Heralded as one of the great twentieth century modernist novels, James Joyce’s Ulysses is still keeping the academics occupied, almost 100 years after its initial publication. Its 933 pages contain a challenging, occasionally oblique narrative which takes place in Dublin, Ireland on Thursday the 16th of June 1904. With an introspective and fragmented approach to storytelling, interspersed with onomatopoeia, portmanteau and experimentation, it is not exactly a book which cries out to be adapted to the screen. Or, alternatively, is it that the peculiarities, frenetic sense of being and vivid imagery make it ripe for interpretation?
One ambitious filmmaker from Pennsylvania thought so, and in the late ’60s, Joseph Strick (The Savage Eye) took on his own Homerian challenge when he set about creating a cinematic adaptation of the dense, scholarly work. The results were controversial, divisive and, sadly, underappreciated.
Strick had been working as a director for almost twenty years when he was finally able to bring his vision of Ulysses to the screen, however, even getting the film off the ground was something which was fraught with innumerable obstacles and speculative derision.
“Even before I made it, people were saying it was unfilmable. I think the truth is, some people just find the book unreadable.”
According to Ronald Bergan in The Guardian’s Obituary of the director, who passed away in 2010: The iconoclastic Strick first envisaged an 18-hour version, faithful to every word, but unsurprisingly he could not get anyone to finance it.
A film of such length, three times the duration of Andy Warhol’s early cut of Chelsea Girls (1966), would have been an endurance test for even the most ardent of cinematic and /or Joycean scholars. Once a more commercially viable running time was proposed, Strick managed to procure his funding.
“I started off thinking I’d do the whole book,” Strick told The Arts Desk in a French-language interview in 2009, “But I couldn’t raise a dime. Even though Savage Eye was a success. And I had taken that money to make The Balcony and I took this money to make Ulysses. But I couldn’t make a film of 19 and three-quarter hours. I couldn’t do it. Nobody would let me. I wanted to. That would have been marvellous.”
Perhaps, if someone had been wild enough to provide Strick with the means to create his original vision, it would have resulted in an avant-garde masterpiece along the lines of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, but it was not meant to be. The two hours of footage which did emerge from the ashes of this lofty ambition are worthy ones, acting as a superb entry point for those who have tried, and failed, to fully embrace Joyce’s dense and foreboding text.
Like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Ulysses is part of an exclusive literary set; that of books which many have heard of, a great number own, most have started, some have finished and few have understood. At least, on their own. Sometimes it’s necessary to go in forearmed and forewarned, as it were (Portals of Discovery by Patrick A. McCarthy serves as a superb preparatory study / companion piece to Ulysses, as does Introducing Joyce by David Norris and Carl Flint. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky works equally well as a prerequisite to reading Infinite Jest). They also share a reputation for being practically unfilmable, due to their form and delivery. In short, they require a great deal of effort from the reader. Film, in contrast, is a far more passive medium and, in populist terms at least, expects very little from the viewer.
From the offset, Strick wasn’t aiming to appeal to the mainstream. From a series of acerbic shorts to his early example of the staged documentary The Savage Eye in 1960, he had been constantly establishing himself as a progressive and experimentalist filmmaker. With a stream of consciousness narrative to the latter, it was clear that Joyce was lurking around his mind for some time.
“The Savage Eye is influenced by Joyce for sure. You can’t get more experimental than Joyce. I wanted to do better and better images. They would be more and more revelatory. I wanted to do a good job with the cast. I wanted to have a decent looking and operating film. I wanted nobody to (be) confused. I wanted it to be clear. And then when it came down to it I wanted it to have something of a revelation of the book.”
Reading Ulysses for the first time as a teenager had a profound effect on Strick. The novel was still banned in the US when his father, a Polish-Jewish immigrant brought a copy from Europe and it became engrained in his creative vernacular.
“My father smuggled it over in 1925. It sat in the house like a holy artefact. He’d gone through Paris, bought it there and brought it back. At 16, I began reading it; it was something very extraordinary.”
It’s a story, not only of Dublin, but of language and narrative itself. Multilingual puns and sly references to classical education litter the pages, which chart Irish-Jewish protagonist Leopold Bloom’s challenging day on the streets of Ireland’s capital.
