A couple of weeks ago, Ian Belknap, who at 47 has the haunted eyes and fixed scowl of the congenitally angry, received an Amazon box in the mail. It had finally arrived, the book he ordered: "Actors Anonymous," the debut novel from James Franco, the actor-author-poet-professor-curator-artist-celebrity. Belknap began reading. Later that afternoon, a few days before he was set to premiere "Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull," his one-man show at the Den Theatre in Wicker Park about hating the brazen hyphenate, Belknap began to feel pains.
Severe muscle aches, back spasms.
He went to the emergency room. The next day, he was bedridden, the show postponed a week.
"Well, of course I blame James Franco for what happened," Belknap said the other day, the morning after "Bring Me the Head of James Franco" finally opened. "My body, after spending so much time thinking and considering James Franco, collapsed into a kind of hate knot." He was somewhat serious, and somewhat joking, a smile curling across his churlishness. And yet the show itself — a 70-minute multimedia trolling that includes Power Point, poetry and the staged execution of a James Franco doll, offering both a Franco career survey and a dyspeptic vivisection of a culture that allows a Franco to proliferate — is largely serious.
Belknap, who wears several hats himself — as a Chicago writer/comic/catalyst for the live-literature scene/creator of the Write Club, the monthly dueling-author smackdowns ("literature as blood sport") at the Hideout —makes his living as a grant writer for arts organizations. He has witnessed firsthand as arts funding has dried up. His anger is directed partly at the seeming ease with which Franco finds platforms, funding, audiences.
Still, an elaborate, furious, thoughtfully organized theatrical reaction to, uh, James Franco? We had a few questions. Belknap, whose show runs Thursdays through Saturdays until Nov. 16, delivered a few answers:
Q: Basically, what's your beef with Franco?
A: The basic thrust is that Franco has taken the most bloated, lightweight approach to the arts I've ever seen. It's hard enough to make good art under the best of circumstances, but there are people trying to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts, there's the persistent ribbon of anti-intellectualism that runs deep through this country. And fine, that's to be expected, and some people will never see value to making any art. My problem is with the people who ostensibly believe in the arts, as Franco claims he does, who then erode the value of art from within. If it was just some idiot making bad art — well, there is no end to bad art. No, my qualm is with the access to an audience, resources, publishing and galleries by people like him.
Q: Like who?
A: The dilettantes of Hollywood, the way that Ethan Hawke is a novelist, the way Kevin Bacon has a band. Franco is the biggest distillation of this tendency, because he is doing so any things simultaneously, then has the feverishness insistence we pay attention to his every move. I just zeroed in on the worst practitioner. His "body of work" — air quotes so vigorous my knuckles are breaking — occupies this annoying place where he is making unimaginative work in every discipline even as he is insulating himself rhetorically from any criticism by saying he is "working in forms," "not speaking literally" — all hollow art-speak justifications.
Q: But why does he have to justify himself? Doesn't he have the right to just try stuff?
A: He has the right to characterize and justify his work in any manner he chooses. My criticism is the merits of that work are wanting. It could be promising, but because he is so frenzied in everything he makes, it requires more thought before it's ready for public consumption. But he is a brand, he does what he wants. His book of short stories ("Palo Alto") should never have been published. His two books of poetry are the worst poetry I have personally encountered. I read one of his poems during the show, and I am so confident it will be bad that I flip pages and tell the audience to stop me, then I read that poem. Unfailingly horrible.
Q: OK, but that famous, good-looking people get more attention than struggling artists is not news...
A: Yes, I know that the world is not fair. My problem is that he is knowingly exploiting that tendency to grant famous people attention for whatever they want to do. And I am not hyperbolically using that word, "exploit."
Q: But that may also be the point, no? There is something knowing about his relentless output.
A: That's fair, yes. But ubiquity as a goal is not a point. Having achieved ubiquity, is he doing anything with it? Is it a running commentary on the way celebrity affects culture? OK, but make some point about that.
Q: Still, stating an explicit point could be too on the nose. Even Andy Warhol left a little mystery.
A: That's apt. But Warhol also worked with the vapidity of image then, with intelligence and penetration, dove into the relationship between vapidity and culture. My difficulty with Franco is I don't see that kind of understanding of his own art: Does he honestly believe the standards that apply to other artists apply to him? That he is being judged on the same level? He's either a simpleton, a liar or both. He's not simpleton.