J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, June 08, 2012

In Bed with Ulysses: What Better Way to Spend Bloomsday?

In addition to its now universally acknowledged literary significance, the efforts to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in the face of widespread censorship was the major publishing story of its day.  Actually, the novel’s publishing history is still unfolding.  Many scholars recently rejoiced when it along with most of Joyce’s early works went into the public domain, liberating them from what they considered an unreasonable and erratic estate executor.  It should make this year’s Bloomsday celebration quite lively.  Joyceans in Brooklyn will also be able to mark June 16th, that fateful day spent with protagonist Leopold Bloom, by attending the premiere theatrical engagement of Alan Adelson & Kate Taverna’s In Bed with Ulysses, which opens this Monday at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, irrespective of Stephen Joyce's controversial stewardship.

Throughout Bed, Adelson and Taverna celebrate Joyce’s language, but not necessarily his personality.  Indeed, many leading Joyce scholars make no bones about the author’s self-centered neuroses.  They certainly do not make him sound like a particularly pleasant husband, plundering his relationship with wife Nora for his autobiographical novels, while bizarrely prodding her to justify his extreme jealousies.  Still, it provides good fodder for documentaries.

Fortunately, his work is something else entirely.  In staged readings of Ulysses, performed by established legit actors, including Kathleen Chalfant (known for the original New York production of Wit) reading in the Molly Bloom persona, the film luxuriates in the rhythms and ribald tartness of Joyce’s language.  While we do not hear anything to make the typical Brooklyner blush, there might be just enough to make a PBS broadcast, as is, a tad tricky.

All of the performers have a good feel for Joyce’s words and the archival images of 1904 Dublin that often accompany their readings give viewers a vivid sense of where the novel came from.  Adelson and Taverna also incorporate a fair amount of focused and on-point expert interviews, the most notable being novelist and Joyce biographer Edna O’Brien, an impressive literary figure in her own right.  Of course to nobody’s surprise, grandson-executor Stephen Joyce never makes an appearance.

In Bed with Ulysses is an easily digestible combination of Joyce biography and Ulysses crib notes, with fair servings of Irish history and theater arts mixed in.  Obviously, Irish cultural institutions should be very interested in the film, but its exploration of Bloom’s Jewish heritage and the extent to which Limerick’s 1904 anti-Jewish riots and boycotts informed the novel should expand the demographic audience considerably.  Yet, the Joyceans who continue to be intrigued by the literary icon’s revolutionary novels are the real target market. 

Informative but never too heavy, In Bed with Ulysses is readily recommended for those who appreciate literary biography or looking for a way to ease into the somewhat intimidating novel.  It is also a chance for borough loyalists to support Brooklyn filmmakers at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema, before the scrappy art-house goes into temp space while their current location is redeveloped.  It runs there for at least one week, beginning this coming Monday (6/11), which indeed includes Bloomsday next Saturday (6/16).

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