While provincial wisdom says poems are not for adapting into movies and corpses are not for fucking, James Franco challenged both of these presumptions with “Herbert White,” a short film he made when he was still just an ordinary, everyday student who could call in a favor from Michael Shannon at NYU. Franco shared his short with Vice by way of previewing his Cormac McCarthy adaptation Child Of God, as an example of his previous attempts at bringing literature to the screen. Granted, you may have already seen Franco bring literature to the screen with his adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. However, we can all agree that, for all its creative liberties, no one fucked any corpses in that.
“Herbert White,” on the other hand, is adapted from Frank Bidart’s poem of the same name, and it provides a disturbing glimpse into the mind and makeup of a necrophiliac child-murderer. As such, it has corpse-fucking in spades—a character’s secret shame that Franco, continuing along his usual themes, sees as an expression of the “tension” between public and private life. Indeed, in his discussion of the film with collaborator Matt Rager, Franco even follows this into a tangent about Tom Cruise’s couch-jumping on Oprah and the artificiality of talk shows, which similarly hide their guests’ metaphorical corpse-fucking behind the guise of manufactured celebrity image. Such is the overarching thesis of James Franco.
Of course, those who watch the 15-minute “Herbert White”—which mostly consists of scenes of Shannon working as a logger (“They embody the monstrous side of Herbert without having to show the character being monstrous,” Franco says) and driving around in circles while cursing and making weird noises to himself (“I was in the back with my DP. We were both pinching each other because the scene was so intense,” Franco shares)—might wonder when they’re gonna get to the corpse-fucking. But these viewers should have faith that Franco knows when and where to employ his symbolic money shots—and more importantly, when he regrettably has to leave them out:
In the poem, there are significant sections that deal with young Herbert, including his first experience with death. Young Herbert kills a goat on accident, while trying to have sex with it, when it strangles itself at the end of its tether in an attempt to get away from him. Herbert takes his mother’s notion that “Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth, it makes things grow” literally and tries to bring the goat back to life by masturbating on its corpse. But his spunk does not make things grow. This is an interesting and comedic episode in the poem because it ties sex, death, and the parents’ struggle all together in young Herbert’s mind. But putting it on film would be difficult. The image of a boy fucking a goat is hard to swallow. It would put an audience off and I wanted to save the most horrifying image for the end of the film.
Instead, audiences are left with the more palatable image of Shannon grunting in mid-coitus over a bloodied corpse, thus freeing the scene of a boy masturbating onto the body of a goat he accidentally killed while trying to have sex with it for some other, future Franco project on the nature of artistic sacrifice.