James Franco is boyishly cute. He veered toward hot in Milk with an Al Parker moustache. But James Franco is not pretty, not like Julianne Moore, perennial Oscar nominee and face of Revlon Age Defying Makeup. James Franco does not resemble Rock Hudson either. He's smaller and blonder than the closeted Hollywood icon.
But damn reality.
James Franco is Ms. Moore and Mr. Hudson, as well as 'James Franco' in the new film Erased James Franco, an exceptional -- and exceptionally odd -- movie by Carter, a 39-year-old gay artist. The film had its American premiere April 6 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is now touring festivals and museums around the world.
'The bulk of the film is James as James acting out his previous movies,' Carter says. 'But within that he plays Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes's Safe as well as Rock Hudson in Seconds, from 1966.'
This all sounds a bit messy, not to mention creepy -- and it is -- but in a bizarre and provocative way, like so much of the New York'based artist's work. Carter made his reputation creating collages and inky drawings, mostly of men's heads, nothing bigger than 24 by 36 inches, often smaller. Instead of a face, he fills the outline with multiple eyes and ears, or he covers the head with meticulously drawn hair. Carter also takes Polaroids of staged situations -- a prosthetic hand holding a pen as if it could draw, the artist himself obscured by a ratty old wig.
Over the past few years, Carter's work has increased in scale and complexity. Newer pieces reach several feet tall. His drawings have edged closer to traditional paintings. Carter attaches paper directly to canvas and has added acrylic paint into his arsenal of mark-making materials. He's also begun painting on photographic backdrops, silvery black-and-white pictures of early-20th-century interiors, quite fancy and fey, pasted directly onto canvas.
For the 65-minute Erased, Carter's first feature-length film, he imagines Franco, the star of Milk and Pineapple Express, as a character from one of his drawings. Franco is alone in a white room with minimal props -- a chair, a desk with two rotary phones, and a huge houseplant. He wears a small earpiece so he can hear snippets from the old movies and act along with them. When he mutters something about 'Peter,' he's doing a scene from one of his own films, Spider-Man. When he talks about becoming a painter in California, that's a clue that he's now Rock Hudson in Seconds. Otherwise, he's blank-faced and wandering the set in search of something -- a script, his previous characters, maybe even himself.
'Carter's film is about restraint,' Franco says. 'All the emotion is underneath the surface and isn't allowed to come out in normal ways. There are father-son issues and addiction issues and issues about the desire and struggle to be an artist and sexual issues.'
For viewers, these themes may seem obscure. More obvious are details about the star -- features that are usually overlooked in his better-known work: Franco's fingernails are very short. His smile begins on one side and then overtakes his entire face. His eyes water easily. Franco has adorable little love handles. He's quite ordinary.
'You're never really seeing James, but a shadow of him,' Carter says. That's because 'you're never really a solid representation of yourself at all times. You're different shades of yourself during different times of the day and for each experience and person you interact with. You're never a constant, and I wanted our film to touch on that.'
He says 'our' film because Carter considers Erased a real collaboration between Franco and himself. The men had met several times over the past couple years before embarking on this project together, and Carter talks enthusiastically about working with Franco on the set where they filmed in Paris. This is a rare moment for Carter, who isn't comfortable talking about himself, at least not with the press. He'd prefer to be one of his shape-shifting characters: multifaceted and obscure. He bristles when asked his age. He'll talk about his childhood and making art from an early age, but he doesn't want to say where he grew up. 'In Connecticut,' he finally allows, 'in a small New England town.' There's only so much he can hide, though. Carter is a successful artist with galleries and dealers in New York, London, and Paris selling his work. Much of his life is part of the public record.
Carter was originally his last name but is now officially his only name. He went to art school in Maryland and graduate school at the University of California, Davis. He lived in San Francisco for a few years and exhibited widely in the city before moving to New York. His career took off in 2005, when he was selected by curator Matthew Higgs for a small show in one of Manhattan's premier alternative spaces, White Columns. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to the prestigious Whitney Biennial in 2006.
Somewhere along the way, Franco discovered Carter's work, and the two became friends.
'I knew James liked art and had bought a painting of mine,' Carter says. 'So I sent him a long-winded, insane e-mail, outlining my idea to have him revisit every movie he's ever been in.'
Franco said yes to Carter's film, and he allowed the artist to cast his leg in rubber for a series of sculptures. The pieces are a riff on gay artist Robert Gober's most iconic work, a man's wax leg dressed in pants, a sock, and a shoe jutting out from the wall along the floor. For the premiere of Erased at Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris last fall, Franco exhibited the sculptures of Franco's leg wearing the actor's own clothing. Carter's sculptures, which are totems of manliness and, quite literally, pieces of a movie star, were quickly snatched up by collectors.
'Carter is part of a tradition that links back to Dada and Duchamp -- of artists interested in destruction as much as creation, of making something new out of taking things apart,' says Josh Siegel, associate curator of film at MoMA, who invited Carter to show Erased at the museum.
For Carter, that means taking apart Franco's career, dicing it up into bits of dialogue and gestures. Erased is a cinematic portrait of celebrity deconstruction, which explains why watching the film can feel like watching Franco have a nervous breakdown.
'That, for me, is one of the most interesting parts of the project,' Siegel says. 'What it shows and says about acting is fascinating. James is raw material, so to speak, for Carter. But he's also the inspiration for the piece. That Franco, a relatively young actor at the beginning of his career, was willing to try something like this is very brave.'
Exactly how brave will become clear in the years to come. According to Carter, the two are already working on another film.