There’s an odd irony to James Franco’s performance in Justin Kelly’s “I Am Michael.” The film is about clickbait title ready “ex-gay activist” Michael Glatze, once a leading voice behind the now defunct xy Magazine and a vocal Queer Rights activist who inexplicably decided to leave his boyfriend(s), his gay life, and gay identity altogether. Anyways, the irony is that much of the film’s first 25-35 minutes is rather unconvincing and shambolic, partially because of a weird lack of formal grounding (which rectifies itself), but primarily because James Franco is simply unconvincing playing Glatze as a proud gay man. What he is far better at is playing a man who is parsing through his identity, both unconsciously and consciously through the lenses of social construct and self-actualization, and it’s this deep ambivalence, that almost overshadows the film’s many problems.
A lot of this strangeness and irony comes from the metatext of Franco’s personal life. It’s hard to call it a life lived “off screen”, because there’s a pungent air to his persona which gives the impression that nearly all of it is performative in some regard or another. His NYU antics, his plethora of passion projects (novels, poetry, indie films, etc.), his declaration that he’s “gay in [his] art and straight in [his] life”. So, the assumption would be, what with all the queer baiting, Franco would of course be a convincing gay man. Of course. Everyone has suspected as much. (I, personally, have been totally indifferent.) And while Franco attempts to define gayness/queerness in the linked interview (from FourTwoNine), the film does not. (Frankly, I think his bit on sexual fluidity in that interview is kind of odd, personally.) It ever so hints at what gayness means; Glatze is seen code switching from academic language and breaking it down to layman’s terms in front of various queer youth, discussing hetero and homosexuality as social constructs. But “I Am Michael,” for all of its pressing questions about identity, never really asks what “gayness” means.
Much of this is due to the film’s preoccupation with gayness and identity being conflated; that the two are inextricable from one another. It’s not necessarily a “wrong” thing, but it seems for an ostensibly progressive film to be a little shortsighted and myopic. As Glatze makes his transition from out and partying San Francisco gay to ambivalent gay to questioning (more ideological and faith based things than sexuality things) to basically a Born Again Christian, as much grey area is attempted to be conveyed, the film still wants to exist in binaries. Glatze’s surrounding figures don’t really seem to support the idea that perhaps he is sexually fluid, or maybe his desires have changed. Glatze spends a good deal of time studying the Bible in the context of possibly identifying himself as a gay Christian. But “Christian” is more easily defined in the film than “gay”.
As J. Bryan Lowder and David Halperin are prone to argue, homosexual identity and gay identity are not necessarily the same thing. Homosexuality is rooted more in the biological/physiological desire towards and with men; gayness is a curated sensibility and taste, so to speak. A culture, a way of being. Almost like Buddhism perhaps. Gayness is, as Butler might say, performative. But that’s never touched upon San Francisco gay culture is on display here infrequently, and Glatze even says that he wants to be gay but not be part of the subculture. However, that’s the only time the film really ever bothers to prod at this concept that they might be different things.
The film does seem to try to explore this idea of constructed idea, if not necessarily through the idea of performance. A good deal of the film is told through voice over through Glatze’s blog posts, and we seem him on the computer either researching different ideas or talking to people. He makes a video of himself after he’s, for lack of a better phrase, come out as straight man and posts it on the internet. He’s heavily involved in the making of a documentary about young queer youth in America. These various digital mediums and interfaces all distill this idea of Glatze to us, even the plethora of webpages that have said clickbait title. The film does seem to at least be interested in that idea, given that our introduction to Glatze is through a (sloppily executed) phot montage of articles and content from xy magazine. And maybe, aside from Franco’s performance, this is the strongest articulation of conception or theoretical ideas that the film presumably wants to address.
What the film does relatively well, though, is also to its detriment, ironically. For those even peripherally aware of the story, based on a New York Times Magazine piece from a former co-worker/friend at xy called “My Ex-Gay Friend” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, Michal Glatze is presented to us like an enigma, a puzzle to be solved or completed. Why on earth would someone as passionate about LGBTQ rights go straight? we are supposed to ask. But the film gives us the answer, or it heavily implies an answer. As opposed to the somewhat aesthetically and thematically similar The Social Network (which my friend Sam Mac invoked when we spoke on the phone after my screening), “I Am Michael” is unable to distance itself from the real life person of Michael Glatze and treat him as a fictional creation, as Aaron Sorkin did for Mark Zuckerberg. The Social Network allows enough beats of ambiguity that, despite the fact his assholeishness is an inherent character trait, his “betrayals” are slightly more undefined, really amplifying the dramatic tension. I Am Michael is attached to its real life figure, to a point where it seems to have made up its mind about him and wants to sway the audience. There are pulses of, He’s a liar or He’s confused, jarringly throughout the film. It’s a bit of an intrusive move, and it seems problematic here because the film ostensibly sets out to tell Michael’s story as a relatively non-judgmental examination of a somewhat unique person’s life story. Were it to land decisively throughout the film, and from the get go, as the story of a man who’s confused or lying or something else, then that intrusiveness wouldn’t feel unwarranted.
So the film is at its best when it’s watching Glatze wrestle with the various internal struggles he’s facing, whether it’s trying to identify himself with some cogent, self-actualizing label or his health problems or his deep existential fears. Jakes Shears and Tim K’s score rattles and you can hear the gears turn in Glatze’s heads. Emulating art house fare, we watch him as he walks and runs to nowhere, lost. It’s at these points of ambiguity that the film find as its strength, particularly within Justin Kelly’s compositional framing. conversations place characters at the far margins of the frame looking off camera, solitary. Franco’s face is often perfectly framed for anguish and pain. Glatze is a spec in many a wife open space; minuscule and unimportant to the universe. He continually mentions his credo that he wants to live to help people, for that to be his legacy. He weeps into the shoulder of his boyfriend, Bennett (Zachary Quinto) questioning whether our death results in our complete disappearance from the earth, from memory and from time. Franco is better skilled at channeling these moments of anxiety and insecurity, the active, if somewhat didactic questioning.
But the film falls back on itself by inserting gaze where we then implicate Glatze as liar/confused/etc., or inserting situations where, regardless of accuracy, deliberately paint Glatze in that way. A flirtation with a Buddhist, a failed tryst with a young woman at a bar, the look of jealousy/wrath at a young gay teen who decided not to take his advice about “choosing the path to God through heterosexuality”. It’s calculated and undermines the film’s strengths.
There are potent questions in “I Am Michael,” and while some are actually asked, it feels as if several are sidestepped in favor of answering or deciding for the audience. It seems rather condescending and manipulative, and it’s only somewhat forgivable given the film’s formal flourishes. But don’t misunderstand me: I don’t need the film to answer questions about identity, sexual, cultural, social, or otherwise. As a matter of fact, I need them to do just the opposite of that: not answer them.