DVD Review of Bloom
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/14/05
Bloom is an Irish film of the James Joyce novel Ulysses by director Sean Walsh. Let me be up front- I think Ulysses is a vastly overrated book, with moments of superbness and many more moments of wretchedness. It was Joyce, Woolf, and their ilk that started a good deal of art down the road to narcissistic hermeticism. That all said, while the film Bloom is not a great film, in and of itself, it is a good film, with moments of brilliance, and does a far better job at explicating the events of the first Bloomsday, June 16th, 1904, than the book ever has, despite what pretentious critics say.
Basically, nothing much happens on that day, yet three main characters- a married couple, Leopold (Stephen Rea) and Molly Bloom (Angeline Ball), and an aspiring artist and scholar named Stephen Dedalus (Hugh O’Conor)- protagonist of Joyce’s earlier A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. The three perambulate about the world of Dublin on that day, meeting and missing each other on several occasions. Dedalus is trammeled by his own inadequacies, and rebelling against the established order, while the Blooms deal with the slow death of their marriage, precipitated by the untimely death of their son, and aided by Molly’s flagrant infidelities. Yet, the book takes these circumstances and subordinates them to the intellect, in the conceit of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, which is basically unpunctuated interior dialogue. Of course, the thing about stream of consciousness is that it is really the conceit, not the real way people think, lest punctuation would never have gotten started. Think of how often your thoughts veer and back up, U-turn and screech to a halt. The mind is certainly not like a river, but more like a potholed city street.
The film, however, does not suffer from these limitations. The visual image can work on multiple levels with far more immediacy than the word, so the ‘day’ of the book can be easily condensed. Some Joyceans will complain that the film takes things out of order, and mixes many of the chapters together, yet a) this is a film, not a book, and b) that is akin to deriding those who deride Joyce’s approach in the book (regardless of whether or not he succeeds- I vote nay), as well as being the height of hypocrisy. There are marvelous images, and truly the cinematography is the best thing in the film. Rea is also great as Leopold Bloom, while ball and O’Conor also have moments of brilliance- including Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy- the last chapter in the book- which the filmmaker wisely opens and closes the film with, so that Molly is indelibly stamped in the viewer’s mind while most of the rest of the film explores Leopold and Dedalus.
Yet, the best thing that the film does, which the book doesn’t, is that it focuses on the best parts of the book, trimming mounds of self-indulgent ‘fat’, and assisting the few lesser sections it deals with by having lush photography hold the viewer. Yet, the truth is that, despite the occasional brilliant writing and philosophy, the ‘story’ of Ulysses is simply not that compelling. Joyce loves to take the mundane and toss it up into the curvous realm of the stars but, in truth, shitting on a toilet or dealing with an addle-minded Anti-Semite are just not that interesting. And Joyce’s ‘humor’ is about as overrated as Shakespeare’s- it is limited in its appeal by its provinciality and hermeticism.
However, the film, apart from the book, succeeds, and could have been a great film were it to take a bit more leeway, and cut down on Joyce’s surrealism, which, while ahead of its time eight decades ago, is something which dates it now. There had to be other ways to convey the mish-mash that becomes Leopold Bloom’s mind that night than simply making it all farce, for farce, of course, depends totally on context, and once the context is gone, the farce loses force, and hangs limply as an outmoded document of a limited imagination. Director Walsh says, in the DVD commentary, and the features, that he wanted to make Ulysses accessible to people, especially those who own a copy of the book but have not read it. Of course, there are good reasons that the book remains mostly unread, and I’ve outlined some of them above.
Yet, despite decades of handwringing that the novel could never be made into an adequate film, mostly by highbrow literary snobs whose understanding of the book vacillates as much as the layety’s, the truth is that the film does a far better job of distilling the book’s essence for the masses. Almost all of the flaws in the film are carryover flaws from the novel. Film, in fact, would seem to be a medium that Joyce was born to indulge in. Had he been born thirty or so years later I think he may have become the first great screenwriter, and may never have dabbled in novels. Film is far closer to poetry than prose, and Joyce’s prose certainly is among the closest published skirts near poetry. Instead of ‘not doing justice’ to the book the film really makes the book far more relevant to readers- hardcore or casual. Its only flaws, outside of the book’s, is that it could have been a bit more daring. I mean, if Ulysses is rent of nudity, just how avant garde can it be?
Overall, I recommend this film on its own right, and as sort of a Cliff’s Notes to the book, especially considering the excellent director’s commentary. But, it’s a so-so book to begin with, so take the former notation in that light. Yes?
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