Thanks For The Head Trip: James Franco’s Riff on James Dean

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Joel Chen’s hideaway showroom on Highland Avenue has been appropriated for a few weeks by MOCA and recast as the Chateau Marmont by James Franco and a gang of artists for their show, Rebel, organized by…

Joel Chen’s hideaway showroom on Highland Avenue has been appropriated for a few weeks by MOCA and recast as the Chateau Marmont by James Franco and a gang of artists for their show, Rebel, organized by MOCA’s Lyn Winter. Bennett Stein, aka The Good4Nothing Connoisseur, went to the opening and found himself seduced by the exhibit.

Question: are you obsessed? Ever been obsessed by anything? I mean obsessed by anything cool… with lasting mystery and shine to it? Ok, ever been obsessed by James Dean? No? Too level-headed for that? I see, you’re above narcissism? Well, you should try on a little obsession some time if you have any curiosity in finding out who you are. Time spent worshipping idols is time spent finding one’s true self. Check in with any shrink or medicine man on that score. So Franco, in shapeshifting into a 15-year-old juvie, madly drooling over James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause persona, and taking a squad of artists along for the joy ride has, in my humble opinion, done a jazz musician move: it’s called taking a theme, stripping it down and riffing on it, coming up with variations on that theme, and finding out where it’s at.

James Dean, before we confuse him with pin-up hunk Fabio, or Fabian, the cheesewad 50s crooner, ain’t just another 50s doo-wop pretty boy. No he’s the thinking man’s hepcat, and bona fide archetype of punk. Dean, hugely famous like the later punk Sid Vicious, who died at 22,  died age 24;  and, together with Marlon Brando in the early 50s, formed a 2-headed monster method actor demolition squad. They torched the old ways of doing things, swapping out the “representational school” of acting for the presentational, which was about revealing truth, honest emotions, raw sexuality. Early-50s actors feared and hated working with these two because they’d improvise their lines in the mode of their jazz player idols working at the time, Yardbird, Monk, Miles and Coltrane. Parents lived in terror of the bad influence rock ‘n’ roll, called race music at the time, was having on their sons and daughters. Dean and Brando swung the wrecking ball in “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without A Cause” respectively, and the world ended. Enter Kerouac, Burroughs, Berry, Diddley, Holly, the ‘Link Wray Rumble’ and Elvis, who in his first years was actually a hipster rebel enfant terrible, too. Then Dylan, Beatles, Stones, etc. Well Brando and Dean were on the scene first, bros and sisses, and lit the match that started the counterculture on fire.

Admittedly, I hit the launch of Renaissance guy, James Franco’s mixed-media art jam at Joel Chen’s garage-y, greaser-heavenly exhibition space opening night expecting to hate it. I dreaded something as weak as Adam Levine of Maroon 5 name-checking Jagger in ‘Moves Like Jagger’. But instead I was sling shot into an extreme altered state. Talk about taking your hand off the chicken switch, this art mash-up unleashes ones inner snot-nosed kid. Or punk rocker, if you will, ready to run wild in the streets.

Franco and his band of swashbuckling artistes (including Ed Ruscha, shown above) have slung an evil band of merry pranksters’ conceptual move: They turn Dean’s myth and the flick, “Rebel Without A Cause,” into a living theme from which to punk art riff off on, you know, the only stuff we actually obsess over every waking second of our short little lives—fame, beauty, sex, cars, coolness, death, immortality. It should be stressed that Dean influenced the way kids spoke, wore their hair, dressed. (Exhibit A: the red windbreaker), walked, and even sat in a chair (Exhibit B: “the Dean slouch” — the right way, the zen way to lean on a telephone pole or against a wall, or sit in a chair or upon a couch, half spilling out of it, rotating in it to upside down–especially if a parent or cop came in the room).

If you’re a geek or nerd who gets along with your parents maybe you better skip this show. You’ll find it offensive. On the other hand, if you’ve gone through life feeling like a freak, an alien or an outcast, and could use a walk on the wild side, get down to see “Rebel” fast as you can, Jack! You, too, Jane 6-Pack.

Because in contradiction to sage and mature art critical experts, some of whom I toured the galleries with and consider to be my buds, it could, if not save your soul, lay a fresh perspective on you for a second there. Some say it’s derivative, immature, gimmicky–Exhibit A of the troubling convergence between celebrity and art.  Franco clearly though made the choice to open himself up to an apocalypse of criticism by strutting the fool’s bravado of a real artist who is ready to risk it all and knows damn well in this jaded age that people will dismiss and insult what he does. Lord knows, I tried to.

