James Franco – is he, or isn’t he? No, not “is he gay?” He’s already answered that a million times, sometimes wink & nudge coyly, sometimes with the posed, arid detachment of a would-be academic. From playing queer poets Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane in film, to creating unabashedly queer imagery in his visual art, to bantering with late night talk show hosts about his flirtations with/interests in queered maleness, to engaging in long-running innuendo and explicit jokes about his own alleged queerness, Franco has positioned himself, superficially at least, as a friend and ally, using the currency of his own celebrity to spark thought and dialogue on questions of gender, masculinity, and queerness. To detractors, he’s a savvy and lightweight opportunist who flirts with imagery of queerness with no real skin (so to speak) in the game.
In an interview earlier this year with New York art critic Jerry Saltz, Franco addressed the question of his sexuality thusly: “There is a bit of overfocusing on my sexuality, both by the straight press and the gay press, and so the first question is why do they care? Well, because I’m a celebrity, so I guess they care who I’m having sex with. But if your definition of gay and straight is who I sleep with, then I guess you could say I’m a gay cock tease. It’s where my allegiance lies, where my sensibilities lie, how I define myself. Yeah, I’m a little gay, and there’s a gay James.”
No, the questions at this point are broader. Is Franco really pushing the conversation forward on queerness? Are his insights truly insightful, or does his work rely too heavily on lingering, ingrained discomfort with homosexuality (especially male-on-male sex); does it depend too much on mainstream America’s reflexes of snickering anxiety, so the work actually gets to skate by on what are superficial takes on the matter of queerness? Are his flirtations with the queer avant-garde given undue weight in the context of an assimilated mainstream [white] queer culture that is aggressively bland and proudly toothless?
If an artist calibrates his work to push the buttons of the most easily offended and reactionary, the more simpleminded in the crowd, does he still earn any props for the easy outrage or discomfort his work engenders – and can that superficiality still be subversive or radical? Does Franco lean too heavily on the queer work of other artists (Cindy Sherman, Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane) to give his own work substance and gravitas? Would the gay men who fawn over him and give his work so many passes be better off just admitting they want to suck his dick so they can stop embarrassing themselves by installing him on a pedestal with him draped in their projected cribbings from queer and feminist theory?
Franco’s latest project, Daddy (a collaboration with Tim O’Keefe, whom Franco met in art school) is, in the words of his press release for the duo’s new project, “[intended] to push beyond the sonic space of music into the surrounding ecology. Daddy investigates the territories of film/video, installation, and performance while simultaneously exploring the connections that form between them. While sampling has been an established and prevalent method of modern music making, Daddy’s approach moves beyond the ‘art of sampling’ into the act of appropriation. Not just appropriating a genre of music, but the moments it inhabits, and the characters that embody it.”
Of their new music video, “I’m A Sword Swallower” (Prince Rama Remix), filled with women with exposed breasts, several strap-ons, and suggestions of fucking (no explicit penetration shots), O’Keefe says, “Prince Rama’s remix creates the perfect soundtrack for our short film that explores gender, power play, and Hollywood lore in a cinematic psychedelic dream. Prince Rama and Daddy are a match made in heaven.”
And yet, for all that, it’s a quick-edit, artfully blurry and obtuse bore. It feels and plays exactly like an art-school project that might impress fellow students and shock the school’s wealthy benefactors, but is uninspired and already feels dated.