Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Broken Link to the Past: James Franco on Tom Bissell and Zelda

James Franco rarely bothers me anymore, but last night I saw a few paragraphs he put up at VICE about a 25-minute screen test he did for Blood Meridian some four years ago, and it made me angry. Blood Meridian is a beautiful and brutal book. I don't know whether it can make the jump to film. Someone with a creative vision on a level with McCarthy's own could, maybe, use it as source material to create something similarly disturbing and awe-inspiring for the screen, but that person is not James Franco. He's gone and done it anyway, though. Because he's James Franco, and he's made of money, and he can go and do anything he wants and then put whatever that is in front of an audience and they will watch it, or eat it, or read it, or do something else with it. Because he's James Franco.

In light of this I decided to post a thing I wrote about him a while back. This piece is at least a year and a few months old, and I wrote it in anger about one of the first installments of Franco's column at VICE. I've lightly edited it for clarity and what-have-you. Have at it:

Sam Anderson captures something important about popular culture's self-feeding obsession with James Franco in a 2010 piece for New York Magazine. After a first interview with his subject—who is enrolled in four graduate programs, who stars in student films and full-length features, and who cranes his neck to continue talking about himself at a urinal while his interviewer scribbles notes behind him—Anderson says goodbye to Franco only to catch a wink from the celebrity as he turns to cross the lobby. Anderson's confusion expands rapidly:
I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. As he and Abramovic walk off together toward the elevators, my mind starts to run through all the possible interpretations. Was it a cheesy Hollywood-schmoozer wink, meant to charm and titillate me—the equivalent of a personalized James Franco autograph on our conversation? Or was it sincere, a gesture of goodwill and openhearted, rakish, devil-may-care bonhomie? (Is a sincere wink even possible, here in the cinema-studies department at NYU, in the year 2010?) Was it ironic—a wink set in quotation marks? Was he making fun of me, and of himself, and of the whole vexed transaction of celebrity journalism? Was he flirting with me, or metaflirting—making a sly reference to all the gay rumors swirling around him, and to our strange homosocial trip to the bathroom together?
This wink, Anderson comes to believe, is the skeleton key to the whole James Franco myth. The only problem is that there's no telling what it meant.

Recently, I received a James Franco wink of massive proportions by way of a recent installment for his new column with VICE magazine, "A Few Impressions". Below an image of Zelda franchise hero Link photoshopped to bear Franco's visage, the star offers his reflections on Tom Bissell's wonderful quasi-memoir Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.

In the first line of the piece that is not a Bissell quotation, Franco incorrectly states the subtitle of the three-year-old book—which I feel justified to assume that he had on hand, since he was writing a review essay on it for a widely-read online publication. It's an amazing mistake, and I find it telling for reasons to which I will return.

First, a sense of duty compels me to convey the scope of the failure of this piece. Although, why should I? Franco won't read it; VICE doesn't care; it doesn't deserve any more attention than it's already gotten. I know all this, and yet my indignant heart-of-hearts whispers to my soul: take it down. Pull this high-flying turd right out of the sky. Show at least one or two others that the emperor is not wearing any clothes that are not made of poop.

From a bird's-eye view, the whole piece has the feel of a bright middle-schooler's reflections on a book he likes. Take the second paragraph: a comma does not appear until the last line, which follows five bland sentences that mostly succeed only in connecting subjects and predicates. By way of example, there's this banal gem: "[Bissell's] book makes excellent arguments about video games being the newest popular art form that can do a variety of things that other art forms can’t." If I came across this sentence in something I'd written, I'd assume that I had somehow missed the document's yellowed cover page with a crayon illustration, or failed to see the alarmed margin note in red ink calling out the filler that is so lazy as to suggest that I'd died of boredom.

There are also parenthetical inserts scattered throughout. These would be permissible if they functioned as asides to the reader. Instead, they read as though they are comments from the margin of the Word document that were inserted by accident—perhaps notes Franco wrote to himself by way of reminder for a later editing stage that the piece never reached.

These issues only annoyed me, though. Plenty of celebrities are probably terrible writers. I can forgive Franco's banality and inelegance because there's something just sort of interesting about reading the opinion of a famous person on a subject I'm interested in, particularly when the famous person claims no special expertise. You know: they're just like us, etc.

However, after we reach the paragraph four mark, Franco commits a grave sin in the pursuit of credibility. It has angered me to a point of throwing me into the second person. Here's the disturbing section:
Over the years I have dipped into various video games. I was a Nintendo Legend of Zelda fanatic. The later incarnations of Zelda—I think one was called Ocarina of Time—helped me through difficult times in high school, while also making me feel like a loser because I was spending hours playing a children's game when I could have been out socializing with the cool kids.
God help me, when I read those lines I could feel the outrage of a million offended gamers washing over me. To call yourself a Zelda fanatic and then write "I think one was called Ocarina of Time" is like calling yourself a US history buff before saying "I think one of our wars was called the Civil War,—help me out, y'all, was that a major American war?" Calling yourself a Zelda fanatic on the internet at all is risky, since you're probably attracting the attention of fanatics of much larger magnitude who sit with watchful eyes just beyond the ring of your digital firelight. Disproving your own avowed fanaticism the moment after you make it known—and by memory lapse! In the age of Google and Wikipedia!—is either a clear joke (which I can't believe it is), or a very lazy suicide.

