James Franco‘s ongoing experimentation with the limits of his own celebrity are like little else popular culture has produced of late. While his hijinks within academia and beyond are well documented (he’s working on a Film MFA at NYU and an English PhD from Yale, while being a movie star, reediting “My Own Private Idaho,” writing essays for N+1 and occasionally doing some performance art with Laurel Nakadate), they come to a startling head in his “Francophrenia (Or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where The Baby Is),” a daringly oddball collaboration with lauded documentarian Ian Olds, whose “The Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi” was a hit in Rotterdam in 2009.
Lensed over the course of a seemingly one night shoot, the film essentially follows Franco around the set of ABC‘s “General Hospital” as he leers at people, engages in mind numbing conversations, watches as mediocrity begets more mediocrity (what better form to behold banal storytelling than the daytime soap), the camera seemingly fetishizing the massive amount of energy, individual industriousness and technological savvy being deployed in order to create something so mundane and slight.
Taking this footage that Franco assembled while he famously made a self-reflexive, multi-season guest starring arc on the soap opera that only recently concluded, Olds crafted a script with co-writer Paul Felten that stuffs an at times pretentious but generally outlandish and genuinely disturbing stream of consciousness narration in Franco’s mouth as he saunters around the set, attempting to inhabit the mind of Robert “Franco” Frank, an artist and serial killer who was shot to death on a episode of the daytime soap early in the new year. However, as the film wears on, one gathers that the thoughts we are hearing are not that of Franco playing “Franco,” but of the actor himself, as he muses on the absurdities of fame, its suffocating, ever-present spectre that dominates his every interaction, and his longing to do a bit of serial killing himself, starting with his agent.
James Franco is as adventurous a young actor as there is in the movies today, but he seems to be bending over backward to prove that he’s also one of our most intelligent and preternaturally driven. The film forces us to reconsider the nature of his choices in a way; clearly he saw his participation in “General Hospital” at this point in his career as a way to further experiment with blurring the lines of high and low culture, of classy and base types of stardom. But with a sure editorial hand in Olds (whose editing work on another Franco project led to this collaboration) Franco has lent his incredibly expressive, occasionally terrifying visage to a true marvel of the doc/fiction hybrid, a slender and seductive treatise on the edges of madness that may one day compare favorably with other works of American filmic experimentation as masculine meltdown, such as Jim McBride‘s “David Holzman’s Diary” or Moses Milton Ginsburg’s “Coming Apart.” [B]