When Cutting Off Your Arm Is the Solution

Vanity Fair sure knows how to mark an occasion. The magazine recently hosted an event at New York's Museum of Modern Art to celebrate the film 127 Hours, starring James Franco and helmed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire). Based on the autobiographical book by Aron Ralston, the film recounts how the canyoneer was forced to cut off his arm after it got pinioned by a boulder. C'mon, no spoiler there -- everyone knows by now. In fact, viewers go in knowing that's going to be the money shot: You prepare for it, work up your courage for it -- "man up," as Sarah Palin would say, to see how much you'll actually watch.

But don't imagine Vanity Fair's screening, preceded by a reception, was held at the regular Moma theater for the schleppers with NPR totes. It was at a separate space featuring a jewel-box of a raked theater, perfect for a gathering of bold face names, cinephiles, and tastemakers. Just about every woman on hand was thin, beautiful, ageless -- the successful man's essential accessory. They didn't even seem like trophies, these consorts. What's really changed? They could have been Betty Draper. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and his hair presided over a crowd that included a slimmed-down Matt Lauer, media legend Andrew Lack, Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen, a smiling beauty in crutches, and my orthopedist's brother. He was on his way to the Met to hear Tales of Hoffman (and if he wants an opera companion, I'm here).

"James Franco is an amazing guy," I said to a man, who appeared as eager to chat with me as a Republican with Rachel Maddow. I hardly needed to spell out that Franco's multiple careers make for a kind of performance art. He's studied fiction and filmmaking at various universities; just published his first collection of stories; is a doctoral candidate in literature at Yale -- and acts in vehicles ranging from General Hospital, to the art film Howl, to likely crossover hit 127 Hours.

"I was assigned to do an interview with Franco," I persisted, "but I couldn't get a one-on-one." He regarded me the way my nephew looks at pygmy marmosets at the Bronx Zoo. "You couldn't? Why not?" Turns out the guy was there from Sixty Minutes and doubtless scoping out James Franco for a segment. He'll get the one-on-one.

Oblivious to these little power ploys were the guests of honor, Franco, Danny Boyle and Aron Ralston, all standing together like the popular kids in high school. Boyle seemed about to implode with surplus energy. Ralston, well... there it was, his hook; not an arm lookalike, but a hook like from Peter Pan. These things, I guess, are a matter of choice.

Franco does not disappoint; he looks like the major star he's fast becoming, even dishier in person than on screen and also thinner (minimal flesh was definitely the theme of the room.) Maybe he had to bulk up to play the sportsman extraordinaire. Though I'd failed to get the one-on-one, I was determined to snag some face time with Franco. There are many ways, some subtler than others, to move in on your quarry. One technique is to skate a large figure eight around him, never stooping to gawk. The acute sensors acquired by most journalists will alert you to an opening. Spotting one, I moved in.

"How were you able to channel Allen Ginsberg in Howl? There was audio of him at the time, but no video. So how did you capture Ginsberg's body language?"

Franco appeared delighted by the question. "Well, I watched Robert Frank's film Pull My Daisy. That was shot after Howl, but Allen's body language was probably the same as when he was younger."

"I found it uncanny, how you got the particular way Allen moved his right hand when he was reading from Howl." I explained I'd known Allen personally some years after the Howl period, when he was living in Paris at the Beat hotel.

For Franco I was now the only person in the room. "You mean when William Burroughs was there?"

"Yep, and Gregory Corso." Some handlers arrived to corral him for a photo. "Please," Franco said sharply, "I'm having a very interesting conversation." And on we talked, about the Beats in Paris, his Comp Lit studies at Brooklyn College, where Jack Gelber may still teach playwriting, etc. A most un-actorly exchange. I almost felt Franco was a scholar moonlighting as an actor.

But it was time for the screening. I'd seen 127 Hours previously at the glammed-up Hamptons Film Festival, so I was prepared. This time I knew they'd built several prosthetic arms for Franco to slice 'n hack, so I was less queasy (though still freaked by all those claustrophobic corridors he roams before the boulder pins him against the canyon). With some of the "horror" component reduced, I was freer to absorb Ralston's journey: the unthinkable becomes the thinkable becomes the solution. Life, above all. Franco, holding the screen with movie star pizzazz, captures the arc to perfection.

It was fun, too, watching power brokers in pinstripe suits avert their eyes. At least no one got woozy, or passed out, as at a screening last week at Pixar. Ralston has counseled viewers to stay seated. "It only becomes dangerous if you decide you need to... stand up and then you're falling from a standing position."

The screening was followed by a Q&A with Franco, Boyle, and Ralston, some of it pretty basic.

"Did you ever go back to your arm?" asked Graydon Carter, the moderator.

"Actually, they brought the arm to me in the hospital," Ralston said.

"Why did you take on this project?" Boyle was asked.

"It seemed to me like cinema, which is a black box of entrapment, a paradigm of voluntary entrapment. And I knew there was a way to do this story, make it immersive. I wanted the audience to participate in the whole experience."

"What was the greatest challenge for you?" Franco was asked.

"We made the film with a lot of intensity over a short time. In the crevice there was room only for me and the DPs. I was in that spot for a lot of the day. You could go mental. It was physically and emotionally demanding and I think I actually lost it."

"How did you cut your arm off?" Ralston was asked.

"It was like shoving your arm into molten lava. The blade was dull so it was like a fishing out kind of thing. I was also feeling exhilaration. I'd been there for days so it was a solution. When I cut through the bone I was really smiling." The accident, he added, "was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I was previously a closed-off guy."