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James Franco


Search for the Real -- Roma

Posted: 11/21/2012 11:20 am

I am writing from Rome. I am in the Hotel _______, which is very nice, near the Via Veneto, the street made famous by La Dolce Vita and Mastroianni. The street is no longer as it was in that film back in the '60s (I think); it still has restaurants, but they are mainly for tourists and not the center of the Roman nightlife. Last night my NYU graduate students and I presented our collaborative film Tar at the Rome Film Festival. Tar is based on C.K. Williams' collection of poems; each student picked one of the poems and adapted it into a short. But the difference between this film and other omnibus films is that from the start the students worked to make a unified piece. Each step of the way they critiqued each other's work, not in the usual MFA workshop manner where it feels like one against the group (just the nature of this kind of set-up) but with the aim of helping each other build toward a connected piece. In addition we developed a set look for the cinematography and set design, and the casting bridged all the shorts, so if a character was in more than one section he would be played by the same actor. The final result is quite stunning. It feels unified, but not only that: It tells a story through poetry and imagery; it is not linear but a Proustian plunge into the past, and then back into the past, and back, back, back into the past, only to come up to the surface every so often to ground everything. I play the poet in his 30s, and the real C.K. makes appearances reading his work.

Many of my students came out for the screening in Rome, and it was fun to share their first feature premiere with them. They got to do all the things that seem ridiculous to me now: walking the red carpet and going blind from having your picture taken by rows of photographers. They also got to experience watching their work in front of a paying audience, which is something that they don't experience at school. They also got to experience critical response from both good critics and bad critics. After the lights came up on the movie, I was so moved and proud of them I cried uncontrollably. It was pretty embarrassing, but I didn't really care. It was a new experience for me: being a guide into the world that I have known for years. The response at the festival was wonderful, and the critics have been pretty positive. I hope my students understand that the people who blog and write about films wish they were making films themselves, and if anything negative was said, the students should keep in mind the innovative nature of the film (collaboration, poetry as a source). Of course it was inspired by Terrence Malick, but why should similarities to the Tree of Life be seen as a negative? It's not as if every movie out there doesn't copy some other movie. And if the style of this film resembles certain DIY techniques found on the Internet or shares images or subject matter that we have seen before, it can be argued that it does so in order to capture the spirit of the age while engaging with poetry of the recent past. I hope they know that what they accomplished is fairly unprecedented and hasn't been done by any group of students at any film school. At least as far as I know, and I teach at a bunch of them.


I've been reading Mailer. In The Executioner's Song, Mailer uses a simple, restrained voice that modulates slightly according to the character whose personality he is trying to capture while writing in close third person. All the characters in the first third of the book are working class, and Mailer describes them in ways that reflect a modest level of diction and psychological sophistication. In fact, much of the power of the book comes from the restricted point of view, which situates the reader in a world where the opposing forces are above his head, just like they are for Gary Gilmore and most of the other supporting cast. Because the events told are true -- whether Mailer is exacting about his work's verisimilitude is irrelevant here because the book is posed as fiction -- Mailer can use a quieter style and hang longer on mundane details, which inevitably become less mundane and more interesting because of the attention paid to them. Like a reality television show or a documentary the story can linger on finer details like Gilmore's frustrations while learning cobbling -- a sequence irrelevant to the murder but important to the character's development -- or the details of a motel room (down to the rubber door pad and the snake-like lamp cords) seen through the eyes of Gilmore's hallucinating companion April on the night Gilmore committed the first murder. April is a side character, but we get a whole section where her LSD-influenced thought process takes us in and out of her memories of rape. Mailer is able to wander down these strange detours because the destination is known and is extreme (two senseless murders and the death penalty), and in turn the looseness of the narrative becomes the strength of the piece because we get to see multiple dimensions of the players involved in such a horrific situation; the human details are crafted with a humble hand so that a tabloid story starts to feel real, complex and relatable, just like life. But because it's the heavy Mailer who is behind this nimble approach, the plainspoken narrative is transformed into the universal and the poetic.


Last night A____ and I walked down the Via Veneto and over to a great restaurant called Tullio. It didn't open until 7:30, so we sat on a stoop and I read her Cheever's story "The Swimmer." I know Mad Men has revived the world of Cheever, but it was great to go back to the source. A______ didn't really get the story, but I couldn't blame her, by the time I got to the end we were inside eating mozzarella and artichokes. It was the best mozzarella I ever had, halfway between cheese and truffles. One aspect of the story struck with me: the way that we don't grow up close to the earth anymore. That if he is going to swim across the country he thinks he needs to do it by swimming through swimming pools, because everything has become domesticated.


My friend K______ is desperate for me to visit Far Rockaway to help with the relief. I'm trying to get back there. I miss New York.


After dinner A_____ and I walked down the block to see Breaking Dawn 2 in Italian. Before I fell asleep I saw Bella running at supersonic speeds, I saw Taylor Lautner take his shirt off, and I saw his character "imprint" on a baby. They were speaking in Italian, but I knew that "imprint" stuff was coming, so I was ready for it. It reminded me of the old radical Mormons in Krakauer's book, Under the Banner of Heaven, who select young women for their brides before the girls are even through puberty. But hey, it's just werewolves and vampires, right?

At least the last movie started to own up to how sexual the whole series is. She's a teen mom! She could be on a reality show. Except, unlike the real teen moms, she gets the deux ex machina of immortality, so everything is fine. But I guess those teen moms who get to be on TV are given something similar -- they get attention and praise and money for being as screwed up as possible. As long as it's interesting, they get the cushion of fame.


The next night we went to pizza (gluten free for A____) and saw Bertolucci's new film (in Italian) Me and You. This was very easy to follow despite the language. A clear story about two lost souls coming together -- a bit like Last Tango with teens.


Tonight we're going to the master house! My Italian book translator has invited us to dinner at Bertolucci's. I'll let you know about any stories he tells me about Brando taping his lines to other actors' chests.