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The James Franco Project

For an earnest guy, Franco has always been ragingly addicted to meta. He loves to play James Franco—not just in General Hospital (sort of), but in Knocked Up, 30 Rock, and a series of short videos he’s made for the website Funny or Die (e.g., “Acting With James Franco,” in which he instructs his younger brother Dave in the rudiments of the profession). The more Franco self-dramatizes like this, and the more we become accustomed to it, the more he’s actually James Franco playing James Franco playing James Franco—a mise en abyme of artsy pomo heartthrob.

8. The Opening
“Art’s like a mirror. It’s pretty clear what you see.”
—Franco, General Hospital, November 23, 2009

“Don’t be afraid. You and I are … intimates. Say what you feel.”
—Franco, General Hospital, July 6, 2010

The last time I see James Franco is at the opening of his first solo art show, at the Clocktower Gallery in downtown New York. The Clocktower is a nonprofit gallery that’s prestigious but not at all flashy; it’s hidden on the thirteenth floor of an enormously bland municipal building. When I enter, I’m pulled aside by Alanna Heiss, the curator of the show, who tells me that this opening is not about a red carpet, or creating buzz, or making money. She chose Franco, she says, not for his celebrity but because he has a special vision—an understanding, above all, of the connectivity among media—that she thinks is going to influence the way future generations look at art. But there’s no denying that Franco’s celebrity will be an incredible draw—it may as well be one of the pieces in the show.

The show is called “The Dangerous Book Four Boys,” a corruption of the book title The Dangerous Book for Boys, which is a tongue-in-cheek primer of young masculinity. (Franco has torn out, doodled on, and framed pages of that book all over the gallery.) One of its first rooms features a large pile of junk heaped on the floor: T-shirts, books, VHS tapes, lunch boxes. It looks like the bedroom of a 12-year-old hoarder. (Heiss tells me that it’s all authentic Franco junk, shipped out from his childhood room in California.) The rest of the show feels similarly haphazard. It’s a hodgepodge of media: film, doodles, wooden structures, photos. The uniting theme seems to be the messy transition from boyhood to adolescence, with special emphasis on the messiest markers of that shift—sex and violence. The wall text says it was made possible, in part, by funding from Gucci. (Franco is the face of the company’s men’s fragrance.)

Much of the art is violent or explicitly obscene. A video called Masculinity and Me intersperses lurid monologues about rape and murder and diarrhea with close-up shots of a urinating penis and a defecating anus. (Many of the speeches sound like comments from an undergrad queer-theory seminar: “Man and woman are impossible ideals,” one character says. “We’re all gender-fucked—we’re all something in between, floating like angels.”) Another short film, Dicknose in Paris, features Franco as the title character, with a big floppy prosthetic penis—complete with dangling testicles and a bush of pubic hair—hanging down from the middle of his face. (When Dicknose walks the streets of Paris, he has to cover his face with a sweatshirt.) Franco often wears masks in his work: a wolf, a clown, a freakish bald-headed man-monster. It comes off as a rebuke to his own outlandishly pretty face: the face that has won him so much in the world (including, at least in part, this art show)—but also the face that stands between him and serious artistic credibility.

The show’s most prominent piece is a big barnlike structure made of plywood, the kind of playhouse a perfect father might build for his 9-year-old son. I step inside to find a small room lined with plywood benches. It’s sweltering. On the far wall, a video is being projected: footage of a plywood house burning to the ground. One of the other visitors walks out, and suddenly there are only two of us, here in the house that contains an image of its own destruction, and the other person is James Franco.

I stand very still, like a hiker who’s just seen a bear. Franco’s publicist has recently informed me that—after all these months of e-mailing (he always responds immediately, and likes to sign off with “Peace”) and brief conversations—Franco and I are no longer allowed to talk. He’s signed an exclusivity agreement with another magazine. Under no circumstances am I to speak to him, I’m told, not even to say hello. I can see him now in my peripheral vision: He looks not like a grad student or a hipster but like an international golden boy, a corporate spokesman—unmasked and cleanly shaven, dressed in a gray Gucci suit and pointy black Gucci shoes. His hair is sculptural, bushy but managed. Surely, I think, if someone sees us together, I will be thrown out. On the opposite wall, the flames have stripped the house to its frame, reducing it to some kind of glowing black non-substance, half-wood, half-ash.