Thursday, 3 October 2013

Filming Finnegans Wake

I found the soundtrack album on ebay
It's hard to think of a more unfilmable work of fiction than Finnegans Wake.  Yet there is a film, made in 1965 by Mary Ellen Bute. It's called Passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and you can see the whole thing on Ubuweb and Youtube.

Bute was a Texan who originally studied painting and then stage lighting, at Yale.  From the 1930s, she made short abstract films, like Synchromy No 2, intended 'to create an impression of what goes on in the mind when listening to music'. These remind me of the work of Len Lye and Harry Smith, except while they were painting on celluloid, she was painting with light - reflecting and refracting it with prisms and glass vessels and using colanders, cellophane, ping-pong balls, egg beaters, bracelets and sparklers to make light forms and shadows. She made these films with her husband, the cinematographer, Ted Nemeth, who was an expert at special effects.

Although they sound avant-garde, these were popular films, shown at Radio City Music Hall and mainstream cinemas as shorts before the Hollywood features. Millions of people saw them.

I found these pictures of Bute at the Center for Visual Music website.

Bute's Wake film is an adaptation of a 1950s play by another remarkable women, Mary Manning. She was an Irish actress who was a lifelong friend (and sometime lover) of Samuel Beckett. Manning spent two years combing Joyce's book for beautiful passages, which she reassembled in a dramatic form, assigning them to four main characters: HCE, ALP and their rival sons, Shem and Shaun. This web page, Notes on Mary Manning, has more information about the play and a recording of her reading the book's final monologue.

The film and play are heavily influenced by A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), by the mythologist Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson. They presented Joyce's book as a novel with a plot, and also saw much of the book as the dream of the its central character, HCE. But Joyce's patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, wrote: 'Their ascription of the whole thing to a dream of HCE seems to me nonsensical....My view is that Mr Joyce did not intend the book to be looked upon as the dream of any one character, but that he regarded the dream form with its shiftings and changes and chances as a convenient device, allowing the freest scope to introduce any material he wished - and suited to a night piece.'

So the film begins with HCE lying in bed beside his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle, and the book's opening line is followed by the narrator saying 'And low stole o'er the stillness the heartbeats of sleep', which is followed by HCE saying  'And as I was jogging along in a dream as dozing I was dawdling...' But these lines come from the opening of Book III, pages 403-4, and the second line is spoken by a donkey (Yes the narrator of Book Three Chapter One tells us that he is a donkey!).

There are lots of great things about the film. The musical score, by Elliot Kaplan, is gorgeous. There are many sequences, such as the opening shots of the River Liffey, where Mary Ellen Bute is still painting with light. Her experimental and surreal approach, using montage and animation is a good visual approximation of Joyce's methods. So at the beginning HCE is shown falling out of bed in slow motion, then rapidly  intercut with images of Humpty Dumpty, rainfall, lightning bolts, falling angels and collapsing buildings. 

HCE then lands in the coffin at his own wake. That's a great way of turning the 'great fall of the offwall', on the book's first page, into film.

Another way of visualising the text was to reinvent the Wake's narrative voice as that of a television newsreader, perhaps inspired by the Wake's treatment of television


I love the Irish actors, who were all unknowns. Bute found them in Brendan Behan's off-Broadway production of The Hostage. I particularly like Martin J Kelly as HCE. He has a great face and screen presence. Whatever happened to him?!

HCE as King Mark of Cornwall, beside the Book of Kells
 The film ends with images of sunrise and the woken HCE walking into a new day.

While making the film, Bute gave an interview to Gretchen Weinberg for Film Culture (No 35 Winter 1964-5):

'It is primarily a visual work and it had to be so on the screen. Joyce's language is so kinetic and visual that the spectator will have to hold himself back from flying out of his seat. The cast became so obsessed with the dialogue they wanted to dance it out rather than act it out and had to be held back to more commercial forms of acting. It was heartbreaking sometimes to bring the high-flights of the mercurial Joyce down to the merciless one-eyed stare of the camera....I feel that when our Finnegan says, 'Hues of rich unfolding morn awake arise rally oh rally the smorg is lofting', I feel that it comes through. I think (the film) illuminated the nightworld of Joyce a little. I once wanted to have several objects of light moving at once on a screen in one of my abstract films - I hope I've done it meaningfully in this.'

Despite winning the prize for best debut at Cannes, Bute's film was a commercial failure, unable to cover its shoestring costs. She worked on two later films, which she never completed: Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (itself based on Finnegans Wake) and Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, a film about Walt Whitman.

Here's a lovely description of her last years:

'In her seventies, amicably separated from Ted Nemeth, and having depleted her inheritance, Mary Ellen Bute lived at a Salvation Army residence for women located in New York's fashionable Gramercy Park. During that period, Bute lectured and presented her films at numerous East Coast, midwestern and Canadian venues, trying to raise enough money to finish her Walt Whitman film. Easily recognised by her relentless Texan accent, resounding laugh, red hair and high heels (she was just over five feet tall), she still enjoyed dressing up, sometimes in a sequinned split skirt or leopard print leather pants.'

Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Volume 5 page 96 

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