcorder, to God—resonate with our similar moments of angst.  But his utterances after he gains freedom (which, thankfully, only took about five minutes, contrary to rumor) are most revealing.  Standing there, suddenly unbound, bleeding, he almost immediately mutters, “Thank you.”  He says nothing as he staggers his way out of the cave and—incredibly—rappels down a canyon wall.  Soon after, he sees, murkily, a group of hikers, and, desperately, but at this point triumphantly, begins screaming for help.  Of course, he needs medical assistance. But in this moment he is also affirming that he needs help in the same way that we all need help.  The subsequent dénouement is exuberant, an exaltation over the letting go of material life—our literal attachments to our bodies—for the sake of a new, spiritual life. Which, for Ralston, is as enthusiastic as the one he already led, only with added consciousness.  One comes away from 127 Hours not necessarily thankful for being spared a similar ordeal, but jealous of Ralston’s trial and awakening.  But true to the humanness of this story, it reminds us that every day we are faced with the possibility of death, and should act and think accordingly.

I could say a lot more about this film, especially about Boyle’s work, but I will stay on task about Franco.  Truth be told, I wrote the first half of this article before I saw 127 Hours, and a large part of me wants to take back that jack-of-all-trades bit.  What if Franco wins an Oscar for this performance?  Will he continue with his Alexandrian feats of intellectual conquest?  Or will he focus on fulfilling his vast potential as an actor?  Regardless, I propose Franco begin his speech as follows, in keeping with the mysterious and ironic fashion of his persona: “I’ll make this brief – I’ve got somewhere to be.”