What? James Franco directing and starring in his film adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, one of the best novels of the modernist period and one of my favorite novels to teach? I didn’t know a lot about Franco, but from what I did know, I thought he would probably make a botch of it.
I had seen Franco in two movies: Howl, in which he played the young Allen Ginsburg in the throes of writing his landmark poem and 127 Hours, a film about survival in the desert in which the actor singly held the screen for the better part of the length of the film. And then there was the gossip column information: that he had enrolled in a Ph.D. program in literature at Yale; that he had produced a short story collection, Palo Alto, that had underwhelmed most of its readers and led celebrity scourges to point out yet another star who had strayed too far from his talent; that he was the subject at the young age of 35 of a Comedy Central roast. And then there was the brief Tribune story that Ian Belknap, a Chicago comedic raconteur, was doing a show at The Den Theatre called “Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Marrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull,” an extended rant against all lightweight and pretentious dilettantes who in the name of art succeeded in trivializing it. This hardly sounds like Franco is Generation X’s answer to the multi-talented Orson Welles, who in one intense period of creativity early in his life gave us Julius Caesar on Broadway; The War of the Worlds, a faux radio program that 75 years ago “reported on” a Martian invasion; and Citizen Kane which many film historians think is the best American movie of all time.
My anticipation of a disaster was deepened by my discovery of information about the release of the film. It was made available for theatrical release in September but quickly made available for DVD sale in November. In Chicago the film had a one week run at one cinema art house. Not a ringing endorsement from the distributor, Millennium Films.
Perhaps Franco would be done in by the impossibility of the task and that, at best, the film would be chalked up as yet another noble failure of an overly-ambitious actor trying to earn his chops for seriousness. Would even established directors with a talent for dark comedies set in parochial America, directors like the Coen Brothers, have been defeated in their attempts to capture the vein of dark humor and to find cinematic equivalencies for Faulkner’s structure and language?
The result is a movie that is neither a disaster nor a triumph. Franco demonstrates that he has a feel for Faulkner’s world of hardscrabble Northern Mississippi farmers in the late 1920’s. He’s a good graduate student who has researched the farm implements, the clothing styles, and the regional speech of the Bundren family and the various neighbors who assist the family in its mission to bury their mother in the family plot in Jefferson many miles away. And he has a firm grasp of the ways in which the motivations of the family are mixed; their noble pledge to bury their mother as she demands is often revealed as a pretext for more personal needs. The hypocritical husband Anse needs a new pair of teeth, and a new wife. The only daughter, Dewey Dell, bereft of the protection of her mother, needs an abortion. The mentally challenged youngest brother Vardaman wants to see once again the model train in the shop window. The impulsive Jewel wants the singular maternal love that has been denied to him. Cash, the most clear-eyed and decent of the children and the one who stoically and artfully builds mother Addie’s casket, wants a gramophone to soothe the soul. They only sibling without a motive is Darl, the part played by Franco. The most poetic and sensitive of the children, he recognizes the absurdity of the mission and the folly of human effort, and tries to abort the trip by torching a barn in which Addie’s coffin is place for the evening.
And Franco makes a good faith effort to capture the feel of the novel, which is a blend of psychological realism and structural experimentalism. There are 59 sections in the novel and more than 20 “centers of consciousness.” If the name of one of the Bundren family is at the top of the chapter, we prepare to enter the inner life of character to observe her stream-of-consciousness thinking. The name of a neighbor, a physician, a druggist or a temporary host at the start of a chapter usually indicates an “over the fencepost” report on a slice of the journey that the character has just observed. Thus, next door neighbor Vernon Tull describes for an unidentified audience a treacherous river crossing. An account from country doctor Peabody informs us about Anse’s record of past delinquency in paying him for services. Of necessity, co-script writer Franco chooses to eliminate most of these minor characters.
One effect of the structure of interior monologues is to convey the isolation of these characters from one another. They are profoundly alone together, a family in little more than name only, yet at least temporarily bound together by a shared mission. Franco uses a split screen to convey this estrangement, but he doesn’t bring to the attempt at the equivalency the necessary discipline. The paired images frequently seem randomly chosen and distracting.
He also creates scenes in which the character, even the deceased Addie, address the audience. In these moments we do understand that Faulkner has given them a kind of elevated and even poetic speech that we do not expect from hill folk. It’s as if Faulkner is saying that this is what they would say about themselves and their emotions if they had greater verbal gifts. Or if they had Faulkner whispering in their ear. But these too seem arbitrarily selected; we don’t get a chance to listen to the roiling emotions of Jewel, the son of a different father, a sanctimonious minister. Yet, the film succeeds in showing us that these characters who we are inclined to dismiss if not feel hostile toward have a dignity worth paying attention to. Except for the weasel Anse, a case study in selfishness wrapped in the cloak of belief in God’s providence.
Somewhat surprisingly, the character of Darl, whose inner voice is heard in more chapters than any of the other characters, is not well-realized by Franco who plays the part. Darl has the most observant eye and a gift for clairvoyance. His speech is the most poetic and philosophical. He’s the stunted artist. The indecisive Hamlet. The character through whom Faulkner most frequently speaks. His failed attempt to end the absurd journey stems for a madman’s desire to leave a mad world, a world that can’t make a place for his sensitivities. Perhaps it’s a tall order for any actor to suggest the complexities of the character; Franco as script-writer and actor doesn’t pull it off. And so there’s no special sorrow that we feel when Darl is sent off to the mental hospital, ratted on by Dewey Dell who feels threatened by his secret knowledge of her pregnancy.
In 1995 Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre mounted a production of the novel adapted by Frank Galati. Freed of the obligation to ground the story in a real place – the film is almost obligated to show period-accurate horse bridles and wagons and overalls and rail posts – Galati as adapter and director was able to focus on the words of Faulkner’s novel, and thus come closer to the spirit of Faulkner who seems to contend that we are little more than the public and private language we use to function in a disorienting world. If an adaption is to be made, then better it be for the stage than for the movies, a truth that this celebrity-director ignored. Regrettably, Franco’s film is not likely to drive a viewer to the novel and the challenges and pleasures that it can deliver more powerfully than this earnest adaptation. Nor should it make us especially eager to see his adaptation of the even more difficult to realize The Sound and the Fury, Franco’s next project.