James Franco’s directorial efforts are custom-made for film festivals, thanks to their signature combination of celebrity, novelty, and pretension. Plus, there’s the fact that they’re terribly slight, and can easily be sandwiched between four to six other movies, assuming audiences aren’t hung up on being able to remember them after a week, or even a day. In a program blurb, Sal may look bold and important: a biography of one of the first openly gay American movie stars, directed by an audacious mainstream movie star. In actuality, Sal is so inconsequential, it barely exists. It seems possible that even Franco has forgotten it, in order to make room in his memory for the 74 similar projects he was pursuing around the same time.
In that respect, Franco is the anti Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s films are greatly valued because of their rarity, meticulousness, and quality, whereas Franco’s creativity spews forth in so many directions, and with such force, that it’s easy to take him for granted. In fact, Sal wasn’t even the only biopic about a prominent gay artist Franco directed in 2011: He also directed, wrote, produced, starred in, and, for extra bonus points, edited the screamingly pretentious Hart Crane biopic The Broken Tower that year, and still found time to star in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Your Highness, and host the Academy Awards.
So Sal feels like something Franco threw together between other, more ambitious projects, probably because he did. The film casts the buff Val Lauren as a 37-year-old Sal Mineo in 1976, a musclebound, confident actor a world removed from the slender, slight, androgynous man-child nominated for Oscars for 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause and 1960’s Exodus. Sal finds its protagonist in perpetual-hustle mode, attempting to leverage his waning star power to persuade celebrities to come see him in a dire stage farce called P.S. Your Cat Is Dead. (Steve Guttenberg brought the play to the big screen in 2002.) The ultimate goal: lining up acting and directing projects once the play closes. Lauren, who doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to Mineo beyond his soulful eyes, plays him as the antithesis of the stereotypical tormented gay man. Lauren’s Mineo is fit, ambitious, seemingly well-adjusted, quick with a smile, and overflowing with movie-star charisma. Even a pot-smoke-clouded anonymous gay hookup is treated with an agreeable lack of judgment.
Franco directs like an actor. He favors long takes and a low-key naturalism that puts the focus on existence, not action. Sal dutifully follows Mineo as he goes about his daily routine, exercising, driving around Los Angeles, and rehearsing a particularly inane scene from P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, opposite co-star Keir Dullea (Jim Parrack). Sal opens with news of Mineo’s death, and his imminent violent demise is supposed to lend gravity and tragic foreboding to the narrative, but the film nevertheless feels strangely weightless.
Franco’s use of cheap-looking digital video also brings in a queasy voyeuristic quality befitting a film largely devoted to stalking a man through a day that would be unremarkable, except for its ending. But the grubby visual quality only adds to the sense that Franco is shooting test footage and rehearsals of a project whose full dimensions will be fleshed out later. The film audaciously closes with real-life footage of Mineo in Rebel Without A Cause that accidentally highlights both how little Lauren resembles Mineo, and the impossible gulf between that film’s deeply moving, emotional melodrama and Sal’s curiously inert slice-of-life naturalism. Sal is a collection of scenes assembled in chronological order, but stubbornly failing to evolve into a real motion picture.