Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth, Act V Scene V
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival James Franco’s The Sound and the Fury opens with Macbeth’s final soliloquy with the description of how all of history has merely lit the way for fools on their way to a dusty death. Herein Shakespeare’s haunting soliloquy reduces life to something devoid of meaning, but the film ends with a singular spiritual and transcendent shot as Benjy, riding so fast he seems to fly over the dusty ground, runs his hands gently around a lily. Franco perfectly contrasts the demise of a semi-incestuous aristocratic southern American family over the span of thirty years who devolve into tragedy with the spiritual moral quandaries that are an innate part of southern American life.
James Franco was recently called the modern day intellectual by Time magazine and with his second Faulkner adaptation he has shown he deserved that title. Franco as author, director, actor, teacher, and academic has created a filmically innovative literary adaptation of the seemingly unfilmable The Sound and the Fury which is one of the most notoriously complex pieces of literature in the American literary canon.
In his latest work Franco makes something of a living painting, daubed with the viscous oils of old bourbon and southern twilight, watered from on high with the salty tears of the old man of the Compson family (Tim Blake Nelson). Seated on his crumbling high-backed leather throne, Franco places the Compson father above the action which he watches through the glass at the bottom of his whisky bottle. We return to him again and again throughout the three part story, as Franco lets him breathe over the film flickers of warm melancholic Faulkner wisdom, born of deep loss and faded glories. The story is one of the postbellum South, crippled by worldly defeat, yet proudly resplendent in its isolation, and Franco manages to craft a film that honors that, whilst also telling us something about the last years of a family of human beings: a clan who at its antebellum height owned over 600 acres of Jefferson, Mississippi land and whose family included Civil War generals before their decline.
Following Franco down the rabbit hole of a nonlinear three part adaptation was a brave decision for his company. Not least because they were following a director who cast himself in the movie as a mute character, unable to rely on any commonplace form of communication to tell his story, but that bravery, shown as much by editor (Ian Olds) and cinematographer (Bruce Thierry Cheung) as his leading lights, paid off. Together the company achieved a kind of heady brilliance and Franco, in throwing himself and his actors into the maelstrom pulled something quite special out of The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner wrote the novel in 1929 in such an experimental and impressionistic way that it translates surprisingly beautifully to the modern medium of screen. Adapting a period film, Franco realized that due to its style and the stream of conscious nature of the novel, the language of the film could also be be relevant and fresh. Franco wanted to film Faulkner’s prose stating: “the film is about how The Sound and the Fury is told, not just what is told.”
It is a story told in three parts, from the perspective of three brothers: mute, 33 year old Benjy (played by Franco himself), depressed Harvard student Quentin (Jacob Loeb), and the villainous Jason (Scott Haze) and their respective relationships to their sister, Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly). Franco points out that Faulkner, in an example of his pithy way, stated that he simply wanted to tell the story of the muddy seat of a little girl’s dirty drawers in a tree and the consequence of the three brothers looking up at their sister.
Franco stated at the press conference that Caddy, played angelically by Ahna O’ Reilly, is for him the physical manifestation of the changing of times in the post-Civil War South. The gentil south was crumbling, and Caddy represents all that is still changing within the South: her illegitimate pregnancy is at the heart of the film’s and characters’ moral quandaries. Thus, throughout the film Caddy has an almost mythic resonance which is fueled by the obsessive occupation of Caddy within the stories of the three brothers.
The film begins with Part I which is told through the perspective of Benjy and centers on his relationship with his sister Caddy who “smells like the trees.” Since it is the most stream of conscious section in the novel, it is the most filmically innovative. Besides the excellently acted African American farmhands and nurses Caddy is really the only person in the film who goes beyond the distant compassion of the Compson farmer, and actively cares for and treats Benjy like a human being. Part I veers from the southern gothic elements of the novel aesthetically and instead the sun-drenched, dream-like close camera, weird broken-frame shots give the landscape and Benjy’s pasture which he loves a mythical quality. These shots show the significance of Benjy’s love of the Compson’s Mississippi land which is heartbreakingly diminished acre by acre. James Franco himself plays Benjy as a mute with no dialogue and prosthetic teeth. Perhaps as was infamously said by Robert Downey Jr. in the comedy Tropic Thunder, you should ‘never go full retard’, as the difficulty in accessing Benjy’s character is pronounced and has been commented on by other festival critics. However, Franco’s performance is at times outstanding, and greatly benefits from Franco’s own direction as the way Part I is shot suggests Benjy’s sensual awareness as he rolls a lily between his hands or watches the flame of a solitary match, a transcendence that all the other characters have seemed to bury. The latter is a complex challenge, made more so by Franco’s dual actor director role: on set and in character Franco would be able to seamlessly jump in and out of scenes and would even continue to direct with his prosthetic teeth still on.
Part II centers around Quentin who is played by Jacob Loeb, a discovery Franco made while teaching him at CalArts. Quentin is anguished by his sister Caddy due to her loss of virginity and becomes increasingly obsessed by the loss of her purity as is shown in nonlinear flashbacks. Loeb conveys this almost inappropriate relationship with his sister brilliantly in scenes where he threatens to kill Caddy’s lover or when he lies next to Caddy under the Mississippi moon, tormented by the fact she does not love the man she lost her virginity to. Some viewers may think the relationship between brother and sister verges on incest but perhaps in Quentin’s obsession is a southern fixation on sexual purity which still exists in the bible-belt influenced southern American culture today.
Part III is the most linear in fashion and stars the fascinatingly heinous Scott Haze as the bitter brother who blames Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, Miss Quentin, for being stuck in the same job and is continually haunted by Caddy’s taint on the Compson name. As most scenes take place within the decaying Compson home in Part III, darker Southern gothic elements begin to infiltrate the shots reminiscent of the decaying southern homes in the stories of Faulkner’s co-Southern Gothic writers Edgar Allan Poe or Flannery O’ Connor.
The film explores themes such as castration, suicide, pregnancy, and death, but the film does so beautifully and with meaning. The Sound and the Fury features an excellent cast full of James Franco’s muses sporting southern accents and a wonderful young newcomer, Kylen Davis who plays Luster, and whose charm and skill is reminiscent of YouTube favourite kid president. The film is poetic and aesthetically striking and masterfully tells one of the greatest tales in American literature.