Photos by Paulius Ka.Beauty, drag, violence, cult, sex, controversy, gay interest, nervous breakdown and secrets – all words that could come up when discussing the multi faceted actor-cum-director-cum-artist-cum-academic scholar, James Franco (somehow I'm always steered towards cum when I think about him). But in actuality, these are all plot keywords taken from the IMDB entry for Psycho – the 1960s indie blockbuster by entirely hairless reputed sex pest and master of suspense (bad combination), Alfred Hitchcock.
Psycho shocked and influenced the world's cinephiles to such an extent that 50 years later, artists still aren't tired of sinking their teeth into it (or at least chewing it over endlessly). Three sequels, a remake, a TV movie spin-off and, more recently, a TV series have spun into existence. Now James Franco has decided to chime in with his own take on Psycho at a central London gallery, with an exhibit called Psycho Nacirema (that's "American" spelt in reverse, if you hadn't already noticed).
My initial impression was that the show seemed to be as much about introspection as it was self-promotion. Video work starring Franco was projected on to almost every vertical surface. It was like being trapped in a fairground hall of mirrors, albeit a hall of mirrors in which every pane of glass made me look exactly like James Franco.For the purposes of the exhibition, the gallery space had been transformed to house a purpose-built "Bates Motel", comprised of four lopsided rooms connected by a corridor. Angry things seemed to have happened in each of the rooms. Blood red paint was splattered everywhere, making the walls look like they had been decorated by a young child asked to create a mural tribute to domestic violence. Admittedly, this would be an odd thing to ask a young child to do, murals should be painted by professionals.The first room was constructed to look like the motel's reception area. An oversized visitors book lay on the desk and a video of Franco re-enacting the scene where Marion drives into the night was projected on one of the walls.
I understand that this was supposed to make me question the concept of identity or some other phrase I learned at art school only to forget as soon as I got a real job, but all it did was make me realise that I'm really into men in drag. Yet, now that I think about it… isn't art a road to self-discovery? Namaste, James.
Here's a view of the second room. I don't remember the film that well, but I imagine it's meant to be a reconstruction of the parlour where Norman Bates and Marion have dinner.The room was carefully decorated with retro furniture, like dressers, a divan and other things I don't know the names of because I wasn't born at the beginning of the 20th century. Photographs of Franco as Marion and Norman Bates, as well as a selection of Bibles, covered every possible surface. There were also loads of bloodthirsty Birds in attendance. Franco was blurring the lines.
They made me think of a nightmare I had once in which horses were carnivorous and went around terrorising villages, hunting humans in packs. Given that this is the kind of thing that is too terrifying for my conscious brain to think of by itself, I felt like Franco was getting inside my head, fucking with my psychology. What do you want from me, Franco?
Now that he'd pried open the trapdoor in my mind, he was attempting to fill it with self-portraits of himself dressed as Hollywood's most famous murder victim, being attacked by gigantic predatory crows. Typical.
It took me a while to realise it but two holes had been drilled into one side of this wall. Get it? It's a peephole, like the kind Norman spies on Marion through in the film. A red painted arrow sign kindly asked me to "Peek", which I did because I have manners:
Yay, it's a video of James screaming in the shower!
After the shower scene – Psycho's juddering climax – came the post-coital aftermath: this very messy bedroom. Clothes, masks and dildos had been tossed liberally over a double bed and drenched in paint. A video projected on the wall explained that the thinking here is that James once pretended to fuck a guy with a strap-on while splashing him with paint. The dull, domestic familiarity of the room (it kinda looked like my own, minus the dildos) jarred nicely with the exotic artifice of the fake dick (strap-on) and fake cum (paint).
And then, lastly, I arrived in the bathroom. I liked this a lot. I'm sure if James wanted to "monetise" his art by selling these shower curtains to lonely people, he could.
But this wasn't the "exit through the gift shop" I'd anticipated. A bonus room greeted me on the right-hand side of the motel's exit and that too was dominated by a large bed. On the floor to the bed's left, a sign told me that I should "feel free to sit", which I thought was nice because it's not often that you're invited to sit on the exhibits at the Tate or the Guggenheim.
Once sitting comfortably, I was shown a re-enactment of the murder of Virginia Rappe, committed in Hollywood in the 1920s by the actor Fatty Arbuckle. Franco had directed the film in the same Hollywood room Arbuckle's creepy murder party had taken place in. That footage was projected on one side of the wall, and it featured a fat guy playing Arbuckle, Franco as Charlie Chaplin and an assemblage of hot girls in flapper dresses all drinking, dancing and putting champagne bottles in each other's mouths. Three more films were projected on the rest of the walls.According to one of the exhibition organisers, one of these films featured a scene where "a bottle goes into a vagina". Turns out the film had just begun and the bottle/vagina scene was 15 minutes away, so I didn't watch it. I did, however, get to watch two "physical comedians" work through their own interpretation of the incident by eating bananas.
That was about it. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it. Franco takes you into a kind of funhouse experience of the American psyche – a mental arena where Hitchcock's Psycho, The Birds, the American Psycho movie and Arbuckle's murder party all start to melt together into some chimeric symbol of Hollywood evil. It essentially rifles through closets people already know to contain skeletons, but it's enjoyable and it does make an interesting comment on a part of history that is perhaps only now starting to detach itself from human empathy. Personally, I am no more moved by the plight of Ms Rappe than I am by the plight of Medieval serfs. I know I should experience some pangs of humanity, but it all just feels too old to be real. It feels like a cartoon.
I guess history makes psychopaths of us all in the end.
Follow Paulius on Twitter: @paulius_kaHey, you know what? James Franco writes for us now. Check out his column:'American Psycho': Ten Years Later/Twenty Years LaterMy Name Is Tom and I'm a Video Game AddictGatsby