James Franco’s As I Lay Dying: Produced and Abandoned?

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.

as-i-lay-dying-poster-610x904I 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.”

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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.

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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: millerfrancis44@gmail.com

‘Big Sur’ and the Revival of the Beat Generation

Big Sur, a film that very few are likely to see this year, is one of 2013′s very best. Based on the novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, the film picks up the story of the legendary author’s life as he struggles with the success of his classic On the Road. After helping to define the Beat Generation, Kerouac feels a great burden on his shoulders. People expect him to be Sal Paradise, his alter ego from Road in his mid twenties, but the real Jack Kerouac is approaching middle age, and the world is changing around him. The film follows Kerouac as he seeks refuge and solitude in the Big Sur region on the central coast of California.

Michael Polish’s film is exceptionally beautiful, and not just because of the natural scenery on location. His camera captures the magnificence of the surroundings- the forest, the sky, the waves on the beach, and the dramatic rock formations jutting upward from the ocean- in a way that appears effortless, but is the result of a perfect union of subject and artist. Polish conjures a true character from the environment surrounding the cabin that Kerouac inhabits as he undergoes an existential crisis. A last gasp, of sorts, as his restless soul continues to struggle for meaning in life.

After some time in isolation, Kerouac craves some human company, so he attempts to hitchhike to town, where he meets several old friends. On the way, he’s unable to get a ride and is forced to walk as he bemoans the changing attitude of the country. In his mind it’s more evidence that who he really is does not match his reputation, and confirms that this is the beginning of the end of his generation.

Death is a major theme throughout the film. Near the beginning Jack learns that his beloved cat has died, and his grief paints the rest of the film. He sees a dead otter floating in the ocean, and later a dead rat outside the cabin. He even struggles to take a bite of a fish prepared by his friend Lew because all he can think about is the dead fish. Kerouac seems to be consumed by death, and he attempts to cover his mortal terror with alcohol. Ironically, it was Jack Kerouac’s alcohol abuse that greatly contributed to his early death less than a decade after the events depicted in Big Sur, at the age of 47.

Big Sur integrates Kerouac’s words into the film through a beautiful use of voice-over, which, in combination with the breathtaking scenic elements, is almost Terrence Malick-esque, though here the narration literally drives the narrative, rather than being more abstract and thematic in nature. This is pulled off in perfect concert with both the dialogue and the fantastic musical score created by the collaboration between composer Kubilay Uner and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National. The music is haunting and subtly underscores the foreboding, desperate tone of the film.

All the performances in the film are very high caliber. Jean-Marc Barr plays the aging Kerouac with great depth. It’s not easy to carry a film as an actor, but Barr does so with a nuanced performance that owns the screen without overshadowing the supporting actors. Josh Lucas plays Neal Cassady, who even as he approaches middle age, shows shades of what made him such a charismatic and inspirational figure in Kerouac’s life. Rhada Mitchell plays Cassady’s wife, and a strikingly beautiful Kate Bosworth plays his mistress. Through both performances the audience feels the burden put upon women. Carolyn Cassady struggles quietly with her husband’s infidelity, and Billie, a single mother, is desperate for affection, companionship, and stability after growing tired of being treated like an object that makes men feel better about themselves.

Unfortunately, the masterpiece Big Sur, after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, has barely gotten any theatrical distribution whatsoever. It is temporarily available through on-demand cable services as a “same day as theaters” release, which is almost funny considering it has only been seen on a handful of screens. It is scheduled for a DVD release in January, but not blu-ray, which is the format this magnificent and beautiful film cries out for.

It’s interesting that so many films about the Beats are coming out now. Big Sur was preceded by an adaptation of On the Road just last year, as well as Howl, a 2010 film about Allen Ginsberg. Kill Your Darlings, another film about the Beat poets, has been making the rounds at film festivals around the world over the last year. Is this sudden wave of films on the Beat Generation just a spontaneous feeling of nostalgia for this moment in time, or is it something more?

The Beats came to prominence in the mid-1950s. Their rejection of many established social norms and materialism, their acceptance of alternative sexuality, their willingness to embrace mind altering drugs and their general instinct for freedom, helped to pave the way for the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Perhaps now we’re nearing another historic and pivotal moment of turmoil, where the establishment will be rocked to its core, and maybe looking back at the Beatniks’ contribution to a major social movement, even if only subconsciously, is a way for us to prepare for a genuine revolution.

