IN DEFENSE OF JAMES FRANCO – A Critical Response

by JC Gonzo

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James Franco’s New Film Stills exhibited at Pace, a reinterpretation of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, has received a generally negative response mostly centered around his celebrity status and gender. The general gist of negative reviews can be greatly summed up in in Benjamin Sutton’s “Why James Franco’s Cindy Sherman Homage at Pace Is Not Just Bad But Offensive,” for ArtNet. In this review, Sutton illustrates how James Franco’s reinterpretation of Sherman’s original series are invalid mostly due to his maleness, claiming the work is thereby sexist. Ultimately, we are left with a critique that cannot examine beyond the genitalia of the artists at work. Franco takes Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills down a playful route that connects the concepts behind Sherman’s series back to the cinematic narratives they birthed from, obviously conscious of the identity politics implied by doing such a thing. Successfully executed or not, Sutton’s critique stops at the gender line.

Sutton argues that Franco’s gesture fails to engage with “the charged play of gender dynamics” found in Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. However, Franco’s reinterpretation of Sherman’s series as a male film star automatically ties interpretations of gendered viewership and sexual agency to the work, just as Sherman’s was. In this case, Franco is not only engaging in the gender dynamics found in Untitled Film Stills, but humorously adding to the conversation. Franco’s celebrity status is as apparent as his gender. Franco states “…[Sherman] comes at it from a position outside of Hollywood. I am fully embedded in Hollywood,” in the show’s press release. Being one of the current posterboys of the female-gaze, and the gaze of whomever may be interested, is precisely why he is a perfect candidate to reinterpret Sherman’s series as a male. In doing so, he is both calling to attention and questioning the current dynamic of the gaze. The gender of who is ‘the viewer’ and ‘the viewed’ is indefinable in Franco’s series, not “presuming a kind of post-gender utopia” but offering one up for consideration.

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Franco adds another layer of viewing gender, the feminized male. He challenges notions of shame and embarrassment often affiliated with female impersonation by inviting it into an ongoing discourse concerned with the physical qualifications of women being seen. His unconvincing delivery of womanhood is in good jest, clearly adopting a tongue-in-cheek approach to impersonating Sherman’s female forms. Perhaps this is what offends, as Sutton seems dissatisfied with Franco’s wig, make-up, and beard combination. Sutton describes Franco’s efforts as something “between drag and art historical dress-up,” a definition that could easily describe a good amount of Sherman’s catalogue — indicating the mockery is not a disrespectful slight, but an informed homage aligned with Sherman’s practice.

Sherman’s denial of feminist statements informing Untitled Film Stills is cited by Sutton, then ignored, favoring the social interpretation and affect over artists’ intent. While one cannot ignore a work’s social impact, it should be noted that Sherman responded to feminist interpretation as “a lot of crap” in Glenn Helfand’s article “Cindy Sherman: From Dream Girl to Nightmare Alley.” Sutton limits the multiple facets employed by Franco and Sherman, too preoccupied with how the artist’s sex informs the work in both Sherman’s and Franco’s case.  At the end of Sutton’s review, I am left wondering how Franco’s maleness disrespects Sherman’s series. Surely, it would take a lot more than an artist’s gender to “effectively neuter a seminal piece of feminist art,” right? Apparently not. Sutton’s conclusion suggests that the full extent of Sherman’s value is solely tied to her gender, which is a sexist notion in itself.

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