Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Temporal Play and Trauma in As I Lay Dying

(CAUTION: If you haven't read this book, sorry. Spoilers included.)

Most of us have probably at least heard of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but perhaps less well known is James Franco’s 2013 cinematic remake of the novel. The movie very closely follows the plot of the novel, translating the journey the Bundren family makes to bury their mother’s body onto the big screen. (See the trailer below. Please ignore the other commentary; for some reason, it won't let me put the better trailer on here.)

Franco incorporates the temporal play of the novel by using split-screens that portray both synchronous and asynchronous temporality, slow motion, interrupting monologues, and flashbacks. This temporal play on the screen uses repetition and memories within and of each character to portray how each of the six living Bundrens (Anse, Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman) deal with the traumatic death of their mother as well as the consequences that it means for them all, as Addie says, “each with his or her own selfish thoughts.”

Perhaps the most prominent feature of temporal play in this film is the a/synchronous split screens. When the two screens are synchronous, they will show the same moment in time, only from different perspectives; sometimes these perspectives are drastically different, and sometimes they only are slightly misaligned. As we can see in the picture below, sometimes the scenes are the direct perspectives of people looking at or conversing with each other. Showing these different perspectives allows viewers to obtain a fuller understanding of the scene and what all is happening in it and to perhaps empathize with the characters that are doing the viewing within the story as well.

This can also be seen when things are happening at the same time but in different locations. For example, on the left side of the screen, viewers see Darl and Jewel riding to town while discussing their mother’s impending death, and on the right side of the screen, we see their mother, Addie, lose her life. The use of the split screen helps viewers to take in multiple plots at once, something that could not be done with just the written word.

The split screens are also at times asynchronous. One side of the screen may be lagging a second or two behind the other, or they may feel like they are minutes apart, at least according to the plot line, but perhaps not “real” time for viewers. This aspect of temporal play may allude to the kind of disconnect the characters feel about the traumatic situation they are facing.

Franco also uses slow motion in this film as a way to emphasize some of the most important moments in the story, particularly the most traumatic for each of the characters or at least scenes that cause later trauma. The first slow motion scene is solely of Darl, perhaps showing his first thoughts about taking drastic measures to make sure his mother is buried as soon as possible, which does cause trauma later on when he burns down someone's barn. Another slow motion scene includes Vardaman finding a fish (who he now, as a young child not fully understanding the situation, believes is his mother).

Other slow motions scenes include flashbacks, like the relationship between Anse and Addie while they were having children in the first years of their marriage. The moments when the Bundren gang almost loses their mother’s coffin, as in the river and in the burning barn, and the moments of her final burial are all in slow motion as well. All of these traumatic events and the events that lead to tragedy are slowed perhaps as a way to see the way the characters may feel—that time is slowed at these moments when it is hard to come to an understanding of it all, hard to piece together their memories with their present situations.

Some of these slow motion scenes are initiated or followed by interrupting monologues in which characters talk directly to the camera. This jarring and straightforward interjection of monologues within the film is reflective of the same type of interjection within the novel. These monologues directly show what each character is thinking about their situation and how they are dealing with the trauma individually and often internally and alone.

These kinds of temporal play within the film are able to reflect, while slightly differently, the temporal play of the novel. These aspects of the movie allow viewers to feel closer to each character by being directly addressed through monologues, shown flashbacks of their memories, and able to see both the characters and their perspectives at the same time with the use of split screens. The temporal play within the film allows viewers to feel the same kind of confusion and efforts that the Bundrens experience and make in order to come to terms with their trauma, each in his or her own way and with his or her own reasons for doing so. Viewers are able to see “each with his or her own selfish thoughts.” The difficulty each of the Bundrens has with coping is perhaps best explained by Darl as in his last monologue of the film: “We use each other with words like spiders hanging by their mouths from the rafters—swinging and twisting and never touching.”

For those of you with a Netflix account that are interested in watching the film, it’s on there! 


  1. Wow! I haven't seen the movie but may vaguely remember hearing about it. I would bet that it never aired at the Mattoon Showplace 10. But the use of the a/synchronous split scenes would be incredible to watch and to use to teach the story. Faulkner is always difficult for students to plow through, so I have never used any of his novels. This movie, however, would allow for the use of the story with the added element of the film techniques. It is, unfortunately rated R, but it's still worth evaluating for use in the classroom. When I was on IMDB looking for the rating, I saw that Franco also made The Sound and the Fury into a film that came out October 2015 with the same cast. The Sound and the Fury would also lend itself to the split screen film technique, and it would incredibly interesting to review the two movies as a pair with the same actors in different roles, which also provides for an entirely different element in our topic of temporal play.

    1. I definitely recommend it! It very much closely follows the novel, which made me very happy as a Faulkner fan. I've never seen the use of this kind of split screen before, but I think it works very well for more closely engaging with each of the characters. (I believe the R rating is for the cursing and the rape scene, but that could be fast-forwarded through in a high school classroom, I suppose.) While I wasn't expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did, Franco is apparently a big Faulkner fan as well, as you can tell by the two movies he has come out with based on Faulkner's novels, and he does a great job of paying attention to detail from the literature. I haven't seen The Sound and the Fury, but I'd really like to!

  2. I will admit that I haven't read the book nor watched the film, but your post definitely encouraged me to do so. The use of the asynchronous and synchronous screens sounds fascinating, especially in regard to to the trauma you discuss that is happening throughout the narrative. I know you mention that some of these scenes disconnect the reader from this feeling of "real time," which is especially worthwhile when dealing with such trauma; however, I am wondering if it also works in the opposite direction and connects the reader to the film as well. From what you've written, it seems like the viewer is the only person throughout the film that has the fuller story. Since the audience gets to witness all of these split screen from various character perspectives, I wonder if this also doesn't help the reader sympathize with the trauma within the narrative. Because the audience is getting more information than each individual character, they might be more easily swayed into feeling a certain way because they have access to these perspectives. Do you perhaps see this working within the film?

    1. Yes, definitely! Good point. I think it lets viewers feel more empathy toward certain characters--it has in my experience. (IMO, Anse is a total asshole.) Through the different kinds of temporal play, readers gain information about what's happening not by what's being directly said but indirectly through these multiple perspectives. The characters aren't often honest with each other and their situations, so seeing the multiple different perspectives allows viewers to kind of fit all of the pieces of the puzzle together, if you will, and see how and why each character acts the way he or she does in response to the trauma, which does seem to sway empathy toward certain characters more than others.

    2. I definitely think the asynchronous and synchronous screens could help connect the viewer to the story. As you said, "the viewer is the only person throughout the film that has the fuller story." I think I might feel like I was a part of what was going on because I felt almost more surrounded by the world. I know the screens are side by side and in front of me, but when I picture what you have described, I think I just feel more enveloped in what his happening. If that makes sense, especially since I haven't actually seen the movie version.

  3. It sounds like Franco's use of adaptation, which seem completely necessary to bring Faulkner's prose to life, visually, are particularly effective. Directors have many options of how best to translate Faulkner's use of flashbacks and memories into interesting cinematic techniques, such as the asynchronous and synchronous representations of time that you mention.

  4. You've definitely peaked my interest with this film. It sounds like re-watching this film might be necessary to pick up on all the nuance. Maybe the reason no one has heard of this movie is because of the complicated structure. I find audiences typically don't respond well when a movie is more experimental. I love the film, Tree of Life, most film critics do too, but mainstream viewers typically find the film to be hard to get through. I'd be interested in seeing how other films have played with temporality through cinematic technique alone.