|Marilyn reading the famous final chapter of Ulysses, the Molly Bloom soliloquy.|
Last Wednesday (a few days before Bloomsday), at the invitation of the Austin Film Society, I attended a screening of the documentary "In Bed with Ulysses" which tells the story of James Joyce writing and publishing Ulysses. While it was refreshing and often entertaining to witness the story of Joyce creating his epic and rising to fame (and notoriety) conveyed through cinema, I found the film lacking in many respects.
Creating a documentary film about Ulysses certainly entails the unenviable task of condensing an immense amount of information (both about the novel itself, its reception, and Joyce's life) into a neat 90-minute package. Overall, I do think the filmmakers did an adequate job of summing things up. My problem with it is that the film seemed to waste far too much time covering the preparations for a contemporary theatrical reading of Ulysses for Bloomsday (directed by the same guy who directed and narrated the documentary) which didn't help with telling the story of Joyce's book and the composition of it. This, combined with the narrator's terribly dorky, nasally voice, a disappointingly superficial overview of the book's content, and shoddy visual quality combined for an underwhelming film overall.
I'm still waiting for someone to produce a documentary (or even biopic) about Joyce and the making of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in the atmosphere of the 20s and 30s that's worthy of the subject and done in the same quality as the myriad other indie documentaries that come out every year. It's an extremely fascinating story that remains to be adequately shared with a film audience.* If the void remains unfilled much longer, I might have to try to develop the tools to take a crack at it myself.
*It's likely that such film ideas have been pitched around a lot but not blossomed, like the planned DiCaprio-starring Timothy Leary biopic, another great story that needs to be told.
Another issue I had with the In Bed with Ulysses film was that it painted a decidedly negative image of Joyce's personal character overall, especially toward the end of the film when Ulysses is published and Joyce's fame supposedly ruined him and his family. It reminded me of a funny letter Joyce wrote right around the time Ulysses was about to be completed and Joyce was reaching his height of worldwide fame. I think the letter serves to show that it's absurd to try to paint the character of the man in one stark shade of black or white, especially looking back on things almost a century later, as there were so many ridiculous rumors and stories going around during that time:
"A nice collection could be made of legends about me. Here are some. My family in Dublin believe that I enriched myself in Switzerland during the war by espionage work for one or both combatants. Triestines... circulated the rumour, now firmly believed, that I am a cocaine victim... In America there appear to have been two versions: one that I was almost blind, emaciated and consumptive, the other that I am an austere mixture of the Dalai Lama and sir Rabindranath Tagore... Mr. [Wyndam] Lewis told me he was told I was a crazy fellow who always carried four watches and rarely spoke except to ask my neighbor what o'clock it was...
I mention all these views not to speak about myself or my critics but to show you how conflicting they all are. The truth probably is that I am a quite commonplace person undeserving of so much imaginative painting."
- letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver, June 24, 1921
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The Poundian calendar, designed by Ezra Pound, attempts to define the post-Christian era and dates everything from 31 October 1921 (Gregorian)--the date Joyce wrote the last words of Ulysses. The "p.s.U." means post scriptum Ulysses, "after the writing of Ulysses."
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I've mentioned it a few times before, but I must again aim anyone interested in Ulysses toward the superb ongoing ReJoyce podcast done by Frank Delaney, considered "the most eloquent man in the world." For something like 4 years now he's been reading through the text gradually and breaking down the meaning of passages while emphasizing the unique beauties of the prose.
After slowly treading through the first three dense chapters focused on Stephen Dedalus, he's just now begun covering the lighter, more pleasant ones, the beginning of Mr. Leopold Bloom's story for June 16, 1904. I recommend checking out the latest episode, "Enter Mr. Bloom."