I am a vocal fan of James Franco. I am loudest and proudest about my love of this actor slash student slash author slash mixed media artist slash probably also a martial artist on Facebook, where I frequently post articles, film clips, and other Internet malarky concerning Franco on my wall. In fact, just last night I concocted a plan to slowly transform my Facebook profile into an even creepier shrine to the star: first I would change my first name to “James” (no real stretch, as my current first name on Facebook is “Jim”), then I would start changing my interests to match Franco’s (we like a lot of the same poets as it is!), and so on, until one day the entire page was given over exclusively to talking, thinking, and acting as Franco as possible. And I would have gotten away with it too, had a friend of mine not reminded me that I should be devising ways to spend less, not more, time on Facebook.
In recent weeks I’ve come face-to-face (well, sometimes Facebook face to Facebook face) with anti-Franco sentiment from friends and colleagues. Some of these remarks are as trivial and ridiculous as my own pose of obsessive James Franco fan: for example, one friend called him a “megalomaniacal herb” but didn’t elucidate much on how Franco demonstrated his herbness. But the young star’s interest in higher education — and, more specifically, the field of American contemporary poetry — has caused a few serious-minded folks to get all apoplectic up in this piece. A friend of mine who’s more tapped into the world of poets than I am told me the other night that my pro-Franco stance would probably accelerate my social death in poet circles. In response to a recent interview with Franco over at Poetry‘s website (an interview I loved), one poet friend of my friend posted a link to the article on Facebook and wrote “Is James Franco the biggest threat to poetry since Billy Collins?” (to be fair, that is an awesome joke).
Many people are personally and financially invested in the construction of polarizing figures, and Franco is definitely riding in the caboose next to a creepily-animated Tom Hanks at the moment. For my friend — who actively dislikes Franco — the actor is encroaching on his turf as a scholar and poet, and given the insane schedule and workload before Franco, it’s hard for him to believe that Franco is taking his studies seriously as he’d like us to believe. He has a hard time believing that Franco would be enrolled in so many prestigious graduate programs were he not James Franco — though he’s also quick to note that this would not be the first time an institute of higher learning let an undeserving-but-connected individual walk its hallowed halls.
Based on the interviews and features I’ve read about Franco, I’ve come to believe that he’s someone who is engaged with the poetry he reads, and any claims made by journalists or institutions about his standing in the world of poetry (“America’s most famous poetry geek” is the handle given him in the Poetry feature) tell us more about these mediators of Franco’s image than they do his own desires to become the loudest cheerleader of American poetry in 2011. I assume that both interlocutor and interview subject benefit from these frequent discussions of poetry: the Poetry site gets to compete for traffic with the Gawker Empire by sitting down with a celebrity, and the actor gets to talk about subjects beyond Flyboys and co-hosting the Oscars.
I have a hard time criticizing Franco for taking the opportunity to talk about his interest in poetry. Clearly he seems invested in some sense of poetry’s cultural capital, but given his close relationships with Frank Bidart and Tony Hoagland, his work on a forthcoming Hart Crane biopic, and the fact that he does seem to be showing up to classes, Franco looks a lot like someone who is reading and seriously responding to poetry (he may in fact be doing so more frequently than many graduate students studying poetry: I see you at the end of the bar on a school night, kids). It seems odd, then (though not all that surprising, I guess), that there is so much outright repulsion greeting Franco’s involvement in the world of poetry.
My own enjoyment of Franco is something I magnify and parody in my Facebook posts about him: to be frank, he initially appealed to me because he is a cute young man who actually reads poetry. While I’m looking forward to his Crane biopic, I have mixed feelings about Howl (although said feelings are more in response to the filmmakers’ larger project there than Franco’s acting in the movie), and after reading a description of his mixed media work in New York Magazine, I was not exactly racing down to Manhattan on a Fung Wah to get to the gallery before it closed. I do find it amusing that people who are so quick to declare the contemporary moment in popular culture to be vapid and shallow are often the first to dogpile on a prominent figure in popular culture who seems interested in engaging with more serious work.
I suppose many of these individuals know that their own work and its level of engagement with the larger world of poetry won’t be given the time of day: the benefit of the doubt I’m asking them to extend to Franco won’t necessarily be returned in kind. And I don’t expect anyone who already has made up his or her mind on Franco to be swayed by my discussion here. In a way I think I wrote this post to erase my glib explanation for why I liked Franco when confronted by a friend who wasn’t a fan: “Well, I only like him because he’s cute.” That’s certainly part of his appeal, but I think my appreciation of his enthusiasm for poetry goes a bit beyond my impression of a teenage girl at the Ed Sullivan Theater in 1964.