James Franco's Rebel is Better Than You're Expecting
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James Franco’s Rebel is Better Than You’re Expecting

James Franco is a great actor, but does that really mean he’s any good at making art? Until recently I would have said no. My opinion, however, has been drastically changed for the better by the current Rebel exhibition on display in association with MOCA.

A while back Franco took a role on the long time soap opera General Hospital. The character he played was also named Franco, and was an artist. The real life Franco then exhibited the art made by the fictional – albeit self named – character as his own (Confused? Me too). The paintings were uninspired. They borrowed heavily from previously groundbreaking artists, but didn’t suggest any sort of greater artistic dialogue. The attempt to make art, while in character, just seemed like a PR stunt to diversify his public image.

However, after seeing Rebel, I am very pleased to say I was wrong about Franco’s ability to critically engage with art, and I’ve never been so thrilled to eat my own words.

Rebel has been masterfully executed. Franco conceptualized the exhibition from start to finish and successfully curated his own collaborative works. The key word is collaborative. Franco had the good sense to partner with art world legends like Paul McCarthy, Ed Ruscha, and Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon to pull off what might be the most intelligent art exhibition I’ve seen in Los Angeles in the past year (and that includes the onslaught of exhibitions for Pacific Standard Time).

The title Rebel is referencing the classic James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause. Franco played James Dean in a 2001 TV movie and in the essay written for the exhibition he describes his love/hate relationship with Dean. Franco had been told he looked like the heartthrob actor all his life, but rather than considering it a compliment he felt he would be cast as Dean had been. In accepting the role of the guy he was trying not to look like, Franco had an internal conflict between a deep respect for Dean’s performances and a strange feeling that being a James Dean fan was… well… cliché. Sort of like overplayed songs on the radio, even if they’re good songs, you just get tired of them. So, as a young actor, Franco had to figure out how to do justice to an icon while making sure there was nothing cliché about it. He successfully played the character with all the insecurities the real James Dean had and even won a Golden Globe for his performance. The experience has apparently stuck with him because eleven years later Franco is revisiting not only what the role meant to him, but also exploring James Dean’s (and other ill fated actor’s) struggle with fame, identity, and self-acceptance.

What did the artist do right? For starters, he didn’t paint. Instead he dealt with the medium he’s already a master of – film. The exhibition features primarily video installation works, housed in movie-set looking structures and playing as vignettes. Secondly he didn’t avoid the sexual ambiguities that confronted James Dean, or the recklessness of Dean and several other Hollywood icons. Franco developed an impressive artistic voice and structured the art to be historically and pop-culturally relevant.

Focusing on video art is a brave decision. Video installation has a bad reputation as a wily beast, über experimental, and nearly impossible to make sense of. This is because audiences have a preconceived notion of cinema – they go to a theatre, they get popcorn, the lights dim, and entertainment ensues. Video installation art isnot cinema, so it tends to drastically disrupt these comfortable conventions. Often there are no characters, no plot. The images are emotionally volatile. The sequence is experimental rather than linear, and since the video plays on a loop some artists ignore the idea of a beginning or an end. No wonder most viewers have a hard time making sense of this! But Los Angeles isn’t “most viewers”, we are the film world elite. If there is any place where video installation and experimental film should thrive it’s here.

Of the works in this exhibition, Douglas Gordon’s Henry Rebel is the most “classic” video installation in the sense that it demands a lot from the viewer regarding personal interpretation and patience. However, indie film director Harmony Korine’sCaput is more like an abstract short film with just enough narrative structure even non-film-gurus can follow. And Franco’s own Age 13 is the most narrative of the bunch and the most likely to connect with viewers. Galen Pehrson’s El Gato (the only animated work in the exhibition) is a sex crazed drag race between a cartoon dog and duck. The film attempts to make sense of the relationship between a supercharged sexuality and a bisexual tendency; something likely to have riddled the real James Dean.

Granted, there’s still a lot of James Franco everywhere. He’s pretty much the star of his own art. But rather than this coming across as extreme narcissism, it’s an effective mockery of his own celebrity status. The omnipresent Franco acts as our host, our narrator, our spirit guide, getting us through this exhibition and this lifelong process of rebelling.

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