“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan….” the first four words of the most influential modern novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses, will ring out around the world today, June 16, because today is Bloomsday. The events of Ulysses take place on a single day, June 16, 1904 in Dublin. The novel follows, through a dizzying variety of ingenious and sometimes maddening narrative techniques, the perambulations of one Leopold Bloom (Bloom’s day). The novel is impossible to encapsulate so I won’t even make that attempt. But its landmark approach to narration in the novel has spilled over in ways both direct and oblique into the film world.
In 1882 the 19th century was quickly winding down. Giants of literature, philosophy and science who bestrode that century died that year: Longfellow, Emerson and Darwin. Their places were taken by equally important figures for the coming 20th century: Igor Stravinsky, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert Goddard, and in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, James Joyce. It’s no overstatement that Joyce’s affect on the novel was volcanic. Ulysses, published in 1922, had a difficult time of it at first. Censors in both Britain and the United States considered it obscene. Copies were burned unopened but it eventually took its place as the cornerstone of modern literature. Its influence has never waned.
1882: Out with the old: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he of the spreading chestnut trees and wrecked Hesperuses, promulgated American poesy in the 19th century. Transcendental philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (center) prevailed upon us to be self reliant. The biological proclivities of Charles Darwin (right) were no doubt naturally selected.
1882: In with the new: Igor Stravinsky's modern music caused riots in Paris. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (center) grew up in the midst of a 19th century family but lived til the dawn of the Atomic Age. Rocket scientist Robert Goddard's work provided thrust for the American space program.
Many of the techniques Joyce employed in his writing have cinematic correlatives. He uses flashback effects, scenes that read as if they were created through a series of montage edits, and interior monologue. He mixes classical literature and references with hyper-modern attention to both exterior and interior details of his characters. It is no surprise that many of the narrative devices Joyce uses seem cinematic. He was a great fan of the new art form of cinema. In 1909 he helped found the Volta Cinematograph, the first movie house in Ireland. Twenty years later he met the influential Russian Director Sergei Eisenstein in Paris where, according to Eisenstein, Joyce waxed ecstatic over Potemkin, Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a revolt by Russian sailors against the evil forces of the Tsar. Sometime in the thirties it seems that Warner Brothers expressed some interest in filming Ulysses (what were they thinking? Perhaps Jimmy Cagney as Leopold and Bette Davis as Molly Bloom with a Thompson gun shootout in the pub as a finale.) but Joyce, according to his biographer Richard Ellman, had no hope that it would survive the translation. Although Ulysses was finally adapted for film (once in 1967 and again in 2003) neither version succeeded much beyond literal recreation of the more concrete passages. How does one film a poem? Or a stream of thoughts, and not have it become rote? Some writers have suggested that Joyce explored the idea of having Eisenstein adapt his very difficult novel Finnegan’s Wake (good luck with that).
Himself. James Joyce photographed by Berniece Abbott in Paris, 1926. Joyce suffered through many operations to improve his diminished eyesight. One benefit was this very rakish eyepatch. Master of Soviet cinema Sergei Eisenstein (center) sporting an Eraserhead hairdo and an earnest countenance. The Odessa Steps sequence (right) from Eisenstein's paean to proletarian power, Battleship Potemkin.
Joyce quotes and references in films pop up here and there. Mel Brooks’ retiring accountant turned broadway scam-artist in The Producers is named Leo Bloom. Richard Linklater’s film Slacker recalls a Joyce-like effect (from the Wandering Rocks chapter of Ulysses), following a number of characters and listening in on their thoughts. At one point--this is the giveaway--a character starts reading a passage from Ulysses. Frank Sinatra’s character in the Manchurian Candidate has a copy of Ulysses open on his nightstand (no wonder he was having such crazy dreams!). Another Linklater film, Before Sunrise, recounts events that take place on a single day: June 16. Roger Ebert in his review of Finding Forrester, a film about a young literary prodigy, notes that both the young writer and his mentor (played by Rob Brown and Sean Connery respectively) have Finnegan’s Wake on their bookshelves but, unlike the other dog-eared volumes, it appears untouched because that’s the book people buy but hardly ever finish.
