Hello, James Franco. Welcome to Cincinnati. Sort of.
February 28, 2012.
Dear James Franco,
We need to talk. I’ve got this metaphor on my mind, but I’m ashamed to use it. The image is too convenient. It’s vapid; it borders on cliché. Even someone with the most rudimentary ability to critique literature would recoil from my silly little analogy, as if it were an oozing, open genital sore. Yet, I’m drawn to image’s efficiency; it offers an apt description of my current situation.
To further complicate the issue, you “own” this metaphor. You inherited it about a year ago. You’ve become its Lord, its cultural context. You’ve wedged yourself between the signifier and signified, and have therefore embodied its meaning. You’ve dethroned image’s archetypal authority, its abstract essence, and replaced it with a concrete representation of yourself. This metaphor once had autonomy—amateur writers used it all too frequently. Even the Rolling Stones capitalized on it. But now, it’s inseparable from everything James Franco. You are its universal referent.
God bless you. Do you know how difficult it is to possess a metaphor/simile?
Now that I’ve acknowledged your proprietorship, please, if you will, grant me permission to use the metaphor. Bestow upon me the pleasure to indulge in aesthetic banality. Just this once?
Here it is:
I’m afraid that I’ll live my life as if my arm got stuck between a boulder and a cave wall, permanently.
Now that I’ve said it, I feel better. Thank you for lending me the image.
The Rolling Stones song that I referenced: “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”
You and I will agree that the metaphor is potent, despite its overuse. It has universal accessibility. After all, who doesn’t sometimes feel that way? I’ll even venture to say that most people—once they hit about 30—discover that they’re trapped.
I’ll break it down for you. Early in life, we conclude that happiness is a by-product of predictability. We come to believe that acquiring stability in our careers, incomes, relationships, and leisure activities will safeguard us from existential despair. As we enter adulthood, we begin our search for a pattern that best accommodates our conception of stability. We find (or settle for) one. We adopt (or adapt to) it. Although the pattern makes life bearable, there’s always some hidden cost. The greater your loyalty to a pattern, the more you restrict your social, personal, and spiritual mobility. When you’re 25, it doesn’t seem like an enormous sacrifice. But, ten years later, you might start to feel like your spirit’s encased in stone. Every day, thousands of people drag themselves out of bed in the morning, gaze at their alarm clocks forlornly, note how the sun isn’t even up yet, rub their tired eyes and think, “Where has my passion gone?”
Our spiritual instinct to change and discover and become. We’re wired to strive, not to arrive.
That was fucking sappy. I’m practicing my self-help rhetoric, James. The two most profitable avenues for writers are self-help books and gay erotica. They’re both very similar, if you think about it.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone is miserable. Right now, I’m happy with my pattern.
But this is true: people who become disillusioned by their patterns either turn into complete fuck wads, or they grow so dismal that their presence alone could whither a plant. They start buying books on Mayan prophecy. They see Illuminati symbols everywhere—in Ipad commercials, on Doritos bags, in public urinals. They say things like, “I know Jesus will be coming back during my lifetime, and all of you heathens will be left behind.” They subscribe to the belief that Obama, college professors, feminists, and poor people as Satan’s minions.
I’ll tell you what’s really going on in their heads. They hate their lives. Their patterns feel so firmly inescapable that nothing, save nuclear bombs and Satan’s army, is powerful enough to break the cycle of personal disenchantment.
Their only hope for redemption is world destruction.
On a somewhat similar note, failed doomsday cults fascinate me. I was once in a cult. The woman who became my wife helped me escape by saying, “I love you.”
I wish it were that easy for everyone else.
Last year, Harold Camping told his followers that Christ would pluck them from our hell-bound planet on May 21. I followed the news on CNN.com and Youtube. For a couple of seconds, I wondered, “What if he’s right?”
A few years ago, the “medium” Blossom Goodchild persuaded her victims to believe that cosmic entities from The Federation of Light would arrive via spaceship on such and such a day, at such and such a time. Our space brothers would teach the world about love. They’d stop all wars and discrimination. They’d user us into an age of heightened consciousness.
