Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 24, 2013 6:40 am 
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Another dutiful and fluent James Franco filming of an unfilmable novel

The "multihyphenate" James Franco's experiments have been gay and wild at times, but the trouble with his two latest directorial efforts, both feature film adaptations of Southern Gothic novels, Cormac McCarthy's Child of God (NYFF 2013) and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, is that they are too flatly literal. Literal but not exact: they're both based on highly wrought literary works of such distinct language and tone and so inextricably bound up with their language that their satisfactory transfer to the screen seems a doomed and unwise enterprise from the get-go. Franco's "Cliff Notes" adaptations lack the brilliant élan a maverick director might have brought that would justify tackling such highly literary sources.

Franco has produced A+ term papers with a polish no ordinary film student could ever muster. Both films have the cast and crew and tech specs only a Hollywood star with unflagging energy and a to-die--for Rolodex can put together. They're thoroughgoing art films, harrowing to watch, but not all that involving. Their prospects as commercial releases are dim, but their future as visual aids to school literature courses are assured. Overall both are far from critical successes. Child of God has the edge (Metacritic ratings COG 58, AILD: 50).

And yet -- and some critics have seen this -- the Faulkern adaptation is Franco's greater tour de force, constituting more challenges met. It's not only got a big fire (as does Child of God) but also a torrential storm with a horse cart loaded with people and a coffin wrecked thereafter in a raging river. It's also got more characters and more voices. Child of God is stronger because of its crazed central figure, which conveys unity despite a choppy sequence of scenes. On the other hand As I Lay Dying has a unifying factor too: it's a journey. The French like Southern Gothic more than Americans now do, besides which festivals love Franco. Hence James's Faulkner film's presence in the 2013 Cannes Un Certain Regard series, and its ongoing limited run in Paris, where I saw it one gray morning.

As I Lay Dying, as seen in Franco's movie, concerns a primitive and dirt-poor clan of Southern rustics, the Bundren family: their name illustratively sounds like a twisted-around version of "burden," for their trajectory is to be Sisyphean and purgatorial. The death of the matriarch Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) leads to a disastrous series of error after a huge storm knocks out bridges and all try to cart Addie's corpse, in a home-carpentered coffin barely finished by carpenter-skilled eldest son Cash (Jim Parrack), across to the town of Jefferson in another part of the county, a two-day journey away, and the crash into the water breaks Cash's leg (where it's been broken before), turning him into another burden and purgatorial sufferer as treatment of the injury is tragically delayed to complete the burial Addie asked for and her husband insists on.

I wish the terrible rotting teeth of pater familias and widower Anse (Tim Blake Nelson) were not such a dominant shtick. It's Ande's insistence on carrying out Addie's burial wishes that causes of all the subsequent trouble, though before him Addie has marked each child too. He seems barely aware that Cash needs immediate medical attention. He trades off the horse that's the pride and joy of the other son Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green), and in some way not made clear here he sells out the mentally unstable son Darl (Franco) to avoid a debt. He steals money from young daughter Dewey Dell (Ahna O’Reilly) that was meant to pay for an abortion. Her attempt to get that on the cheap leads to abuse by a sly townie. The littlest child Vardaman (Brady Permenter) is dreamy and confused, repeating that his mother is a fish, puzzled by where her body and soul are going and where the vultures hovering over the decomposing corpse in the wooden coffin rest at night. Nelson, though caricatural, is strong here (as are Parrack, and, mostly, Franco), seeming both a retarded looney and a dogged tyrant. His insistence on the trip to Jefferson has a selfish motive: he wants to get a set of false teeth there.

With Child of God in Franco's adaptation one misses Cormac McCarthy's Hemingwaesque-Biblical unifying voice. Faulker's As I Lay Dying is told in 59 chapters by 15 narrators. Franco only overtly introduces a few of those, directly facing camera, rather literally evoking the fractured telling in the opening parts by using spit screen and slow-motion. While Franco, whose adaptation co-written with his fellow Yale student Matt Rager is neat enough, manages to tell most of the story in Faulkner's novel, some vivid details are left out and lack of development may just make some of those kept in hard to make full sense of. Faulkner's complex overlapping of events comes thorough, but one might need multiple viewings to get a full sense of them, starting with Darl and Jewel's departure just when Addie is about to die to make a delivery for Vernon Tull, whose wife and daughter's have been tending to the dying woman, while Cash simultaneously works on the coffin right through the torrential storm as his mother dies. Some details that are included, such as Cash's odd direct-to-camera catalogue of information about why he built the coffin as he did, seem oddly static given that the film comes across as a strange kind of actioner.

It is remarkable how many of Faulkner's convoluted details Franco has retained, but one of the weakest elements is Franco's own role of Darl. It's not clear in the film that he seems insane or that after his barn-burning the family avoids scandal by betraying him and having him taken to the looney-bin. Franco's inherent commonsensical personality trumps these aspects that are not well conveyed. But of course the essential point of any review of this movie has to be that it's a stimulating and surprisingly dogged visual aid to William Faulkner's novel, lacking the mind-boggling, incantatory, terrifying intensity of the book; that this is just the kind of book you flat-out can't make into a movie, in any real sense, even though Franco does a good job of trying. The cast is good, if not unforgettable. The script works. Franco's regular cinematographer, Christina Voros, provides vivid images, though the split screen effects don't impress. The music by Timothy O’Keefe is evocative and not obtrusive.

Cahiers du Cinéma comment (quoted on Allociné): "When he gets out of the library, maybe he will begin to think like a filmmaker."

As I Lay Dying, 110 mins., debuted at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. It opened in NYC 11 Oct., France 8 Oct. Screened for this review at MK2 Beaubourg, Paris, 24 Oct. 2013.

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