Negative Thinking

Dennis Lim on Erased James Franco’s MoMA premiere

New York

Left: Carter, Erased James Franco, 2008, still from a color film in Super 16, 63 minutes. (Courtesy Yvon Lambert Gallery) Right: MoMA's Josh Siegel, James Franco, and artist Carter. (Photo: David Velasco)

ERASED JAMES FRANCO, a sixty-three-minute film by the New York–based artist Carter, borrows its title from Robert Rauschenberg’s infamous Erased de Kooning, 1953, a Willem de Kooning drawing that the younger artist painstakingly erased, leaving a ghostly trace of the original, and claimed as his own. The Rauschenberg work was a pointed and poetic act of negation, a Dadaist stunt with an Oedipal edge. Carter’s film, in which the actor James Franco, confined to a minimal set, alternates between channeling a pair of iconic Rock Hudson and Julianne Moore performances and reenacting scenes from his own less than iconic movies, is altogether murkier and more mysterious in its effects and intentions. “I don’t quite know if it’s erasing or it’s building up,” Carter himself acknowledged in an onstage conversation at the Museum of Modern Art on Monday night, after the film’s North American premiere.

Franco, who also appeared at the event, was swarmed by teenagers on his way out. (The capacity crowd skewed younger than the average MoMA film audience.) And whether or not the gathered Franco-philes appreciated the willful, repetitive tedium of a conceptual exercise that brought to mind Warhol and Beckett, they were surely grateful that its star appears in every scene.

Erased James Franco’s central theme of identity—or more to the point, identity breakdown—comes across most palpably in the two films it quotes. Both are existential horror movies: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), in which an aging bank manager (John Randolph) is transformed into a bohemian painter (Hudson) by way of a Faustian arrangement and advanced plastic surgery, and Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), with Moore as a blank-slate Southern California housewife suffering from environmental illness and a disintegrating sense of self.

Carter, Erased James Franco, 2008. (Three-minute excerpt.)

Franco pitches these re-creations in a specific register—paranoid disorientation for Hudson, numb fragility for Moore—but the scenes of Franco doing Franco are, perhaps by design, a bit of a blur. It’s not just that it’s hard to pick out or recall quotes from the likes of James Dean (2001), City by the Sea (2002), and Spider-Man (2002). (Carter’s film was shot in a single day last summer and stops short of Franco’s two 2008 hits, Pineapple Express and Milk.) Carter has also gravitated to what he calls the “in-between moments” in Franco’s filmography. And so we get plenty of shots of the actor eating, drinking, pushing a chair around, scribbling in a notepad, walking through doorways, answering the phone. (He has some cleverly spliced-together “conversations” with the Hudson and Moore characters.)

At MoMA on Monday, Carter and Franco suggested that the idea was to give both a metaperformance (a performance that refers exclusively to other performances) and a nonperformance. (Carter, who has experimented with self-portraiture in his sculptures and paintings, told Franco to hold back, and the actor estimates he was operating at half speed: “I wish I could act at 50 percent in all my movies.”) All of which seems like a pretty labored way to arrive at a truism about the artifice of acting. Erased James Franco has less to say about identity and performance than the great dramas on the subject (John Cassavetes’s Opening Night [1977], Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn [2000], any number of Jacques Rivette movies). But not unlike Warhol’s Screen Tests, it becomes a de facto study of screen magnetism. Franco, even in this oddly muffled mode, retains his drowsy, goofy charm; far from a tabula rasa, he’s not erased so much as distilled.

Dave Eggers, The Room Before and After, Part 1: James Franco, 2009. From Wholphin No 8.

One surprising corollary for Erased James Franco can be found in the “Acting With James Franco” series, created for Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Funny or Die website, in which Franco and his younger brother Dave explore the mysteries of his method, even reenacting a scene from Rebel Without a Cause. (“Actors sniff jackets if they need to sniff jackets,” James tells a reluctant Dave.) The artiest member of the Judd Apatow frat pack, the thirty-year-old Franco is turning out to be one of the more intriguing Hollywood stars of his generation, certainly the one most willing to lend his bankable, Gucci-endorsing face to an experimental art project. (See the current edition of Wholphin for a Dave Eggers collaboration that consists entirely of Franco trashing a room.) He’s a filmmaker, an MFA candidate, and soon to be a published author (his short-story collection is due out from Scribner next year).

Erased James Franco never quite settles on what it means to erase a performance or a persona (as opposed to a drawing). But for its star, at least, the film constitutes a meaningful act of negation, a kind of personal exorcism. As he put it, it was a way to “live through these bad movies I did, act them badly, and put them behind me.”