As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying is a 2013 film version of the William Faulkner novel of the same name, directed, co-written, and starring James Franco.

As it happens, in the last year or two I read my first two Faulkner novels, including As I Lay Dying. It’s a good thing I did, because otherwise I think I would have been even more lost trying to make sense of this movie. I mean, it’s an obscure book to begin with, so I’m not going to pretend to have fully understood the book or the movie, but certainly it helped my movie watching experience to have that familiarity with the material.

Reviews of this film were decidedly mixed. The most common assessment seems to have been that the film is more of a failure than a success, but that that’s excusable to an extent because this is a book that probably cannot be made into a good film—the narrative structure is too convoluted, there are too many different character perspectives for a film, etc.

I guess I’m inclined to agree. The film feels ambitious and creative, but it never drew me in more than modestly, and I suspect that is indeed largely because this obscure book just doesn’t translate well to the screen.

As far as the story, in its barest outlines it’s really not that complicated or hard to follow, but picking up on and understanding all the psychological details and subtleties is another matter. I think even without having read the book I would have been able to figure out that very basic story. On the other hand, having read the book enabled me to pick up on some of the nuances (though nowhere near all of them, I’m sure).

Anyway, the movie (and book) is about the death of Addie Bundren and its aftermath. Addie is a middle-aged to older woman (around 50 I’m guessing—I don’t think it’s specified), and her family is Southern farmers, not as poor as some but pretty much scraping to get by. Maybe about like the Cunninghams in To Kill a Mockingbird and marginally above the Ewells.

She dies early in the story, after which the family attempts to honor her last wishes by transporting her body to the town she was from for burial. I don’t think it’s significantly different from where they are, but it was emotionally important to her to be taken back there.

It’s not a very long distance, but given the crude and limited means of transportation available to them, and the circumstances (e.g., a storm has knocked out or weakened some area bridges), it is a difficult journey.

One thing I was constantly conscious of is that I simply don’t like these people. I feel a sort of instinctive aversion to them.

Which arguably I shouldn’t, because, one, it’s the miserable environment that has shaped them into what they are and so they should be excused to at least some extent.

And, two, in the abstract you can point to various good and admirable traits one or more of the characters has, including intelligence, loyalty to family, an excellent work ethic, and others.

But, somehow those abstract qualities had only minimal effect on me emotionally, and did not overcome the persistent low level disgust or discomfort I felt about these people and how they live.

Anse, the widower, is kind of an unpleasant, manipulative guy. What you notice most about him is the distractingly unnatural, awkward way he speaks without teeth.

They have five children (one of whom—I think most of the family doesn’t know, but I’m not sure—is Addie’s son but not Anse’s, the consequence of infidelity), most of whom are young adults.

The oldest is son Cash. As I noted when I wrote about the book in a blog post, he is basically Boxer from Animal Farm. He’s kind of a big simpleton, whose ability to perform physically challenging manual labor is exceeded only by his willingness to do so.

Next is Darl. He’s a brooding sort who you sense sees there’s something fundamentally wrong with a good portion of the population being doomed to live this way. He is perhaps the most reflective member of the family, drifting through the events of the story more as an observer than a participant. He has some sensitive artist or intellectual qualities to him, but there doesn’t seem to be any healthy outlet for that side of a person in this environment. He ends up manifesting symptoms of mental illness.

The third oldest is Jewel. If anything he is even more inscrutable than Darl. Whereas Darl feels troubled and perhaps desirous of escaping this life if possible, and proves unable to handle the strain of being out of step with his world, Jewel seems if anything even less enamored of his role in this family and this society than Darl, yet he also has a certain confidence and gives off a certain vibe of thinking he’s better than everyone else around him, such that he takes it for granted that he’ll get by whether he stays or goes.

Fourth is the only girl, Dewey Dell, kind of a pitiful thing with seemingly no potential for any kind of meaningful or happy life.

The youngest by a significant margin is Vardaman. He’s a little kid who seems to be retarded or have some kind of mental problems. He apparently only has a vague idea of what is going on around him and lives in a kind of dream world of his own.

Like I say, the movie is hard to follow and unconventional in structure to an almost chaotic if not surreal degree, but then so is the book.

At times it tries to recreate the oddness of the book, or at least in some vague way structure itself analogously, with certain artsy techniques and gimmicks. Much of the film is shot in split screen, and occasionally there is slow motion. I don’t know that any of that accomplishes much besides making the movie even more confusing and distractingly peculiar, but I appreciate the effort.

What I keep coming back to, though, is how much I dislike this world and how I can’t imagine being anything other than miserable in it, which makes the characters feel unpleasant and off-putting to me, deservedly or not.

I remember one of the most striking sections of the book involved Dewey Dell seeking to end her pregnancy when they reach a small town where they are strangers. I got the impression she had only the shakiest notion of what things like pregnancy, abortion, etc. even are; she just had a vague awareness that she was in huge trouble and that someone medical could possibly do something about it if offered enough money.

One of the places her scared, timid self visits is a pharmacy. A guy who works there—not a pharmacist or any kind of professional, but just a clerk if not somebody who sweeps up—brags to a co-worker about how he’s going to trick her into having sex with him by convincing her it’s what must be done to end her pregnancy (I guess like a “hair of the dog that bit you” hangover cure). As far as I could make out, the details of his scheme are left fuzzy, and it’s not clear to what extent he even carries out his plan or if he is just speculating. But the whole thing has this really creepy, sexist, exploitative feel to it.

In the movie, the ambiguity is eliminated and he indeed fucks her. (To be fair, it’s possible the book isn’t ambiguous on this point either and I just thought it was.) Furthermore, from the look on her face lying under him trying to endure the experience, I don’t get the impression that her naiveté has resulted in her being fooled into thinking having sex with this guy will end her pregnancy. The implication—I think—is that he simply pressured her into a bargain of trading pussy for some kind of drug that (he lies and tells her) will cause her to abort.

Anyway, it’s a skillfully written book that is mostly unpleasant to read and more confusing than I would like, and the movie shares the book’s positives to at least some extent and its negatives somewhat more. If you really like obscure movies, or you love Faulkner and this book and are curious to see an effort to translate it to the screen, then I’d recommend seeing this. But for my very subjective tastes, though I didn’t hate the movie and didn’t find it completely incomprehensible, I’d rank it well below the middle of films I’ve seen in my life in terms of how much I enjoyed it.

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