Monday, August 4, 2008

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

William Faulkner is one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. So it is not surprising that from the early days of sound pictures, his works have attracted the attention of moviemakers. One of the earliest pictures adapted from his work was The Story of Temple Drake (1933), from his novel Sanctuary. In 1949 Clarence Brown directed the film version of Faulkner's just-published novel Intruder in the Dust, a superb picture, among the best American films from that year that I've seen. Curiously, it was not nominated for a single Oscar, not for either of its memorable supporting performances—Juano Hernandez's as an African American man in Mississippi unfairly accused of murder and nearly lynched or Porter Hall's as the victim's one-armed father—nor for the striking location cinematography (in Mississippi) of the great Robert Surtees.

In the 1950's and 60's Faulkner again attracted the attention of prominent directors: Douglas Sirk (The Tarnished Angels, 1958, adapted from Pylon), Martin Ritt (The Long, Hot Summer, 1958, and The Sound and the Fury, 1959), Tony Richardson (Sanctuary, 1961, a remake of The Story of Temple Drake), Mark Rydell (The Reivers, 1969, from Faulkner's recently published posthumous novel). An excellent version of "Barn Burning," the short story that forms part of the plot of The Long, Hot Summer, was adapted by Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird) and filmed in 1980 as a short feature for the PBS series The American Short Story, with Tommy Lee Jones as the sociopathic Abner Snopes.

It is well known that Faulkner lived in California and worked as a studio screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930's and 40's. (One of the characters in Barton Fink is said to have been based on Faulkner.) He worked on many screenplays (sometimes uncredited), notably two for Howard Hawks, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). As a writer of prose fiction, Faulkner was unconventional and often experimental, and his style was at times quite cinematic. A good example is the short story "Dry September," published in 1932 in his first collection of stories. Its plot is fragmented into short scenes with sudden shifts in place and time, some separate sections even occurring simultaneously in the cross-cutting technique of cinema, in contrast to the linear and continuous plot of the typical short story.

In 1972 the movie that Leonard Maltin has called "the best-ever screen presentation of [Faulkner's] work," Tomorrow, based on a short story and scripted by Horton Foote, was released to excellent reviews but little other attention. I've wanted to see this movie since it was first released, but I never had the opportunity until it was recently shown on the Turner Classic Movies channel. I can now confirm that the critical kudos the film received on its initial release was well deserved.

The director of Tomorrow was Joseph Anthony, who directed six feature films beginning with The Rainmaker (1956), with Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster. Tomorrow was his last movie and his least typical. Filmed by a crew of unknowns on location in Mississippi in black-and-white and not even in stereo or widescreen, it looks and feels nothing like the slick studio fare that Anthony had previously directed, but more like what today would be called an independent production.

The only performer in the movie who is well known today is Robert Duvall. A veteran of dozens of television shows and a handful of small roles in films, he was not well known for his movie work at the time. (The Godfather was released the same year.) The only major movie in which he had had an important role was MASH, in which he plays the despicable Major Frank Burns. Duvall had played the lead in George Lucas's first feature, the science fiction movie THX 1138, but this was a low-budget production expanded from a short feature Lucas had made as a film student at USC and was not widely released, despite good reviews and high praise for Duvall's performance.

Other members of the cast of Tomorrow are obscure performers and in some cases appear to be non-professionals who worked in this one film only. Nonetheless the performances in the movie, by professionals and non-professionals alike, are uniformly first-rate—understated, restrained, and absolutely convincing. And Duvall's performance—with his thick Southern accent and his voice lower, more nasal, and more constricted in the throat than his normal speaking voice—is so natural that it blends unobtrusively with those of the other actors.

In both its visuals and plot Tomorrow vividly depicts Faulkner's dark view of the rural South, with the region's poverty and its casual brutality born of ignorance and of social and economic frustration. The movie begins with an act of violence. Outside a modest house at night a young couple are getting into the young man's car to elope when suddenly the girl's father bursts out of the house with a rifle. The young man aims a pistol at him but is shot dead before he can fire.

