Under the covers with James Joyce's 'Ulysses'
In Bed With Ulysses is a quirky, 80-minute hosanna to the James Joyce novel (yes, that Ulysses), widely hailed as a game-changing 20th century Modernist masterpiece – though not a few have gone down trying to finish it. The book, written in a variety of allusive styles, including stream-of-consciousness, takes place in Dublin, on a single day – June 16, 1904 – in the life of one Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly, each chapter loosely corresponding to the episodes of Homer's Odyssey. Filmmaker Alan Adelson (1989's Lodz Ghetto), who says he was "just a guy who loved the book" (one of those), was in the middle of producing a staged Ulysses reading for an annual Bloomsday celebration in New York, when his film editor wife, Kate Taverna, decided there was a film there that needed to be made and proceeded to make it happen.
The film kicks off with a cheeky quote from Joyce's much-venerated wife, Nora Barnacle – "Why would I bother to read Ulysses?" – followed by the similarly dismissive, if less fraught, comments of a few Irish pubgoers as to the book's readability and the size of its actual readership. From then on, we're off on an Adelson-narrated exploration of the book seven tortuous years in the making, as its impecunious author pushed forward battling alcoholism, glaucoma, and the demands of his family of three. Also, there were the just-in-time, life-and-work-saving interventions of several female benefactors and finally the obscenity charges that led to the book being banned for years in the U.S. and UK. The tone and pacing of Adelson's narration is a curiously mesmerizing blend of near-fawning reverence and factual exposition. Interspersed throughout the film are scenes from the staged Bloomsday reading he produced, with wonderful performances, including that of Kathleen Chalfant as Molly, as well as the talking-heads literary commentary offered by the likes of Edna O'Brien and various Joyce scholars. (The film's title derives from Chalfant's observation in the film that "Bed was the very best place to read Ulysses, especially Molly's parts, because bed was where Molly spends her life.")
The film will most certainly hit its stride with the population of Ulysses fans out there and – who knows? – might even galvanize those who've remained on the sidelines, lo these many years, to give it another go.
Austin Chronicle: OK, so why Ulysses?
Alan Adelson: In my capacity as the founder and executive director of Jewish Heritage, I was asked by the curator at the Center for Jewish History here in Manhattan to produce and direct readings related to Jewish literature. She said, "Do what you love." I love Ulysses. I love it for Leopold Bloom. I love his compassion, his grace, his intelligence, his shortcomings, his loneliness, his need, his strength, compassion, generosity. I love his perception of the human condition. And I love the language with which Joyce presents all that.
AC: And what about your fascination with Joyce himself?
AA: A devilishly enticing character, especially when you can see him, and the movie uses so many photographer's studies and snapshots of the man and his family. He was so conflicted, so idiosyncratic, such a user, and so attractive. It was great fun to follow how seven women, sometimes in tandem but usually seriatim, teamed up to make Ulysses possible. And I loved Joyce's rebellious and innovative spirit. "He could not be contained, not by the mores of Ireland nor by the King's English." That's from the narration.
AC: Why did you choose to structure the film the way you did, blending archival footage, dramatic readings, and talking heads? Did you consider other possibilities for telling the story you wanted to tell?
AA: We really followed our noses, like mice in a maze. We had the staged reading and a cake box full of script elements we formed and re-formed as we built the story. We wanted to use the readings from the novel to dramatize the actualities that seemed to work in building the Joyces' characters and their story through the years he worked on the novel ... and into its aftermath.
AC: What was your biggest challenge in making the film?
AA: Concision and story-shaping were our greatest challenges. There are libraries full of Joyce material. And the novel is a significant tome. We had a great deal to choose from. It took a lot of filtering and a lot of fiddling. I like that people are put at ease about reading the novel, and that they enjoy the film whether or not they've read it. I like that they are intrigued with the experience of being at home with the Joyces, and feel proud to have enjoyed the film ... sometimes even relieved.
AC: I like the part at the beginning where people offer their candid feelings about the book Ulysses and the difficulties it presents to the reader. Do you worry that prospective viewers might avoid the film for the same reasons that some do the book?
AA: Yes, fear of flying with Joyce definitely looms over the fate of this film. But it is getting a good play, audiences are loving it, and I think it's going to have a lasting identity.
The Austin Film Society presents In Bed With Ulysses Wednesday, June 12, 7pm, as part of its AFS Doc Nights series. Visit www.austinfilm.org for tickets and more information.