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This is Not a Movie: Ulysses and Cinema

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 13, Number 2, April 2006
pp. 219-235 | 10.1353/mod.2006.0035

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Modernism/modernity 13.2 (2006) 219-235

Ulysses and Cinema

Maria DiBattista

First a disclaimer of my title, itself a disclaimer. My title should have proposed—"This is not a Hollywood movie." The distinction will later prove to be more important than it might initially appear. For now, it may be sufficient to state the rather obvious case that Ulysses possesses none of the indispensable elements of a Hollywood feature film. Its narrative captures no idiosyncratic, star-making gesture like James Cagney's shrug or Jack Nicholson's smirk, no signature trait like Bette Davis's eyes or Marilyn Monroe's shimmying walk, in which an entire screen personality seems radiantly condensed. The most Ulysses might offer us in the way of a quasi-cinematic moment in which character is illuminated through gesture would be Buck Mulligan's stately plump gait or Stephen Dedalus's lordly way with his ashplant. Nor does Ulysses abound in scenes depicting graphic, impulsive, overmastering and dauntingly athletic sex, except perhaps that which takes place off stage.

In fact I could risk an excruciating, but not facile pun and pronounce that by established conventions of Hollywood moviemaking Ulysses is a "reel" disappointment. Admittedly, such standards are the least pertinent measures for gauging the extent to which Ulysses approximates, either in its style or form, a "cinematic" work. Still, the homonymic identity between reel and real may help us sort out the ways in which Ulysses's modernism has been creditably compared to the modernism of (non-Hollywood) film. Born with the advent of modernity and its new technologies of vision, this pun on "real" recalls the points of contact and similarity between film and literature particularly in their representations of the physical world. That text is a cognate for textile and derives from the Latin texere, to weave, is an etymology long familiar and often invoked by literary critics. Less attention has been paid to the verbal origins of "reel" in the Greek krekein,to weave. Text and reel, then, formally resemble each other as woven artifacts, interlacing the real into a fabric of illusion, a ribbon of dreams. How much, then, does it matter that the text is woven of words, the reel of celluloid strips? Do the author and the auteur, both master weavers, have equal standing or do they wield separate authority in fashioning simulacra of reality? These questions have been asked before, but they seem to me worth returning to, especially since they have never been definitely answered. They linger as agents of unrest in the disputed territory of "the real," over which many of the fiercest aesthetic and ideological battles of modernity have been and continue to be waged.

Two pronouncements—one dogmatic, the other legalistic—on Ulysses's artistic status illustrate the cultural reach and ideological stakes of these battles. Both link their judgment of Ulysses to its technological and aesthetic kinship with the visual regime of cinema. The first is Karl Radek's indictment of Ulysses at the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers. Summing up the contentious debate on Joyce's "decadent" and individualist formalism, Radek called Ulysses "a heap of dung, teeming with worms and photographed by a motion picture camera through a microscope." Ulysses is alleged to be the work of a myopic and fetid naturalism. Its narrative distorts reality and mishandles technologies of vision by moving, like a movie camera, from one magnified and putrid image of verminous life to another. Eisenstein defended Ulysses against Radek's condemnation with this brilliant, but at the time unavailing retort:

Radek's critique of Joyce was based essentially on one point. He said that we don't need things in such microscopic detail. We don't see that way, such phenomena don't exist. But that criticism is as if a person at some first-aid station saw an enlargement of something seen under the microscope on the wall and said: "Why is this necessary? After all, microbes aren't that big. After all, you don't see all that in real life." Do you understand the mistake here? The thing is that you have to study those charts in order to be able to know those invisible...

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