Might it be possible to make a good film of Ulysses—one that actually goes to the trouble of not only “converting” the novel into cinematic terms but also channels its fullness, its exuberance, its virtuosity, and its density? Perhaps, but Joseph Strick’s Ulysses (1967) isn’t that film. (The most significant thing about it may be that it is supposedly the first major film in which the word “fuck” was spoken.) Strick’s film feels somehow ambitious and lazy at the same time. He appears to have thought, however cursorily, about how to use various cinematic effects, such as voice-over narration, editing, and mise-en-scene (sets, props, etc.), to reproduce the effects of Joyce’s novel. Strick films the “Ithaca” section, for instance, by putting Joyce’s question-and-answer dialogue on the soundtrack in voice-over while we see Bloom and Stephen sitting at the kitchen table together (pictured above). But if “Ithaca” is one of the more successful episodes in the film, others are far clumsier, such as “Aeolus,” in which Joyce’s screaming newspaper headlines have been literally shoved into the background of shots, where they’re so hard to see that they lose all sense of purpose (see below).
|Bosco Hogan (left) as Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.|
In his attempt to translate A Portrait of the Artist to the screen, Joseph Strick—who had earlier done a film of Ulysses, to be discussed later—renders Joyce’s great autobiographical novel as a series of talky episodes that appear to have little to do with one another. There’s a dull flicker of potential in the short opening sequence of the film, in which we’re given a series of impressionistic glimpses of young Stephen Dedalus’s child’s-eye perspective on the world, but it’s over before it has even begun. Strick’s decision to dispatch with the novel’s astonishing first chapter in a matter of minutes is his first misstep. (It occurs to me that Terrence Malick, with his rapturous editing rhythms and sensitivity to the sensuous textures of childhood experience, would be the right person for this job.)
The great John Huston chose to make this adaptation of Joyce’s perfectly wrought tale—sometimes said to be the finest short story ever written in English—as his swan song; Huston knew that he was dying when he began it, and did not live to see it released in December of 1987. When, for instance, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) imagines his frail, elderly aunt Julia (Cathleen Delany) laid out on her deathbed, it’s impossible not to see this as Huston imagining his own death. And yet Huston’s The Dead is just as unsentimental, or perhaps as appropriately sentimental, as Joyce’s story. It’s a story that makes me cry every time I read it, and, at the end of the film, when McCann as Gabriel reads Joyce’s final lines in voice-over, I found that tears had come to my eyes. It’s an intensely affecting story about things so familiar and conventional that they should be cliché: nostalgia, tradition, the process of reflecting on oneself and one’s family, and on mortality and failure. But Joyce carries it off somehow, perhaps by refusing to let it get soggy, and by buoying it up with keen observational detail and a cutting irony. “The Dead” is, magically, ironic and sincere at once. Huston’s film preserves this to masterful effect.
Pictured: a photograph of the Volta Picture Theatre (est. 1909), Ireland’s first movie theater, briefly managed by none other than the great James Joyce. Although Joyce soon gave up the project, his interest in cinema is apparent in nearly all of his major prose works. The visual language of cinema, then a relatively newborn medium, informs his fiction as it did that of many of his fellow modernist writers. In the opening pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joyce renders the childhood memories of young Stephen Dedalus as an impressionistic montage of images. Joyce was also keenly aware of cinema’s cheapness, its lowbrow pleasures, and its sentimentality, which lent themselves easily to parody and pastiche. One of the funnier and more comprehensible passages of Finnegans Wake (1939) is his cheeky send-up of Hollywood romantic comedy (“he vows her to be his own honeylamb, swears they will be papa pals, by Sam, and share good times way down west in a guaranteed happy lovenest when May moon she shines and they twit twinkle all the night,” 65). And while it’s common practice to read the “Aeolus” episode from Ulysses (1922) as a parody of screaming newspaper headlines, its subheadings (“IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS”; “WE SEE THE CANVASSER AT WORK”; etc.), which continually interrupt the narrative action, also seem to me to function as silent-movie intertitles.
