Now and again I enjoy a slow vivisection. It is unusual, however, to find a piece as utterly stupid, self-serving, and literarily endemic as James Franco’s “Directing Herbert White.” If Mr. Franco is playing the fool à la Alan Sokal, DIAGRAM is the new Social Text, and ought to be embarrassed; if Mr. Franco is in earnest, his literary buffoonery is nearing an attenuation Parmigianino would admire.
Let’s have a little fun, in any case.
The finest jape in the entire objet—it’s a struggle to name such dross a ‘poem’ or ‘work’—is the postscript DIAGRAM provides author Franco (can ‘author’ really mean nothing more than ‘a writer of a book, article, or report’?) to discuss his method of—last one, promise—’composition.’
T.S. Eliot never dreamed of such a ‘wilderness of mirrors.’
It seems Mr. Franco came up with this objet following a reading of his ‘dear friend and mentor’ Frank Bidart’s “Ellen West”—well, um, Bidart’s poem “Writing ‘Ellen West’,” wherein Bidart ‘revisits the creation’ of “Ellen West.” No, wait. Franco maybe read “Ellen West” or “Herbert White” (these are, after all, ‘the two great persona poems from his [Bidart’s] first two books’) and liked it, and wanted to make a ‘short film starring Michael Shannon’ (it’s surprising Franco hasn’t figured out how to streamline this whole acting/directing/being thing by animating 8×10 glossies of himself—then he’d never have to reference another soul save to bolster our own sense of his largesse) that leads or um, somehow connects to his writing “Directing Herbert White,” which is really Franco’s response to writing a film about “Ellen West” and reading Bidart’s “Writing ‘Ellen West'” which is, after all, about “Ellen West,” one of Bidart’s (he’s kind of serial killer-ish) ‘two great persona poems from his first two books.’
Mr. Franco! You are so Derridean.
Cue Stella Kowalski’s response to Stanley’s mention of the Napoleonic Code in Louisiana, and her tone: ‘My head is swimming!’
Cue Alan Sokal’s (Mr. Franco, will you get your glossy to direct already?) writerly method in exposing Social Text’s poor process: ‘a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references . . . and outright nonsense.’
What have we in the rest of this objet, hm? Look: Mr. Franco’s opening four baubles have a real modern, art brut feel. Sure, they name-drop a lot, but it’s like, straightforward narrative. It’s all Hemingway in a way. We’ve got a few mentions of sexual deviance. We’ve got variations of ‘fuck’ six times—now that’s cutting-edge bookish. Those ‘fawning references’! Milton! Lowell! (Wait, isn’t there a poet named Herbert? What luck!) A gay ‘secret so dark’! Becoming a priest to ‘avoid oneself’! ‘Machines like you’ve never seen’—doing what?—’clutching whole trees’! Big-business bastards cutting down trees! Hollywood’s not big business, is it?
And many, many, many insertions of self, Mr. Franco. You are such a character, J.F., talking in restaurants after dark, holding up the waitstaff with your elevated chit-chat. Being admired in movies. Shooting movies. Being in Cambridge, MA. Having heard of Louise Glück, but not inviting her to dinner. Thinking about animating glossies. Being orgy-porgy.
(How could any semi-conscious person have mistook this for Writing?)
Mr. Franco, yes, excuse me, you are so charming, ‘dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream.’
Mr. James Franco, you are possibly—possibly!—frightfully irrelevant, though you chatter on—though so many of us listen.