Racing against impending blindness, a monomaniacal genius feeds off his own love life to create a novel he hopes will change the art form of fiction forever. And James Joyce got his way, but at an enormous price.
“In Bed With Ulysses” tells the intriguing and sometimes comical story of how the novel that is widely considered the greatest work of modern fiction was created, detailing the toll Ulysses took on its author and his family, the shockwaves it caused around the world, the fight to censor and suppress it, and its ultimate liberation and impact.
Says the NY Times: “The movie lets fresh air into “Ulysses” like a gust from the Irish Sea…It succeeds handily…”
It is a “high-low” documentary, exploring the most arduous of artistic efforts, the loftiest of literary achievements, and the carnal elements of human consciousness that infused and drove the book’s creation.
The movie features interviews with Irish novelist Edna O’Brien and Irish-American novelist and National Book Award winner Colum McCann (“Let the Great World Spin.”)
Tracing one reader’s staging of James oyce’s amazing verbal pyrotechnics as the narrative of the novel’s creation unwinds, In Bed With Ulysses tells the very sexy back story of a very sexy novel. The readings feature Kathleen Chalfant, grand dame of the NY stage (Angels in America, Wit), who plays the notorious Molly Bloom, while six male actors play different aspects of her husband, the lonely and loving Leopold Bloom who is probably the most loved and most flawed Jewish character in modern literature
“Why would I read Ulysses?” Joyce’s wife Nora is quoted as asking as the film begins. The question seems there for all of us to consider. The novel has become a sort of holy text for millions of readers. A global literary feast day, Bloomsday, has sprung up to celebrate the day on which Ulysses is set, June 16th. People gather in halls around the world to read scenes aloud. Adelson produces and directs one such reading, providing the film with scenes from the novel in which Joyce’s voices leap off the page.
“We love the novel’s language and we love its depiction of love,” Adelson says as he and the actors work out scenes from the novel. “We were all learning to read Joyce better.”
“Let’s not forget that Ulysses is a pretty damned funny novel,” writer Colum McCann says.
The astonishingly accessible and amusing language of the novel, the humanity of its characters, and the comedy of their encounters as read in the film become music to the ears and candy for the eyes. Released for broadcast after the expiration of the novel’s copyright, the documentary now takes part in the global celebration of the most embattled and influential work of modern literature now entering the public domain.
With a narrative script that is particularly dramatic and told with intrigue and humor, viewers follow Joyce as he pours the eroticism of his own life into the love vessel of Ulysses.
It is after all, love that brings readers of Ulysses together. It’s a book about yearning. At the core of the documentary’s narrative is the story of the love he felt for his muse, Nora Barnacle. “I’m listening at the door of your heart,” Jim told her.
“That man knows nothing about women,” Nora told friends. But Joyce knew her better than he knew himself.
The film examines marital infidelity as it’s so graphically depicted in the novel, while examining Joyce’s own obsession with the unfounded fear that Nora was betraying him. It suggests that writing the novel was a form of self-analysis by which Joyce worked out his male insecurity.
His eyesight was failing, he underwent dozens of increasingly unsuccessful eye operations, and moved his family time after time, from apartment to apartment and country to country, writing as co-director Alan Adelson describes in his narration, “like a fugitive on the run…Odysseus foraging for sustenance across Europe with his family in tow.”
The Joyces end up in Paris in 1920 when every art form is erupting with innovation. By then the Joyce children have been badly damaged. Their daughter, Lucia, will become schizophrenic and have to spend most of her adult life in asylums, while their son Georgio follows his father and his father’s father in to a life distorted by alcoholism.
The novel as a form of self-analysis
Joyce’s patron, Edith Rockefeller McMormick, cut off her support when Joyce refuses to be analyzed by Jung. States Adelson in the narration: “They may have been explaining the human unconscious, but he was giving it a voice. He could put thoughts onto the page, and no one could say they weren’t real.” Too real, perhaps.
Then came the enormous backlash triggered by the depiction of the erotic elements of Joyce’s characters thoughts. The brilliant argument made by New York lawyer Morris Ernest who lifted the ten-year ban that had made the novel much coveted contraband:
“Judge,” Ernst said in his summation, “I’ve thought I was involved only in the defense of this book, this one cause, but I must admit that at the same time I was thinking of the gold ring around your tie, the picture of George Washington behind your bench, and the fact that your black judicial robe is slipping off your shoulder. These multiple streams of mind are the contribution of Ulysses.
