What Even Is A ‘James Franco’?

"I am James Franco? We are all James Franco? James Franco is all of us?" An essay.

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Here’s an impossible task: to write (or talk, or think, or scream) about James Franco without feeling as though you are being entirely reductive. The guy does too much, says too much, and is too much for any kind of short encapsulisationing. I don’t mean this in a complimentary way. I mean it in a James-Franco-you-do-too-much kind of way. James Franco! You do too much!

Because of the above, I won’t go into any details about who James Franco is (as if we could even ever know, anyway) or what he has done or is doing (you have the internet, find out yourself). One thing you should know: James Franco once said, “I don’t even like to sleep – I feel as if there’s too much to do.” What I would say back to him, if I heard him say something as asinine and myopic as that, is this: “Franco, mate, just sleep a bit more, you always look tired and there are other people in this world who can also do things.”


James Franco, you do too much. Of course, this is only my opinion. Still, it’s lots of others’ opinions too — the guy is too busy. Example: recently he has been directing and filming an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in Mississippi, whilst also teaching classes at colleges in both California and New York. So every week he would jet around the States, like a fly-in fly-out artistic miner, sticking his creative fingers into too many self-made pies. Carbon footprint, James Franco! Also: quality control. I mean, how can a person do any one thing properly and excellently when he is trying to do lots of one things? Sure, Roberto Bolaño advocated that a writer should never work on just one piece of writing at a time, but still, I don’t think he imagined James Franco. Before James Franco was James Franco, I don’t think anyone could’ve imagined James Franco.

The legendary performance artist Marina Abramović disagrees with me. Or does she? No, wait, she doesn’t. See, Abramović wants to make a film about James Franco’s life, which might seem silly because he’s just a busy and mostly mediocre good-looking guy, so why make a film about him? (Apart from the reason that he’s ludicrously famous and so any film about him will garner attention; is an aging Abramović just desperate for attention? I reckon that every three seconds someone somewhere in the world says “James Franco” in the context of talking about him, which as a made-up fact is pretty mind-boggling). Abramović, like me and many others, is fascinated by James Franco’s Energizer Bunny-style of making art. She says, “He could just be another Hollywood actor and that’s it – like everyone else. But he’s crossing all kinds of borders and not always with great success. For him, process is more important than the result.” I’ll say! I am saying.

 James Franco uploaded photos of his bed and his face to WhoSay last year.

James Franco is a Gucci personality. This means that they give him Tupperware containers full of cash and he does what they tell him to do. With the help of Gucci — they’d flown him to Paris to shoot some ads — James Franco made a video called Dicknose in Paris. It features Franco as the title character, with a big floppy prosthetic penis — complete with dangling testicles and a bush of pubic hair — hanging down from the middle of his face. When Dicknose walks the streets of Paris, he has to cover his face with a sweatshirt. The penis is a prosthesis from the film Milk, at least according to James Franco’s marginalia in his book The Dangerous Book Four Boys, which is the accompaniment text to his first ever solo art show. (I am writing all this now in a robotic fashion because I want to move on from even the possibility of unpacking anything in this paragraph.)

As research for this piece, I watched Franco in Oz: The Great and Powerful, in which he plays at acting as the eponymous character Oz (Oscar Diggs the magician), who becomes the Wizard of Oz, in a place called Oz. In the days leading up to the screening, and even walking into the cinema, I was getting all zingy in my fingers and shoulders thinking about how much fun it was going to be inside my head just hating and laughing at James Franco. But then he goes and does something that James Franco does very well: subverting himself. Every time his giant face appeared on the screen, with that particular grin and the look in his brown-oil eyes, it was so obvious that he was just having a laugh. And I was having fun watching him have fun. The film wasn’t very good, and James Franco knew that it wasn’t very good, and so he made it fun.

James Franco has two younger brothers. Dave is one of them – he’s in 21 Jump Street, as that drug dealer bully kid. He’s also in Scrubs. He looks like a Franco and acts like a Franco. There is a video of Dave Franco and James Franco interviewing each other, as James Franco is being prepped for and then is in an Esquire photo shoot. For a semi-spontaneous insouciant 13 minute piece of video, it is so fascinating. For all the interviews and whatnot that James Franco has done over the years, this tête-à-tête with Dave Franco gets at the core of James Franco — not that there is a core, but maybe rather lots of little cores — as it shows us that he is pretty selfish, self-satisfied and warmhearted, whilst also showing us that he is completely aware that he is pretty selfish, self-satisfied and warmhearted. Maybe only a brother can coax a James Franco out from his burrow: there is no relationship quite the same as the one between two brothers, especially brothers that are similar and fond of each other. About three and half minutes in, Dave Franco asks James Franco if James has ever watched anything Dave has acted in, and James hasn’t. There is lots of laughing from both of them, real Franco-type guffaws, but underneath all the laughing, or maybe even inside the actual laughs, you can hear things like restlessness and acrimony and mistrust.

Tom is the other Franco brother. He runs a place with his partner Julia Lazar called the Firehouse Art Collective in the East Bay area of San Francisco. The art collective has a blog, and Tom Franco has a blog. Tom Franco is much more like James Franco than Dave Franco, in mannerisms and looks and voice. He is thinner than James Franco, and gentler, and more genuinely relaxed, instead of simulating nonchalance which is James Franco’s modus operandi. The art he makes is definitely Franco-esque though, which is a shame.

Tom Franco in dressing gown, next to art.

Tom Franco in dressing gown, next to art.

