Note: Originally published on Letterboxd, December 21, 2013, with no likes.

Sal
Directed by James Franco
Starring Val Lauren
USA, 2011

I think I’m in love with James Franco.

Not because of his looks and sex appeal — I don’t think about him that way — but because of the artistic risks he takes that often result in accusations of pretension, at least from people who have forgotten what art is or can do. If that’s the whiff of film school that I smell then I want to go back.

As a result, there’s a formal rigor and ambition in his projects that’s bracing, and far more serious than the wink-wink shenanigans going on in pretty, joke’s-on-the-audience movies like Shame. He also takes the lives, loves, and desires of gay men far more seriously and morally than is shown in the work of some gay directors, such as in the recent Cahiers-recommended L’inconnu du lac, directed by Alain Guiraudie, in which the gay men in a public sex area are stalked by a gay serial killer and rush into his arms in surrender. That’s liberation, I guess.

In contrast, one of the several scenes I like in Franco’s minimalist biography of actor Sal Mineo is a frank, funny, and bawdy tale of Sal picking up a trick and Sal marveling at how loud the man’s cum sounded hitting his bedroom wall. It’s exactly how someone who has a lot of sex and is unashamed of it would tell such a story — with humor, joy almost, and with easy swagger, but also a little wonder.

Sal reminded me more of Rock Hudson’s Home Movies than A Single Man, and that restricts the sort of audience who will be receptive to it. But I will say that Val Lauren is just about perfect as Sal, portraying Mineo’s ambition, gregariousness, and vanity in an effortless and non-masochistic way. The movie itself is just about perfect in its razor focus until Sal meets his fate and then I was confused. I’d always heard that Mineo was stabbed by a hustler not by some random dude. But the incident is never explained in any detail and plays out unconvincingly, both in Lauren’s performance and in the staging.

The movie recovers by playing some footage from Rebel Without a Cause in which Mineo as Plato makes up details about his intimate knowledge of Jim Stark. It’s a revealing and touching moment for the character and without condescending to Mineo, Franco thinks it sheds some light on his subject, as well. I found this to be a beautiful, respectful film, but not one swallowed easily.