I'm Not There
By Aaron Krach
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.'