Regardless, Big Sur is a magnificent film; a genuine work of art in all aspects of the medium. Considering its quality and how much care and skill went into its production, hopefully it will find an audience as time goes on.

We Are All Aboard the Pequod

:::see disclaimer below article:::

Reprinted from TruthDig

by Chris Hedges | July 7, 2013 | TruthDig

The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. He is our foremost oracle. He is to us what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to czarist Russia.

Our country is given shape in the form of the ship, the Pequod, named after the Indian tribe exterminated in 1638 by the Puritans and their Native American allies. The ship’s 30-man crew—there were 30 states in the Union when Melville wrote the novel—is a mixture of races and creeds. The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which, in a previous encounter, maimed the ship’s captain, Ahab, by biting off one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like that of the one we are on, assures the Pequod’s destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed—just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.

“If I had been downright honest with myself,” Ishmael admits, “I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”

We, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires and soaring temperatures, we bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess. We believe in the eternal wellspring of material progress. We are our own idols. Nothing will halt our voyage; it seems to us to have been decreed by natural law. “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run,” Ahab declares. We have surrendered our lives to corporate forces that ultimately serve systems of death. Microbes will inherit the earth.

In our decline, hatred becomes our primary lust, our highest form of patriotism and a form of eroticism. We are made supine by hatred and fear. We deploy vast resources to hunt down jihadists and terrorists, real and phantom. We destroy our civil society in the name of a war on terror. We persecute those, from Julian Assange to Bradley Manning to Edward Snowden, who expose the dark machinations of power. We believe, because we have externalized evil, that we can purify the earth. We are blind to the evil within us. Melville’s description of Ahab is a description of the bankers, corporate boards, politicians, television personalities and generals who through the power of propaganda fill our heads with seductive images of glory and lust for wealth and power. We are consumed with self-induced obsessions that spur us toward self-annihilation.

After the attacks of 9/11, Edward Said saw the parallel with “Moby Dick” and wrote in the London newspaper The Observer:

Osama bin Laden’s name and face have become so numbingly familiar to Americans as in effect to obliterate any history he and his shadowy followers might have had before they became stock symbols of everything loathsome and hateful to the collective imagination. Inevitably, then, collective passions are being funneled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured for the first time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a suddenly reconfigured geography of conflict.

Ahab, as the historian Richard Slotkin points out in his book “Regeneration Through Violence,” is “the true American hero, worthy to be captain of a ship whose ‘wood could only be American.’ ” Melville offers us a vision, one that D.H. Lawrence later understood, of the inevitable fatality of white civilization brought about by our ceaseless lust for material progress, imperial expansion, white supremacy and exploitation of nature.

Melville, who had been a sailor on clipper ships and whalers, was keenly aware that the wealth of industrialized societies came from the exploited of the earth. “Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans,” Ishmael says of New England’s prosperity. “One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” All the authority figures on the ship are white men—Ahab, Starbuck, Flask and Stubb. The hard, dirty work, from harpooning to gutting the carcasses of the whales, is the task of the poor, mostly men of color.

Ahab, when he first appears on the quarterdeck after being in his cabin for the first few days of the voyage, holds up a doubloon, an extravagant gold coin, and promises it to the crew member who first spots the white whale. He knows that “the permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man … is sordidness.” And he plays to this sordidness. The whale becomes a commodity, a source of personal profit. A murderous greed, one that Starbuck denounces as “blasphemous,” grips the crew. Ahab’s obsession infects the ship.

“I see in him [Moby Dick] outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it,” Ahab tells Starbuck. “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Ahab conducts a dark Mass, a Eucharist of violence and blood, on the deck with the crew. He orders the men to circle around him. He makes them drink from a flagon that is passed from man to man, filled with draughts “hot as Satan’s hoof.” Ahab tells the harpooners to cross their lances before him. The captain grasps the harpoons and anoints the ships’ harpooners—Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo—his “three pagan kinsmen.” He orders them to detach the iron sections of their harpoons and fills the sockets “with the fiery waters from the pewter.” “Drink, ye harpooneers! Drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow—Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” And with the crew bonded to him in his infernal quest he knows that Starbuck is helpless “amid the general hurricane.” “Starbuck now is mine,” Ahab says, “cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.” “The honest eye of Starbuck,” Melville writes, “fell downright.”

