Just when you think you might have had enough of James Franco, along comes Francophrenia to either whet your appetite for more of the actor-director's avant-garde pursuits — or officially turn you off to them forever.
I might be overdramatizing a bit, but not by much, judging by the walkouts sporadically punctuating the experimental doc/pseudo-soap opera's recent North American premiere at Tribeca. And with the skies pissing cold rain on Manhattan that evening, you really had to want to leave Franco's tongue-in-cheek exploration of identity as cast through the prism of his infamous guest stint on General Hospital, reshaped into a sort of leering emo-psychodrama by co-director and editor Ian Olds. Not that Franco didn't anticipate this.
"I'm sure there'll be different kinds of reactions to it," he said before the screening, introducing the film with Olds. "But I'm just very glad it's here at Tribeca. It's my third film here (after Good Time Max  and Saturday Night ); we love the Tribeca Film Festival. We kind of knew that this film would be not…" Franco paused. "We've had mixed reactions. We sort of enjoy that now. I'm sure some of you will be very into it and some won't. It does take a little bit of… engagement, that's all. Otherwise, it's very, very fun."
That's fair. Francophrenia doesn't take much of anything seriously, least of all the spectacle around the June 2010 GH episode that brought Franco's eponymous, homicidal artist to a massive outdoor installation filmed at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. There, the killer continued his torment of Port Charles's finest before — spoiler alert? — a protracted gun battle and, finally, his fatal, tuxedoed tumble from the roof. (The sequence provides the film's subtitle, Don't Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is.) Fans and casual observers alike had both privately and publicly reckoned with the performance-art nature of Franco's character to that point; "Who is this guy playing, if anybody?" we asked ourselves, to the extent we cared at all. And in 2010, with the then-32-year-old actor at the seeming height of his creative (and, uh, academic) powers — and well before co-hosting the 2011 Oscars in another performance-art torpedo to his A-list celebrity goodwill — we did care a bit. Which, as Francophrenia asserts in its long, deconstructing takes of hair sessions, set-roaming and other behind-the-scenes banality, was really kind of foolish of us.
But in daring to sniff at the inviolable absurdity of fame, the spirit of actor/director Franco's enterprise equivocates. Is his grinning mask while signing autographs and taking photos with fans just garden-variety, all-in-a-day's-work magnanimity? Or is it a vulgar showcase for Franco's cynicism, his "art" shielding him from the plebes? Who's taking the piss here?
It's not as open a question as it seems, especially as drops of whispery voice-over (written by Olds and Paul Felten) trickle into the sound design before flooding it with equal parts self-aggrandizement and self-effacement. On the one hand, Franco can't trust the GH director, has to find his way "back to the world," and asks, "What am I doing here?" as he glowers over the scene, reassuring himself with Marxist polymath Guy Debord's observation that "Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle." But Olds and Felten leaven all the high-minded paranoia with riffs on Franco's mythology: "I went to graduate school for a reason, people," he reminds the viewer at one point — when he's not, say, craving a cookie or calling his producer Vince Jolivette a "prophet of lies and false consciousness."
Mostly, though, Franco — the character hovering somewhere between the real man and the GH hyperparody — is constantly undermined by the camera itself and even a torrent of gossip promulgated by the icons on the sign outside the men's bathroom. They chirp about how high and/or pretentious Franco is, deflating his airier platitudes with such brusque dismissals as, "Transcendent my ass!" Conceptually, anyhow, Francophrenia is nothing if not inspired — half-Malick, half-Mystery Science Theater 3000, a postmodern meltdown superimposed on one of TV's longest-running melodramas.
"It's easy to see the film as a kind of a gimmick if it's just riffing on all this culture surrounding James's celebrity," Olds said following Sunday's Tribeca premiere. "It’s a lot of fun to do, but there's something that interested…" He paused. "The idea is: How can you sort of bend the documentary footage so it serves this artificial narrative, but at the same time, how can you reframe the documentary footage so you can see it with new life? So you can say, 'What they hell are they doing here? What is all this energy going into? What are they building?' In a sense, the clearest thing I could think about is that in some ways, it's maybe like a deranged portrait of the labor behind the spectacle."
But here's the thing: Franco and Olds have been here before. Francophrenia perhaps works most interestingly as a companion piece to their previous collaboration Saturday Night, another backstage opus also framing what Olds on Sunday called "this sort of mundane human labor." In that case, it was an all-access glimpse at what goes into producing one episode of Saturday Night Live: the pitch meetings, the grueling all-nighters, the set designs and musical arrangements, the ruthless slashing of material and the general stresses that accompany creating in Studio 8H. Yet where Saturday Night glimpsed those phenomena with a kind of meandering introspection, Francophrenia sends them up with abandon. It's as though one show is good enough for Franco's guileless intellect, while the other can only withstand a lengthy frisk before the actor sends it on its way.
A viewer Sunday asked Franco about his intentions here, hinting at the double standard that you could just as easily apply to his recent work as Very Serious Artists like Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and Hart Crane (The Broken Tower). "I really enjoyed working with those people," he said of the GH crew. "Some of the people I worked with have sadly been fired from General Hospital; daytime is having a hard time right now. But they've gone on to other shows, and I'm going to work with them. Part of my initial impulse to go on General Hospital before this project was even conceived of was to try and examine and break down this kind of hierarchy people have in their minds about levels of entertainment — that movies are better than soaps, or that kind of thing. So I just wanted to insert myself there and experience it and see what it was all about, and I found that there are many things you can do in daytime that movies can't do, and I really loved it.
"I think maybe what you're reading is because the soap opera is our subject," Franco continued. "We're using it as material to examine certain things. But I don't think the project was ever to make fun of soap operas. It's just using it like they use me and my image as material to examine certain ideas."
He later elaborated on the ultimate spirit of the project, citing the evaluation of James Franco's identity by those other than James Franco as his reason for handing the 40-plus hours of GH footage off to Olds.
"All along the way, it's been about turning myself over to these different entities and letting them do what they will with my image," Franco said. "I look at the film and I see the slicked-back hair and you've got all the shots where I'm looking crazy. And that's exactly how it needs to be! It's slightly embarrassing. It can't ever be something where I'm trying to look cool or make you like James Franco or something. It needed to have somebody else manipulating the material and not me, since that's one of the subjects of the movie."
Again, though: Do we care? I mean, Joaquin Phoenix has demonstrated how much more cynical this could all be, so Franco has at least a little further to go before his whims fall in a forest with nobody around to hear. But to paraphrase Paul Sunday's admonition in There Will Be Blood, I would like it better if Franco didn't think I was stupid — or at least if the variation of Franco that appears in Francophrenia didn't think I was stupid, or that the protean puppeteer above it all didn't think we can't spot the hypocrisy calling out from earlier acts of this same show. It's certainly a show worth watching, an adventure too funny, too playful, too thought-provoking to write off for its cheap shots and rectitude. Still, I hope the curtain comes down soon — and that its mastermind has better ideas ahead.
Francophrenia screens again at Tribeca this Saturday, April 28, at noon.
Read all of Movieline's Tribeca 2012 coverage here.
[Photo credits: Doug Chamberlain / Tribeca Film Festival]