James Franco, a man with more advanced degrees than sense, a kind of anti-polymath who fails upwards at everything he tries, walks Candide-like through this world. Now reviled for his one-two punch of being accused of sexual harassment by one of his students the same week that his interminable bro-fest, the Tommy Wiseau biopic The Disaster Artist (2011) was released, he delivers unto us Zeroville.
Shot in 2014, but previously unreleased due to the bankruptcy of distributor Alchemy, Zeroville comes to us via the efforts of online platform myCinema. Fittingly beginning with the line “This picture is directed by nobody”, it’s post-Manson 1969 and a prime suspect may have just appeared in Hollywood. It’s Franco himself as Vikar, a Bronson-looking goober played somewhere between Forrest Gump and kid-critic Lights Camera Jackson, notable for the image of A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951) tattooed on the back of his head.
Vikar turns out to be an editing savant whose mantra, “Fuck continuity!” finds him swiftly infiltrating the Movie Brats of New Hollywood. Zeroville gives him zero motive or explanation. Spanning a decade, he never so much as changes his jacket, cutting Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) (he’s in and out of the Philippines in the blink of an eye) and then going on to rescue a Jess Franco film from disaster. It’s Vikar’s masterpiece, and he’s in love with its star, Megan Fox’s Soledad Paladin, whom he and the film exploit in a misguided comment on female abuse in Hollywood. Soledad is useful as long as she can be desirable, a tragic Lana Del Rey figure to be pitied for not making it, purloined of the opportunity to speak for herself. Vikar’s claims to understand her on a deeper level amount to his really seeing her as a fit for the silver screen.
Johnny Jewel, composer of dream-pop band The Chromatics, drops a jangly score that appropriately captures nostalgia for things unexperienced as does the rest of the film. One of Zeroville’s successes is the score’s conviction to stop the audience knowing what’s ironic and what isn’t. If Franco’s intention is to send up bad filmmaking, then that jibes with the references to the classics of Hollywood, “the ones that last forever”.
It would be generous to call the set design sparse or minimalist. Spaces are empty of signs of life, exposing poor production values. Will Ferrell and Franco endlessly circle a piano in one scene, while much of the blocking features characters standing in lines, better for coverage. There’s seemingly no attention to gesture or characterization, or really anything beyond referencing other movies. And what references they are.
To show long sections of Billy Wilder and Alejandro Jodorowsky movies is to make the audience wish they were elsewhere. Even when Franco replicates older films a la Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998) (the director cameoing here for emphasis), the scenes fall flat. The concept of “A movie within a movie” is constantly referenced, and when we see it in a scene replicating Los Vampiros Lesbos (Jess Franco, 1971), it’s redundant because what James Franco does with two fill lights and an actress in a chair doesn’t match what Jess Franco did with the same.
That isn’t the extent of imitation. Seth Rogen plays the bearded, ‘Nam obsessed, gun-and-cigar-toting ‘Viking’, who introduces Vikar to the New Hollywood crowd (clearly John Milius didn’t want his name attached). In a party scene worthy of SNL, Vikar meets George, who describes his ‘droid’ movie; Steve, who describes his shark movie; and Paul, who describes his Batman-saves-prostitutes movie. It’s the stuff that has people fleeing from Peter Biskind, yet Franco indulges in these dress-up fantasies, running the gamut of cliché.
Among the most notable is the smart-aleck kid, bane of every bad rom-com, portrayed here by Joey King, so precocious she even points out that she’s a plucky, self-aware know-all. Into the 80s section of the film (this truly is an epic worthy of Boogie Nights), she becomes a CBGB dwelling punk who sings a caterwauling cover of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ over the original track as a single tear rolls down Vikar’s cheek. One can only imagine that the intensity of the moment overpowered our erstwhile director, and the editor (uncredited) chose to keep it in. But hadn’t the world moved onto Hardcore by then?
Franco thinks he’s Punk, although he’s really anything but. Unlike the movie brat crowd, he rails against nothing; he’s never been told no. He tries desperately to conform to an aesthetic standard which is unattainable without genuine engagement with his subject. The referential matrix of American culture did not coalesce in the New Hollywood as a mere vessel for pastiche. The great pop culture artists of the era Franco depicts hid simple messages within their work. Franco’s use of the Pynchon’s literary games (a late film detour into mystery makes Under the Silver Lake (Robert Mitchell, 2019) seem coherent) serves as little more than window dressing for the fact that he’s really laughing at you, whatever your response to Zeroville. He attempts to undercut criticism by hiring his funny friends to goof around, to make the film seem like a lark, like something even he, the auteur, isn’t taking seriously. But to put a film into the competition of a film festival demands that audiences examine it as serious work. Rather than playing to the cinephiles in the room, Zeroville is a warning that they don’t buy their own bullshit.