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In Bed with “Ulysses,” (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 386-390 | 10.1353/jjq.2012.0004

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Part performance video and part documentary, In Bed With “Ulysses” intersperses readings from James Joyce’s most famous novel with an in-depth exploration of both the author’s life and the tumultuous history of the work’s composition, publication, and reception. Beginning with a young Irish woman’s admission in a Dublin pub that she’s “never heard of” Ulysses, the eighty-minute film travels from Dublin to Pula, Trieste, Paris, Philadelphia, and New York, interviewing Christopher Cerf, Michael Groden, Colum McCann, and Edna O’Brien among many others in order to uncover why so many people are still in love with Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece.1 Throughout this odyssey, the film stresses that the novel should not be dismissed as “difficult” and relegated to scholars but instead has a wide appeal. Helen Monaghan, the former director of the James Joyce Centre, gives voice to this sentiment, stating, “Ulysses can be read by anyone even though it’s a difficult book. It’s not the type of book you’d lie down and read in bed.” Kathleen Chalfant, who portrays Molly Bloom in the staged readings, disagrees, avowing that “reading Joyce in bed is the best place.” Regardless of the optimal location, In Bed With “Ulysses” exudes a deep appreciation of Joyce’s insight into the human condition, especially the myriad complexities of love. The film’s evident affection for the novel and effortless charm make it worth watching both for those new to the novel and those who can recite passages by heart.

Written, directed, edited, and produced by husband-and-wife team Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, the film grew out of a 2003 Bloomsday reading directed by Adelson, a self-proclaimed “Ulysses zealot,” at the Center for Jewish History in New York City. Entitled “Bloom,” the staged reading—it is not a recreation—was performed without an intermission in three acts that spanned more than two hours. The excerpts used in the film focus almost exclusively on Bloom and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Molly. Stephen Dedalus is largely relegated to the sidelines. The novelist Colum McCann, however, does assert conciliatorily that “Stephen is harder to get closer to because he’s a dreamer. . . . It would be nice to have a good chat about philosophy and theology and ideas, but you wouldn’t necessarily want him to come home and fix your fridge.” Bloom, on the other hand, “is entirely real.” This focus on Bloom helps unify the film and allows Adelson, who narrates with an endearing earnestness, the opportunity to highlight parallels between Joyce’s relationship with Nora Barnacle and the marital upheavals of Bloom and Molly, whom Adelson terms “the most notorious couple in modern literature.” This decision, though, robs the audience of the benefit of the richness of Joyce’s tripartite structure and, especially for a work focused on Bloom, the important interactions between him and Stephen in “Circe,” “Eumaeus,” and even “Ithaca.” Although Adelson leaves out several other episodes, most notably “Nausicaa,” the performances do much to capture the flavor of Ulysses and bring it to life; this is especially key for those new to Joyce, since the film serves as an excellent introduction to the novel as well as to Joyce’s life and work for both students and other interested readers.

An important component of the success of this film is the general excellence of the acting. In addition to Chalfant’s Molly, the cast consists of six male actors: Allyn Burrows, Chris Ceraso, Rufus Collins, Jerry Matz, Paul McIsaac, and Robert Zuckerman, who play Bloom and assorted minor characters. Chalfant imbues Molly with humor, frankness, and an earthy sensuality that make her contradictory joy in recalling her mid-afternoon romp with Blazes Boylan and her love for her Poldy entirely believable. Chalfant gets to the heart of the character so fully that it is easy to forget that she is twenty-five years older than Joyce intended.2 Other standout performances include Ceraso’s nostalgic Bloom as he remembers his picnic with Molly on the Hill of Howth in “Lestrygonians,” McIsaac’s frantic Bloom after he spies Boylan at the National Library in “Scylla and Charybdis,” and Zuckerman’s...


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