Is Fred Astaire sexy? He made a career playing opposite such iconic female stars as Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, and Audrey Hepburn, though they always feel a little bit out of his league. He never smolders in the way that Cary Grant does, nor does he have Bogart’s raffish charm, or even Jimmy Stewart’s boy-next-door handsomeness. Astaire’s looks are goofy, cartoonish, which makes it all the more dazzling whenever he starts dancing, and his entire body becomes a conduit for a kind of graceful dynamism, a brilliant energy that shoots out of his feet. Nor was Astaire ever a very good singer. His high, wavering little voice feels its way quietly through his songs. The general effect of Astaire’s star persona is endearing: as with Stewart, his appeal lies in his sweetness and his affability, the broadness of his grin—and, of course, in the anachronistic elegance of his dancing. Astaire makes us feel comfortable, perhaps because we aren’t likely to be threatened or intimidated by his looks. Hence the slightly comic irony that materializes when, in Funny Face (dir. Stanley Donen, 1957), Astaire must convince Audrey Hepburn that "though [she’s] no Mona Lisa, / for worlds [he’d] not replace / [her] sunny, funny face. I wouldn’t replace Astaire’s face either, but his is by far the funnier one.
Stormy Weather (dir. Andrew J. Stone, 1943) stirs up uncomfortable affects. It inspires wonderment, awe, and other forms of pleasure alongside embarrassment, shame, discomfort, and sadness. Much of its affective resonance is related to its status as a product of classical Hollywood, marketed by and in part aimed at whites, but made up entirely of black performers. The result is a double-voiced film in which talented black singers, dancers, and actors are granted a stage on which to “do their things”—things, it should be noted, that they do with consistent virtuosity—but must risk doing so in frequently humiliating ways. Examples include Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing a tap routine while dressed as an African savage (see below), or a chorus of singers and dancers cake-walking to “Georgia Camp Meeting,” the women sporting headdresses adorned with the grinning faces of pickaninny sunflowers (see above). The film also features performances by such legends as Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers, who end the film with an astonishing tap routine. The brilliance of the performances—the pure exhilaration invoked by the Nicholas Brothers number, for instance—continually rubs up against the discomfort we feel at the racist trappings of the film in a larger sense: its insistence on framing black performance as a “natural” outpouring of black emotion, and the way in which its use of stereotypes caters to the desires of those white audience members eager to see black performers smile, laugh, gambol, shuck, and jive. Watching Stormy Weather, I felt myself continually pulled in opposite directions, moved by the ingenuity of the performers, repulsed by the ways in which that ingenuity had been mounted, saddened and compelled by the need and ability of black performance to shine through the distorting lens of dominant culture.
|Acting naturally: Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun.|
This weekend I watched George Sidney’s film version of Annie Get Your Gun (1951), a mostly entertaining, if frequently embarrassing (witness the jaw-dropping “I’m an Indian Too” number), mounting of Irving Berlin’s Broadway hit, with the winsome and indefatigable Betty Hutton in the title role. Hutton was brought on board after Judy Garland backed out, and while it’s hard not to wonder what Garland would have brought to the role (such as stronger vocals: Hutton more or less fumbles her way through the ballads) Hutton more than sells it. In fact, it’s a part more ideally suited to Hutton’s big, expansive, slightly loony charms than to those of the vulnerable, achingly needy Garland. Hutton makes a natural Annie, and Annie is a character who demands to be played naturally. It occurred to me while watching Hutton gleefully stomp and belt her way through the big numbers that naturalness, which would seem to be the very last thing in which the musical is invested, is actually one of the very things in which it trades. What could be more unnatural than the act of breaking spontaneously into song and dance? And yet why are we drawn to figures like Hutton in Annie or Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music if not for the naturalistic ease with which their emotions find expression through music?