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James Franco

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A Search for the Real: Summer Is Over

Posted: 10/01/2012 3:27 pm

Dear R_________,

I have been very busy. I don't know if I've been busier than usual, but a lot is going on. I am down near Jackson in Mississippi working on the Faulkner film. It's the largest movie I've yet directed, moneywise, but it also has more characters than any other movie I've worked on. I think that the kinds of things this larger cast has made me consider have much that can be applied to writing. The past three features I directed focused on a single, isolated protagonist: The Broken Tower (about Hart Crane), Sal (about the last day of the actor Sal Mineo's life), and Cormac McCarthy's Child of God (about a murderous necrophiliac in the woods). In those films I could focus on the minutiae of each character's behavior. They were small films that worked through the details and were not dependent on dialogue (spoken or through body language). When a character is isolated in a film, he still communicates his feelings to the audience, but the axis of communication is shifted from character-to-character (something that the audience oversees and overhears) and becomes more of a connection between character and audience. I don't mean that the characters break the fourth wall, and I don't mean that they are not engaged with their environment or don't engage with struggles within themselves, but one channel of communication is taken away when other characters are not there to interact with. So, an isolated character is still realistically responding to the world and challenges around him, but he doesn't need to communicate his feelings to other characters, only to the audience through his behavior and actions.

In a book, an isolated character can speak his thoughts through interior monologue, or the third-person narrator can tell the reader what the character is feeling and thinking. Of course this can be done in voice-over in a film, and it is often very effective, as in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, where image and voice-over are both drawn from simple places and incidents: A family grieves a son's death, a brother thinks back to when he and his brother were children. But the sweeping way the images are delivered, tied together by an epic sense of things in the voice-over, makes the combination much greater than the parts. So, books, I guess they deal with similar issues of focus and expression; a writer must consider which character he will tell what through and what the distance will be. In the book As I Lay Dying, each chapter is told from a different character's perspective -- not like Rashomon, where the accounts conflict (although there is a tiny bit of this), but in a cumulative way, so that their stories build on each other. In addition, there is a huge contrast between the way they speak out loud and the way they speak in their interior monologues. The spoken dialogue uses a level of diction that one would expect from Mississippi farmers in the early 20th century, while the inner monologues are more advanced than these characters would be able to articulate. So in the film, we are going for a combination of approaches to capture the dichotomy between the inner and outer and to find a way to give a sense of the constantly shifting perspectives without making a mess. That's often a big issue with novels and stories isn't it? Finding the perspective to stick with, or finding ways to transition perspectives.

***

I also found this strange book by Joe Wenderoth in my stack to read and opened it not knowing what to expect. I think this is exactly the way to read this book: Come at it with an open mind, because it defies categorizations of fiction and verse, high and low levels of reference, and often sanity. I was immediately drawn into the book because it became clear early on that the addressee in the title is not a person but is instead the fast-food chain Wendy's -- or maybe one Wendy's outlet in particular -- being addressed as if it were a person. I am usually drawn to work, especially written work, that deals with the world of mass consumerism, popular culture, and advertisements because it often feels more familiar to me than books about war, or police work, or settings around the world. Not to say that engagement with the unfamiliar is something I don't like in some books, but I find myself very attracted to work that uses the flashy opacity of fast food and modern living to critique and examine the way we live now. In addition, the apparent shallowness of the subject is matched by the equally dense and twisted perspective of the faceless narrator, or writer figure, who seems to be part philosopher, part poet, part psychopath, part straight, and part gay. He, like his focus of attention, Wendy's, encompasses a wide range of identities and ideas so that the subject and object of the epistles swirl around a wide variety of definitions; the superficial becomes dense, and the complicated becomes pop.

The pages are each dated and written, as the title suggests, as if they were letters written over the course of little more than a year in the mid '90s. From entry to entry, Wendy changes -- from a woman, to an actual fast food store, to an idea and signifier, to an abstraction that has little to do with the concrete or common understanding of fast food in our culture. Sometimes the letters are almost love letters to a woman; sometimes they address the specific food items that can be bought at a Wendy's; sometimes they detail the ostensible writer's daily actions like watching porn or his frequent visits to Wendy's; and sometimes they fuse intense references to sex and body parts with the surface actions that take place in Wendy's. The result is that a multi-colored and multivalent variety of impressions is created, both concrete and abstract. The epistolary structure of the book -- one short letter per page -- returns us back again and again to a familiar set-up: a strange and vague man writing to a restaurant/woman/idea/himself. So, like Barryman's Dream Songs, the work can roam and become more abstract because the structure is regular. It's like a musical beat that underlies the irregular fluctuations of content and meaning. In fact, I think The Dream Songs are this book's main source of inspiration; not only are the entries given a regular structure, but the fusion of high/low references, the exploration of inner demons both sexual and murderous, and the constant shifting of voice, subject, and object all owe a debt to Barryman's poems.

This is a book that takes on pop culture and the dark sexuality and violence beneath it without flinching. It uses regularity of form to frame irregular and messy approaches to sticky subjects. I guess this is everything that I am interested in.

***

I also watched the pilot episode of Jersey Shore and Soderbergh's documentary about Spalding Gray. And I'm going to show episode 2 from the second season of Breaking Bad to one of my classes.

 
 
 
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