Thursday, April 23, 2009

On BLOOM (2004), a film adapted from James Joyce's ULYSSES, directed by Sean Walsh

Like Joseph Strick's 1967 attempt to adapt Ulysses, Sean Walsh's Bloom is not a bad film. It's even a bit better than that faint praise indicates. It's certainly worth seeing, and anyone with an interest in Joyce should head over to Amazon.com and buy a copy. (Despite the fact that a relatively high-profile actor, Stephen Rea, plays Leopold Bloom, the film remains very obscure, so I doubt your local video store will have it on the shelf.) But the impossible task of filming Joyce's Ulysses is enough to hobble any filmmaker. Perhaps only Bergman or Bunuel or Altman (or Eisenstein, with whom Joyce discussed a film version (oh, to have been a fly on that particular wall...)) could have pulled it off. As it is, Bloom is better, edgier and kinkier than Strick's 1960s film, and thus it's closer to Joyce's comic vision. But the film has been edited too aggressively, adapted too telegraphically (so that Bloom's slow burn in 'Cyclops,' for example, appears rather short-fused), and seemingly conceived as a complement or companion to the book rather than a separate work of art. The filmmakers were perhaps too reverent. (And even as I write that sentence I can imagine someone else thinking that they weren't reverent enough.) Hugh O'Conor's performance as Stephen is also hesitant and uncertain, as if he's unsuccessfully concealing the fact that he doesn't deeply understand the role. (This judgment may be unfair. The actor who played Stephen in Strick's film seemed to have the same problem, as I recall. Stephen's epigrammatic laconism doesn't translate well to film.) On the plus side, Stephen Rea is very good in a performance that carries the film, Angeline Ball is a smart and engaging Molly, and the lovely actress who plays Bella Cohen dominates Bloom exquisitely. I can't help but wonder, though, what Ingmar Bergman might have done with this material (aside from insisting that it be filmed on Faro). Bergman's Ulysses would probably have been a darker, moodier film--heavy on the Hamlet, light on the Aristophanes--and Bloom's sexuality would've been more tortured and guilt-ridden than rompily outrageous. Even an artist as great as Bergman, however, would probably have stumbled at 'Oxen of the Sun,' an episode too bookish in form and conception to survive the change of medium. As a general rule, the book's most naturalistic and most surrealistic episodes both translate quite well to film, but those that depend for their effect upon language, sound or the medium of printing (Aeolus, Sirens, Oxen of the Sun, Ithaca) remain firmly bound to the book and resist translation. Of living directors, perhaps only Peter Greenaway could film them, for they insist upon filmic treatment more challenging and avant-garde than either Strick or Walsh could provide.

It now occurs to me that the only possible way to adapt Ulysses with anything approaching faithfulness would be to create a form comparable to Kieslowski's Decalogue or Francois Girard's Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould: a film in 18 'chapters,' each conceived and shot in a distinctive style by 18 different directors working semi-independently--a producer's nightmare. Limit each director to 30 minutes and the final product will be a 9-hour TV miniseries (shorter than Decalogue) or three 3-hour movies. If I were a producer with a bottomless budget and unlimited powers of persuasion, I would match the following directors and episodes:
  1. Telemachus: Kevin Smith. What is Telemachus, after all, but Clerks by the edge of the Irish Sea? And Smith would nail the Catholicism.
  2. Nestor: Francis Ford Coppola, who could imbue the central conversation with all the power and menace of the conversation scene at the beginning of The Godfather.
  3. Proteus: Charlie Kaufman could strike the right balance of metaphysics, comedy, and despair.
  4. Calypso: Philip Kaufmann would do justice to its eroticism, earthy and lyrical.
  5. Lotus Eaters: Mike Leigh could improvise a journey through the Dublin streets
  6. Hades: Woody Allen would be a perfect funeral director.
  7. Aeolus: The Coen Brothers could film it as a 1930's screwball newspaper comedy with the title K.M.R.I.A.
  8. Lestrygonians: Tim Burton could give a Gothic twist to this chapter about the eaters and the eaten.
  9. Scylla and Charybdis: Kenneth Branagh, obviously.
  10. Wandering Rocks: Richard Linklater, who already filmed his own version of it as Slacker.
  11. Sirens: Lars von Trier, who showed us in Dancer in the Dark that he knows how to capture music on film.
  12. Cyclops: Peter Jackson could modulate expertly between fantasy and reality.
  13. Nausicaa: Neil Jordan would film it wonderfully--and I suppose we need an actual Irish director in here somewhere!
  14. Oxen of the Sun: Terry Gilliam may be the only living director who could conceive film analogues for all the various prose styles.
  15. Circe: Since Luis Bunuel and Maya Deren are long gone, David Lynch is the only person for the job.
  16. Eumaeus: I'd like to see what Roman Polanski could do with this episode.
  17. Ithaca: Peter Greenaway has the capacity to transform mundane lists into beautifully surreal film passages. Imagine what the director of Prospero's Books would do with Bloom's books.
  18. Penelope: Jane Campion could nail the sexuality and lyricism.

And so we would have the first Billion Dollar Movie, a sure commercial disaster to wreck the film industry as we know it. But aesthetically it would rock. This is the only way to adapt Ulysses, and it's surely an economic and logistical impossibility.

Postscript: I just thought of another potentially decent way to adapt Ulysses: pay Robert Crumb to design an 18-hour animated version. The trouble with this idea is that Crumb is probably the only big-name artist alive who cannot be bought... As a young Irish member of Joyce's circle once said, Nothing to be done.

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