Sal is overshadowed by director James Franco as much as you want it to be. Sure he’s an actor, producer, writer, and probably a myriad of other things, but he’s also a director. And a more interesting director than many. What’s immediately clear is that he has no desire to be the next Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, George Clooney or more recently Russell Crowe, i.e. actors turned filmmakers, making highly narrative based films in exactly the same way as everyone else. Franco’s inspiration comes from Paul Morrissey’s Trash, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, even Cassavatte’s, well everything Cassavates did.
From the opening moments it quickly becomes clear that narrative is going to take a back seat. There’s a lot of meta going on. Wikepedia tells me that writer/ director Franco is on record as saying “I like to think I’m gay in my art and straight in my life.“ And whilst you want to ignore all the movie star bullshit, you can’t help but feel that the director is making a statement. And the statement is about himself. Yet like the film it doesn’t illuminate, rather it just contributes to the mystique.
There’s an intense claustrophobic inspection of the actors body. Very early on Sal is pumping weights and the camera doesn’t so much linger as ogle, highlighting each muscle, leaving nothing to the imagination. It’s highly sexual, enormously intense, and it makes the viewer a complicit accomplice. It feels like Franco is exaggerating cinema here, making overt what is usually just hinted at, perhaps more cynically in more narrative based cinema, which tends to offer viewers the false impression that they are in fact responsible for their own feelings of desire towards what they see on screen.
The narrative though loose, is based on the last hours of actor Sal Mineo, one time teen star of Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus. After some time in the wilderness it feels like things are starting to fall into place. Franco wants to highlight the crushing mundane nature of life when you’re not expecting to die. A visit to the gym, to the doctor, just driving around, calling friends to attend his opening night, as well as conversations with his agent. The highlight is a rehearsal, where he performs alongside an actor with no understanding of his motivations, delivery or role. It’s a fascinating insight into the acting process and Sal is generous despite being clearly frustrated. You have to wonder whether this is an experience of Franco himself.
Whilst onscreen mundane can work if handled inventively, when dealt with in a mundane manner and simply handed back to the audience to do all the work – it doesn’t. Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny is a case in point. Gallo is a fascinating actor, yet watching him drive around in a car for over an hour is definitely not a worthy payoff for an onscreen blowjob. Franco seems to worship the image, looking for a certain realness in the celluloid. Yet curiously Sal doesn’t feel real. If anything it feels like a self-conscious heavily scripted attempt to appear natural, or perhaps actors attempting to improvise naturalistically. There are moments of gold where uncertainty slowly begins to clarify; yet the cracks appear because the scenes go for far too long. Yet it’s not just the acting, the filmmaking is exhausting. You can’t sustain being so close to the head or body for this long.
This is Franco’s fourth feature as director, made in 2011, and shot in 9 days. If you didn’t know who made this film you would be frustrated by seemingly inadvertent moments that wear out their welcome, like spilling then mopping up an ashtray, futilely working out where to put it, before staring intently at it. It’s easy to see this as an actor allowing his actors too long a leash. But the biggest criticism of Sal is similar to the criticism of Gus Van Sant’s recent minimalistic films like Last Days. These films are inspections of the surface. In attempting to locate significance in the mundane aspects of daily life all we experience is mundane, and as such we learn very little.