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"Why would I bother to read Joyce?" is the cri de coeur from James Joyce's wife that opens Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna's engaging documentary In Bed with Ulysses. Free-thinking, uninhibited Nora Barnacle served as the model for Molly Bloom in Joyce's masterwork Ulysses.
Yet she would also come to feel that she was "in bed with a novel," as we learn while the film reconstructs the seven-year saga behind the fiction and exposes how Joyce engineered marital drama for the sake of his art. Both muse and antagonist, the impassioned Irishwoman provided the love theme and the conflict of Joyce's opus and, by extension, of this filmed annotation.
Esteemed Joyceans including Ulysses publisher Syliva Beach, Irish novelist Colum McCann and actress Kathleen Chalfant advance the project through a mix of archival footage, sage commentary and staged readings. Along the way, we uncover such historical nuggets as Joyce's decision to set his story in 1904, the year of the anti-Semitic riots that flared up in Limerick.
Joyce chose protagonist Leopold Bloom because he wanted an outsider to enact his own role within Irish society, Adelson told FilmFestivalTraveler.com at a screening at Manhattan's Symphony Space in anticipation of Bloomsday, June 16. (Symphony Space will also show the film on June 2 and 9 at 8 pm.) "The theme and humanism of the novel are a scathing indictment of bigotry and intolerance," Adelson explained.
Editor and co-director Taverna joined in for an exclusive conversation about the filmmaking duo's creative affair with Ulysses.
Q: What made you want to bring Ulysses to today's audiences?
AA: The drives that Joyce explores -- male insecurity, the need to be relevant -- foreshadow the enormous alienation which began in modern society in the 1960s and has lingered like a plague over our lives ever since. Bloom's wanderings and his need to connect to human beings resonate eloquently. His humanity, his honesty, his compassion, his courtesy, his modesty, his flaws...make all other human beings' lives easier.
Q: Including the lives of writers?
AA: Joyce set out to redefine to art form of fiction. He got his way, but at an enormous price.
Q: The price being...
AA: It took an enormous toll on his family and his health. He was going blind. He nearly went mad three times during the writing of the novel. His daughter was probably schizophrenic, if we apply contemporary diagnoses. His son became an alcoholic and had a very difficult time finding any place in the world as well. That tore the heart out out of James Joyce.
Q: How did the structure of the novel shape your filmmaking?
AA: We looked for points when the Joyces' lives coincided with moments in the novel, because it is so autobiographical and because we wanted to follow parallel tracks with the novel and being at home with the Joyces.
Q: For example? AA: On their first date, when they went down to Dublin Harbor, Nora put her hands into Joyce's pants, which made a lasting impression. In the novel there's a moment when Bloom is thinking of Molly's hand on him the same way, and how wonderful it felt. We cut between narrating what happened on Jim and Nora's first date with that passage in the novel. Those moments continued to provide us with the touchstones when the parallel tracks would intersect with one another and speak to the way that Joyce built this novel out of his own love life.
Q: What else besides sex did Molly's "yes" mean?
AA: I think she's saying yes to life. She's refusing alienation. She has lost a baby son. She's had her husband at least half collapse; he's no longer functional as much of a lover to her. And she has refused to, as she puts it, "get into the glooms" about that. Instead she has built a psychic life for herself that's as fervent as any moment in modern literature with all of the associations that a sensual and intelligent woman can have.
Q: Nora's intelligence has been a subject of some debate.
AA: She portrayed herself as highly anti-intellectual. Joyce more or less disdained her lack of intellectual interest. She was not much of a reader. It galled the piss out of Joyce that she never read Ulysses. She had heard that Molly Bloom is fat. She resented that. But she is passionately alive and an inspiration to all of us. "Yes indeed!"
Q: Which other women played critical roles in Joyce's life?
AA: Wrapping around [the film's the staged readings] like a double helix is the narrative about Joyce writing the novel, censorship and the seven women without whom that novel would be totally unknown today. He burned relationships, almost constantly, especially with men. The women hung on, and a number of them were quite wealthy, such as Harriet Shaw Weaver, who deplored her wealth and handed it on to the Joyces. She sponsored James Joyce's almost endless series of eye operations.
Sylvia Beach was by no means wealthy, but she also basically opened up her finances. All four members of the Joyce family chronically stopped by [her Paris bookstore] Shakespeare & Company and took money out of the till. They were addicted to haute couture and Paris and living swell lives giving huge dinner parties. Jim was drinking like mad.
Q: What's the drink of choice to take with your film?
AA: If you want to go the way Jim did, white wine.
Q: What's the film's big take-away?
KT: "Love loves to love love."
Laura Blum is Senior Editor of FilmFestivalTraveler.com.
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