But personally, I got re-animated. I was transformed back into my old juvenile delinquent self, ready to put a tack on teacher’s chair, raid my mom’s go pills, shoplift, light a cherry-bomb and chuck it in a mailbox. So it’s like this…

You walk in, first thing you see is Franco’s 3-D collage, “Bungalo 2,” basically the Chateau Marmont bungalo suite where John Belushi shot up a speed ball and rode a Harley to the juke joint in the sky, early 80s, it’s filled with boy and girl inflato dolls, you and me in effigy basically, who after a zoom down the fast lane, are now used up, prematurely aged, discarded. A flash of prophecy we’d rather not dwell upon.

Next you walk into a wood slat cave with a huge screen running a trippy slo mo film called “CAPUT” by Harmony Korine. It’s a creepy but pulse-quickening stylized variation on the gang-on-gang street fight meme, but with masked naked ladies, Franco leading one gang, Dean in effigy leading the other.

Next you find yourself looking at Terry Richardson’s “James Franco In Drag” photo series, so lurid and troubling you just gotta shout, “Rebel, rebel, your face is a mess!” Franco’s a hot dude, but as a woman? Deeply disturbing!  Man, I got the itch to try on women’s clothes and underthings. I felt sick and dirty looking at that tramp Franco in bright red lipstick. Awash in deviant thoughts, I had to get out of there fast.

And after that, Douglas Gordon’s “Self Portrait Of You + Me and Me +, etc,” variations on a famous Dean photo partly charred, blown up, or still on fire. All printed on mirrors so your face merges with the Deanster. This one turns you into James Dean, in your mind. Next, Gordon’s film of a guy in his Fruit Of The Loom loin cloth writing on himself in blood red magic marker, all shot from sweeping low to the ground angles. This is projected onto 3 huge screens in a dark room. Again, you have no choice–now your soul becomes Dean’s soul as guilt-ridden, sin-infused Christ as self-mutilator as gateway to—oh, never mind.

Next, a sweetly nightmarish Japanese X-rated animation style film, “El Gato” by Galen Pehrson, voiced with scuzzy creepy menace by Franco, actress Jena Malone (of “Donnie Darko” and “Into The Wild” fame) and freak folker extraordinaire Devendra Banhart. This one fills you with fascination and a longing for the forbidden, you know, a too late to turn back now kind of surrender. You’ll want to stay far away from this piece. Unless you have exquisite self control. This cartoonized, R. Crumbisized retell of the drag race off the cliff scene between Buzz and Jim in “Rebel Without A Cause” as played by luminous horn dogs: a duck, a pit bull (see photo at tippy top), lots of very bad kitties in 2 speeding 50s cars, hurtling toward the cliffs of doom (or climax, if you will)—as they are in various states of orgiastic frenzy—is a meditation on sex and death, or the ultimate kick bang, whatever.

Somebody, call the fuzz, man. The cops should shut this joint–I mean this exhibition–down, round everybody up, take you and me downtown for questioning. It’ll corrupt our youth. It’ll make you fall off the wagon and go native, off on a Rimbaud-esque “make a monster of yourself” journey to self-discovery. You’ll be tormented by thoughts of ecstasy and liberation, you’ll be a nihilist for half an hour, minimum. You’ll re-examine your life, learn guitar, develop a sneer and start a band. People will spread outrageous lies about you. You’ll be ruined, a shell of your former phony self, and maybe just get to rock that Act II self-reinvention cleanse F. Scott said was off limits to us Yankee folk, but what did he know? he died in 1940 eating a croissant in exile and completely missed the Dean scene and glam rock and gender do-over cosmetic therapy. And so for laying that second shot on us, Senor Franco, you and your band of deviant artists, we say thanks for the memories, the opportunity and the head trip.

Rebel is on show through June 23 at 941 North Highland Avenue, LA, CA 90038.

Good4Nothing Connoisseur is an alias for Bennett Stein, who is writing scripts and novels about beautiful freaks and legends of the 1950s, and views himself as a forensic archeologist of the origins of rock and roll culture. He’s made 3 pilgrimages to Dean’s grave in Fairmount, Indiana and he strongly recommends, if you haven’t already done so, that you rent and watch “Rebel Without A Cause” at your earliest possible convenience–or conduct a seance or something.