James Franco is struggling to take himself seriously.
We’re at an event for the launch of his Making a Scene with James Franco series with AOL. The series, which could more accurately be called a burst of web content, features Franco and his cohorts remixing iconic movie scenes like Garage Band gurus, layering classic characters with formulaic genres and adding scratches of true absurdity—case in point, the idea of a hype-y James Franco meets AOL content collaboration in the first place.
This premiere-cum-Q&A is the sort of ridiculous event James Franco would likely attend in a performance art satire of his own uniquely absurd celebrity existence. We’re in a hip cave in the bowels of NeueHouse; a “post-modernist” space with an appropriately Franco-nian online manifesto. The crowd is an assortment of reporters, posse members, film students, and very skittish men sporting huge AOL headphones. I get the distinct impression that this is a big deal, all-or-nothing occasion for AOL, as if we were not just at a James Franco premiere-cum-Q&A, but rather at the extremely trendy launch of a time machine that would transport us all back a decade to when AOL was still a relevant web investor and content creator.
While the various AOL employees furiously whisper into their NASA-level gadgetry and prepare for the liftoff of a lifetime, I survey the room. The two seats where Franco and his interviewer will sit are framed by a bookcase, a fitting background for a man who’s written a collection of short stories, lent his expertise to the world of cultural criticism, and pursued more degrees than your average academic.
At direct odds with this literary backdrop are fake mashup movie posters that coat the walls: BatJuice and Here’s Jimmy!, all featuring Franco suited up in iconic looks and cheesing for the camera. As the lights dim someone in the audience tells his friend about this amazing new app—then the huge screen in front of us starts scrolling through a list of #AskJamesFranco tagged tweets, the AOL men make frantic, referee-style gestures, and James Franco and his interviewer, Entertainment Weekly’s Tim Stack, finally take the stage.
You will not be surprised to know that James Franco has on a black beanie. You might be slightly more intrigued when you realize, as I do, that other black beanie body doubles are scattered throughout the room, like a limited edition Williamsburg Where’s Waldo. One such be-beanie’d onlooker is seated to the right of Franco on the friends and family couch, along with a young woman. These posse members receive a James Franco shoutout, as do the film students of Franco’s that were apparently granted access to this exclusive event, ostensibly in order to gain valuable experience in the all-important actorly art of participating in a social media-heavy Q&A for your AOL-sponsored content launch.
Franco and Stack have a good back and forth; a solid, jocular repartee that makes Franco look smart and Stack appear both entertainment savvy and sassy-fun. Unfortunately, the AOL screen AKA ’roided up iPad standing center stage refuses to fade into the background. Instead, the huge screen bearing a bright social media newsfeed has to be routinely trotted out—at least according to the AOL man standing next to me who is constantly hounding Stack with paper signs that read “FAN Q?,” a not so subtle reminder that the screen was hungry and needed to be fed. “FAN Q”’s consists of tweets and video questions for Franco that diehard fans had posted on social media in preparation for the livestream.
The thing about James Franco fans, particularly those with the social media savvy to #AskJamesFranco, is that they have very little to actually ask James Franco. Many of these questions consist of mostly kissy faces. One fan asks Franco, in severely broken English, for “advices” on becoming an actress. Another user is featured two times through two different social media, which is embarrassing both for AOL and for this Twitter goddess, who happens to go by the moniker “@mscharmchic.”
Even James Franco, Mr. Charm Chic himself, can’t seem to help letting a little bit of his exasperation come through. In response to some of the more tactless questions he can only manage a shrug and a wry smile; when one viewer asks why his take on The Shining revised the film’s iconic line and replaced it with “Here’s Jimmy!” he quickly retorts, “In America sometimes Jimmy is a nickname for James,” a line that even gives Tim Stack a run for his sass.
The audience seems enamored with the video previews of the show, laughing out loud and even shouting out their favorite creative decisions (during the Dirty Dancing/Reservoir Dogs scene, one viewer can’t stop declaring “They’re covered in blood! They’re dancing in blood! Look at the blood!”). Of course, this could be explained by the admittedly large percentage of the audience composed of fawning film students. While these adoring apostles laugh at every Franco confection, even the hard to watch black-and-white take on Taxi Driver, Franco himself seems to be having an entirely different encounter with the “content.”
Watching his own brainchildren, the star seems alternatively awed, uncomfortable, and utterly mortified, at times audibly groaning or hiding his face behind his hands. More tellingly, in between sincere and well-articulated meditations on directing, film history, the importance of comedy, and the taste-making capabilities of online platforms, Franco can’t curtail his criticism of the Internet behemoth footing his zany project’s bill.
In one telling moment, Franco complains that the show’s When Harry Met Sally interpretation, in which he crosses genders to appropriately honor the beloved rom-com, is “pretty risqué for AOL,” and that consequently he’s working to produce a red band version. After Stack plays BatJuice, a combination of yes, you guessed it, Beetleljuice and Batman, Franco rolls his eyes at the bleeped-out expletives, remarking, “why is the Internet censored? That’s so lame.” By the end of the hour-long session, he isn’t pulling any punches, choosing to tease a “horror/porn” rendition of The Godfather by bemoaning, “AOL thinks it’s too dirty—they’re being ridiculous.”
The obvious contradiction here is that the highly educated Franco is acting like a censored artist, vigilantly trying to maintain the integrity of this content even though he clearly believes it is beneath him. After all, the actor stressed time and time again that fans chose the “iconic” scenes AOL was having him re-mix, noting derisively, “I think the oldest film is Taxi Driver.”
But throughout the event, even as he acts mortified and tries to distance himself from his AOL-funded commercial content by obsessively citing film theory and referencing his favorite poets and novelists, Franco still gleefully admits that he has seen every Twilight film, loves Dirty Dancing, and genuinely thought that this comedic work was honoring the iconic actors and directors who made these scenes into cinematic legends.
Maybe this project, like all James Franco projects, is somehow larger than itself—either a deliberate satire or a shockingly sincere homage. Maybe Franco isn’t just a high-profile star who was cajoled into throwing a week of his life into a dying corporation’s slightly misguided attempt at a commercial cash cow. Maybe James is doing exactly what he wants, on his own terms, and appearing slightly condescending of his own projects is just the cooler-than-thou aesthetic he’s going for these days.
Or maybe this is all just exactly what James Franco wants us to think.