10.05.2013

James Joyce, The Movie, Part V: "Bloom" (2003)

Angeline Ball as Molly in Sean Walsh's Bloom.


The best thing that can be said about Sean Walsh’s Bloom (2003) is that it preserves the extraordinary perversity of Joyce’s Ulysses, which is to say its rootedness in the near-constant demands of its characters’ genitals and excretory organs.  Ulysses is a novel that suggests that, however lost we may temporarily become in the recesses of our minds, we will inevitably be pulled back down to earth by our lower bodies.  Walsh’s film, though governed by an egregious sentimentality, should be commended for making sure that Joyce’s excrementalism didn’t end up on the floor of the cutting room (as it did, for example, in Strick’s version).  It gives us not only Bloom’s famous outhouse scene and Stephen’s piss on the beach but also Bloom surreptitiously farting on the street and masturbating into his pants while gazing at Gerty McDowell’s legs and Molly hovering over the chamber pot in the middle of the night and imagining herself sitting on Bloom’s face and Stephen pissing against a wall in Nighttown, and on and on.  One is almost inclined to excuse the film its shortcomings—the strained quality in the acting, the badly synthesized music, the questionable casting choices—on behalf of its ability to recognize the scatological fervor at the heart of Joyce’s novel.

And yet Bloom falters by rendering that embodiment innocent, humane, non-threatening, even cute.  While it’s true that Joyce stands as one of the great humanists of the Western literary canon, his novels—particularly Ulysses—are also fabulously queer insofar as they articulate bodily desires that push at the limits of normativity.  That, since Judge Woolsey’s defense of the novel against charges of obscenity in 1933, Ulysses has been claimed as some sort of testament to universal human experience is a fatal misreading of this kinkiest of books.  This is to say that the gloss of sentimentality has continuously been used to blunt the edge of Ulysses’ dirtiness, a tradition in which Walsh’s film follows.  In Bloom, everything—even the sex and the shit—is awash in tepid romantic music and hazy, picturesque cinematography.  We come back to the problem of tone, which only John Huston’s The Dead has been able to solve.  The other adaptations, Bloom included, understand Joyce’s words but not his music. 

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