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METAMERICANA: Why James Franco’s MAKING A SCENE Is Worth Your Patience

METAMERICANA: Why James Franco's MAKING A SCENE Is Worth Your Patience

The
half century-long postmodern era—roughly, 1945 to 1995—gave us the
parody, in which an artwork comments on and finally trivializes its
source material by closely emulating it. Our present period in art has
given us something superficially similar but in fact quite different:
the remake, in which an artwork comments on art itself by differentially
reproducing an earlier work. In a remake, it may simply be that primary
elements in the source material are retooled (as with
James Franco and Seth Rogen’s shot-for-shot re-shoot of Kanye West’s “Bound 2” music video), or it may be that the concept of the original work is
maintained while all its constituent elements are refurbished (as with the new sequence of Spider-Man
movies). The purpose of the remake is not to deconstruct and critique
an original artifact, but to reconstruct, and thereby expand upon, an
idea that’s already implicitly been deconstructed by our earlier
consumption of it. Franco’s newest project,
the AOL On Originals television series “Making a Scene,” deserves
credit for using dated but immediately recognizable source material to
create cinematic moments entirely of our time—and moments that are
remakes rather than parodies, for which reason alone they deserve more
attention than we might otherwise offer them.
Too
frequently, we confuse remakes
with parodies because we assume ironic intent on the part of a remake’s
author. In reality, remakes, however funny they may sometimes seem to
us, are merely opportunities for us to envision how an artistic idea
might otherwise have played out. This “re-visioning” has a significant
social function; in a time in which we are constantly erasing and
recreating, online, both ourselves and the texts and imagery we
associate with ourselves, remakes are an instrumental good. They confirm
for us our ability, even in the chaos of the Information Age, to
idiosyncratically process intensely personal data in a way we find
satisfying. Just as Franco’s “Bound 2”
paradoxically opted to remake rather than parody West as a way of
clearing space for its own artistic vision, Making a Scene is not
about looking for a cheap laugh. Rather it is concerned with—all the
show’s superficial trappings aside—promoting a lingering
self-contemplation.
Just
as we can and must distinguish between parodies and remakes, there’s a
difference between pastiche (a postmodern technique in which one artist
imitates the style of another) and intertextuality (a technique native
to the current era, in which a single artist uses multiple source
materials to construct an entirely new statement). Where pastiche calls
attention to the banality and of the past and the ease with which we can
commodify it in the present—thereby deconstructing both past and
present—intertextuality is entirely about the creation of the new. Making a Scene may use the remake and
the “mash-up” as its tactical components, but its strategic ambition is
an important statement on intertextuality. When Franco
“mashes up” two
movies (through a chaotic juxtaposition of characters and scenes), he
simultaneously honors and creates critical distance from the films he
exploits. 
Those
who see Franco’s Making a Scene as a thoroughly cynical enterprise
are seeing it through a lens it entirely rejects. Though it’s
especially hard to do with the work of James Franco, it’s important to
distinguish between how a work makes us feel (which is often a product
of our biases) and
what a work is capable of making
us feel. As with all Franco’s other recent projects, Making a Scene
offers little if you treat it as merely another basis for your ongoing
grievance against Franco—an imposition upon you personally that the
actor intends condescendingly—and seems a minor act of genius if you
consider how much it runs against the conventional wisdom of late
postmodernism. Franco’s aim in Making a Scene seems to be to play
“straight” a series of gestures his audience can’t possibly take
seriously, thereby challenging them to consider whether we still live in
the age of parody or, instead, the age of what cultural theorists call
“informed naivete.”
The difference between pastiche and intertextuality has been recently discussed by Dutch cultural theorists Tim Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in ArtPulse,
and the distinction is worth consideration by anyone who is sick of hipster
irony and poststructuralist moping. What we learn from Vermuelen and van
den Akker is that Franco is not actually asking to be taken
seriously—or, in the alternative, to be laughed at. All he’s doing is
enacting a series of data-processing
events that many people are always-already engaged in anyway. Do you
remember the movie Reservoir Dogs? Good. How about Dirty Dancing?
Okay. Do your memories of movies as distinct as these two sometimes run
together, so that you accidentally attribute actors and scenes and
one-liners to one movie that actually belong to another? If you’re
anything like me, the answer is sure—sometimes. And if you’re like me,
the sensation of feeling like you’re drowning in popular culture and
your own life experiences is not always, in fact is not often,
particularly unpleasant. Our experiences shape us, and our local and
national cultures often act as our psychic foundation, a fact that
contemporary art like Franco’s performs without judgment or irony. Thus
this mash-up of Reservoir Dogs and Dirty Dancing
from the first episode of Making a Scene, which shows Jennifer Grey’s
character superimposed over a (literally) tortured patrolman from
Tarantino’s smash hit, just as Tarantino’s Mr. Blonde is laid atop
Patrick Swayze’s ne’er-do-well dance instructor Johnny. 
Watching “Grey” dancing with “Johnny” while drenched in buckets of blood from the goriest scene in Reservoir Dogs
isn’t exactly entertaining, nor is it precisely funny or precisely
distressing. It’s something else entirely—a reenactment of the way
memory works that feels intuitively reasonable even as we don’t quite
know what to do with it emotionally or intellectually. In foregrounding
content like this via an original series, Franco is taking a significant
risk and placing significant faith in an audience base that, if we’re
honest, has never shown him much patience or grace. But it’s a risk
that’s entirely of our time, and perhaps more relevant to how we live
today—or might wish to live—than the despairing irony we were all
steeped in throughout the nineties. In other words, how about we just leave
Jimmy alone for a moment and see where he’s going with all this? We
might just find that, however
self-aggrandizing we sometimes assume Franco to be, this latest project
is much more about us than it is about him.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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