Every bit of the above that follows the Ocarina flub sets off my BS detector. My credulity has been sorely strained by the preceding nonsense and it doesn't help that here, at this critical point of doubt and dismay, I'm asked to believe that you, James Franco, actor/celeb/bipedal performance art project extraordinaire, had a difficult go of things in high school to such an acute degree that you found real consolation and escape in the pixelated dales of Hyrule. Did you pick your nose too, James? Did you wear glasses? Did some jock crush your bagged lunch and drink your milk carton? Were you constantly aware of where your hands were hanging or laying? Did getting called on in class fill you with dread?

Further, I am asked here to believe that the game made you feel like a loser because you were "spending hours playing a children's game." I'm sorry, a children's game? Weren't you trying to establish your gamer cred with this anecdote? Better to avoid disparaging the gaming community, then, considering most gamers nowadays are middle-aged and above, and a whole lot of them love the Zelda series in the way you claim you once did. That the ESRB sticker on a game's cover is intended to delimit the game's audience by age is news to me.

(By the way, Mr. Franco, I hope you didn't mean to say that Ocarina of Time in particular helped you through your difficult high school experience, since Buzzfeed has pointed out that Ocarina came out over two years after you graduated. Since A Link to the Past came out in '91, you get a free pass which, unfortunately, doesn't mean your article is any less execrable from anything but a narrowly ethical standpoint.)

Finally, the very idea that you "could have been out socializing with the cool kids." To start, "could have been" implies that you had some agency you weren't letting on to when you began this anecdote. In high school, I found my (roughly sea-level) social status to have more of the character of a ruling passed down than a choice I made. If you were choosing to stay in with your 64, why make a show of feeling bad about it? Additionally, "with the cool kids"—I'm sorry, did you have an elderly relative ghostwrite the last part of this sentence for you, perhaps in return for removing yourself from his lawn?

Or, did you mean to distance yourself from the game (and, by natural extension, the gaming community) that you once loved and identified with? That would be in keeping with the description of Link you give in this sentence:
If I indulge myself too much in the world of video games, I'll feel as I did in high school—a sad boy who was running from the scary social world, comforting himself by inhabiting the controlled otherworld of Link, a little elf who shoots arrows and fights dragons.
A "little elf"? Who "fights dragons"? When does Link fight dragons? And are you aware that Link is little only part of the time? Did you mean for me to hear this as though it were a line read by your character on Freaks and Geeks? The problem with the tone of this piece never goes away. I can't tell whether you intended to address fellow gamers as someone who belongs among them, or as a high-minded critic who's gaming days are squarely locked in an embarrassing past. Your academic mode turns out garbled and jargon-filled non-statements, while your weak attempts at solidarity with the gaming crowd earn you far more enmity than trust. I admit to having read the whole piece out loud to two different audiences. Both groups were filled with laughter and scorn in an oscillating pattern that paralleled the oscillations of your writing mode.

I could go on and on, but by now I'm just depressed. Dropping the second person, I'd like to return to the telling mistake that falls from the sky in the introductory paragraph, where Franco misremembers the book's subtitle.

VICE is clearly letting the man do what he wants, which makes perfect sense. The man is James Franco. He's beautiful, ambitious, and a talented performer. Since he's a landmark in the pop culture landscape, giving him a column is a big investment in your own pop-cultural relevance.

The mis-remembered title demonstrates that Franco most likely isn't being copyedited, as though the cadence and tonal problems and general inelegance hadn't made it clear already. This initially made it seem to me as though VICE is having a laugh at Franco's expense, a theory corroborated by the fact that each column he writes is accompanied by an image into which his face has been photoshopped (my favorite so far is the Gatsby poster). The joke on Franco is clear: here's a guy who gets himself into everything, who plausibly sees himself in everything. "A Few Impressions" is VICE's decision to allow itself to be a vehicle for James Franco's all-consuming, and impossibly meta, narcissism.

The only thing is, James Franco doesn't care. He was the only actor in the cast of This Is the End who didn't give the writers a list of things about himself he wanted to be off-limits for jokes. If there's a joke to be had about the James Franco phenomenon, rest assured its butt is totally in on it, probably before anyone else. It's all a part of the brand.

What else is there to say? I still can't make sense of the Franco wink. Did he really like Zelda? Is he a gamer? Is he an academic? At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. James Franco has probably written another four columns by now, VICE has benefited from increased site traffic, and I have only had my anger on behalf of a community of friends who feel deeply enough for the Zelda franchise that they know the title of every installment. So it goes.

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