On the night that the Federation’s ambassadors were scheduled to arrive, one of their delegates called Blossom via psychic hotline. “We’re canceling our appointment,” he said, more or less.
On Youtube, Blossom explained that when the ship entered the earth’s atmosphere, the entities felt so much negativity that they turned back.
I imagined these white-robed, Aryan-looking interstellar missionaries huddled around their spaceship’s control board, the streams of data pouring in as they moved closer to earth (pictures online rendered the entities as classically Germanic males). I envisioned the dialogue occurring on the ship’s bridge:
“Get a look at this, Zog. The Compassion Index has a reading of Negative Ten.”
“Mazatron, I’m getting a readout of Negative Fifteen on the Universal Good-Vibe Indicator.”
“Oh geez. Didn’t Xtar assure us that humans are mostly civil? What do we do?”
“Fuck ‘em. Let’s split. I’m not getting paid enough to deal with a bunch of primates. I’d rather spend my time in a Thaltoonian whorehouse.”
“I second that. Captain U-Quod, set our course for Thaltoon! Let’s go get some ass, boys!”
Soon after the Federation rescinded, Blossom responded to the angry comments posted on her website. She theorized that the “hatred” inherent to—and ultimately expressed by—some of her believers had impelled the Federation to make a U-turn.
Blame the victims, oh woman of spirit.
I followed the online forums. Some followers confessed that when they’d first heard Blossom’s message of love, her promise of cosmic rapture, their lives suddenly became meaningful. Every day, then after, they felt hope, a sense of purpose. Now they were talking about suicide.
Here’s another doomsdays that never happened: You.
For a while, an English department in southwest Ohio embraced the likelihood that James Franco would become one of their PhD. candidates.
Two years ago, you (or your secretary) applied to the Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati. Students whispered to each other, “Don’t tell anyone this because nobody is supposed to know, but James Franco applied to the program.”
I don’t remember where you ended up going. Houston? NYU? Ann Arbor? All of them?
I want to know what would have happened to the English department and our stable little culture had you become a student. James Franco, ambassador of the Federation of Light, or James Franco, instigator of departmental self-consciousness?
Here’s one possibility, which I’ll convey through metaphor: boulders fall from the sky and rain down on the UC campus. Hours after the cataclysm passes, the English department’s aspiring writers rise from unconsciousness, only to discover that their arms are stuck, wedged between rock and earth. The following day’s headlines read, “METEORS BOMBARD CAMPUS. CINCINNATI WRITERS MUST HAVE THEIR ARMS AMPUTATED. CAREERS RUINED.”
I know. That’s dramatic and silly. I have no right to depict you as the arbiter of aesthetic entropy. In a more likely scenario, you’d play a passive role. The cataclysm provoked by your presence would be merely referential, psychological, residual. It’d have nothing to do with you, per se. Everyone would start writing metafiction, that’s all.
And here lies the impetus behind my latest project. I propose a new genre of fiction, called Hypothetical Realism. Its driving artifice will be retroactive speculation—a rewriting of history, if you will. The narrative methodology, however, will adhere to traditional realistic conventions. I will inaugurate this genre’s entry into the lexicon of literary categorizations by writing a story about what would have happened had you come to Cincinnati. The story will be called “Meteorite James.”
I’m going to re-imagine the last two years of my life as if you were there, and I’m going to post it in this blog.
It’ll be difficult because
1) Realism implies honesty, an attempt toward accuracy. Subjective truth-telling can cause a lot of damage. I certainly don’t feel comfortable writing about the people I respect, admire, and work with every day. A failure of tone—a confession taken too far, a distorted observation, a moment of uncontrolled passion—might come off as mean-spirited satire. In order to avoid personal conflicts of interest, I must succumb to writing “flat” characters. My friends and colleagues are rife with psychological complexities, but it’s not my business. If you’re eager to know about them, go ahead and apply for the PhD program again.
I could make up characters—round ones—but invention would deflate the story’s hypothetical significance.
2) If I’m going to write about James Franco in a truthful, realistic way, I’ll have to equip myself with some facts about Franco, otherwise, I’m bound to fail. I would have to do research.
Fuck no. No fucking way.
