Carter , Erased James Franco
Posted by: Dusty Hoesly
“This is my favorite performance of any that I have ever done,” James Franco states glowingly about working with Carter on Erased James Franco. I have to wonder: really? He looks and acts like he’s high, eyes hanging like a drowsy Robert Mitchum, and nearly incomprehensible. Franco looked better high in Pineapple Express than he does here, where directorial restraint looks like an overdose. The only revealing aspect of Franco’s character we see is that perhaps he’s not the best judge of his body of work.
Erased James Franco is a video work that shows Franco acting alone, speaking dialogue from movies he’s filmed, albeit with no other actors to say the other lines (with the exception of several telephone scenes that include voices on the other ends of the lines). The director, Carter, also has Franco perform dialogue from two scenes showing “psychic disintegration”: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds and Todd Haynes’ Safe. The idea is that his performance has to be “restrained”; he can’t repeat lines just as they are in his movies, he can’t reveal complex emotions, he can’t gesticulate with passion. He has to be subdued, statuesque.
Early in the film, before the credits, we see just his hand waving gently in front of his body, as if conducting an imaginary orchestra, or as if he’s stoned and his hand leaves colorful wakes in the air. Is he explaining something, pleading with someone? There’s no context, so we don’t know. We imagine our own narratives. Or we don’t care and wait for the next image.
In one extended scene with Franco answering multiple rotary telephones, he rarely finishes a conversation or says much of anything intelligible. We hear his interlocutors and they sound lively, but Franco seems like he can barely stand, often holding onto the heavy wooden desk for support. It’s as if he’d rather vomit in a bucket and sleep it off. One phone rings, Franco picks up and listens as the caller says, “Hi, it’s me,” and Franco hangs up. That pretty much sums up that scene, although add the interminable sound of ringing phones and hard-to-understand dialogue.
At the end of the film, when he throws and kicks objects, yelling “Fuck you Rock Hudson, I’m better than you,” we see him performing out of context, all gusto with no discernible recipient of the rage. In fact, at the end of that scene, he pulls a large potted plant to the ground with such sluggishness that it barely topples, after which he looks into the camera impishly. The film concludes with him looking at the camera, saying, “I really hated myself before I came here,” then offering an initially rousing speech before petering out, giving up, and saying, “I love you. I really love you. I love you.” Who do you love, James Franco? The camera? Carter? The audience members who didn’t walk out already? Yourself?
The film’s title is based on Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, a 1953 piece where Rauschenberg asked the famous de Kooning to donate an in-progress canvas so that Rauschenberg could erase it. De Kooning made sure it’d be hard to do, using pencil, charcoal, oil paint, etc. It took Rauschenberg one month to finish erasing it. The result mocks convention and collectors: take a work by a master artist and make art by destroying it, leaving trace amounts so that observers can see part of the original. Additionally, Carter was inspired by Robert Gober’s leg sculptures, life-like works that show a man’s leg either emerging from or receding into a gallery wall. So here we have James Franco sitting for a portrait, but he’s actually performing the portrait. The movie even includes a Gober-like cast of Franco’s leg on the floor. James Franco, the talented and vital actor, becomes a spiritless and laconic sculpture.
These artistic ideas pervade Carter’s film. White walls, white shirts, white paper, a white bed, and a white actor all act as a blank canvas: one that’s been erased and offers possibilities for new work. We also see Franco writing notes and sometimes erasing them, a clever allusion to the Rauschenberg piece (although we never see what he’s writing). Like the Gober sculptures, the camera follows Franco several times as he walks slowly into walls (usually the camera focuses on the back of his neck up close, as if it were a canvas). Later, Franco draws his silhouette on a white wall and colors in part of it, his carbon copy body as a blank canvas. Perhaps we wonder what if we had to do it all over again, how would we perform our lives (our oeuvre)? Would we hold something back? What consistent subjects would surface?
As Franco reinterprets previous roles, emerging themes in his oeuvre include father-son relationships, addictions, and the struggle to assert one’s identity. It’d be interesting to see how these themes correspond to Franco’s off-screen life. However, contrary to Franco’s comments about this piece, nothing really new is revealed. We don’t really learn more about Franco. Scenes showing split screens with Franco offering alternate interpretations of the same dialogue seem intriguing, but become confused amidst the simultaneous dialogue and quick edits. We see him gulping water in various ways and eating a box of crackers, which actually looks gluttonous and unattractive on screen. We hear him gulping and swallowing a lot. But this doesn’t reveal a quotidian Franco but rather another on-camera Franco. It’s not just an imitation Franco but a bad Franco.
The movie is best exemplified by a prolonged sequence where Franco moves a large, red leather chair around. This scene chews minutes of screen time in a Sisyphean effort to rearrange the chair, which he ultimately returns to its original position. To borrow a cliché, it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, a film which I hated and which I would actually rather see again than Erased James Franco. Instead of revealing a deeper, submerged side of James Franco, Carter has given us allusions without substance, a stillborn portrait that is neither illuminating nor rewarding.