(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!