I’m not up to the task, and I’ll tell you why. In 2007, I started a novel called My Helicopter Heart. The book is about this mangled freak, this failed playwright, traveling the ruined, post-Christian-apocalypse American landscape via pogo-stick, in search of your friend, Kirsten Dunst. He’s not stalking her. He’s on a mission from God.
Why Kirsten? Because she looks like the girl next door. Because she looks like she belongs to the Federation of Light. Ideal forms imply ideal spirits. OK, that’s a flawed conviction, but try writing a novel (without any professional help to guide you along the way. No sending drafts to Amy or Gary or Jeffery). See what it does to you.
While writing the novel, I read every Kirsten Dunst interview ever conducted; every Dunst-themed article, spanning from full-features in Esquire to fashion plugs in Entertainment Weekly. I mined the vast, digital cosmos of fan pages; I clicked through the Dunst-purists’ endless screams of admiration; scrolled the gruesome processions of perverted daydreams and fantasies. I discovered a subculture of creepy shit fuckers whose only purpose in life is to contribute to a never-ending, hostile critique of Kirsten’s teeth. I read thread after thread of gossip-feed trash; gazed at hundreds of candid photographs (Christ, she loves shopping and coffee), and watched over 300 Youtube clips. All of this in an effort to find out who Kirsten Dunst really is.
I found nothing, James. No soul, no humanity, no inner-Dunst. Just a heap of textual artifacts and two-dimensional representations.
What the hell was I looking for? What did I expect to find?
Those are leading questions. You’re a lit scholar; you know the artist/biographer’s dilemma. He tries to construct an accurate portrayal of his object, but what he’s really searching for is himself. The object is a surrogate, a psychic projection of the subject’s unobtainable self. Instead of looking internally(too frightening), he stamps his maps on others.
I subjected myself to all that research on the assumption that I’d discover an equation, a simple, compact description of the real Kirsten Dunst. If I could successfully say, “Kirsten Dunst is _______,” then I could apply the same clarifying principle to myself. I’d prove that, beyond the masquerade, identity has a core, that it’s not contingent, that it’s not a contextual negotiation, that somewhere beneath all the layers, there’s an unalterable, indestructible nucleus.
If I learned anything, it was about the people who observe Kirsten. Each candid shot told something about the “shooter.” Certainly, those paparazzi folk seek transparency. Their photos must, at all costs, appear objective. But if you stare endlessly at “objective” photographs, you start to learn the language of illusions. The author’s hand is everywhere.
Somewhere online, there’s a sequential photographic montage of Kirsten in an airport. It consists of about twenty snapshots, all taken in quick succession. There’s our princess, passing through a TSA security checkpoint. Her lower lip hangs. She takes off her sunglasses and puts them in a bin. If you look carefully, you’ll notice how—from one frame to the next—her pupils adjust to the light.
Then, in the next photograph, a hazy, unfocused shoulder obstructs the lower left corner. Accident? Probably not. My guess is that the suppressed “artist” in this celebrity-stalker invited this fuzzy impediment into the frame in order to emulate more intimately Kirsten’s eyes adjusting to the light. The photograph personifies her body’s involuntary response to sudden illumination. Art rises from the trash.
Then we see Kirsten slipping her shoes off. I had a difficult time maintaining critical detachment while assessing this photograph. I have a foot fetish, and I’m proud of it. Keats had a foot fetish. More about that some other time.
Kirsten gives a brief, controlled smile. She takes her boarding pass. Lifts her bag. Puts on her shoes. Puts on her sunglasses. Then she’s gone.
I wondered: from what vantage point did the photographer click these images? He/she must have been brave: to take pictures in an airport is to risk indefinite imprisonment in Guantanamo.
What was our photographer looking for? A paycheck, naturally, but I sensed there was more, given the risks involved and the emergence of unintentional art. Was he/she on the same mission as I? Was his/her undertaking guided by a similar idealistic (and naïve) vision?
Chances are that he was just a scumbag, bent on humanizing (and thereby dehumanizing) Kirsten. The multitudes of Dunst candids give the impression that her life is scripted (Kirsten goes shopping. Kirsten goes to a party. Kirsten walks her dog and smokes a cigarette. Kirsten goes shopping. Kirsten goes to a party. Kirsten walks her dog…). By selecting repetitive images, the paparazzi photographer is imposing a script upon his object.
