For those of you keeping score in the art-off between James Franco and Shia LaBeouf, Shia LaBeouf is winning. Lately it has been one triumph after another for Shia, from his stint as a performance artist last year to his co-starring role in the most recent Sia video, where he darted around a giant birdcage trying to escape the repeated attacks of either his id or superego or alter ego—I dunno, something Freudian—in the form of a twelve-year-old dancing girl in a white-blonde wig. If only Franco could have been in the birdcage match with Shia instead of tiny dancer Maddie Ziegler in the video, how great it would have been. It would be a tremendous cultural moment to see the two of them face off directly, John Woo-style (without having to wear each other’s actual faces of course, or shoot at each other with a gun in each hand—that’s just excessive by anyone’s standards).
Just imagine: Franco, rummaging around the floor of the cage for his next move and giving LaBeouf the stinkeye, the two men going mano a mano in their dirt-smeared leotards: irony versus post-irony. Postmodern versus post-postmodern. Out-of-ideas versus metamodernism, because metamodernism is the last stop.[pullquote align=”right”]But this is the thing about LaBeouf’s metamodernism: it is all-inclusive.[/pullquote]
What is metamodernism? Well, for one, it is LaBeouf’s animating force. It’s also a movement, complete with a manifesto. Most significantly, metamodernism is all about Oscillation, which is a little of this and a lot of that, a heaping helping of the trembling that takes place between opposite poles. (Also, magnets might be involved, possibly.)
Really, though, if you have to ask what it means, you’re no metamodernist. And Franco is no metamodernist. Also, he is irrelevant by virtue of the fact that he is kinda old. In Hollywood years, Franco must be at least 108 by now. Johnny Depp (Franco’s mentor in blurring the artist/actor divide, though we can hardly compare the two as Depp had no choice but to oscillate in private for several decades before the discovery of the internet, poor guy) is approximately two hundred years old at this point. Which makes him the ancient sage of tormented artist-actors. If you don’t believe me, just google Depp’s face and peer at it closely. You can detect faint crow’s feet around his eyes, tiny lines fanning out from just behind his trademark blue-tinted round spectacles. Oh, grandpa Johnny, with your blue-tinted glasses! Old people are so funny.
At some point along the way in American pop culture, celebrity actors increased in stature and favor with man, until being on TV or in the movies offered a more earth-shattering path to greatness than being a politician or businessman or a martyr with a head mounted on a pike, in a travesty of both justice and aesthetics. But after a stint of accumulating material goods and general adulation, some of these celebrity actors began to claim that fame is a burden, crying all the way to the bank at the absurdity of being paid in legal currency to play-act in front of camera. The heavy weight of all this fame, a weight borne on the backs of the very people the rest of us pay good money to stare at on a screen, has led to plenty of substance abuse, sexual misadventures, and unfortunate plastic surgery among them. It is out of this general milieu of celebrity despair that Shia LaBeouf emerges.
When it comes to famously acting out the pain of being a famous actor, Shia LaBeouf has reached a level of greatness heretofore unseen. He is equipped with angst, limited impulse control, an endless supply of brown paper bags, and an excellent trainer. Really, his physique is almost frightening; he looks like he can shoot lasers from his eyes. Watching him perform is like staring at the sun, mostly because you have to look away. But also because he’s so brilliant.
If only James Franco worked hard at being an actor, he might be easier to take, but instead he works hard at being an artist, his ambition uncloaked and exposed in every bit of gimcrackery he cobbles together. LaBeouf, however, is another thing altogether. Without even breaking a sweat, he is an oscillating tremor, a vibration moving through space. LaBeouf embodies the future perfectly, which is to say, there is no future, only oscillation. See how it works? If you think about what LaBeouf is doing in this context, it just makes so much sense. Franco, I’m sorry to say, does not oscillate. He is straight-up static, an engine stalled in a pool of earnestness. A guy so method, he lived in a produce aisle for two weeks to prepare for Pineapple Express. He’s the type who stuffs cotton in his jowls and gains 75 pounds just to write a book of short stories in the voice of Marlon Brando. (Not that Franco did such a thing, but he probably will after reading the suggestion, since I am one-hundred-percent sure he will read this article because it is about him.)
So what’s next for Franco? He’s already burned through the hallowed corridors of literature, music, film, art, James Dean impressions, diplomacy…what’s left for him to do? I’ll tell you what’s left, and I’d tell Franco himself if given half a chance: “Get a real job, you non-oscillator” is what I’d say. Get up and go to acting class, then go to a paying gig, then go home and eat ice cream straight out of the carton before falling into bed like the rest of us. Enough clogging up our Twitter feeds with your conceptual shenanigans; enough clogging up our newspaper and literary journal subscriptions with your op-eds and shakily constructed autobiographical scribbles about Palo Alto and/or Pasadena; enough clogging up the halls of our nation’s capitol buildings as diplomatic aides scramble to and fro in the desperate effort to patch up things between North Korean hackers and Sony Studios IT hacks, all for the sake of yet another one of your bids for immortality.
Poor James Franco. He probably can’t help falling flat. It’s tough being 108 years old in the movie business, especially when up-and-comers, bright young things like Shia LaBeouf are (sometimes literally) nipping away at your heels, melting down in front of the cameras and falling apart in such fresh, innovative ways.
But this is the thing about LaBeouf’s metamodernism. It is all-inclusive; there is room for all of us in the Land of Oscillation, even James Franco. In a world where one thing makes as much sense as another, where our actors are artists and our artists are celebrities and nobody seems to have an answer about why, exactly, we spend so much time staring at these people, there is always oscillation. So let’s all stare at Shia LaBeouf for as long as we dare—whether he happens to be inside his paper bag or out of it. Let’s watch and learn from the metamodernist master: go forth and oscillate. Oscillate between the two poles, where one pole is one thing and the other pole is another, and neither pole is right or wrong, just different.
As King Solomon would probably say were he alive today, making observations on the stylistic enterprises of Shia LaBeouf, an artist at the edge of humanity…At the end of all of our understanding, there is only metamodernism. One pole exists, and so does its opposing pole, and the rest is oscillation. So oscillate, everybody, oscillate through your days and out of this world, a world where LaBeouf trembles along, shuddering into eternity.
Image by Siebbi via Wikipedia.