I do not talk to God about much of anything and especially not James Franco, and yet I found myself saying a prayer this afternoon. I’d just read an account of how Franco allegedly sent a series of Instagram DMs and texts to a Scottish teenager earlier this week, asking her for her number and whether he should rent a hotel room. They met-cute: As Jezebel relates, the girl, 17, took a video of Franco outside his Broadway show, Of Mice and Men, and he told her to tag him. Then he sent her a selfie to get the seduction ball rolling, and they started messaging, and now we have all these Franconian words of love to pore over, such as “do you have a bf” and “don’t tell.”
That is really creepy, James Franco. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like you just endeavored to pick up a random 17-year-old via Instagram. (“I’ll come back when I’m 18,” the girl wrote at one point. Seventeen is New York’s official age of consent.) Except as various colleagues—and Jezebel—pointed out when the “news” broke today, Franco coincidentally has a movie waiting in the wings that concerns a beautiful young soccer player who falls for her high school coach. So maybe he staged the entire thing—including the vague Twitter denial and Instagram profile update—as performance art, to get us thinking about illicit love/buying tickets for his movie.
Which brings me to my afternoon prayer: Please God, let James Franco just be a creep.
When Shia LaBeouf twice decided to wear a paper bag over his head, seemingly in response to a plagiarism scandal, Franco made a familiar grab for the spotlight, taking to the New York Times to pronounce “Mr. LaBeouf’s project” a “worthy one.” “Performance art” allows a “film actor” to reclaim “a little bit of power over his image,” Franco celebri-splained. “Participating in this call and response is a kind of critique, a way to show up the media by allowing their oversize responses to essentially trivial actions to reveal the emptiness of their raison d’être.” Franco, of course, is an actor with a long, nettlesome history of trying to reveal the emptiness of some person or another’s raison d’être. He pens New York Times tracts about the “meaning of the selfie” (“Attention is power” and, also, it’s frustrating when fans on Instagram like your topless glamour shot but ignore your photo of Charles Simic’s Collected Poems) and is always either getting a poetry MFA, a Yale Ph.D., holding gallery shows, or performing in an indie music band. When he co-hosted the Oscars, it wasn’t for the spotlight or the status—we could only assume that it was a stunt. For art.
But here’s the thing. If Franco’s Instagram flirtation is performance, it is deeply, deeply tired. Can celebrities ever really achieve authenticity? Is all the world a stage? What is the value/cost of testing the edges of romantic convention, in a knowing way, for art? What is art? Who am I? God, JF, you were so much more tolerable as the poufy-lipped nothingvillain in Spider-Man.
In a wonderful essay for New York magazine subtitled, “How Twitter Hijacked My Mind,” Kathryn Schulz proposes that steady attention to a person is kindness and steady attention to an idea is intellectual labor. Franco’s self-regarding “projects” are basically him being very kind to a person named James Franco while pretending that he is probing an idea (Franco-ness?) and that somehow this might result in anyone’s intellectual growth. On the other hand, if the actor simply wanted to Insta-score with a woman half his age, that is sketchy, inappropriate, embarrassing, human, and maybe even understandable. Here’s hoping James Franco is a creep.