Shades of Joyce: Gene Wilder plays nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers. Richard Linklater (center) pays homage to Joyce in several of his films. Frank Sinatra (right) in the John Frankenheimer Manchurian Candidate seems to have maxed out his library card. Somewhere in those piles is a copy of Ulysses.
Nonetheless, Joyce’s work was extremely influential on modern narrative forms and cinema was well placed to explore some of his more challenging techniques such as stream of consciousness. Stream of consciousness plunks the reader/viewer in the front row for a close look at the hidden machinery behind a character’s thought process. It meanders and leaps, like our own thoughts, from one place to the next. Variations of this narrative technique appear in many films—some with more success than others. Alain Resnais’ film Hiroshima Mon Amour exploits this device quite effectively, telling the story of a survivor of the atomic blast through a medley of documentary clips and the interior thoughts and memories of the protagonists. Wim Wenders’ beautiful Wings of Desire employs stream of consciousness narration to explore the inner lives of residents of Berlin as observed by their guardian angels.
Scenes of Consciousness: Directors find Joyce's stream of consciousness style an excellent technique for expressing intensely personal thoughts. Hiroshima Mon Amour used this narrative device quite efffectively. Bruno Ganz (right) in Wings of Desire may look like he's trying out his Vulcan mind meld technique but he's actually sensing the innermost thoughts of his charge, as all good guardian angels should.
But the worlds of film and literature have always had a symbiotic relationship. Techniques, tropes and narrative devices migrate from page to screen and back again with impunity. Joyce was intrigued by all aspects of language and storytelling. His fluency and command of language and his feel for the subtle variations of tone, mood and structure allowed him to develop a wrenchingly personal approach to the novel and to narrative forms, what we now refer to as Modernism, and film offers exceptional opportunities for experimentation with narrative form.
One contemporary writer/director who uses narrative in creative and unique ways, perhaps not exactly like Joyce, but with Joyce’s ability to question and redirect the nature of storytelling is Charlie Kaufman. Synecdoche, New York, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation all delve into the psychology of personal narration, how we see ourselves and others through interior storylines. How we explain the world to ourselves. Much of his stuff feels non-linear. Even though his films are not chronologically scattered they have the feel of inner thought processes which, like Joyce’s work, pull the viewer/reader deep into another consciousness. The feeling is at once familiar and alien but never boring or even predictable.
Joycean inflections: Charlie Kaufman's films often approach narrative with Joyce's spirit of experimentation. Cameron Diaz and John Cusack consider Being John Malkovich. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis explore the limits of onscreen literary theory in Synecdoche, New York (center). Nicolas Cage's character conquers his writer's block by putting himself into his work. Literally. Adaptation.
In fact, Joyce’s work, especially Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, sometimes has a “surfing the web” feel to it. Okay, surfing the web while hallucinating, maybe. But there is the same kind of unexpected, elliptical, non-linearity that you find when jumping from one link to another. And as with web surfing you could suddenly find yourself staring at a page in Japanese or Greek or Russian or Esperanto. You might start by looking up the process of internal combustion and end up reading about the epidemiology of botulism. It can be a wild ride with unforseen leaps in time and topic and Joyce was a major contributor to our ability to navigate such lurching excursions.
The day that never ends: Readers of Ulysses continually call back June 16, 1904, Bloomsday. Marilyn Monroe reads her copy of Ulysses in the park. Must have been her Arthur Miller period. Street scene in Dublin during the early 1920s around the time of the publication of Ulysses (center), and the plain cover of the first edition (right) belies the labyrinthine pages awaiting the reader inside.
All of which leads us to consider a different kind of special “effect” in film, an effect that has more to do with structure and narration than with CGI effects or stuff blowing up. Next up, Jean Luc Godard and the Jump Cut.