by Miller Francis
I’m not Pauline Kael, and James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is not Bonnie and Clyde. But after reading countless smug naysayer reviews, or at best “damn with faint praise” critiques, I knew how Kael must have felt upon seeing the initial attacks on what is now universally upheld as a major work of film art. Especially on the web, As I Lay Dying was nitpicked to death by critics with the most narrow perspectives imaginable, dismissed as a “vanity project,” “college dissertation” or “Cliff notes” production. Franco, not surprisingly, was slammed for being out of his depth, apparently deserving of special contempt because of his celebrity status. What probably rubs these small-minded arbiters of taste the wrong way is more likely Franco’s stubborn insistence that he has the right to act, direct, write and produce whatever he wants, critics be damned.
I would have followed Kael’s lead and set out to write the definitive defense and affirmation of As I Lay Dying, had that feat not already been accomplished by Joseph Entin in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Entin even sheds light on the largely unnoticed political dimensions of Faulkner’s novel, and how Franco draws on its strong resonance for our own times. And while Time, Newsweek and The New York Times threw their weight behind the first clueless put-downs of Arthur Penn’s masterwork, a few major critics actually did show appreciation for Franco’s adaptation (see A.O. Scott’s thoughtful piece.)
Then comes the coup de grace: The distributor Millennium Films announced its decision to skip theaters altogether and release As I Lay Dying on iTunes, VOD/iVOD and DVD. Why? Because Franco’s adaptation “is very much in the same vein as the original work,” and might prove a “difficult sell to a general audience rather than the art house crowd.” Let’s get this straight: Some of the same forces who helped bring the film to life then choose to restrict its chances to find an audience. What gives? They knew the original source when they agreed to back the film. So why is the completed work’s fidelity to the novel an insurmountable marketing problem? What were they expecting? A comedy romp? A Yoknapatawpha musical?
Over two decades ago, during the VHS era, Michael Scragow pulled together reviews from several New York film critics for a book project he called Produced and Abandoned. His focus was on a wide variety of films that had been released into theaters, but had somehow been “abandoned by the studios and the mass audience.” It’s interesting to scan the list of films championed in that book, many of which have since gathered tremendous followings. In our DVD/blu-ray era, some have gone on to be considered film classics, with impressive Criterion special editions.
I’ve been reading that book lately and find it illuminating. Today, things are in many ways so much worse. It’s true that small, independent films, or those from other countries, and even big budget, highly complex films like Cloud Atlas, can fail or be only moderately successful in theaters–by today’s weekend blockbuster-or-oblivion standards–and still manage to create a buzz on the internet and find an audience through TV showings, DVD and blu-ray releases. Some have poor domestic box office but find more appreciative audiences in theaters overseas. But what does it say about the state of the industry when As I Lay Dying, one of the best films of 2013–Michael Polish’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur is another–never got a fighting chance in theaters? There is, still, in this country, a (relatively) small movie-going audience that seeks out the new, the original, the odd, unusual or even strange, the provocative, controversial and experimental films that get lost in the tsunami of sci-fi blockbusters and sequels (a few of which, of course, are admittedly good or even great films in their own right).
So what is it about Franco’s As I Lay Dying that possibly contributed to the decision by Millennium to cancel its run in theaters?
First, there is the setting and characters–depression-era poor whites in Mississippi. Not exactly hip subject matter. These characters are just not cool, as far as current day filmgoers are concerned, at least not the highly sought after big bucks demographic. But the real elephant in the room is Franco’s decision to employ film techniques we don’t see very often in modern films: the split-screen and monologues. I would argue that these aesthetic decisions were brilliant choices, and obviously drove both how the film was shot and subsequently “built.” In Merve Enre’s illuminating interview with Franco and co-screenwriter Matt Rager, the director explained: “The thing about the split screen is it makes everything strange. It captures the layers that are in the book. If Faulkner wrote this book as a straight narrative without any of his modernist techniques, we wouldn’t still be reading it today. The story is simple. We needed to make the film as strange and as complex as the book, while still considering the expectations of the film medium as opposed to the book form. We didn’t want to lose our audience, but if we didn’t capture something of the style of the book then we wouldn’t have been adapting Faulkner.”
As for the device of letting characters speak directly to the camera, “In the book the interior monologues are so dense and complex; they use diction that these characters wouldn’t realistically use. It’s as if Faulkner is speaking for these characters. He is giving voice to their deep feelings, to their souls. So, we wanted to capture some of that language, but we couldn’t just do it with normal voice-over; we needed to make it strange. There is something very intimate about the interior monologues, so I thought talking directly to the camera would give a sense of this intimacy.”
Does use of the split-screen in As I Lay Dying ask more from an audience than conventionally shot and edited films? Yes it does. The first 15 minutes or so can be frustrating, even difficult. But if you persevere, your vision gets re-trained to receive the story from the fractured perspectives of the people who inhabit Yoknapatawpha County. Midway you’re coasting along, and by the end of the film, you may not even notice the split-screen technique at all, leading some to say that Franco dispenses with it half-way through (not true). If the use of split-screen makes audiences work a little harder, so what? It was clearly not an arbitrary choice by the filmmakers to indulge some deep desire to alienate the viewer.
Produced and Abandoned contains a section entitled “Page to Screen” devoted to the particular art of adaptation. And by the standards set by these critics, any serious consideration of As I Lay Dying would have to conclude that it is a major success, a significant work of film art, and in fact, now part of the small but significant pantheon of brilliant films made from literary works such as John Huston’s adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. “In movies like these,” Scragow writes, “adaptation is more than an act of simple transference from one medium to another. It’s an act of emphatic creativity.”
In Franco’s defense of another of this year’s successful adaptations, The Great Gatsby, Franco wrote: “Luhrmann’s film is his reading and adaptation of a text—his critique, if you will. . . When adapting Gatsby to the big screen, the main questions Baz Luhrmann faced were: ‘What will work?’ and, like Romeo + Juliet before, ‘How do I make this older material live in a new medium for a modern audience?’ And somehow Luhrmann managed to be loyal to both the original text and to his contemporary audience.”
I have no doubt that Franco’s As I Lay Dying will become mandatory viewing for students studying Faulkner’s novel. Nothing wrong with that. That the film exists in DVD form (no blu-ray except from Germany) and can be downloaded or streamed from various sources means audiences do have access. One can only hope that a Region 1 blu-ray appears in the future, and that it contains some of the footage shot but not used in the final version.
Any serious filmgoer who misses out on this extraordinary film experience will miss one of the best films of the year, and one of the best adaptations ever. I don’t know if As I Lay Dying‘s distribution qualifies it for the Academy Awards, but there’s no justice in the film world if Tim Blake Nelson, to name only one, is not up for an acting Oscar. Christina Voros’ mostly hand-held cinematography is breathtaking throughout, and Tim O’Keefe’s highly original soundtrack accomplishes yet another translation, from words and film to music and sound.
On a personal note, my own truth-in-advertising, I have been a Faulkner nut since my teenage years. My very idiosyncratic standard for the success or failure of Franco’s adaptation was how well he depicted the barn-burning speech of 5-year-old Vardaman, what I call “the not-abouts.” Franco nailed it.
How amazing, and unexpected: a filmmaker who loves literature, and adapts the written word to film for fun. In 2013, that’s something we should treasure. “There are about five million books I want to adapt,” Franco declares. “There is nothing I enjoy more than this: adapting books I love into films and collaborating with the people I love. It’s the absolute best job in the world.”
My hopes are high for Franco’s film interpretation of The Sound and the Fury.
Miller Francis can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org