Dec/Jan 2014

Frenzies of Renown

Choire Sicha


James Franco, America’s most no-no-notorious grad student, now delivers what they say is a novel. It’s called Actors Anonymous (Little A/New Harvest, $26), and it comes to us from New Harvest, an imprint of Amazon, so don’t look for it at Barnes & Noble. (New Harvest sounds like an autumn-themed feminine-hygiene product. So refreshing, yet so . . . leafy?)

Actors Anonymous is what people used to call a “provocation.” What’s true among these linked stories about actors and acting and sex? What’s not? Who’s the “James Franco” here? Why on earth are the stories all linked by a twelve-step structure? At its best, the book is a fabulously vile piece of smut. There sure is a lot of doing it in the butt.

Some of the material is Franco, or “Franco,” ruminating on Hollywood. Some stories smell like memoir, others like the fantasies that break out to save a boring memoir. Some are metafictional—such as a rather impressive and insane eruption of “found diaries” and footnotes on the diaries and then a bunch of scrawlings on the footnotes. Some entries ring a Kathy Acker kind of bell, but they’re somber and maybe withholding instead of fizzy and tart. One short piece seems to be an apology letter to his NYU film class—it’s the worst story in the book, unless it’s meant to illustrate exactly how not to apologize, and Franco’s public airing of his trespasses here is as close as he’ll come to a real apology.

One wannabe actor works at a McDonald’s and puts on accents as practice at the drive-through—as Franco supposedly once did. This character is getting sober and starts acting classes at the Valley Playhouse, and he starts trading hand jobs for cash:

I unzipped my fly and put his hand on my crotch. He wasn’t doing much because I wasn’t hard. I didn’t like looking at him so I pulled him close to me. His face went into my shoulder. I could feel the fat of his pelvis against my thigh. . . . I was looking at the wall. There was a rough drawing of a girl’s ass under a guy’s ass and his dick was penetrating her. Underneath, it said, “Grimace and Ronald, hot sex!” There were other things written around the place like “McFaggot loves his meat” and “Ronald is gay.”

Am I sorry that happened to James Franco? I don’t know if I am; also, I don’t know if it did.

Why is James Franco? He is now thirty-five. He is an all-media concept man, from freaky, fame-riffing Twitter power user to Hollywood stupid-movie doer and everything between. He knows that we all hate actors, because what they reveal about emotions disgusts us.

The right choice, unfortunately, is to embrace Franco. He thrives on being inarticulate when he shouldn’t be and ham-handed when he shouldn’t be, and he’s a mess, but it’s tension enough to keep things interesting. It’s worth it to have someone take up the mantle of Serious Artist, even if it’d be preferable if he spent a little more time nailing down his craft in areas where he’s not as comfortable. There are four poems about River Phoenix here? I dunno, man.

In the end, Franco’s main points are that (1) you should have a ball and yet (2) a life in the arts demands a serious view of the self. Which is maybe why these “first-person” sections are unornamented and dust dry:

The reason I can read on-set—any old book—up to the moment they say “rolling” is that I don’t need time to jump into character. I have played so many characters that acting is hardly different than living (or different than the book I was having a conversation with).

Not quite worth knowing, is it? Later, Franco presents what at first seems like a dig at the critics, something that’s all the vogue at the moment among male writers. (In the terminology of testosterone-poisoned Esquire writer Chris Jones, critics are just people who shout “from the sidelines.” It’s a stupid point of view; it only makes sense if you’re a narcissist.) However, Franco swims around to the opposite side, which makes his work worthwhile:

Some people, mostly creative people, don’t like scholars because they look at art from the outside but know nothing about the actual making of art.

Facebook.

I think it’s nice to have a mix of everything. Some critical writing is better than fiction. Most critical writing is better than fiction.

Twitter.

Google.

Instagram.

Yup. Annoyingly, the book ends with one of its best, most confounding stories, about a young actress called Cent, who finds journals belonging to an actor in Spider-Man 3. It’s like Mulholland Drive in reverse, and there’s something there, some astute fantasy that he found and pursued fully down the hole. (Inevitably, it seems, the butthole.) “The grammar of film is more complex than the grammar of text,” Franco writes.

Maybe, but also: bullshit. Text is far more complex than he’s yet allowing it to be, because for now it’s safer to muck with truth and fiction. Later, as he presumably abandons the most lucrative enterprises, he’ll be awesome. The sad by-product of commercial artistry is us getting “now a major motion picture” reissues of As I Lay Dying with Franco’s face on them. The happier by-product is a world in which Franco can tweet: “As I lay book cover - wtf?”

Choire Sicha is the author of Very Recent History (Harper, 2013).

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