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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

(Irish, 1979, 98 minutes, color 35 mm)

Directed by Joseph Strick

Bosco Hogan . . . . . . . . . . Stephen Dedalus
T. P. McKenna . . . . . . . . . . Simon Dedalus
John Gielgud . . . . . . . . . . The Preacher
Rosaleen Linehan . . . . . . . . . . May Dedalus

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

James Joyce and the other champions of modernism loved the cinema. It’s easy to see why. In those early short films by Thomas Edison and Edwin S. Porter in America, Auguste and Louis Lumiere and George Melies in France, and Cecil Hepworth in England, writers like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, H.D., Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and Joyce saw their hopes for a new rhetoric of the imagination vividly realized. As the new century began, the cinema made good on even the wildest promises about the capacities of narrative the modernists had made to themselves. Silent, urban in locus, the films proposed simultaneously a visionary moment of universal communication and a precisely individualized subjectivity. As one of Joyce’s contemporaries said,

The film was new, it had no earlier associations, and it offered occasionally, in an episode or a single shot, some framework for our dreams. We felt we could state our convictions honorably in this twentieth century form of art, and it appealed to the popular internationalism of those so few years because ‘the silents’ offered a single language across Europe.

These first films—trains arriving at stations, fanciful trips to the moon, restaged boxing matches, primitive animation, actualities of the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, long shots of New York harbor, even an elephant being electrocuted at Coney Island (!)— were a tapestry of modernity’s joys and follies, and they made a remarkable montage when storefront cinemas ran them together as part of a long program with song slides, vaudeville acts, and musical accompaniment. When D. W. Griffith pitched his flashback-rich version of Enoch Arden (called "After Many Years") to the Biograph studios in the early ’teens, the confused response of studio bosses would have gladdened Joyce: "How can you tell a story jumping around like that?" The movies were (and remain) able to educate their viewers in a constantly evolving mental process of interpreting the moving image. Tied though it was to a ruthlessly commercial industry, the language of the movies validated even the most provocative of the modernists’ claims about language and the disjunctures of daily life.

James Joyce’s enthusiasm for the cinema, of course, shows in the very textures of his work, in their collisions of ideas, epochs and allusions, and in their exuberantly free association of words and images. But Joyce demonstrated his affection for the young medium in more tangible ways. He opened a cinema, the Volta, in Dublin in 1909, as much for his own amusement as for the scanty profits it generated. And in one of the most remarkable meetings in the history of art, Joyce met the brilliant, experimental Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein in late 1929, to discuss filming Joyce’s Ulysses. Regrettably, nothing came of it; Eisenstein was then experiencing the first stages of a deadly backlash against his radical a storytelling style among Soviet cultural officials. Joyce turned his attentions to the Americans, and briefly negotiated with Warner Brothers to film Ulysses in the early 1930s. Hollywood’s brief fling with experimental fiction ended with its adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s STRANGE INTERLUDE in 1932, and, for the movies, Joyce was thereafter remaindered.

Joyce’s hope of matching his style with the singularly appropriate medium of the film was not to be realized in his lifetime. His work proved simply too daunting in its scope and length, its elliptical interior monologues mystified even the most scholarly of screenwriters, and as if all that was enough, Joyce’s jaundiced glances at sexuality and the clergy made the prospect of a film based on his work seem doomed to failure. Joyce himself would have found this ironic, for, like many of his colleagues, he had allowed the devices of the cinema to enter his work, and alter its course, to take it on a vector away from the traditional novel. Now, said the movies, Joyce couldn’t be filmed because his work wasn’t traditional enough.

Enter Joseph Strick, a filmmaker who has made it his lifework to bring Joyce to the screen. His ULYSSES in 1967 was a surprise art-house hit, but Strick learned then that he could never satisfy the Joyce loyalists (who thought the film was too simplified) or the general public (who thought it was too complex) at the same time. Even with ULYSSES’ success, PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN was shot on the cheap, blown up from 16mm for theatrical distribution. PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN joins John Huston’s elegant THE DEAD as a noble attempt to bring an earlier, less random, Joycean style to the screen. Joyce’s first novel is narrower in scope than the monstrous Finnegans Wake or the Absurdist epic, Ulysses, and thus gives at least a readable blueprint to a screenwriter. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is also character-centered in a way that the movies have always found useful, and Stephen Daedulus is at the center of one of the most fascinating bildungsromans in the European novel. His torturous course away from the church of his youth and into a life of halting auto-analysis is a move from outside to inside, from surety to confusion, from world to self. The Irish, says Stephen’s father, are "a priest-ridden race," but in Strick’s hands, this anti-clericalism turns out to be a lyrical, sometimes funny, sometimes melancholy assertion of the modernists’ strident call for a rule of the self, a self for whom the world is arrayed in a montage of images and words whose meaning shifts with the identity of the viewer. Even as it invented a mass audience in the days during which Joyce wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the movies were carving that audience into millions of tiny, atomized specks, who had to depend on their own wit and experience to make sense of the beautiful and tragic pageant around them.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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