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The Problem With James Franco’s Defense of Shia LaBeouf

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 17: James Franco at the
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 17: James Franco at the “Homefront” Press Conference at the Four Seasons Hotel on November 17, 2013 in Beverly Hills City. (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage) Photo: Vera Anderson/Getty

In today’s New York Times, actor, director, and man of many creative trades James Franco published an op-ed defending Shia LaBeouf’s recent rash of stunts, apologies, and oddball appearances. The paper bag over the head at the Berlin Film Festival premiere of Nymphomanic, the Los Angeles art show in which a weepy LaBeouf sits, masked and silent, while participants try to engage him — these are but elements in “a piece of performance art, one in which a young man in a very public profession tries to reclaim his public persona.”

Franco is suggesting “an empathetic view of [LaBeouf’s] conduct,”and if this situation were solely about the right of an actor to use their life as a meta-space with which to comment on the media’s relationship to famous people, then Franco’s op-ed would be a well-argued and illuminating piece. The problem is that this situation is not about that, or not only about that, but also about LaBeouf’s original sin of plagiarism, which has become nothing more than a parenthetical in the ongoing chronicle of his public semi-meltdown.

Franco doesn’t completely elide the plagiarism issue, but he lumps it in, near the end of his piece, as part of a series of “essentially trivial actions.” And he dispenses with it completely after the beginning of his piece. Here’s Franco:

First, in December Mr. LaBeouf was accused of plagiarism after critics noted similarities between “Howard Cantour.com,” a short film he created, and a story by the graphic novelist Daniel Clowes. Though Mr. LaBeouf apologized on Twitter, conceding that he had “neglected to follow proper accreditation,” it turned out that the apology itself appropriated someone else’s writing. Was that clever or pathological?

Plagiarizing apologies when trying to apologize for plagiarism is arguably both clever and pathological. And doing so as part of the opening gambit to a supposedly deliberate performance art stunt is doubly so. Under different circumstances, LaBeouf’s claim that his acts of “intended plagiarism” were meant to start “a broad cultural discussion … about plagiarism in the digital age” would have been a great entry point to genuine debates about art and the internet and how the two intersect. “Look at someone’s tumblr page,” LaBeouf wrote. “How many original images do you see? … We are becoming a cut and paste culture.”

The problem with this is that there’s a solid case that the whole thing is a put-on by a man who got caught and couldn’t let his apology lie. Instead, he had to skywrite things and steal other people’s words and divert attention from his intellectual crime to the point that we’re talking about whether or not LaBeouf is crazy, rather than whether or not he’s a plagiarist. As our own Kyle Buchanan wrote in a piece following his experience at LaBeouf’s art installation, “His antics have continued to escalate since, to the point where they’ve become almost domineering — as if he’s so aggrieved that he should have to apologize that he’ll make you wish you never asked him to.”

In refusing to engage with this issue, Franco’s Times op-ed looks like an unintended defense of behavior that he would likely never abide. After all, he is more than familiar with our “cut and paste”/remix culture: In 2011, he brought a project titled Memories of Idaho to the Toronto Film Festival, in which he reedited Gus Van Sant’s film My Own Private Idaho using alternate footage and made a completely separate movie from one of Van Sant’s early scripts. A Franco movie that debuted at Sundance last year, Interior.Leather Bar, re-creates “lost footage” from Cruising, the controversial 1980 thriller in which Al Pacino goes undercover in the gay community to look for a murderer. Franco has tried to position himself as a modern visual artist, one able to take elements from the past and make something new out of them. There have been no complaints from the original creators of those works. Clowes, on the other hand, has issued a cease and desist letter in which his lawyer describes LaBoeuf as “seriously out of control,” complains that he has “exposed Mr. Clowes to further ridicule” and begs him to “leave Mr. Clowes alone.” Someone should have passed that letter to Franco before he published his piece.

The Problem With Franco’s Defense of LaBeouf