Tribeca 2012: What exactly is James Franco’s new film about?
This much is clear of “Francophrenia,” the new experimental pseudo-documentary starring James Franco that premiered Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival. it was shot in 2010 on the Pacific Design Center set of “General Hospital,” where the actor, who plays a murder-obsessed artist named “Franco,” was filming an episode of the soap opera.
What exactly he’s doing in the movie — and, more vexingly, why he’s doing it — are open questions. A viewing of the movie will not necessarily answer these questions.
"Francophrenia," shot by documentarian Ian Olds (”The Fixer”), mixes real archival footage with a dropped-in voice-over (which was, in fact, written, by a scribe named Paul Felten) and other post-production effects designed to make the whole thing feel like a horror movie.
Franco engages in the prosaic acts of shooting a television show outdoors — sitting for hair and makeup, glad-handing with lingering fans — as well as more...eerie activities. For sections of the shoot, Franco is striking deranged poses as he muses in paranoiac voice-over, meant to be an inner monologue, about where he is, how he got here and whether a man is trying to kill him or is, as he says, “just a producer.”
The actor had little involvement in the film's direction or editing. “I turn[ed] myself over and let them do [what they wanted] with my image," he said at the screening. "It’s supposed to be slightly embarrassing; it can't be something where I needed to look cool.”
In addition to his regular acting duties, Franco has in recent years attempted a number of deconstructionist art pieces. Sometimes they are intentional, as with his installation on “Three’s Company” at Sundance a few years back. Sometimes they are unintentional, as with his hosting of the 2011 Oscars.
So what’s this latest turn trying to accomplish? After the screening, Olds and Franco attempted to explain. Here is the one thing they are definitely, most certainly, most undeniably trying to convey.
--“It’s a way to access ideas about celebrity.” (Olds)
--“It’s [meant to] make you aware of the filmmaking process and editing process.” (Franco)
--“It’s a deranged portrait on the labor behind the spectacle.” (Olds)
--“We are creating a third level of Franco-ness.” (Olds)
--“It’s an insertion with an insertion, and then everything around it gets mixed up.” (Franco)
To be fair, Franco at least acknowledged that what he and the filmmakers have created isn’t, well, entirely straightforward. “I’m sure there will be different kinds of reactions,” Franco said before the screening. “We kind of knew this film would not be for-- " He paused. “Would have mixed reactions. It does take a little bit of"--he paused again--"engagement.”
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: James Franco in "Francophrenia." Credit: Tribeca Film Festival.