In a recent interview for King Cobra, an upcoming dark comedy in which James Franco plays an unstable gay pornographer, the actor responded to a question about his sexuality thusly: "There is a bit of overfocusing on my sexuality, both by the straight press and the gay press, and so the first question is why do they care? Well, because I'm a celebrity, so I guess they care who I'm having sex with. But if your definition of gay and straight is who I sleep with, then I guess you could say I'm a gay cock tease."
James Franco's frequent queer-baiting in the name of subversiveness, beyond being vaguely creepy and inherently disingenuous, commits the greatest sin that can ever befall a piece of art: it's just kind of boring. I am all for blurring gender lines, opening the discourse for alternative expressions of sexuality and breaking down the patriarchal identity structures that plague the art world, but that's not what's happening here. Newsflash: the definition of gay and straight is who you sleep with, no matter how many well-meaning heterosexual artists like to pretend they are contributing to the creative underground that queer people have been building for decades, off the back of real oppression and social marginalization. Of course, sexual identity is not a binary, and like all of us, James Franco exists on that spectrum. I'm not even advocating for him to divulge his preferences: he is right that, ideally, they should be of no consequence. However, where he views his coyness as an adoption of a progressive, non-binary stance on sexuality, it is actually a counteraction to that idea, as if he views gayness as the ultimate "other," a fabulous costume to be worn and fetishized. People care about who James Franco sleeps with because he so blatantly cares; they feel they should be privy to his sexuality, not for the sake of gossipy titillation, but to contextualize a frankly continuously confusing body of work that seems to exist solely for the purpose of self-indulgence.
These are the thoughts that raced through my mind when I learned that Franco has been collaborating with composer Tim O'Keefe as a multi-disciplinary film, music, and installation project called Daddy (a name with unmistakable gay connotations). Last week they released their first full-length album, Let Me Get What I Want, and as its title suggests, one of its main influences is The Smiths, a band who also famously used the idea of undermining male sexuality to invigorate pop music. However, where The Smiths' early homoerotic pseudo-fantasy was more or less restricted to one band, it's difficult to appreciate Let Me Get What I Want outside of the greater cannon of Franco's extracurricular projects (not to underplay O'Keefe's participation and musical direction in Daddy which, upon first listen, does appear like the majority in that area).
Franco's love of The Smiths' deft lyricism has been well documented: his book of poetry, Directing Herbert White, features several poems that were named after Smiths songs. A lot of those pieces are mirrored on Let Me Get What I Want, which, superimposed with imagery of love, sex, and teenage alienation, makes perfect sense. The song "Gentle But You Weren't" (above) features lines from Franco's poem "Ask": "Love came like viscosity filling a tube / And you killed it with a bunch of thrusts." The words flow much easier when sung than when read on the page, and those sort of phantasmagoric touches contribute to the record's dreamlike quality, like all the shimmering guitars and distorted vocals only exist in weird memories from high school you've been actively trying to repress ever since. In the end, it's difficult to imagine Morrissey himself disapproving of this level of psychosexual introversion.
Accompanying Let Me Get What I Want is an hour-long film, a visual album that is presented as a continuous loop, filled with moody, fluid images of beautiful teenagers, trapped in a never-ending Lynchian cauldron of angst and Instagram filters. The entire film was shot by students at Palo Alto High School, Franco's alma mater, which could also be interpreted as another avenue for him to peer into his own past, recreate experiences he had or rebuild relationships with people he knew. Instead of simply aping the teenage experience for the sake of an art project, he goes straight to the source, mining actual kids for a maximum level of amateur authenticity. Another example of his unquestionable savvy—one of many throughout his career.
The film was intended more for use in a gallery setting than as a structured movie, so following a narrative thread can be challenging. Franco has said in the past that the Let Me Get What I Want characters—Tom, Erica, and Sterling—are composites of people he knew from Palo Alto. Throughout the story, the three kids seem to be locked in an all-encompassing love triangle, with the film culminating in a dramatic Less Than Zero-type breakdown in their relationships. Particularly, the relationship between Tom and Sterling takes form towards the end of the film, but perhaps due to the students' somewhat autonomous input, it does come off as more innocently sweet than saddled with unnecessary social commentary.
There's also a cringe-worthy aspect to some of the album's more maudlin moments, but it's hard to say if they are intentionally mocking teenage introspection, or the result of genuine reflection. "Car Ride Home" opens with Franco narrating one of the main characters describing the hierarchy of his school, in a low-pitched drone: "When I was in 7th grade, I put kids into three categories," he muses, "sports kids, smart kids, social kids." It's like he's embodying an unknown child sulking behind the scenes of the song "Popular" by Nada Surf, trying to muster the sort of fake nihilism we all tried on at that age, in the face of smiling cheerleaders and meathead jocks. If not new, the sheer bizarreness of Daddy at least makes these high school tropes strangely engaging, which is more than can be said for a lot of more traditional indie rock acts that thrive on the idea of disaffected youth.
Other than The Smiths, Let Me Get What I Want pulls inspiration from a multitude of 80s and 90s touchstones: the aforementioned David Lynch's Twin Peaks, but also Brett Easton Ellis, Bruce La Bruce, Sofia Coppola's Lick the Star, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What all these benchmarks share is an understanding for the most poignant and pressing of all teenage emotions: desire, whether it be sexual, social, romantic, familial. That naked longing is mirrored in the feel of the movie, peppered with shots of bodies floating in pools, leaning against cars, sitting lonely on top of the bleachers. In an admittedly haphazard way, that might be what Daddy are looking to convey through this project, and it might also be one reason why James Franco so aggressively courts queer art. While the trope of the glamorized tragic homosexual has thankfully faded from our cultural landscape, each and every one of us has dealt with a level of isolation, especially in those formative years, that may seem like ripe fodder for a project steeped in teen angst. It's just a shame that, once again, it seems to be more informed by identity tourism stitched together with pop culture references than a deep connection with a community that could benefit an otherwise potentially commendable project.
Cameron Cook is a journalist living in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.