Shem’s Cinema World

Shem’s Cinema World

Shem’s Cinema World – Exploring the links between James Joyce and the Cinema

Pádraig Trehy

Shem the Penman Sings Again makes playful use of two of James Joyce’s excursions into the performing arts, which are almost entirely overshadowed by the scale of his literary reputation. In 1904, Joyce briefly entertained the idea of becoming a professional singer, and in 1909 with his finances needing a miracle cure, he turned to cinema exhibition. His constant financial instability and the pressure of providing for this growing family were interfering with his ability to finish A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce toyed with various schemes, including a return to singing, before convincing a trio of Trieste businessmen to invest in the establishment of a chain of cinemas in Ireland, starting in Dublin and extending to Belfast and Cork.

Joyce opened the Volta, Ireland’s first dedicated cinema, on Mary Street, Dublin in December 1909. Joyce’s enthusiasm for his venture soon waned and premises were never opened outside of Dublin. The combination of a poor location and a roster of European films which Dubliners largely ignored, meant that Joyce’s involvement with the Volta and his dream of a substantial pay day were over within months. In effect Joyce had set up Ireland’s first art house cinema in inner city Dublin, which was obviously doomed to failure.

Joyce may never have made his name in film exhibition, but the influence of cinematic expression can be felt throughout his work. Allusions to film join a myriad of other references in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake especially, but film also influences the structure and composition of these works as Joyce toiled to get the chaos of the world into his writing, and paint a portrait of reality beyond the limitations of the realist novel.

When Joyce settled in Paris in the 1920s, he would have been surrounded by fellow modernists, who like him, were looking to push their chosen media beyond the bounds of traditional forms. The literary experimentations of Joyce were certainly echoed in the cinematic avant-garde of Paris in the 1920s (Bunuel, Man Ray, Clair et al). Joyce shared a certain purpose with the avant-garde filmmakers in using editing techniques to destroy conventional narrative form, opening up the possibilities of an expansive montage of images, information and allusion. This is seen to greatest effect in Finnegans Wake, Joyce’s final novel and a book regarded by many as unreadable in any conventional way of appreciating a novel. The book employs a myriad of techniques culled from his literary and musical forebears especially, but also from all aspects of cultural activity including the technological innovations of film, television and radio.

This playfulness with the techniques of film and radio especially were to offer me a way of treating some of the most difficult material in the literary canon on screen. I started to imagine elements of the story of his friendship with McCormack and fragments of the Shem and Shaun narrative from The Wake as silent films made in the 1910s and 1920s. The central influence for these sequences, was Charlie Chaplin, whose films and performances Joyce very much admired. These pantomimes, grouped together under the collective title “Tales of Shem and Shaun” help to shine a light on the humour and playfulness in so much of Finnegans Wake and Joyce’s work in general. There are also trace elements of the Paris avant-garde to be found in Shem’s abstract sequences designed to echo the continuous river like flow of narrative which constitutes The Wake.

Cinema established itself early in the twentieth-century as the site of our collective dreaming and ultimately, what unites Finnegans Wake with cinematic expression is its dream-like construction. Joyce tries to capture in text the chaotic playfulness of a dream, one which, recurs eternally as the novel’s final sentence can only be completed by returning to the first page of the book. A spool of film on a continuous loop.

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