SAL Movie Review – James Franco’s Directorial Debut
James Franco’s directorial feature, Sal, puts us a foot above actor and addict Sal Mineo’s head as he works to keep his art true while also scrounging up interest in his play, P.S. Your Cat is Dead. Best known for his roles in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause, the two-time Academy Award nominee, lapsed pop star, aspiring filmmaker, and eventual TV bit player also developed into a posthumous gay icon for his open lifestyle in intolerant times.
Knifed at the age of 37 by a drifter, Mineo died far from the apex point of his career and life. Sal does not chronicle the rise or the tumble of Mineo’s life, preferring to focus only on its conclusion in what may ultimately prove to be a disservice to the source and our understanding of his complete life. Really, it’s as if we all get an ink covered glove and a white wall to punch in this life, and Franco put both hands over 99% of Mineo’s mark, pushing his lens as close as is humanly possible to that last trail of ink, the cracks on the wall beneath it, the chipping paint, and proclaimed it to be worthy of our attention.
This society fetishizes such faux-intimacy, our surrogate eyes following minor celebrities as they riff with friends or eat a sandwich, so in a way, Franco should be applauded for being so populist as to put out a very reality TV-centric indie film that elevates the mundane moments before someone’s surprising end, but really, this all feels like a very benign sentence that ends with an exclamation point.
There’s an underrated sci-fi film from Omar Naim called The Final Cut where Robin Williams plays a futuristic memory editor for the dead, called a cutter. I always think about that when I watch a bio-pic. It’s a great responsibly to take the puzzle box that contains the pieces of someone’s life into your hands, selecting which parts best tell the story of them.
Franco, of course, had help with this task from writers Stacey Miller, Vince Jolivette, actor Val Lauren (who wears the Mineo character so well — at points playful, intense, and vulnerable), and Michael Gregg Michaud’s book, Sal Mineo: A Biography, which served as an inspiration. In the end, though, Franco is the one who served as Mineo’s “cutter” and he left a lot of good stuff on the floor that would have made it easier to be enthralled by Mineo’s life and more affected by his on-screen death.