The scene shifts to the jury room of the local courthouse, where the jury are deliberating the fate of the father, who has stood trial for murder. The jurors seem to agree that the victim was a scoundrel and petty criminal and that when he raised his pistol, the accused man was justified in shooting first. They seem ready to vote for a quick acquittal. But one juror, Jackson Fentry (Robert Duvall, in what is reportedly his favorite role), obstinately declares that he will never vote not guilty, and the trial results in a hung jury. The accused man has not been found guilty, but neither has he been exonerated.

The movie then flashes back a number of years to tell the story of Fentry and how he came to this stubborn and entirely symbolic decision. At this point Fentry, an uneducated Mississippi farmer, has just left his father's farm to become the winter caretaker at an isolated seasonal sawmill. On Christmas Eve, as he is leaving to visit his father for the holiday, he finds an unconscious pregnant woman collapsed in his woodpile. Fentry, a gentle, laconic man, rouses the woman, whose name he finds out is Sarah, and takes her back to the shabby cabin where he is temporarily living.

Canceling his plans to visit his father, Fentry invites Sarah (excellently played by Olga Bellin, who flawlessly projects the character's sweetness, passivity, and enervation) to stay until she is stronger and devotes himself to caring for her. Sarah reluctantly agrees to stay just until she feels better. During the next weeks a deep attachment grows between the two and Fentry persuades her to stay until the baby is born. He discovers that Sarah has been disowned by her father and brothers for marrying a man of whom they disapprove, and that her husband deserted her as soon as he learned she was pregnant. Although they share the small cabin, their relationship is never sexual. But it is clear that the two slowly come to love each other.

Fentry at last asks Sarah to marry him in a memorable sequence. One day when the weather has improved and the winter chill is relenting, Fentry asks Sarah to accompany him to the place where his employers have promised to build him a house in the spring. He has already selected the site, a lovely clearing surrounded by trees, and planned the design for the three-room house. As the two sit comfortably in the sunlight at the building site, Fentry suddenly blurts out, "Marry me, Sarah." Sarah refuses because the marriage would be bigamous. If Fentry is disappointed he certainly doesn't express his feelings in either his speech or his facial expression. His face remains as impassive as Buster Keaton's, and they simply return to the cabin and carry on as before.

A few weeks later Sarah goes into labor, and Fentry rushes to get the midwife. The delivery is successful, and the baby is a boy. But the midwife tells Fentry that she is doubtful Sarah will survive. The severely weakened Sarah, sensing that death is near, finally agrees to marry Fentry and barely makes it through the brief bedside ceremony before dying.

After burying Sarah, Fentry returns to his father's farm with the boy that he loves as if her were his own. In a touching montage, we see a few idyllic years pass as Fentry and the boy, whom he names Jackson and Longstreet Fentry, grow closer and share their obvious love for each other. This is the only time in the entire movie that the stoic Fentry shows any discernible emotion.

But as Faulkner said in an interview that appeared in the Paris Review in 1956, "[Art] has no concern with peace and contentment." One day Sarah's father and brothers arrive with legal papers to claim the child. After being physically forced to give up the boy, Fentry lies immobile on the ground, no longer resisting what he must resign himself to accept as inevitable. Eventually he simply gets up and goes on about his business.

In that same interview Faulkner said, "My favorite characters [in literature]...coped with life, didn't ask any favors, and never whined." This is exactly what Fentry does and the way he lives the rest of his life—until, that is, he is called to serve on the jury at that murder trial. Fentry knows that he can't do anything to change the past or rectify the painful injustice he suffered all those years before when he lost the boy he considered his own son. But the movie makes it clear that he has never forgotten the sorrow of that experience and that in stubbornly refusing to follow the other jurors in condemning as worthless the life of the young man who was shot that night, the otherwise powerless Fentry at last finds his own way to make one small symbolic gesture to honor the only few brief years of joy he will ever experience in his life. As the narrator of the movie says at the end, Fentry is one of the "invincible" people who simply continue to endure "tomorrow...and tomorrow...and tomorrow."

A quietly poignant summation of a quietly poignant and movingly honest film, one that anybody interested in movies, literature, or what Faulkner called "the truth of the human heart" must see.
The quotation "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth, where it is spoken in a soliloquy by Macbeth (Act V, scene v). The fascinating Paris Review interview with William Faulkner can be found at

No comments: