James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is 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.
This week’s column focuses on “Tale of Tales,” which opens in limited release this week.
James: So, what’s this?
Semaj: It’s a fairy tale. Actually, it’s three extended tales that are intertwined.
James: They’re hardcore fairy tales.
Semaj: What does that mean?
James: Well, it’s a bit dirty. It feels like it’s fairy tales for adults. I thought, man, this must have been directed by Terry Gilliam.
Semaj: Yeah, it feels like Gilliam, but it’s not. It’s by Italian superstar Mateo Garonne, and based on fairy tales by Giambattista Basile.
James: He brings out some dark things. Like orgies, rape, and being flayed alive.
Semaj: Yes, it’s definitely not “Alice in Wonderland,” or “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.”
James: How would you know? You haven’t seen “The Huntsman.”
Semaj: I know that “The Huntsman” is rated PG -13, so my guess is that there will be tons of violence that they’ll somehow get away with because it’s fantasy-violence.
James: What does that mean? That the killing will be done to non-humans, like in “The Walking Dead,” so they can get away with the bloodiest shit ever and it’s still PG-13?
Semaj: Yeah, pretty much. It’s like, we’ll blow off heads, cut people in half, and pull guts out of stomachs, but it’s okay because they’re just “zombies,” even though the images we’re seeing are humans being destroyed.
James: Are you criticizing that use of violence?
Semaj: No, not at all. I actually love it. I think the way they blow people away on “The Walking Dead” is incredible — a satisfying, vicarious release of anger and violence for viewers. And the way it’s choreographed is beautiful. Just like the way they build the fantasy worlds in these big budget fairy tales is beautiful. They’re creating alternate universes.
James: Okay, but “Tale of Tales” is not a huge budgeted film, and it is definitely for adults. First of all, there is some nudity and implied sex –Vincent Cassel plays a horny king who satiates himself through orgies until he eventually finds a woman who can satisfy him by herself. But she is not who he thinks she is. And there is a raping ogre.
Semaj: So, it’s a bit like “Game of Thrones” — or “Lord of the Rings” with tits.
James: No, there is still something very fairy-tale-esque about this that keeps it from feeling like “Game of Thrones” or Tolkien/Jackson. I think it must be the fable quality to the stories.
Semaj: The way they feel like allegories?
James: Yes, and how they all seem to have clear morals about being blinded by selfishness, and self-centeredness.
Semaj: It’s weird to mix sex into those kinds of tales.
James: Not really. Fairy tales are meant to expose our deep desires, and feelings. Monsters and witches allow us to engage with the dark sides of our humanity. They provide alternative figures that children can use to imaginatively process their feelings about the world, in an alternative space, rather than have to deal with reality all the time, which can get sticky.
Semaj: Wow, you’re killing it today, James.
James: Thanks, Semaj. So, it’s just funny to me that zombies getting their heads blown off, and monsters being hacked and stabbed to death are okay for children, but when tits and sex are involved it’s suddenly for adults.
Semaj: I don’t think “The Walking Dead” is meant for children.
James: Okay, you’re right. But you see my point, that we allow violence much more readily than sex.
Semaj: Yeah, you’re right. Why do you think that is?
James: All I can think is that violence in movies still seems like fantasy. Most of us aren’t cops chasing criminals, or superheroes flying through the sky, so we are being taken on experiences that are completely foreign to our lives while watching those films. But sex is something that everyone can do, pretty easily. So, if that is seen in movies, it becomes less of a fantasy experience, and more of a guide for how things could actually go down. And if young people are seeing sexual things in movies, there are many adults who fear these young people will copy what they see.
Semaj: Yeah, but that’s what they say about violence in movies, too.
James: I know, but there is definitely more violence in films meant for younger people than sex.
Semaj: Okay, let’s get back to the movie. You’re making the point that it’s an adult fairy tale.
James: Yes, it’s for adults. But not just because of the sex, it is patient with its storytelling. It doesn’t rush from huge set piece to huge set piece; in fact, most of its castle sets were shot in actual castles, as opposed to being created on a stage, or in the computer. It’s not really an action movie like most new fairy tale and fantasy films.
Semaj: But in some ways it feels very violent. Almost more violent than some movies that have overt violence.
James: I think that’s partly because of the patience. When we watch the queen, played by Selma Hayek, eat a bloody sea monster’s heart as large as a basketball, the film doesn’t cut away. We have to watch her patiently eat that thing.
Semaj: And some of it doesn’t feel violent at all, like when certain beasts are fought. It feels very removed.
James: Yes, almost like the difference between a first shooter game like Doom and a role playing game like “Final Fantasy.”
Semaj: Okay, a little random now, James. Reel it in. Let’s focus on the director, Matteo Garrone. He directed “Gomorrah,” based on a non-fiction book about organized crime and shot it in a way that feels almost like a documentary.
James: Yeah, he even used real Italian gangsters as actors in that film. He’s one of the two biggest contemporary Italian directors working today. It’s basically him and Paolo Sorrentino.
Semaj: The guy who made “The Great Beauty,” “Youth,” “This Must be the Place.”
James: Yeah, yeah. But this is about Garrone. He’s almost like the new Pasolini, while Sorrentino is the new Fellini.
Semaj: Nice. Yeah, this movie could be one of Pasolini’s trilogy of life movies — “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Decameron,” and “The Arabian Nights.”
James: And his previous work, like “Gomorrah,” is reflective of Pasolini’s early work — “Accattone” and “Mama Roma,” movies about the streets, made in a documentary style. So why do you think Garrone took such a departure from what he was doing in “Gomorrah”?
Semaj: My guess is that the fairy-tale structure allowed him to do with his movies what fairy-tales do in general: like you said, fairy-tales are in the realm of the imagination, so by doing a fairy tale as opposed to an adaptation of a non-fiction book, he can explore human desires and deeds without the burden of ascribing those things to actual people — as “Gomorrah” might have done.
James: Nice one, Semaj. You’re sounding more and more like me.
Semaj: Thanks, James. Yeah, we’re sort of like the blond twins in “Tale of Tales.”