1967 film of the unfilmable book
Shot on location in Dublin by American director Joseph Strick, budget constraints meant that he could not remain true to the period in which Joyce set his novel. Therefore motorcars, buildings and garb the like of which Leopold never saw on June 16, 1904 are all frankly displayed. Even now as I write, in these heady times of strong economic development, Dublin is a relatively slow changing city, and much fun can be had by those familiar with the city observing differences and similarities between then and now. Indeed, there is something both amusing and refreshing about the complete disregard for period, dealing as we are with such a revered tome.
This, then, paradoxically becomes one of the film's successes: a feeling for this small city, its life and its atmosphere, of which the characters' chance intersections and near misses are an inevitable consequence. A great help in this is the cinematography. It has the gorgeous clarity and richness of a certain mid-sixties b/w film stock; that high-contrast black-and-white reminiscent for me of films as diverse as Before The Revolution, The Servant and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. (This whole point seems to me a litmus test for fans of the book seeking to enjoy this attempt to film it: inevitably, liberties are often taken with the source material, and so some sensibilities could regard with contempt.)
Another success is Milo O'Shea as Leopold Bloom, who skillfully reveals the unassuming cuckold's great compassion and, ultimately, his unconscious heroism. I think it is this one actor who does most to help the film adequately impart the book's great message, that eloquent plea for a pluralist, tolerant and multivocal Dublin(Ireland/Europe/world) summed up by Molly's final orgasmic affirmation.
It is just as well for Mr. Strick that there are these limited successes. There are other flaws less serendipitous than the blasé modernity. The cost of the film's brisk pace is the omission of some chapters, while others are over "faster than you can say 'Gerty MacDowell"'. There is of course a heavy reliance on voice-over that can do no more than hint at complexities in the text. Despite the attempt to wrap the tome up in 132 minutes, the pace sags at times, and certain sections of the book which would seem to lend themselves to cinematic interpretation (such as Nighttown or Bloom's taking leave of The Citizen) are, I feel, missed opportunities.
Ulysses The Film remains a useful bluffer's guide to Ulysses The Novel, but the quandary here is that to enjoy the film (which I did), a knowledge of the book seems necessary. One recalls the richness of the text as one watches. But for many people who admire the book, the film must seem, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary of Joyce's masterpiece, "a damp squib...a misfire."
I believe that this has the (surprisingly late) first instance of the use of the word "fuck" in a feature film, though the IMDb gives the same year's I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name as the other possible contender. Although, contrary to popular belief, the book was never officially banned in Ireland, the film certainly was - a shameful state of affairs that was not put to rights until the Irish censor passed it last September!
No attempt has been made to film Ulysses since 1967, though a new effort is in production. An interesting parlour game for those interested in both Joyce and film is to speculate as to who among the current crop could best direct such a venture. Needless to say, many think it an abominable idea in the first place. However, the Quail at The Brazen Head has the intriguing idea of filming an episode at a time! To wit: ‘"Proteus" -- Wim Wenders. I think his best work has a quiet, soul-searching aspect that is well suited for Stephen's philosophical musings.
"Cyclops" -- Oliver Stone. Just wait, before you raise a cry of indignation, think about it a second. Who can better merge together a jillion different styles and perspectives, from a fierce polemic to a farcical epic? And hey -- who better to capture the Citizen's raving paranoia? Come on, you know I'm right. . . .
"Oxen of the Sun" -- Peter Greenaway. I can't think of anyone even close. Greenaway 's fascination with the relationships between sex, food, and language make him the only director who can meet the challenge of this episode: as Mina Purefoy gives birth, a drunken party rages on as the narrative evolves through the history of the English language! Hell, I'm surprised he hasn't done it already!
"Circe" -- Ken Russell. A master at filming surreal experiences and making the viewer feel like they are hallucinating themselves. His skillful use of music will also come in handy!’