‘F for Franco’: Film Review

Courtesy of Conceptualist Films
A must for Franco completists

The method in James Franco’s meta madness, illuminated by an art theorist

As a Hollywood star who’s also a brand spokesmodel, a director of art house provocations and, on one occasion so far, an indifferent-bordering-on-hostile Oscars host, prolific multihyphenate James Franco has inspired as much head-scratching as admiration. One of his admirers is also a mentor: Francisco J. Ricardo was one of the actor’s instructors at the Rhode Island School of Design. The professor has made a feature-length film, F for Franco, that's an astute examination of the driving themes in Franco’s work and a cohesive portrait of the artist at 36.

It received a one-night public screening in Southern California in mid-November, with additional stand-alone outings in the works as the producers consider distribution channels. Wherever the film finds a venue, students of experimental art and Franco completists will be lining up.

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Subtitled Studies in Creative Process, the visually engaging cinema essay draws upon Franco’s early paintings, student films, professional directorial efforts and art installations. Ricardo superimposes layers of imagery and employs split screens to create a dynamic collage. Along with the ambient music score he composed — funk-tinged and judiciously used — he provides voice-over art-theory commentary. He and Franco, who appears in new interviews, sometimes overexplain rather than letting the excerpted work speak for itself. But a satisfying rhythm emerges, a give-and-take between Franco’s halting speech and Ricardo’s dense flurries of academic lingo. In all respects, their language is the opposite of a Hollywood pitch.

There is, however, a brief stop at a Hollywood set, for Ricardo’s onscreen chat about creativity in the studio system — or lack thereof — with a couple of Franco collaborators, hit-making partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (This Is the End, The Interview). It contributes little to the discussion.

Franco, on the other hand, shares plenty of insights with his former teacher — while riding shotgun with him, over room service lunch at the Chateau Marmont, and in the 83-year-old Los Angeles Theatre, a movie palace where Franco directs a spot for fashion brand 7 For All Mankind. The overlap between commerce and art is a central topic of the documentary, and Franco’s observation that advertising allows him more freedom to experiment than he’d find on most film sets is one of its most compelling points.

Ricardo, who borrowed the title of his film from F for Fake, Orson Welles’ documentary portrait of an art forger, explores a less easily defined form of forgery: the ways that his subject plays versions of himself — as in his meta-documentary Interior. Leather Bar. (which Ricardo’s film doesn’t reference) and on General Hospital (which it does).

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The “recursive loop” of influence between reality and art is the core of Ricardo’s thesis. He homes in on Franco’s fascination with fame and celebrity — his own and others’, especially those who died young in old Hollywood. The artist’s particular preoccupation with Rebel Without a Cause is thrown into sharp relief. Not only has Franco portrayed James Dean and directed a film about Sal Mineo, but he created a large-scale museum installation about the film’s creative incubation and has shot scenes that Nicholas Ray wrote, but which didn’t make it into the 1955 movie.

Ricardo uses a review of the Rebel installation as an opportunity to fault critics for being unwilling or incapable of understanding new art forms. It’s an argument worth making, although one article is hardly grounds for a sweeping indictment. As might be expected, the entertainment factor doesn’t figure into the film’s commentary.

But Ricardo’s excitement about digital-media opportunities for new forms of synthesis is persuasive. Renaissance man Franco may be among the most high-profile manipulators of iconography, mythology and found footage, with projects like his Gus Van Sant collaboration My Own Private River (incorporating rushes from My Own Private Idaho) and his goofy-transgressive revisiting of Three’s Company, a multimedia presentation at Sundance in 2011. He’s hardly alone, though. The 2009 hybrid doc Inferno is a standout example of this kind of synthesis, using footage from an aborted Henri-Georges Clouzot feature to dazzling and poignant effect.

F for Franco places its subject in an emerging tradition, and is itself a strong contribution.

Production company: Conceptualist Films
Featuring: James Franco, Francisco J. Ricardo, Frank Bidart, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Director: Francisco J. Ricardo, Ph.D.
Producer: Adrienne Chamberlin
Camera: Adrienne Chamberlin, Heather Feher, Bill Gordon, Susie Hwang, David Morales, Enver Perez, Liz Philips, Francisco J. Ricardo, Raul A. Ricardo

Editor: Francisco J. Ricardo
Composer: Francisco J. Ricardo

No rating, 113 minutes