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This is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is a place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them, but a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry — where writers review other writer’s books — the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me. —James Franco
James: “The Forbidden Room” is a crazy movie.
Semaj: Yeah, it’s by Guy Maddin. That’s what he makes, crazy movies.
James: It’s not like other movies. It’s like a bunch of movies in one movie.
Semaj: Yeah, but there are other movies that have more than one narrative. Just look at “Pulp Fiction.”
James: Yeah, but this one has stories within stories, and it changes from one to the other really fast. It’s almost like Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” the way it changes so quickly from one story to the next. You basically have one or two scenes with a character in one story, and then he or she leads you into a new story.
Semaj: Yeah, it switches quickly, but it’s not really like “Slacker,” because “Slacker” doesn’t return to characters. The narratives in “The Forbidden Room” are embedded in each other, like David Mitchell’s book “Cloud Atlas.” And it picks up threads that were dropped.
James: It’s interesting that you reference the book version of “Cloud Atlas,” and not the film, because “The Forbidden Room” seems to work more like a book than a film.
James: It’s driven by imagery, atmosphere, style, patterns, quests, and stories — not by character or emotion.
READ MORE: Why Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson Are Excited About the Future of Film
Semaj: You’re right about that. You can’t hook into any character emotionally for several reasons. First, everything is shot and edited as if this were a series of old, old, movies – but more about that later. This old movie aesthetic works as a screen between the audience and the characters. It makes the characters seem more like cartoons than people.
James: Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Semaj: No, not at all. It’s just a stylistic choice.
James: You say they’re like cartoons, but I often get choked up over animated movies. Those Pixar things, damn, I always cry. “Finding Nemo,” “Frozen”…I mean, when Idina sings, “Let it Go,” I always let the tears go.
Semaj: How many times have you seen “Frozen”?
James: I don’t know. A couple.
Semaj: “Frozen” isn’t Pixar.
James: Whatever. “The Forbidden Room” isn’t a cartoon. At least not like “Frozen.”
Semaj: You’re right. The characters in “The Forbidden Room” are more like Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote. We don’t mind if they hurt other people, or get hurt themselves, because we’re not engaged with them emotionally. We’re engaged with something else.
James: What are we engaged with?
Semaj: With the situations and tasks of the characters. The mini-plots are more like old B-movie serials, fairy tales and poetry. The poet John Ashbery wrote the ultimate framing narrative in “The Forbidden Room” with a recurring sequence called “How to Take a Bath.” Which is just that, a strange old man in a robe talking about taking baths.
James: With all the framing stories, it’s a bit like Wes Anderson movies, especially “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which has like two or three stories that frame it.
Semaj: It is a bit like that. And all the eccentric characters are a bit Wes Anderson-y.
James: So it goes from the guy talking about baths to a suspenseful submarine story: Will the guys down in the deep survive with all those pink explosives on board?
Semaj: Right, and then a mysterious Woodsman shows up in the submarine out of nowhere.
James: That’s not very realistic.
Semaj: Well, none of it is. That’s the point. And that’s why we’re not engaged emotionally, because the causes and effects are bizarre. They don’t resonate with what we experience in our lives. But we like to watch because the connections and jumps are so clever.
James: Yeah, I can watch any Wes Anderson movie over and over again, just for the visuals, and all the rich detail.
Semaj: This works a bit like that. The worlds within each mini-narrative are so rich we want to see what will come next. Maddin isn’t showing us reality, it’s as if he’s exploring in a world made up of old silent films and early talkies.
James: I would say that’s exactly what he’s doing because “The Forbidden Room” evolved out of Maddin’s other recent project, “Séances,” where he actually recreated lost and unrealized films by old masters like Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Vigo, Alfred Hitchcock, and Kenji Mizoguchi. “The Forbidden Room” feels like recreations of old films, except here all the narratives are original.
Semaj: So it’s referencing old films in a tongue-in-cheek way.
James: What do you mean?
Semaj: Well, there are classic tropes being turned on their heads and made comedic. Like when the Woodsman goes to a cave to save a woman named Margot from this band of thieves called The Red Wolf Pack. He has to perform a series of tasks, like in any folktale or myth such as “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” “The Silmarillion,” “Beauty and the Beast”…
James: “Beauty and the Beast”! Now there’s a cartoon that made me cry! And it was nominated for best picture!
Semaj: I like Gaston better than the Beast.
James: Why? He’s sexist pig.
Semaj: He’s a badass. He eats five-dozen eggs every day!
James: Wow. That is pretty badass. That’s more than Cool Hand Luke. He only did 60, and that was just once. He couldn’t do it again.
Semaj: Right. That’s the difference between cartoons and realism. There are consequences for actions in realism. In “Cool Hand Luke,” they play things out longer so that the audience can feel the impact of having to eat so many eggs. In “Beauty,” Gaston just juggles a bunch of eggs and swallows them, no sweat. So we don’t invest in the eating of them; it’s just a funny line.
James: Anyway, you were making a point before. About the tasks in “The Forbidden Room.”
Semaj: Yeah. The Woodsman has to perform tasks. But instead of killing a giant, or bring back a magical relic, or earning the kiss of a lover, he has to stack feces, and weigh his dick.
James: Yeah, that was pretty funny.
Semaj: Right, funny. But if you think about it, those tasks are actually the subtext for more traditional tasks.
James: Like killing giants are just to show how big your balls are anyway.
Semaj: Right. So, I guess we could say that “The Forbidden Room” is telling traditional tales through the messed up lens of collage, pastiche, fracturing, and satire.
James: Nice. So what’s it about?
Semaj: Love, life, death, film, memory, guilt, and bravery.
James: And taking a bath.
“The Forbidden Room” is now playing in limited release.