Sunday, 6 December 2009

Is it art?

American daytime soap operas are a TV staple - impossibly beautiful people doing beautifully impossible things, with an arched eyebrow and tongue so firmly in-cheek it's sometimes hard for the actors to spit out their lines. Intellectually void and highly addictive, they're junk food for the eyes, gobbled up by people who can't follow the labyrinthine plots of Big Brother or Biggest Loser.

The world of soap opera acting is also similarly inexplicable, operating as it does like a self-contained ecosystem, with its own food chain and hierarchy. Occasionally, a Demi Moore or Eva Longoria Parker will manage to dig under the fence and break out into 'proper' acting, whilst the majority of them are stuck inside the compound for the rest of their career. But even more rare, are the established and successful actors who turn their back on Hollywood success in exchange for a role in a daytime soap.

So it was shocked faces all round (frozen in place while the end-credits rolled) when James Franco, star of Pineapple Express and the Spider-Man trilogy, announced that he was taking a role in General Hospital. After all, it's a little like a major movie star deciding to take a gig switching on Christmas lights. Stranger things have happened, I guess.

Meanwhile, back on General Hospital... The popular daytime soap is something of an institution, having been on the air since Joan Collins was sticking her hands down short trousers. And yet, despite its considerable track record, it's not exactly a logical career move for an actor like Franco.

It turns out that it's all part of a high-brow experiment in performance art, engineered by Franco who is currently enrolled in courses on filmmaking and fiction writing. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, in an article that feels more like a first-year thesis than a piece of journalism, James reveals his creative aspirations.

Having explained his passion for performance art, he continues: "I disrupted the audience's suspension of disbelief, because no matter how far I got into the character, I was going to be perceived as something that doesn't belong to the incredibly stylized world of soap operas. Everyone watching would see an actor they recognized, a real person in a made-up world. In performance art, the outcome is uncertain and this was no exception."

As much as he'd like to think that everyone knows who he is (call it the curse of celebrity), he spent most of the Spider-Man movies dressed like a Power Ranger. The rest of his career, whilst eclectic and interesting, has hardly been headline grabbing.

One outcome that is certain though, is the planned finale for Franco's time in America's best-loved fake hospital. "After all of the Franco episodes are aired, my character's storyline will be advanced in a special episode filmed in a "legitimate" New York gallery. One more layer will be added to this already layer-heavy experiment. If all goes according to plan, it will definitely be weird. But is it art?"

The problem is, he's prioritising his need to make a statement about art, over the audience's need for an enjoyable, compelling and consistent soap opera. And that's the reason why so many regular people turn their nose up at the pretentious artistic expression. It doesn't just exclude them, it actively critiques them. To use a much-loved soap cliche, maybe modern art is just popular culture's evil twin. 

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