TIFF 2014: The Sound and the Fury

Photo by AKOORIS - © James Franco
Photo by AKOORIS – © James Franco

Nearly everything in the lead up to The Sound and the Fury‘s (★★★) North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival screamed to me to run the other way. Child of God had a melodramatic ripeness that made me wonder if the high profile actor giving himself the role of mentally retarded Benjy Compson in his next movie was a vanity move. Jon Hamm and Seth Rogen got lots of early publicity despite being cast in roles I knew to be minor. Janet Jones (Gretzky) and Scott Haze had worked with Franco on other movies, giving this one the sheen of a project among buddies. Plus, it was The Sound and the Fury, a stream of consciousness novel from William Faulkner that did not appear to lend itself to easy adaptation, even from a well seasoned auteur.

So it a mark of Franco’s achievement that I can honestly say the film was not a disaster. If I was not as enthusiastic about the film as Venice audiences apparently were, that’s as much an admission about my own tastes (both cinematic and literary) as it is a judgment of its quality.

Franco told the audience at TIFF that Faulkner’s novel allowed him to make a “period piece” but pushed him and his crew “to make [it] in a contemporary way.” The stream of consciousness structure, particularly in Benjy’s chapter, will no doubt invite comparisons to Malick’s Tree of Life. I am not a Malick disciple, but I wasn’t nearly as put off by this fractured narrative since I already knew the story. That allowed me to experience the film a bit more aesthetically rather than analytically, and I will concede that Franco helped me see moments of fleeting beauty in the story and renew my appreciation for Faulkner’s prose. “We been ruined since the day we was born,” the Compson pater says, and in the film you understand what he means.

The film will cut from shots of the adult Benjy (played by Franco) to the childhood events he is apparently recalling. That those memories include shots of the child Benjy is probably not formally correct–is he remembering watching himself?–but it works as a concession for an audience that is already being asked to do some heavy lifting.

Sound is important in the film, as the title would suggest, and it is used expertly to create an oppressive environment that allows you to feel rather than merely witness the Compsons’s desperation. Anyone who has grown up around someone who is severely (or sometimes even mildly) mentally challenged can probably relate to the ways in which the cries of that person can create a spiraling anxiety as it reminds those around him (or her) that he (or she) has an inexhaustible ability to ignore or not understand attempts to socialize him. It’s sometimes hard to tell if the speakers are turned up in a particular venue or whether an oppressive loudness is part of a film’s score. I suspect the latter. In Quentin’s section, the inescapable sound is often in the form of a ticking clock rather than the howls of his brother. In Jason’s, it is his own voice, exploding in anger at each new indignity life foists upon him.

As for the content? The novel’s title comes from a line in Macbeth, comparing all life to the mutterings of a fool prattling on the stage, “full of sound and fury” and “signifying nothing.” It’s an article of academic faith to me that if a story seems too dark and nihilistic to justify how much people I respect adore it, it probably isn’t. That said, if there is something here besides early 20th century modernist despair that God is not walking through that door any time soon (and probably never will), I have yet to find it. Something productive can be gleaned from distinguishing between various tribal forms of despair, but there isn’t a one that’s not bleak, Faulkner’s included.

At one point Caddy pays her brother $50 for the privilege of looking at her daughter for one minute. They dicker over price for awhile and about whether she has to pay in advance. They argue over who hates who more and who is more deserving of that hate. It’s all very artistically done, but a movie hasn’t made me feel this miserable about being alive since August: Osage County. Take you pick, Meryl Streep doing another accent or James Franco drooling and biting someone on the buttocks. Both are tales told by master actors, full of spit and venom, signifying that there will be one less nomination spot available next award season.

 

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