Tag Archives: Film

James Joyce and his decent silk hat

I’m currently deep into Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, an 800-page opus which is, in parts, almost as detailed as “Ulysses” itself.

As such, I’m well into the world of Joyce-words: ‘europicola’, ‘allalluvial’, ‘douncestears’, to pick three among thousands. At times it’s not easy going, and it got me thinking. Did the man himself ever read his work into a microphone? What did the colossus of Modernism actually sound like?

The answers are: yes, and like a slightly stiff Irish lawyer.

In November 1924 Joyce made a recording of a section of “Ulysses”. The audio, set down at the HMV studio in Paris, would be one of only two such artifacts he made (five years later he would make an eight-minute recording of an extract from Finnegans Wake).

The excerpt Joyce picked is from the ‘Aoelus’ episode of ‘Ulysses’, a section known as ‘The John F Taylor speech’. The passage is a metaphorical take on the relationship of Ireland and England. Joyce picked it, his friend and publisher Sylvia Beach later said, because he reckoned that it was the only part of his book fit to lifted out and ‘declaimed’.

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

Listened to the audio down the passage of 90 years it sounds strange – ethereal and formal in equal parts. It didn’t inject much color into my impression of Joyce – but it did lead me onward, to the footage above.

It is one of only two pieces of film I can find of the Irish writer, both shot in Paris in the 1920s (the other features the writer and his wife strolling down the street – here at 3:00 minutes). In the clip Joyce stands on the street, holding a conversation with someone off camera and looking like a skinny Irish version of Vito Corleone as he stares dismissively into the camera.

It’s spliced with a brief clip of the writer stepping out of a house, a child running before him. Again the vibe is one of a literary made man.

The footage casts little, if any light on the writer himself. That’s no unfortunate thing, given that Joyce’s life is woven so extensively into his work already. If anything the film represents a brief respite from the latter, writing that’s at times entertaining, eye-opening, and hugely frustrating (usually in the same paragraph).

At the risk of sounding simplistic this brief clip also shows that, despite the poverty, drinking and illness, the writer could certainly pull off some nice threads.

Or, as he wrote in the short story ‘Grace’: “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster…”

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‘You call it as you see it, and stay in the action’

play-it-cover1When nothing is all that’s left in the game, why keep playing?

Why not?

That’s the answer given by failed actress Maria Wyeth, her final words on the closing page of Joan Didion’s terrifying, clinical novel Play It As It Lays.

The book, published in 1970, consolidated Didion’s fame. Almost half a century later its theme – how to save your humanity in the Age of Everything Now – seems as relevant as ever.

Maria Wyeth is divorcing, or not divorcing, her husband. She makes an effort to reignite her career – which fails. She drinks, tries to sleep, drives the freeways of Los Angeles and hopes to somehow regain custody of a daughter she’s lost. Despite occasional, desperate moments of connection she’s lost, a passive onlooker in her own life.

Sound familiar? Didion’s character may be an extreme exemplar, but five per cent of people suffer from depression, a figure that’s rising. Many of these individuals have plenty to eat, a career, children and money in the bank. And yet.

“She had a sense that the dream had ended and that she had slept on,” Didion writes of Maria, the onetime ingenue now reduced to swallowing handfuls of Seconal, existing in an environment of empty sex, listless career failure and relentless dread – her days strung out under a searing, white California sun.

Joan Didion Pic: David Shankbone

Joan Didion
Pic: David Shankbone

The actress is dangerously adrift in a sea of decadent plenty, so much so that the book’s final scene, in which a catatonic Maria holds a suicidal acquaintance’s hand as he overdoses in her bed, is less shocking than the preceding narrative.

Despite this, after 80 or so chapters spent in Maria’s life, Didion’s novel emerges as a tale of survival. Not all of life’s survivors are confronted by life-threatening situations, starvation, war or violence. Some are handed the 20th century’s bounty. But can they bear its weight?

Some can, if – as Maria finds – they come to a simple, final realisation. “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing’.”

This nothing is the heart of Didion’s novel. It’s the poolside starlets’ conversations, it’s the night terrors Maria suffers after her abortion, it’s the reason she drives the LA freeways for days at a time, without a destination.

At the end it’s what Maria Wyeth accepts – and moves past. “You call it as you see it, and stay in the action,” she tells us, the words of a gambler for whom surviving is winning, even if the victory – for her –  is played out in a psychiatric facility.

Her words may be some small advice for surviving the drift of Western life in 21st century, where all choices are available, all desires can be fulfilled, but dissatisfaction still grows.

At the end of Play It As It Lays Maria’s psychiatric treatment, the loss of her hospitalised child, the death of her mother, and her overwhelming feeling of disconnection are seen as byproducts of a First World whose material rewards satisfy every whim, yet whose “disorganisation is general”.

Forty-five years later, in an equally saturated, satiated age, one can’t help wondering if Didion’s character made it out alive.

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

Interchange of the 110 and 105 freeways, Los Angeles

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‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch’

Scott Fitzgerald the screenwriter, 1937. Pic: Carl Van Vechten

Scott Fitzgerald the screenwriter, 1937.
Pic: Carl Van Vechten

In December 1940 a hack screenwriter died in the sitting room of his girlfriend’s home in Hollywood.

Alcoholic, in poor health, receiving little credit for his work and dropped from a contact by MGM a year earlier, he would spend his last days working on a draft of an uncompleted novel.

When his body was later taken to Maryland for burial just 20 or so people showed up to his funeral.
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The screenwriter, Scott Fitzgerald, had described himself as a ‘hack’ – in his final years at least.

Writing freelance movie scripts was some way from his previous work and promise, which included, in The Great Gatsby, one of the closest realisations of the Great American Novel.

Fast forward 70 years and the latest screen adaptation of the book earned $300m at the box office this year, with $200m more expected in re-runs and DVD sales.

Fitzgerald The Hack made it big in Hollywood after all.
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'I shouted across the lawn.' 1443 North Hayworth Avenue, West Hollywood.

‘I shouted across the lawn.’
1443 North Hayworth Avenue, West Hollywood.

This week his ghost was all around.

En route to LA in recent days I watched – and greatly enjoyed – The Great Gatsby. Days later my wife and I found ourselves at a hotel in West Hollywood, minutes from Fitzgerald’s last residence, at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue.

The street’s settled, well-manicured homes are the very opposite of the glare and bustle of nearby Hollywood Boulevard.

Passing the property and aware of the last, ill and unhappy days of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century I couldn’t help but think of Nick Carraway’s lament for the doomed Jay Gatsby.

“They’re a rotten crowd…you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

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