There is an impressive number of layers to sift through in Francophrenia, a concept movie that will likely spawn divided audience reactions, but will no doubt leave people talking and thinking about something when the theater lights come back on. There is a lot to choose from. Director Ian Olds and subject/co-conspirator/co-director James Franco cast a wide net that manages to snare references to the media philosophy of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the recent phenomena of movies as an elaborate con somewhere in its catch. At the center of it all is a project based around an event, which may or may not be part of one enormous preconceived plan. I will attempt to sort it all out, without confusing things (or myself) too much. Let’s begin with what they told us.
Academy Award nominated actor James Franco has had a recurring role as a character named Franco on the long running soap opera General Hospital. That the character shares both a name and a passion (the character is a deranged serial killing artist and Franco, the real life actor, has in the past year had his own art exhibition) is an irony that is surely not lost on James. After a lengthy hiatus, the character would return to the show with a special episode filmed live before an audience at Los Angeles MOCA. Franco arranged for his involvement to be documented by Olds, the resulting footage left entirely in his hands to be put together as he sees fit. What appears on screen (I hesitate to call it a final product; one could easily imagine more creative hijinx spinning off from this point) is this film, made up of footage captured before and during the taping, rearranged and distorted to create an altogether different narrative. That’s what we’ve been told, but is that the whole story?
If it all seems too mind numbingly counterintuitive (why would a soap opera, however much they embrace far fetched premises, deal in all this arty referentialism? Surely it doesn’t hold any interest for their targeted audience) to have been conceived of in earnest, that’s because it wasn’t, well at least not entirely. As gleeful an idea it would be that this imagery was part of an innocently tacky campaign for the show, a little research reveals that the MOCA set inside and out was part of an actual exhibition dealing with soaps, the tv shoot being incorporated into it. And while the episode in question was reportedly scheduled to be aired on television, this runs contrary to text that appears in the film indicating that it was never aired. A youtube search turned up plenty of videos of the General hospital MOCA episode shoot, but nothing on the actual episode.
It’s enough to make me wonder if there was ever any intention of airing this “episode” in the first place. Is it overly conspiratorial of me to suggest that the entire cast and production team of a popular soap opera was employed by Franco to carry out an elaborate conceptual art ruse? For a little insight, if not a definitive answer, let’s look at a few recent film prankster predecessors. First, and perhaps the one that jumps most readily to mind, is I’m Still Here. With that movie, another well known celebrity face Joaquin Phoenix put himself under the documentary microscope as he played out the most self-effacing aspects of burnout and delusions of grandeur. Of course, the cloak of genuinity that this project was initially wrapped in was easily punctured by the talk of those in the very public domain that Phoenix carried out his self-made character’s exploits.
In the case of Francophrenia, Franco the actor is shown to take on several expected shades of personality that celebrities are often perceived of having: Bored and alienated from those around them, paranoid, drugged out (which is often viewed as the cause of the first two conditions), and narcissistic. These qualities are sometimes imbued on Franco by often humorous overdubbed voice overs credited to Olds. This is also done visually, and here it is interesting to note how some of the most suggestive moments appear to be the least affected. Still shots, for instance, of Franco between takes are occasionally zoomed in on but little more is done to alter what we are watching. Does this give some validity to our most critical notions of these public figures? Or does it merely show that all of these perceptions are nothing more than what we project onto the object of our attention? And just maybe, is Franco in fact knowingly mugging it up for the camera in turn fixing the results. After all, while a given backstory tells of Franco merely arranging for himself to be filmed and turning the footage over to Olds, his credit as co-director hints at a higher level of involvement in the outcome.
A more telling reference point may be the street art documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop. In it, legendarily shadowy art figure Banksy lays out a narrative in which newcomer to the scene, Thierry Guetta, first obsessively documents graffiti artists in their legally frowned upon hence secretive endeavors; then, creates an assembly line of pieces milking the styles of his former subjects. The centerpiece of the film is his very own art exhibition (also in Los Angeles) as hordes of appreciators herald in his collections of what might be described as near forgeries. Less transparent in its nature than I’m Still Here, Exit...has received varied responses, some calling the whole thing genuine, while others cry hoax. The latter look at Guetta’s (using the artist moniker Mr. Brainwash) pretense of carrying out artistic activity as one big performance art piece, conducted under Banksy’s direction.
The potential for this being the case makes the idea of the General Hospital shoot all being part of one big set up all the more tangible. Seen in this way, both films’ spectacles make use of unwitting participants in the form of spectators or gallery attendees, to look at the relationship between audience and artist/celebrity. In the case of Francophrenia, it is the rather suspicious decision to shoot in front of an audience that gives us a look at James Franco meeting with fans before the episode’s actual taping. Of course it is acknowledged that the film’s source material is manipulated...but is the source a genuine media event or one tailored to suit the purpose? It is another way of looking at the movie, perhaps unintended, that adds a new level of how unnatural and highly conceived the world we are familiar with just might be.
And what of this newly conceived of narrative anyway? It is sometimes entertaining, but might be the least interesting aspect of the film. It roughly shows Franco the actor going through the stages described above, trying to maintain his cool, but seemingly heading for a meltdown.
More interesting than this story are the drifting shots that capture the gray area between real and staged, As actors recite their lines on and off camera, awkwardly await their cues, and play at being the audience as they take on the roles of gallery walkers in the character Franco’s show, these varying degrees of real and not blur together into a somewhat unsettling haze. Add to this, reels of footage from the shoot blurred into barely human figures and it makes for a heady trip. Set to the experimental dronescapes of Olympia Washington noise music duo Growing, it all makes for an effectively haunting mood.
Yet, at times the film is less ambitious than others. Those shots of Franco in communion with starstruck fans seem to be poking fun, achieving pretty low level humor. The voice-overs, while funny, are also not the most refreshing idea in a project with potential to make a rather original statement. Sometimes the most humorous, or just flat out incredulous moments are those left alone, like the scenes being acted out rather terribly along with so-bad-it’s-funny dialogue. Perhaps a part of Franco and Olds wants to ensure that things are not taken too seriously. That’s the best explanation I can think of for their riff on the pot haze humor of late night animation cult favorite Aqua Teen Hunger Force. This comes in the form of stick figures affixed to a restroom door sign, who speak in a patter that emulates the cartoons’ quarrelsome duos (which one, you ask? If I had to go with one, I’d say they come closest to the Mooninites) as they take James to task for his mental breakdown. .
With all of these layers of real and fabricated, both in and outside of what we actually see on screen, a lot is going on, indeed. Arguably it’s too much, but it’s bound to make as many distinct impressions as there are audience members, leading to some very engaging conversations afterwards. And this, after all, is probably the most easy to agree upon goal we can attribute to Mr. Franco’s contribution to the growing realm of mischief film making.
Francophrenia (or: Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) screens on April 22, 24, 25, and 28. All except for the Wednesday, April 25 screening are down to rush tickets only. Go to Tribeca's homepage for details.