“Movie star, conceptual artist, fiction writer, grad student, cipher.” These roles, and others, New York magazine attributed to the subject of their profile, “The James Franco Project.” If you regularly read Open Culture, you’ve surely had your own areas of interest touched by the literarily inclined young Hollywood maverick. Maybe you’ve seen him appear in a book trailer, read the Paris Review in bed, narrate an animation of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or direct and star in a docudrama about poet Hart Crane. Above you can hear him give a ten minute reading from a work of literature that, whether or not it made a permanent dent in your own consciousness, we’ve all encountered: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. When Lapham’s Quarterly excerpted the novel for a travel issue, Franco turned up to perform.
“It was drizzling and mysterious at the beginning of our journey,” Kerouac wrote and Franco reads. “I could see that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist. ‘Whooee!’ yelled Dean. ‘Here we go!’ And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that.” Hearing this particular voice interpret this particular novel reminds you of both Franco and Kerouac’s images as thoroughly American creators, though each expresses that American-ness in very much their own way: Kerouac, of course, actually comes from a French-Canadian family, and Franco leads the kind of cultural renaissance-man career the modern United States tends to frown upon. But given the places they’ve both secured for themselves in the American zeitgeist — and the best sort of places: unlikely ones — wasn’t it inevitable that their crafts would intersect?
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.