General Hospital's "Franco," the soap-opera serial killer and greatest performance artist in the world, has turned to visual arts this year in the form of a series of rear-angle self-portraits.
"I know, I know. Multitasker, right?" he tells his nemesis on the show, gangster Jason Morgan.
Some Port Charles cop warned "Franco" that the lines between art and life get blurry if you're not careful: Last Wednesday, the protean James Franco (writer, actor, academic, artist and more) released his first music video, Rising, with Kalup Linzy.
"Um … okay?" is the sardonic Perez Hilton's reaction to the trippy video and sweetly crazy, catchy song. His followers shred Franco for being a "pseudo-intellectual," "stoner" and rich "hipster."
There is a real anger behind this kind of hating, something like Eminem's Stan, a song about a fan who goes on a drunken suicide-murder-spree because the singer is slow in returning his letters; because the star "ruined" everything by not understanding they "should be together."
While Franco is, on one hand, a loveable, barely adapted Jeff Spicoli, he is, otherwise, an actual intellectual with a huge practice that is easy to dismiss, harder to try to understand.
But Franco is a highly modern star, and to Rising, as with everything he does, he brings to his enterprise a very current hybridity: The video is both parodic and almost horribly sincere.
Franco himself, in his art and in interviews, is a bizarre hybrid. He is alternately cold and lacking in affect, then radiant and disarming. (His almost-iconic smile, which floats through the video like a symbol of his methodology, is the engine that turns his charm on and off.)
The average female fan has no problem getting behind Franco playing "Franco" and is content to write such remarks below clips of the actor in any number of the fantastic girlie-onanism videos on YouTube: "Wow, he's an amazin actor, and soooo sexy!!!;D I think he's very underrated imo, he should def get more recognition for his awesome work!!!;D"
But critics and commentators so often line up to mock and deride the frighteningly beautiful PhD candidate – most ferociously when he writes.
His essay about performance art and his decision to work on General Hospital, published in The Wall Street Journal in December, 2009, is, like his very good creative writing, solid and persuasive, driven by a starkly modernist style.
"[N]o matter how far I got into the character," Franco writes, " I was going to be perceived as something that doesn't belong to the incredibly stylized world of soap operas. Everyone watching would see an actor they recognized, a real person in a made-up world."
This is true and not true: Joan Crawford set the stage for intrusions from big stars on soaps when, in a gorgeous disaster, she played her ailing daughter's role on The Secret Storm in 1968. Others, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett, have also appeared on the programs, and soon groupie/artist Pamela Des Barres will appear as … a former groupie on The Young and the Restless.
Ultimately, while Franco is recognizably more luminously attractive than anyone on the show, his character is only a standout in the traditional soap. Whether he's acting as insane as the Y&R character who demanded, at gunpoint, facial reconstruction surgery to look like a young David Hasselhoff, or hitting on babes by referencing his pied à terre on the Left Bank, or fighting an older, fright-wigged artist who keeps saying things like, "You've come a long way Rembrandt!" or "Don't wet your designer jeans, Salvador!" he is still integral to the drama and received as such – I don't see any "pseudo-intellectuals" posting about his amazing role. Just fans.
I am a fan, of course, even if I find his CV (he is in his early 30s) exhausting to read in an abbreviated form and find no truth to the notion that he gets to where he goes because of his good looks.
That is, it may be true, but he has embellished and battered the good looks enough to rival Heath Ledger, and who says that beauty is not a talent?
In General Hospital, the older artist warns "Franco" about becoming "part of the establishment, Picasso!"
"Art's like a mirror," the art brute genius retorts. "It's always clear what you see."
Um …okay? I am not sure what that means, don't care: "Franco" and James Franco just look so good saying it.
What it might mean? Franco, the contemporary artist, is creating a collaborative body of work.
Within its very starkness, its flat, opaque surface, we find ourselves reacting, poorly or very well, to whatever trick of light, of love, he is playing.