Is Ulysses as difficult to read as people fear, intimidated as many are by the vast trove of literary analysis and criticism that continues to gather around the epic” For so long the academic concentration on Joyce has stolen him from the general reader,” asserts Helen Monaghan, former director of the James Joyce Center in Dublin. “Ulysses can be read by anybody, even though it’s a difficult book and its not the kind of book you’d lie down and read in bed.”
“You’ve never read the book in bed?” Adelson catches her up.
“Oh, I know, people have corrected me on that and said they read the book in bed.” Monaghan laughs, “But I just think they’re strange.”
Cut to actress Kathleen Chalfant getting into her own four-poster bed with the novel. “Bed,” she says is the very best place to read Ulysses. “Especially Molly’s parts. Bed is where Molly spends her life.”
It was women who made Joyce’s achievement possible
The film highlights the dedication of seven women who inspired, endured and enabled James Joyce’s creation of Ulysses. “Joyce feuded with almost every man he knew. It was always women who made his achievements possible,” the film states. Those women were Joyce’s mother, Mary Jane Joyce, his publisher, Sylvia Beach, the editors of the Little Review, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap who were convicted in New York of obscenity for serializing Ulysses, his patrons, Edith Rockefeller McCormick and Harriet Shaw Weaver, and Nora, his muse, lover and ultimately is wife. The role these women played in helping Joyce change the art form of fiction forever is an important and often ignored aspect of the novel’s history.
A near pogrom in Limerick influences the novel’s depiction of Irish anti-Semitism
“In Bed With Ulysses” reveals little-known details of a heated anti-Semitic outbreak in Limerick, Ireland, in 1904 which inspired Joyce to expose Irish anti-Semitism in the novel’s most powerful scenes according to assertions made by Raphael Siev, the director of the Jewish Museum in Dublin. A Redemptorist Catholic priest, Father John Creagh, used his pulpit to revile the city’s Jews, accusing them of sucking the life’s blood out of the economy and vowing that if he does one good thing in his life, it will be to drive out the Jews. His repeated sermons resulted in physical attacks against the Jewish community of Limerick, a sustained boycott of Jewish businesses, and the eventual emigration of almost all of the city’s Jewish population. Raphael Siev states: “There is little doubt that James Joyce was well-aware of this outbreak of anti-Semitism and so chose 1904 as the pivotal year in which he set his novel.”
Joyce’s usually meek and feckless anti-hero, Leopold Bloom, finds his finest hour by standing down a phalanx of Irish chauvinists who bait him for being a Jew. “What is your nation?” one of them demands. “Ireland,” Bloom insists. “I was born here. And I belong to a race too that is hated and persecuted.” The notion of nationalism and its role in fueling bigotry becomes the fulcrum of both the novel and this documentary film. Bloom’s answer to force, hatred and bigotry, commended to a gaggle of bemused chauvinists in a Dublin pub, is love.
Adelson and Taverna have previously collaborated on two acclaimed documentaries.
“Lodz Ghetto,” widely praised as the most authentic film every made about Jewish life within the Holocaust, was shown at the Sundance, Berlin, Montreal, Yamagata, Valladolid, San Francisco, London and Dallas film festivals, played theatrically in 50 American cities, won the International Film Critics Award and was chosen for Best Films of the Year listings by the San Francisco Examiner and Library Journal, was a Holocaust Remembrance Day special broadcast on PBS and has been broadcast in 6 languages in 10 countries. Their “Two Villages in Kosovo” was made for ARTE and broadcast to critical acclaim throughout Europe.
Kate Taverna has edited dozens of documentary films including “Asylum,” which was nominated for the Best Short Documentary Academy Award in 2005, and “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which won the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival documentary competition and has received many other awards. The documentary was instrumental in calling the Liberian women’s peace movement to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee which honored its leaders, including Lehmah Gbowee, one of the documentary’s principal characters, with this year’s prize. “Killing In the Name,” Kate Taverna’s most recent editing project, produced by Moxie Firecracker, was nominated for the best short documentary Oscar.