James Franco: New Film Stills at Pace Gallery

An exercise in male privilege.

When James Franco unveils new art upon the public it is immediately viewed with skepticism. This is perhaps rightfully done based on his painting career and movie star status. However, when the subject is film Franco speaks from a unique position, and has done so, intentionally or otherwise, in a insightfully irreverent way.

His latest deconstruction of film is New Film Stills. The project recreates Cindy Sherman's series Untitled Film Stills with Franco replacing Sherman. The original Untitled Film Stills was Sherman's own deconstruction of cinema, portraying tropes such as the 'femme fatale', 'domesticated sex kitten', and 'damsel in distress'. They were tired, old ideas 50 years ago and Sherman's portrayal was as much about disappearing into the one dimensionality of female characters available in Hollywood as it was about societies tacit acceptance of these roles and their imposition upon women. Arguably not much has changed, and Sherman could repeat the project with slight adjustments to costume and arrive at the same conclusions 50 years later.

Such is the critique that Franco has inserted himself into, but the argument is no longer the same. It is easy to write Franco of as derivative, mostly because he purposefully is. The work that most closely ties to New Film Stills is Franco's film: Interior, Leather Bar. Framed as a remake of a deleted scene from Cruising, Leather Bar examined both straight and gay actors approach to a scene that is the stereotype of peak homosexual decadence and weirdness. The actors in Leather Bar unknowingly became the subject while remaking Cruising happened off camera.

New Film Stills again focuses on the idea of what an actor is, but at the expense of Sherman's originally feminist statement. Franco is the subject of all the pictures, the characters that Sherman became are replaced by James Franco, a straight male actor, in drag. Franco himself says he is an actor using Sherman's art as a starting place, while Sherman was an artist using cinema for a starting place: "I am at the same time actor, critic, artist, and character.” It is impossible to separate Franco from himself in these pictures. New Film Stills could have been a deconstruction of male gender identity in film instead of imposing unshaven masculinity onto female character tropes, thereby missing the entire point of Sherman's series. Although, is that supposed to be his point? What is his point?

New Film Stills is either wholly narcissistic self indulgence, or Franco is further deconstructing the idea of what an actor is by using the entire show, the gallery, expectations, fame, this article, as an absurd, large scale work commenting on the nature of the actor as a product. Which, although that would be awesome, is unlikely.

 Review by John Hutt

Photos by Chris Jack

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