The father of James and Dave and Tom, Doug: he died in 2011. He was “a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a Harvard MBA”, and he had art inside him too. Here’s a video of Tom Franco putting on a show of his father’s work. Their mother, Betsy, is an actor – she is on the TV soap General Hospital, and has acted in scenes with James Franco. James Franco plays a character on General Hospital named ‘Franco’ who is an eccentric and reclusive photographer, sociopath, serial killer and former graffiti artist.

This brings us to the overarching impossible thing: to loathe James Franco unreservedly. I try! Sometimes it feels like I’ve just about got there — like when his ‘story’ was published in the Big Issue’s fiction edition earlier this year and it contained some of the worst writing I’ve ever read, including some in-text poetry that literally made my eyeballs climb out of my head and jump out the window into a cat’s mouth; or when he sells empty air for $10,000. But then he does something great like fuck up the hosting of the Academy Awards and not care a bit, or starts a Motown band called Daddy.

But still: empty air for $10,000! And you didn’t even get to shake James Franco’s hand after buying his fresh dead air: you had to go through Kickstarter, because that’s where this grand conceptual art project was located. As James Franco articulated:

When you contribute to this Kickstarter project, you are not buying a visible piece of art! You will not receive a painting or a film or a photograph in your mailbox. What you will receive is something even more fascinating: The opportunity to collaborate in an act of artistic creation. You will receive a title card with a description of a piece of art, as well as a letter of authentication. You may mount this card on a blank wall in your home or gallery. What comes next is up to you! 

Here is what was written on the title card for the piece that sold for $10,000:

A unique piece, only this one is for sale. The air you are purchasing is like buying an endless tank of oxygen. No matter where you are, you always have the ability to take a breath of the most delicious, clean-smelling air that the earth can produce. Every breath you take gives you endless peace and health. This artwork is something to carry with you if you own it. Because wherever you are, you can imagine yourself getting the most beautiful taste of air that is from the mountain tops or fields or from the ocean side; it is an endless supply.

Last week my friend Sophie and I exchanged hilariously hilarious emails with each other discussing James Franco, and with each email we cc’d ‘[email protected]’, sometimes addressing Franco as if he was reading our emails, and sometimes ignoring him. It was a great way to spend some minutes. But fool me once, you can’t get fooled again, for I am still today receiving general failure bounceback emails from [email protected], ones with subject titles like DELAY and FAILURE. The first line of each of these nettlesome emails reads, “This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification” and then each email outlines the “technical details of temporary failure”. Whenever I read these I think of how so much of James Franco’s art (in whatever form he is working in, whether it be acting, writing, painting, dudeing around, etc) could be classified as automatically generated status notifications, and that these same pieces of art are really and actually just the technical details of his temporary failures.

Earlier this year, James Franco held an art exhibition in Berlin called 'Gaytown'.

A piece from ‘Gaytown’, an art exhibition James Franco held in Berlin earlier this year.

James Franco is the author of a Huffington Post blog called The Search for the Real (although he hasn’t written an entry since November). It’s fascinating reading, but I highly recommend you don’t read it (of course I write that sentence knowing that, if anything, it will make you want to read it more, but really don’t read it. Unless of course you want to.), as the blog posts combined give too much of an insight into Franco’s mind. Like a toilet block at 3am, his mind is not a place you want to just dawdle around in. Unless you’re a sicko! And aren’t we all sickos, deep down.

Speaking of sickos, my friend STM wrote this to me once, when we had discussed writing an online collaborative piece about James Franco (in brazen mimicry of Elmo Keep and Maria Bustillos): 

I actually think Franco probably could represent the worst tendencies in both of us as writers – a kind of assumed superiority to the audience, with an inflated sense of self (‘whatever you do/have done is automatically of interest’) and that might be interesting to explore by co-writing, which is probably even more at risk of those very things.

This kind of thinking makes me happy and sad at the same time. I am James Franco? We are all James Franco? James Franco is all of us? But STM is spot-on: if you can’t recognise a part of yourself in James Franco, then perhaps you’re not even a person and instead you’re just a plant, or a pebble. We see ourselves in James Franco because James Franco is trying to be fourteen million types of people at once. He is the embodiment of a cubist face; he’s a human Rorschach test. At some point, James Franco has taken a dip in the swimming pool of our collective hopes and dreams, done a sneaky wee in the deep end, and then emerged imbued with the qualities and faults of us all.

franco gang

Writing this piece, I googled ‘James Franco’ with the search parameters set to ‘the past 24 hours’, and the top hit was an article about how some people in California are angry because James Franco bought a house in their neighbourhood but he doesn’t live in the house. Instead he seems to be using it as a base for a film production company? This doesn’t sit well with these people, probably because he is famous, and not because they actually care about “production vehicles blocking their driveways”. I bet you nothing is blocking their driveways. I bet they are just saying that, most likely because James Franco has a tendency to miff people, usually because he spends a lot of his time blocking the theoretical driveways that lead to excellent art, blocking them with his loud and obnoxious presence vehicles. (Something else I learned whilst reading this ‘news’ piece: there is such thing as a real estate blog. I blame James Franco for alerting me to this fact; if I wasn’t googling him I’d be blissfully unaware. A real estate blog!)

Originally this piece was to be titled ‘Franco: The Mediocre and Ubiquitous’. But that’s simplifying the phenomenon that is James Franco. He’s a phenomenon who is really just another person, sure, but he also takes up more internet space and attention than Einstein, which is another made-up fact, although it sounds true. Franco is a phenomenon, however you want to define that word. Something like a phenomenon, as LL Cool J might say. (Say, what even is a LL Cool J?)

Sam Cooney is a writer whose fiction, essays and journalism have been published in literary journals, magazines, anthologies and websites in Australia and overseas. He is the editor and publisher of Melbourne literary journal The Lifted Brow, and he tweets from@samuelcooney and @theliftedbrow.