Everyday Semiotics

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sean Walsh: luminary or wanker?

The last event of the day Friday was a talk by Sean Walsh, who made the second and latest film adaptation of Ulysses, "Bl,.m." I wrote this review after seeing it on the big screen in Dublin in 2003. It's not glowing; and my regard for it has actually depreciated after having re-watched it last week on DVD. Nonetheless, Walsh is himself a very funny and charismatic speaker. A reader who takes a decidedly non-academic approach to the novel, he was somehow not totally out of place at this academic conference. His mission throughout, he said, was to bring this "unread book" to the people -- a goal he said he's succeeded in to some degree. While in theory the de-mystification of Ulysses is certainly something I can get behind, in his practice, I can't.

Never having read the novel past page 30 in the novel, Walsh one day in 1993 started daydreaming about how making a film version of Ulysses could make him "a few quid." He wrote to the Joyce estate, who proposed a number of hoops he would have to jump through and retained final yea or nay power, setting the bar, Walsh said, "somewhere beyond infinity." Nonetheless he proceeded with making a promo for what he at first envisioned as a series of 12 televion episodes. Nobody, including Oregon Public Television and the BBC, wanted it. The next year, the Joyce Estate threatened to sue. In the meanwhile he did read the book dilligently, and had some tutoring from a Joycean friend.

In 1998 and 1999, having decided to proceed instead with a feature film, Walsh began casting. Steven Rea was his no. 2 choice for Bloom, behind somebody I've never heard of. Joseph Fiens, fresh off the set of "Shakespeare in Love," wanted to play Stephen Dedalus. That didn't pan out.

In 2001, Walsh started preproduction and was three weeks in when a major funding source dried up, essentially killing the project. It started back up again in 2002, filming taking six and a half weeks and editing taking six months, with some reshoots taking place in the middle of winter -- including the Howth Head scene, where Bloom and Molly are supposed to be basking under summer sun among the rhododendrons.

One of the stark errors, if you want to call it that, of the film is the fact that Stephen isn't wearing his black mourning suit. Walsh said he chose to dress Stephen in brown because it would have been trite, or something, to have both the heroes wearing the same thing. Perhaps in a movie this would be true; but in his novel Joyce evidently didn't find the coincidence overbearing.

Two odd tidbits: Preparing for his role, Rea went to a voice coach and worked out how a middle class Jew living in Dublin would have spoken. The Martello Tower used in the film is not the one on Sandymount Strand but rather on Dalkey Island, the only tower extant today that's not surrounded by cars and office buildings and convenience stores.

From viewers, Wlash said, "The most common thing I hear is 'I never thought Ulysses was like that." Many have told him they now want to go back and read the novel beyond the first 30 pages -- especially for the dirty bits.

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