As peer reviews will count toward at least 30 percent of our grades in this, the never-ending performance art class we live in, James Franco has turned in his evaluation of Shia LaBeouf’s attempts to usurp his standing as the senior most deserving of the big gallery showcase at the end of the semester. (Please remember that this year will be a cash bar, and that attendance is nevertheless mandatory.) His response was posted in the show business bulletin board that is The New York Times op-ed section, with Franco offering his empathetic appraisal of LaBeouf based on Franco’s own standing “as an actor and artist”—a perspective that allows Franco to recognize when another famous person is behaving strangely while using the word “art.”
“This behavior could be a sign of many things, from a nervous breakdown to mere youthful recklessness,” the 35-year-old upperclassman says of the 27-year-old LaBeouf, after first asking, for the benefit of those not well-versed in the humanities, whether LaBeouf’s endless cycle of plagiarism and stuffing his sorries in a sack could be seen as “clever or pathological,” or, ho ho, even whether it’s “art.” But while acknowledging, “I know that this idea has pretentious or just plain ridiculous overtones,” (a statement Franco has no problem making, about artists other than James Franco), ultimately he believes LaBeouf’s actions are a performance, one in which “a young man in a very public profession tries to reclaim his public persona.” Indeed, Franco sees LaBeouf as part of a grand tradition of actors rebelling against the system they entered into voluntarily and still profit handsomely from, a lineage that includes Marlon Brando, Joaquin Phoenix, and, of course, James Franco.
Marlon Brando’s refusal to attend the Oscars and his studio-defying, fluctuating weight; Joaquin Phoenix’s faux-meltdown I’m Still Here; James Franco’s guest-starring role on General Hospital—Franco cites all of these as similar “acts of rebellion” against the industry, in the sense that all of these men slightly rebranded their images in a way that could then be capitalized on within that industry, and not in the sense that they actually refused to participate in said industry. Still, should you find yourself less than sympathetic toward their cause, consider that these acts of rebellion just ended up giving them even more attention, and then they had to rebel against that. Rebellion, quite frankly, is exhausting.
“Our rebellion against the hand that feeds us can instigate a frenzy of commentary that sets in motion a feedback loop: acting out, followed by negative publicity, followed by acting out in response to that publicity, followed by more publicity, and so on,” Franco laments of this inevitable, absolutely intended outcome of the battles they themselves instigate, which can only end with these rebel actors crying into paper bags or writing New York Times op-eds.
Still, as always, we in the news media share our own culpability for seizing on the “trivial” details of a celebrity’s life, such as their mocking, word-for-word theft of an artist’s work, or for devoting infinite column space in our once-proud newspapers to letting other actors say what they think about that. And so it’s up to artist/actors/rebels like James Franco and Shia LaBeouf to fight back, by creating and perpetuating that very cycle, as a way of shaming us for allowing them to do so.
“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,” writes Franco, near the end of his oversized response in leading media company New York Times, wherein he argues that Shia LaBeouf stealing from other people and then hiding his face in a bag when he got caught is, just like that time James Franco was on a soap opera, an act of artistic revolution.
Still, while Franco can obviously admire the LaBeouf’s ouroboros aims to paint the media as fools for paying attention to his repeated attempts to get the media to pay attention to him, Franco has some tellingly personal worries about the whole thing. “I just hope that [LaBeouf] is careful not to use up all the good will he has gained as an actor in order to show us that he is an artist,” Franco concludes, hinting that “Shia LaBeouf” may ultimately be revealed to be, like everything else, a project about James Franco. But probably not until finals.
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