As I Lay Dying, an experimental William Faulkner adaptation helmed by actor and cultural dilettante James Franco, is composed almost entirely in split screen. Bucking convention, the split screens are only rarely used to merge two spatially disconnected scenes. Instead, more often than not, both halves of the frame depict the same scene from different angles. Sometimes one half shows a character’s face and the other that character’s point of view; at other moments, the split screen is used to show different takes of the same shot. The two halves don’t always cut at the same time, which means that a scene might keep going on the right side of the screen while the next one starts on the left.
The effect, which attempts to create a visual analogue to Faulkner’s famously un-filmable prose, is fascinating. Whether it’s ultimately meaningful, however, is a different question. In the movie’s design, Faulkner’s novel functions chiefly as a source of imagery and atmosphere; a good chunk of the dialogue is unintelligible (it’s doubtful that even viewers raised in the Deep South will be able to understand more than a third of what Tim Blake Nelson says), which creates the impression that the characters are as textural as the swaying trees in the background. Taken individually, the halves of the split screen frame are unremarkable: plain-looking, pragmatic handheld shots with odd slow zoom thrown in. (This becomes especially obvious in the final 15 minutes, when the movie abandons the split-screen layout.)
The core of As I Lay Dying lies not in the juxtaposition of any two shots, but in the line down the middle of the screen, which separates them; the bifurcated effect is more important than the actual content of the images. Familiarity with Faulkner’s novel (or at least with his work) makes it easier to appreciate what Franco is going for. He’s not trying to adapt As I Lay Dying so much as simulate—not always successfully—the experience of reading the book. Like Franco’s other directorial efforts, it ends up coming across as an academic art object, somewhere halfway between a graduate thesis and a video installation—interesting, but only in context.