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James Franco

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The Search for the Real: Part 3

Posted: 09/09/2012 3:15 pm

Dear D______,

I'm on my way to Venice for the film festival; the film I made with Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers, is premiering there. I'm very excited for people to see it. I think the best way to describe it is the way Harmony always spoke about it before we made it: a Britney Spears video meets a Gaspar Noe film.

Anyway, I had a great time in New York. It's funny that Newsies was your favorite thing you've seen on Broadway. Of all the things we've seen. I admit it was entertaining, but also funny -- you kept wondering why I was laughing when all the cute little newsboys in their Depression-era outfits started doing cartwheels and back flips. I guess because it was so joyously "Broadway" -- I think that's what they call the shows that appeal to the gay side in all of us. One Man, Two Guvnors was also good wasn't it? That James Corden is great. So charming. When he called up those guys on stage, they were real audience members. It happens every show, he brings people up and jokes with them and spanks them; when Donald Trump was in the audience he pulled him up and spanked him all over. It's funny how scared you were that he would drag you up. I guess we're used to the performers staying on stage and the audience staying in the dark. The one thing that was not planned was when the guy threw the sandwich on stage. That really threw James, didn't it? That was a real moment. I also saw Peter and the Starcatchers. It was pure fantasy, but the way they created the impression of sea travel and the dimensions of a boat with simple ropes and props and sounds was fantastic; it showed the gears of the spectacle just like the stage version of Warhorse, and I think that is very appealing in the age of Avatar and The Avengers. People also want to see the DIY aesthetic, and in the theater spectacle will never match the fireworks of computer-age films. But then again, it doesn't need to; that's not why we go to theater, is it? In fact, those flipping newsboys would look pretty silly on screen, but on stage, because we see it actually happening before us, it's entertaining.

*

So, I've been reading The Warren Commission On The Assassination of JFK. I found its structure and approach fascinating. I suppose because there have been so many books and movies about conspiracies behind the assassination, the material feels very familiar, almost like it's a classic novel. The characters: Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, J.F.K., Jackie, the secret service, Zapruder and his film; the locations: the Book depository, the grassy knoll, the underpass after the shots, the hospital, the movie theater where Oswald was caught; they're as familiar as anything in Dickens, or Moby Dick, or The Scarlet Letter. But in the Warren Commission Report everything is still fresh; the investigation goes back to the beginning of the case, before all the conspiracy theories started to rise like myths, and the cast of suspects and conspirators expanded across the country and world. I started reading the book because the great New Wave German director, Werner Herzog -- now known largely for his documentaries, like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man, and Into the Abyss -- said that he has his students read it for an intensive filmmaking class that he teaches at an airport hotel conference room once a year. He said it was as good as any crime novel and when he first read it he couldn't wait to get home to it every night. If I think about his films, there is a correlation between the accrual of facts behind a huge event like the Warren Commission Report and Herzog's own investigations of death, mystery and human struggle. The attraction for me is the balance of an approach into the subject using very minute steps and the immensity of the subject itself.

One of the fascinating things about the assassination, regardless of conspiracies, is the way that it pairs such widely disparate strata of society and pulls their divergent stories together in an intimate way. The Report allows the reader to get very close to the characters in different ways: Oswald is profiled at the very beginning, and in that way he is an early protagonist or anti-hero. At the same time, J.F.K. is treated like a distant deity; the commission had no motive for looking into the president's personal history (although this would be done by others later). Instead what we get is a whole section on the details of the medical procedures and players after the president was rushed to the hospital. Oswald's family history, his upbringing, his trouble in school, psychiatric examinations, his above average intelligence, his military record, his proficiency with rifles, his marital problems, his strange fabrications of Cuban support groups in New Orleans of which he was the only member, and his employment at the Book Depository are all documented. These are all details and events that could just as easily be employed in a work of fiction, they are the materials that combine to make a character. But one of the big differences here is that none of the information is embellished with figures of speech. The style is just about the facts ma'am, no asides from the narrator, no inflection given to the information. This approach could easily result in a very dry recounting, but it is extremely readable for two reasons: the subject matter is so grand and intense -- the little man who shot down the biggest man in the country -- and the sparseness in the language creates an open field for the reader's imagination. I know that this was not the intention of the Warren Commission, but their lack of literary embellishment created a minimalist style that allows the reader to do the literary coloring in.

Much like how the factual recounting of Oswald's past delivers a compelling story because of its pairing of a small life with an era-defining event and because of simplicity in approach, the details of the president's medical examinations take the reader into extremely close proximity to the larger-than-life figure of J.F.K. We hear about where the bullets entered and exited his body; we hear about his brain matter propelled about the car; we hear about his heart rate and about when he was declared dead; we know the names of the doctors who worked on him and their specialties and what they did to him. It would be hard to get any closer, physically, to the man who was formerly known by the general public from afar, either behind a podium or across a television screen. And, because this really happened, the details are that much more concrete. These are not things made up by Dashiell Hammett or the writers of CSI in order to support a mystery narrative, they are the pieces that make up one of the greatest and most public crimes in our country's history. Because of that connection, everything becomes interesting; the damn color of his underwear would be interesting because of its connection to an event of such immensity.

*

I also finally watched Tiny Furniture. It reminded me of you because we used to watch Girls together. Even though it seems like a pilot episode for Girls, it's still pretty good, I can't get enough of Lena Dunham's awkward characters and that Lower East Side/Village vibe. I also saw Lola Versus -- same genre, I guess: people working on relationships, being smart but poor, being artists and writers, being offbeat sexy in NYC.

 
 
 
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