To adapt the words of some venerable Austrian nuns, how do you solve a problem like 'Ulysses'? Considered by most to be the greatest book of the 20th century, it is also, notoriously, one of its most difficult. How do you film a book where each character exists in a narrative set on 16 June, 1904, but also corresponds parodically to Greek mythology. Where each chapter is a parody, pastiche, interrogation of a whole host of literary styles and conventions, where almost every line is an allusion, crucially mutated, to literature, theology, philosophy, history etc. Where each character, event, setting, is subject to rigorous verbal deconstruction, so that they can seem to dissolve in front of our eyes, and put back in playfully different combinations; or where whole episodes evolve from word games. Where each setting is rich in historical significance, providing a meta-narrative to all the squabbling narratives that comprise 'Ulysses'.
Take, for example, the episode 'Proteus', where Stephen Dedalus walks on the beach. In the book, his mixture of observation and thought creates an unsettling, difficult text, where what he sees and what he thinks meld indistinguishably into one another, and the reader risks getting lost, fixed as he is in the flux of Stephen's head, not guided by an impartial narrator. We travel in fragments, on a Dublin beach, through the centuries, from Elsinore to the Renaissance to Paris, from literature and politics to memory, all the while doused in vast philosophical imponderables. Strick shows us a young man walking on a beach chased by a dog to the bathetic recitation of the novel's words. On paper, the dog inspires a number of puns, including colonialism, intellectual slavery and man's mortality. Here it's just a dog. The words are full of soundbites such as 'ineluctable modality of the visible', phrases that have to be gone over, worked out, understood, necessitating maybe even a dictionary. To have them sped read seems self-defeating, unless you know the book, and if you are only making a film for people who've read the book, than what's the point?
Strick films the formal landmine of 'Ulysses' with a studied focus on narrative. He avoids structural rupture, or any attempt to translate the novel's techniques, many borrowed from cinema, into film. A true 'Ulysses' would require someone with fiendish formal daring, a massive intellect, a sense of history and place, but also someone with a love of stories, resonant sentimentality, and popular culture, and, especially, a taste for farce. Godard of the 60s, maybe, or Richard Lester. Or some unholy mixture of Welles, Huston and Gerald Thomas.
ULYSSES is redundant, full of scenes slavishly recreated with dialogue spouted verbatim, but arbitrarily selected so that they make no sense. It might have been an idea to take a couple of digestible narrative lines and create a film around them, but Strick wants to get everything, and, in a standard feature film, can only give a few minutes to each episode, which makes a nonsense of them. Even on this level, his filming is fizzleless, flat, cautious, as if what is said in 'Ulysses' is crucial, when, of course, it's how it's said that counts. The crucial dichotomy of the novel, between Stephen's intellectualism and Bloom's corporeality, is fudged, and the triangle between Stephen (man), Bloom (womanly man) and Molly (woman) only comes about by pilfering the book's structure.
This is the accepted view of the film, and it is theoretically accurate. It makes the film sound inept, which, as Joyce, it may be, but it is very entertaining. Milo O'Shea is an incomparable Bloom, transcending the leaving cert level script, capturing this hero's multifaceted humanity in all its inglorious glory, his decency and desire, his tragedy and sense of exclusion (the mirroring of virulent racism in Bloom's time with our own more sophisticated age is chilling), and his peerless good humour.
He is supported by an extraordinary cast, many of whom are familiar from TV or theatre, and anyone who is not Irish will completely miss the frisson of seeing Dinny Byrne as a cheeky Lothario, on a birthday-suited pedestal, or, most alarming of all, Mrs. Cadogon as a leather-booted, whip-wielding Madame. Barbara Jefford is an extraordinary Molly Bloom, that hothouse flower spending the day in bed, voluptuously ordinary; her soliloquy is one of the best things in the film - it completely bypasses Joyce's intentions, but in its mixture of voiceover and silent, literal imagery it achieves a dreamlike power reminiscent of Perec/Queysanne's later UN HOMME QUI DORT.
There is great humour throughout, usually courtesy of Bloom, my favourite being his entry into a cafe of uncommonly audible munchers; the Nightown sequence, though again a travesty, is great fun, more Nabokov or Flann O'Brien in its Carrollian topsy-turvy, even if you wish, as did John Devitt who introduced the film, that it had been magicked by Fellini.
This was a Bloomsday treat at the Irish Film Centre. And the print itself was of historic interest, in that it was a censored one from the 1960s. Instead of cutting offending scenes, the sound was simply turned down, signalled by an amusing warning noise, or the picture being blacked out. Luckily I have the video (and the book!) so I went to check what I'd missed, which wasn't very much, some innuendo, a few choice epithets and Molly's orgasmic face. The decisions behind the censoring were erratic, as some scenes left intact seemed more fruity than some of the victims. In a film based on words, this vandalism, interrupting especially a soliloquy of snowballing impact, made me increasingly furious, and reminded me that relative liberalisation in this country after decades of Franco-like repression, was not all that distantly achieved.
There was real pleasure, as a Dubliner, though, in seeing the city of my parents in clean monochrome - due presumably to budgetary constrictions, Strick made no attempt to recreate turn-of-the-century Dublin, making another evasion of Joyce, but achieving something pleasantly different none the less. And as I could never have hoped, Martin Dempsey is perfect as my favourite Joycean character, Simon Dedalus, like all his friends mean-minded, selfish, dreadful, but capable of great humour, and in his recitation of a heartmeltingly sad melody, emotional beauty.