The ship, described by Melville as a hearse, was painted black. It was adorned with gruesome trophies of the hunt, festooned with the huge teeth and bones of sperm whales. It was, Melville writes, a “cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.” The fires used to melt the whale blubber at night turned the Pequod into a “red hell.” Our own raging fires, leaping up from our oil refineries and the explosions of our ordinance across the Middle East, bespeak our Stygian heart. And in our mad pursuit we ignore the suffering of others, just as Ahab does when he refuses to help the captain of a passing ship who is frantically searching for his son who has fallen overboard.

Ahab is described by Melville’s biographer Andrew Delbanco as “a suicidal charismatic who denounced as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose—an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete anytime soon.” Ahab has not only the heated rhetoric of persuasion; he is master of a terrifying internal security force on the ship, the five “dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.” Ahab’s secret, private whale boat crew, which has a feral lust for blood, keeps the rest of the ship in abject submission. The art of propaganda and the use of brutal coercion, the mark of tyranny, define our lives just as they mark those on Melville’s ship. C.L.R. James, for this reason, describes “Moby Dick” as “the biography of the last days of Adolf Hitler.”

And yet Ahab is no simple tyrant. Melville toward the end of the novel gives us two glimpses into the internal battle between Ahab’s maniacal hubris and his humanity. Ahab, too, has a yearning for love. He harbors regrets over his deformed life. The black cabin boy Pip is the only crew member who evokes any tenderness in the captain. Ahab is aware of this tenderness. He fears its power. Pip functions as the Fool did in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Ahab warns Pip of Ahab. “Lad, lad,” says Ahab, “I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health. … If thou speakest thus to me much more, Ahab’s purpose keels up in him. I tell thee no; it cannot be.” A few pages later, “untottering Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forehead of heaven. … From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.” Starbuck approaches him. Ahab, for the only time in the book, is vulnerable. He speaks to Starbuck of his “forty years on the pitiless sea! … the desolation of solitude it has been. … Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? How the richer or better is Ahab now?” He thinks of his young wife—“I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck”—and of his little boy: “About this time—yes, it is his noon nap now—the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.”

Ahab’s thirst for dominance, vengeance and destruction, however, overpowers these faint regrets of lost love and thwarted compassion. Hatred wins. “What is it,” Ahab finally asks, “what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time. …”

Melville knew that physical courage and moral courage are distinct. One can be brave on a whaling ship or a battlefield, yet a coward when called on to stand up to human evil. Starbuck elucidates this peculiar division. The first mate is tormented by his complicity in what he foresees as Ahab’s “impious end.” Starbuck, “while generally abiding firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world, yet cannot withstand those more terrific, because spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man.”

And so we plunge forward in our doomed quest to master the forces that will finally smite us. Those who see where we are going lack the fortitude to rebel. Mutiny was the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew. It is our only salvation. But moral cowardice turns us into hostages.

Moby Dick rams and sinks the Pequod. The waves swallow up Ahab and all who followed him, except one. A vortex formed by the ship’s descent collapses, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

 

:::Disclaimer:::

FedRev: Chris Hedges is a fantastic writer and through his writings he often makes many great points that I agree with, like he does in the piece presented here. However, I can’t fully endorse his political worldview in its entirety or his sometimes excessive pessimism about the future of humanity. He also makes serious mistakes in judgement from time to time, some of which undermine his better points, as well as the social/political movements he claims to support.

For example, I complete disagree with his position on the Black Bloc tactic employed by some during Occupy Wall Street and other demonstrations. By taking the stance that he does he damages the resistance movement he claims to support.

In an even more high-profile example, his lawsuit against the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), while an otherwise bold strike against the rising tide of authoritarian power in America, was undermined by his willingness to throw revolutionary organizations under the bus in order to advance his personal agenda and protect himself. In effect, Hedges’ lawsuit ultimately may have done more harm than good because of the way it allowed the Revolutionary Communist Party and its chairman Bob Avakian to be potentially painted as a terrorist group, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Hedges falsely claimed that the RCP advocates violence, and while by and large the lawsuit against the draconian NDAA was a good thing, by using this type of language to sabotage groups he doesn’t agree with, he essentially gave license to the government to classify groups that advocate radical change as terrorists.

As I said, Hedges often has many good things to say, and he remains an important progressive voice; however, there are times when he hypocritically allows his personal agenda to undermine the larger social and political movements he claims to support, and therefore it’s important to carefully analyse his work and not blindly accept it as gospel.