Filming Ulysses

An Irish Film Festival Film Documentary,

Reviewed by Philip Harvey

Ulysses/Film directed by Alan Gilsenan, Dublin, 2020

Is the film better than the book? is a question you will never ask of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joseph Strick’s 1967 and David Kahne’s 2003 efforts at putting the novel on the screen were already period pieces upon release, movie-making of its time, full of good interpretive detail, but unable to deliver anything of the complexity of the original. Both films reveal why Ulysses, a book of infinite cinematic possibilities, resists any kind of effective or comprehensive film interpretation, never mind the idea of a definitive version. For many readers of Joyce, the reasons for this are self-evident in the book itself. 

Primary amongst the reasons is the plot, which is essentially no plot. One man walks around Dublin doing things, knowing that his wife and her lover are having it off back at home. Meanwhile, another younger man chucks his job, then gives a literary lecture in a library. As a plot, this is nothing to write home about. Nor much to go on with if you are used to the convoluted ins-and-outs of a Dickens classic. Many film makers have probably taken one look at Ulysses and chosen to go elsewhere: such a spare story cannot translate into cinema. To make it work will require all sorts of visual tricks not found in the book.

Contrarily, Ulysses is also crammed with hundreds of stories that cannot be pursued meaningfully in a film without departing from Ulysses. Characters in the novel all have their own stories, many of which are told by the most passing inference. Joycean historical memory of people and places presents a Scheherazade of Dublin fragments. 

This is further complicated by how so many of these stories are not enacted, but go through people’s heads. Joyce does all of this through his many styles of telling each episode, a freedom that might only translate as confusion or overload in a movie. 

When he completed the novel in 1922, Joyce said he had done with what he called ‘wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot’, fair warning for what happened next with this artist creatively, but some would say that Ulysses itself had already let go of ‘goahead plot’ in the familiar Dickensian sense. Cinema may be able to do likewise, but at what cost to film sense or the interest of the film-going public?

A good example of where the possible takes us is the 2020 Ulysses/Film made by Irish filmmaker Alan Gilsenan, screened at this year’s Irish Film Festival Online. In a little over an hour, Gilsenan goes sequentially through the book’s 18 episodes. However, names are hard to find, characters as such are never introduced, dialogue is not much in evidence, and drive has driven off somewhere. Instead a steady collage of Dublin scenes, object close-ups, period photographs, and tiktok passages is superimposed with words and lines from Ulysses, some very familiar, others less so, and a soundtrack of spoken words, ambient samples both urban and natural, and scratchy opera songs going at 78 rpm. You don’t have to know the novel to enjoy this film, but it helps. It is enigmatic, a work of passive absorption, one person’s personal response that leaves one with a nostalgic sense of a time since past, words left for contemplative enjoyment. 

Promotions say the film is ‘intended as a creative echo of Joyce’s work and life … neither a film of the book nor a visual illustration of the novel.’ Gilsenan’s poetic method involves matching lines with a private visual vocabulary, rather like treating the novel as ‘found poetry’ pieced together into a new and rather attractive hybrid expression. It is talked of as being a ‘doorway into the work’, however it is truer to say the film is a glowing homage to book and creator, a carefully constructed ode displaying an experienced knowledge of Ulysses and assuming something of the same from its viewers. At no point does the film even pretend to be telling a story.

Gilsenan’s mood piece is a private meditation. His inclusion of stills and reels of Joyce, wife Nora Barnacle, and other pertinent black-and-white period imagery, opens up our appreciation of the writing of Ulysses as a writer’s internal biographical reality. 

Ulysses/Film serves to show the potential diversity of cinema inspired by Ulysses. It is a sign of the filmic future of the book, now that film is available to everyone with a camera. Bloomsdayers have seen for years that this most protean works of literature can lend itself to endless theatricalization, creative reading, and original interpretation, at both the macro and micro levels. For this reason, the same variety of interpretation is available to filmmakers, whether of the ‘goahead plot’ school, or beyond.

The man who helped open the first picture theatre in Dublin was already alive to the artistic medium of the moving picture. Its effect is apparent in the writing of Ulysses – stop motion imagery, caption dialogue, merging thought patterns – and it is impossible to say today how extensive that influence was in the novel’s overall composition. Its slapstick successor, Finnegans Wake, owns the influence of the movies, having been composed through the transition from the silent to the talkie eras. Readers have long recognised in its rapid shifts of voice and subject a Chaplinesque rumbustiousness, a fractured flickering, the element of permanent surprise. Joyce’s interest in new forms of media to influence existing forms, to change both how the world is expressed and how, in turn, we perceive, are among the many obsessions perceptible in Finnegans Wake. These novels become themselves handbooks for filmmaking ideas.It is instructive to compare this short film with Bloomsday in Melbourne’s 18 short films of each episode, screened online during lockdown on 16 June 16 2020. Faced with the unexpected closure of the theatres, an executive decision was made to produce a Ulysses film, the result being viewable to this day online and titled ‘Bloomsday in Plaguetime’. Director Jennifer Sarah Dean rallied a cast, tightly scripted excerpts from each episode were invented focusing on specific aspects of the action, and miraculously the deadline was met. This is not a passive listening experience. Verbal exchange takes centre stage, or in this case, screen. The outcomes affirm the basic thesis of this review: the age of the Ulysses movie, in all its immense variety, has arrived now that means are readily to hand for anyone, and the interest thrives.   

Philip Harvey

Philip is a Joycean, a literary blogger, and the Poetry editor at Eureka Street.