Reviewed by Samantha Owens
The Chicago Humanities Festival and The Poetry Foundation presented JAMES FRANCO AND FRANK BIDART, OFF THE SHELF, a discussion of film and poetry at the Thorne Auditorium, Northwestern University School of Law on February 19th. What I initially thought was going to be a book promotion by James Franco was instead an incredibly thought provoking exploration of what identity means and the contrast between the self that we present to other and the self that we keep hidden. The evening consisted of a discussion between Bidart and Franco, moderated by Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation, Franco and Bidart reading their poetry, a screening of Franco’s short film Herbert White, and a final poetry reading at the end.
The evening began with Franco and Bidart discussing their own work as well as the work of one another. What could have easily been two artists stroking their egos in front of a roomful of onlookers was instead an honest, revelatory discussion about their creative process and what moved them to write and create. Franco and Bidart, two men with very distinctive public images, became human in front of us as they gushed about their first meeting in a restaurant in Boston and mutual admiration. Bidart joked about how much he loved Franco in the stoner flick Pineapple Express. Franco was clearly nervous- looking down and stumbling over words as he tried to explain his art. The two creative powerhouses revealed themselves as surprising unsure and vulnerable. They let us into the first layer of their ‘secret selves,’ just by getting in front of a room of strangers and having a frank discussion about what motivates them, what they mean to each other, their artistic insecurities, and so on.
As the discussion moved to their poetry, the idea of the inner self vs. the public self and the different masks we wear, as writers and as people took center stage. Bidart is clear that his poem Herbert White is not, as many people speculated when it was first published, a confession. Rather, the story of Herbert White, necrophiliac and child-killer, is an examination of what it is to have a secret, who we are under the masks that we wear. This idea is what captured the imagination of Franco, who first read the poem in a college class. He recalled that most of his classmates were horrified and thought this was simply a gruesome tale about a murderer, meant to shock the reader, but he realized it was much more. He heard Bidart’s own voice slipping in and out, punctuated by the fictional Herbert White’s voice. Herbert White got Franco thinking about the public persona vs. the private secrets- the unlovable parts of all of us that we keep tucked away. Bidart added that he chose such a graphic way to express these ideas because a story like Herbert White would be impossible to ignore.
As the two began their creative relationship, they each used Hollywood as a concept in their poetry- the perfect example of the private self vs. the secret self and which one, in fact, is more ‘real.’ Bidart speaks from an outsider perspective in his works about film stars and fame, such as “Poem Ending with a Sentence By Heath Ledger,” from his 2013 book Metaphysical Dog. He presents film stars as the enigmas that they so often are and plays with the idea of what ‘identity’ means. Who is more real, the Heath Ledger onscreen, or the Heath Ledger off-screen, the one with a family and friends? Franco also plays with these ideas of image and Hollywood, but as an insider. His forthcoming book of poetry, Directing Herbert White, is largely an introspection on his own fame. He recalls his time living at the famed Chateau Marmont as well as his own loneliness. His work is both honest and outlandish, living somewhere in the realm between life and fantasy.
It was within this context then, that we watched Franco’s directorial debut of Herbert White, a short film based on Bidart’s poem. Without the context of the discussion and understanding of what Herbert White is and is not, the film may have seemed like a gratuitously dark tale, chosen by Franco to distance himself from his pretty boy Hollywood image, and I expect the film will be critiqued that way by some. Within the context however, the film is a beautifully executed adaptation of Bidart’s poem. Michael Shannon, as Herbert White, expertly portrays the self-loathing present in White every time he cannot resist one of his violent urges. He also conveys the internal struggle White has whenever he has to pretend to be a family man, the struggle not to reveal who he ‘really’ is. The film is shot in an intimate way, with close shots of White (Shannon) and peeks at private moments like a family dinner. Franco, rather than relying on shocking images of violence, which he could have easily done, focuses on the White’s emotional self.
The evening ended with Franco and Bidart reading one another’s poetry, an act that made the respect each man has for one another abundantly clear. When swapping works, it also became ‘clicked’ that Bidart and Franco are more similar than appearances would let on. Each knows how it feels to see oneself as an outsider; Bidart as a misfit in the town he grew up in, Franco boxed into his leading man image as a young man in Hollywood. The program did exactly what, I think, it was intended to do, which was to get the audience thinking about their own identity and what authenticity means. We all have public and private selves, and now we know that even Frank Bidart and James Franco do too.