AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | October 31, 2011
Director: James Franco
Writers: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Stacey Miller, Michael Gregg Michaud (book)
Starring: Val Lauren, Jim Parrack, James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Stacey Miller
I have not read it yet, but I bet Dave Wilson’s review of Sal is much more informative than mine. I plan on more of a drunkenly loose diatribe of why James Franco’s bio-pic of Sal Mineo (Val Lauren) — the teen idol and star of Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus — is so damn important. Sure, Sal is destined to suffer the same cultish fate of most films about gay protagonists (Howl being an all too perfect example), but I think it deserves much, much more than that because Sal is a beautiful, sexually ambiguous portrait of a gay film star’s final day of existence.
Making a film that takes place within the rigid confines of the final day of its protagonist’s life places one hell of a burden on a filmmaker — especially when the protagonist’s death is prominently aforementioned on a title card — but it also adds a certain amount of, well, je ne sais quoi to the narrative. As much as I hate knowing how a film is going to end before it even begins, Franco’s narrative builds upon the fact Mineo had a happy, productive and fulfilling last day on earth. For one, Mineo finally secures a deal to direct his first feature film — an adaptation of McCaffery. He is also in the final days of rehearsal as a lead actor in a theatrical adaptation of James Kirkwood, Jr.’s P.S. Your Cat Is Dead at the Westwood Playhouse; under the direction of Milton Katselas (James Franco), the play is all but ready for an audience…despite Keir Dullea’s (Jim Parrack) inability to remember his lines.
Christina Voros’ handheld vérité camerawork ogles Mineo, observing every movement of his immaculately buff body as he tirelessly works out at a gym or as he lounges around his apartment in various states of undress. If Mineo loved one thing, it was his body, and Sal functions as a testament to that. With no trace of expository dialogue, we are never privy to what Mineo is thinking or feeling; our only insight into Mineo is what we can piece together from watching him. Mineo spends at least half of his screen time alone; since he does not talk to himself or to inanimate objects, this means his dialogue is very limited. Sure, there are a few phone conversations — of which we only hear his side — but they are not very revealing, other than Mineo really wants to get people out to attend the upcoming premiere of his play.
Sal is not an entry into the cannon of queer cinema; other than focusing on a prominent gay figure, there is absolutely nothing “gay” about Sal. Franco avoids social commentary and political activism; instead he opts for this project to be a scholarly exercise in authenticity and realism. Handcuffed by an unspoken pledge that seems to resemble the “Dogme 95 Manifesto”, Sal is stripped of any entertainment value, but it is quite a commendable testament to the contemporary neo-realism movement nonetheless.