His job, though, is to capture that awkward moment when his object goes off script. Then, he makes it public spectacle. “See, everyone! She’s not loyal to the pattern of perfection! She’s a traitor!”
The airport photographer was there to catch Kirsten in the act of doing something natural, like picking a booger, scratching her ass, belching. He was creating fodder for the haters. For the people who wish that they, too, can reject their patterns.
Such nonsense. Everyone knows that Cecilia shits.
My mission to pinpoint Kirsten’s soul became a mission to pinpoint the souls of those who devote their lives to celebrity surveillance.
I was rerouted. Poor me. I wanted to make contact. I got as close as someone outside the Hollywood bubble could get—maybe I could have gone further, but Christ, the negativity was overwhelming. I turned my ship around.
In the perfect story, I would have fallen in love with her image. Blind love would have endowed me with a special kind of vision. I would have discovered what I believed was her essence. “Right there, right there,” I’d say. “That’s the real Kirsten Dunst. You can’t see it, but I can. I see with my heart.”
I’ll never do that kind of research again.
And therefore, my rendering of James Franco will be imaginary and entirely inaccurate. Oh well.
Here’s a question: have I rendered myself accurately in this blog? No James, this is just another stylized version of me.
Usually, I feel comfortable in novel/short story form—the garments are less restricting. I’ve never worn a blog before. This feels tight.
3) I fucking hate blogs. Most of them are garbage.
I’m not advocating elitism, or suggesting that I’m absolved from being affiliated with the millions of crappy writers out there. I’m producing just as much senseless, self-obsessed, unedited drivel as any other blogger. In fact, I have little issue with blog writers. The medium, however, is problematic. We’ve created a (silent) consensus concerning how writers should approach blog-craft. We’ve convinced ourselves that the form necessitates lower readerly expectations, and that an “anything goes,” “first word equals best word” craft approach is suitable. Granted, there are thousands of compelling, artistic, and philosophically insightful blogs out there, but finding that one gem is as difficult as locating a candid shot of Kirsten Dunst that reveals something other than her devotion to shopping.
I avoid blogs because I might succumb to the temptation to let my bad writing pass. It’s dangerous: all I have to do is write some mundane shit, rhetorically elevate it to appear important (manipulation through pathos), confess just how intense my feelings are (so profound that you couldn’t possibly understand them), tag on some canned-epiphany at the end (“I saw a homeless man today, and just seeing him reminded me to be grateful for all the blessings in my life!”), then click PUBLISH. After that, I get to sit back and read the comments:
–Right on, Don!
–That was intense! You’re such a good writer!!!!
–We all need a reality check sometimes. Let’s pray for that man.
The truth is, frequent comment-droppers probably never get beyond the blog’s first paragraph, but they’ll never tell you that. They have busy lives. So, they leave pity-comments.
Blogs encourage bad writing habits because the medium doesn’t punish you for being lazy about revision (Christ, even that sentence could use some revision). Blogs never pressure you to be critical of your own writing: as long as you’ve got three or four pity-comments per entry, you can assume that you’re an excellent writer. There’s no incentive to labor over every word. Instead, you get instant gratification (publication) for minimal effort. Good writing, you come to believe, means frequent typing.
Everyone should have a blog. People need to write, and if their prose is shitty, that’s fine. I don’t care if twenty-million people are writing poorly, so long as they’re after truth, or bravely seeking introspection. Blogs are only dangerous for people who aspire to be professional writers.
Me. I’m fully susceptible to the hypnotic lure of instant gratification.
As a matter of fact, I’m about ready to post this first and only draft. To hell with revision! This is a blog! I don’t need to go back and start questioning this post’s brevity, clarity, grammar, structure, spelling, and blah blah blah.
See, James. I’ve already become lazy.
When you return to my blog, you’ll find two things: my ongoing hypothetical story, “Meteorite James,” and stand-alone letters addressed to you. These letters will concern matters that are, for the most part, wholly irrelevant, but rhetorically inflated to seem noteworthy. I want you to believe that you’ve wasted your time for a good reason.
That’s what fiction does.