The casting of Bloom is one of the great strengths of Strick’s Ulysses. Dublin-born star of stage and screen Milo O’Shea perfectly encapsulated the empathetic, affable, but troubled narrator. A Jewish native of the city, Bloom is held with suspicion by his fellow countrymen. “What is your nation, if I may ask?” inquires ‘The Citizen’ of the bar scene from Cyclops (Episode 12 of the novel and a poignant, but comedic highlight of both the book and feature). “Ireland” replies Bloom without missing a beat. The Citizen spits on the floor and walks away in disgust.
This scene is one of many which addresses anti-Semitism within Dublin of the time. Even though Strick’s Ulysses takes place in the Dublin of the 1960s, racial divides and cultural segregation were something that were of particular relevance to the director, who lost the majority of his extended family in World War II.
Indeed, as the film opens upon one of Dublin’s iconic Martello towers, located in Sandycove, near Dún Laoghaire (in which Joyce lived for a few days), it is not long before Malachi ‘Buck’ Mulligan engages in a particularly anti-Semetic rant to his housemate Stephen Dedalus (who we first met in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book which Strick would also adapt to film in 1977). Dedalus is at odds with Mulligan for other reasons, one of which is the presence of a visiting Englishman within the house; something that puts Dedalus on edge.
The paths of Bloom and Dedalus cross at several junctures during the film, but become no more significant than during a lengthy and wildly inventive drunken sequence at a brothel. As Dedalus and Bloom find themselves amidst some of Dublin’s rougher ladies of the night (“How’s yer middle leg darlin’? C’mere and I’ll stiffen it for ya!”), a sequence of bizarre fantasies are played out, many of which involve submissive displays towards dominant females in positions of control or power. This includes Bloom as a cross-dressing truffle pig in a circus.
In the novel, Bloom is coming to terms with his wife Molly’s infidelity (she is having an affair with a local concert manager named Blazes Boylan) and the melancholy which surrounds their marriage as a whole. Following the death of their 11 day old son, they stopped sleeping together. She maintains an air of sexual desire, through her eager consumption of trashy novels, but cannot abide to be physical with her husband.
The last quarter of the film is given to Molly in a beautiful and touching way, lest a traditional masculine narrative create a villain out of her. What results is a touching performance from Barbara Jefford which encapsulates the understanding Joyce had when it came to writing female characters. A damaged tenderness is displayed, one which contextualises her despondency with her ailing relationship with Leopold, and how the affair with Boylan has reawaken a joy within that she thought had died long before. It also serves as a visual relaxant, after the preceding 30 minutes of drunken madness which occur at the brothel.
An intermittent, atonal soundtrack adds to the progressive feel of Ulysses. Director of Photography Wolfgang Suschitzky (Get Carter) creates a painterly beauty to Dublin’s streets, whilst simultaneously portraying it as a modern and attractive city awash with neon at night; draped in elegance by day. There is plenty of playful visual trickery too; one scene in a newspaper office is complimented by a regularly changing poster on the wall, which changes its text over half a dozen times, corresponding with the dialogue which is taking place in the room.
The humour of Joyce is present throughout, which is an essential part of his work. Whilst the reverential Bloom, released in 2003 from director Sean Walsh, treated its subject matter with great care, it displayed a reluctance to embrace the wild, sillier side of Joyce, which comprises a significant body of his material. Joyce wasn’t afraid to poke fun at the highbrow and lowbrow elements of life. His ardent, obsessive nature when it came to the observation of everyday existence meant that his beats could be born from a flatulence gag just as much as they could stem from a political, historical or linguistic source.
Indeed, it was Joyce’s more prurient aspects which Strick has focused upon in his adaptation; a choice which saw the film banned outright in Ireland until the following millennium. Britain, the US and France also imposed cuts. It was simply too racy. Too real. Just as Joyce had intended his work to be. The depictions of lustful intentions, actions and fantasies proved to be simply too much for the censors, who demanded a slew of amendments be made before the film see the light of day. Strick got as creative as he could, utilizing noise, slides and distractors to avert attention from the wickedness which his creation contained, but the unedited result is where the treasure lies.
The reactions from critics were largely negative or dismissive, possibly due to the same reverence which Walsh’s Bloom suffered from. There was an element of ‘How dare he?’ when it came to Strick’s Ulysses and, when looked upon almost half a century later, it seems as if he was simply too accurate in his adaptation and that people were unwilling to credit him with achieving the unachievable.
As this week marks the 75th Anniversary of Joyce’s death, perhaps it’s time to say ‘Yes I will, Yes‘ to this neglected feature.