The Last Cinema Shem Review
“To mention James Joyce outside of literary or academic circles can be a dangerous affair. The likelihood of eliciting a reaction of disinterest or aversion is high, and not without reason. Joyce’s texts have a long-standing reputation for being notoriously oblique, filled with complexities and references which require a great deal of background knowledge to fully appreciate.”
Read Colin McCracken’s review of Shem for The Last Cinema
Film Ireland Interview with Pádraig Trehy
Sean Finnan talked to Pádraig Trehy about his film Shem The Penman Sings Again, which deals with the actual and much fabled friendship of James Joyce and John McCormack.
The world-renowned writer and the extraordinary tenor first met in 1904 when Joyce still had hopes of becoming a professional singer himself. They reconnected in Paris in the 1920s and Joyce was to use his first-hand knowledge of McCormack to create the character of Shaun the Post in his famously ‘unreadable’ final novel, Finnegans Wake. As Joyce struggled with the book, he portrayed himself in it as Shaun’s lowly twin brother, Shem.
Joyce’s twin obsessions, singing and literary experimentation, flow through the film as his and McCormack’s encounters are reimagined in a variety of early cinematic styles, interrupted by four short films-within-the-film charting the exploits of Shem and Shaun. As Joyce’s eyesight fails, the narrative is carried by a mix of archive recordings and imaginary radio broadcasts, giving us an emotional connection to an increasingly isolated Joyce.
What was it that caught your eye about the relationship between John McCormack and James Joyce?
I was interested in both of them separately. The two of them have been a kind of constant in the background of my reading and my listening. I’ve always had a love of early singing and early recording and I knew that there was this fabled meeting of McCormack and Joyce at the Feis Ceoil of 1903, although it isn’t actually true. Between the jigs and the reels, by 1904 they had made each other’s acquaintance. So there was a connection in actual historical terms but what interested me also was that there was this connection between the two in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Joyce has used the figure of McCormack to make up the character of Shaun the Post. And that is when I really started getting interested.
I, like many people, had struggled with Finnegans Wake. I had actually thrown a copy out at one point out of frustration! But I thought that McCormack and singing could be a way into something that is kind of impenetrable in some ways, intellectually.
There’s great emotion in McCormack and there’s great emotion in that style of singing; not just the Opera, the whole Irish ballads that McCormack would’ve been most popular for. Then I discovered that Joyce was listening to this really sentimental music and liked to sing after dinner or after a few drinks. I just thought that there was this lovely juxtaposition between the so-called most difficult book in the English Language and these sentimental songs. There was a crystallisation about six years ago when the idea just sort of popped – the emotion in McCormack versus the hard modernism of Joyce.
So you approached Finnegan’s Wake from a different angle…
I started reading Finnegan’s Wake with the idea of performance. It’s not an original thought by any means – but basically treating it as a performance text, that it is like a libretto. John Cage said that it is like an opera. Joyce himself called it an oratorio. Also, when you look at the biographical details, as Joyce was writing the book, he was also going blind. So that after a while it became impossible for him to physically write the book. He was dictating it. He was performing it for his legion of secretaries, including Samuel Beckett. So with the figure of McCormack singing and Joyce dictating the book there is a real twinning there.
That aspect of performance is very much reflected in the film’s aesthetic.
Performance is one of the key things. It’s there in the shots and sounds of audience in the film a lot and even in the title of the film. In 1904, Joyce and McCormack sat and sang together in front of an audience and an appreciative audience for the style of singing they were engaged in. McCormack went on to have that audience multiplied by millions and went on to make millions. We can’t equate these days how much money he would have earned. He was giving away 25 to 50 grand a week during the First World War. There is a reason he was a Papal Count. It has nothing to do with his piety; it has to do with the size of his cheque!
At the same time that McCormack is building his audience, Joyce is losing his… if you can say he had an audience. He had a small really tightknit group around him that were fanatical but he doesn’t have the audience that he probably craved. Especially if you have ever performed live in front of people. This is something that is quite addictive and I think that having had that once Joyce would have missed it for the rest of his life. So that idea of the performance and audience, and lack of audience, are central to the film.
It asks the question that if Joyce was financially successful at singing would he have written anything?
I did start with the idea of what if… what if Joyce had become a singer as opposed to the great writer. But I really don’t think it was ever actually on the cards. I think that is one of the interesting things about having McCormack there because Joyce would have realised, I think, that he couldn’t have been great. If Joyce wasn’t going to be great at something then he wasn’t going to do it. That is my interpretation anyway. He could have made a living as a singer very comfortably and he would’ve been at the right time, at the beginning of recording – and by all accounts, and by McCormack’s own account, Joyce had a voice as lyrical as his own. But I don’t think he would have had the personality to carry it off like McCormack had. I think Joyce would have been clever enough to know that, and realise that, what he really wanted, the greatness that he wanted to be, was only going to come from writing and reinventing the forms that he wrote in.
Why did you go down the route of portraying this aspect of Joyce in old-style silent cinema. It’s very dreamy. It’s kind of like Finnegans Wake in that way. You never have a full grasp of the narrative. You kind of sweep in and out of what is going on at times.
Most of that would be my personal taste, I suppose. When I started thinking about this idea first, it started life as a documentary. There is about 30 seconds of footage of Joyce – at the time that I dreamt this up I wouldn’t have been able to afford even that two seconds. For me, anyway, it’s useless. It is 30 seconds of him coming out of a doorway in Paris and walking down the street. So it’s really of no benefit. It doesn’t really tell you anything. I was going to have to find a way of recreating the main events in the story so to speak.
I didn’t want to make a drama documentary. The reason I wanted to make films was Charlie Chaplin. I have wanted to make a silent film for 30 years. So with this idea, the more and more we thought about it, the more and more we realised the budget was never going to be big, the silent film option became more of a logical step. And then, as you say yourself, the dream aspect of Finnegans Wake; it is supposed to feel like you are falling into a dream, like that time before you dream where you are just falling out of one consciousness into another. I think that that drift is in silent films. You can get that uncanny kind of sense out of using silent film today that you couldn’t have got 70 years ago.
The film contains some particular abstract and intense psychological scenes. What was the thinking behind that?
Well some of them are taken from the surrealism of Paris of the 1920s. Some of them are directly lifted! I’ll leave you to find out where from! But they are direct references to films made in the ’20s. I don’t necessarily have documentary evidence that Joyce saw these films but the idea was that this is what people were doing cinematically around Joyce in the ’20s. These are people that were reading Joyce; these were people that Joyce was meeting and talking to. This is how they worked, using cinema to explore some of the same ideas that Joyce was exploring.
You make me want to go back and read Finnegans Wake now.
That is one of the great things about the screenings it’s having. A lot of people are coming out saying I’m going to buy a copy of Finnegans Wake now. All joking aside. One of the things I wanted is that people would do that. Here is a book that comes with a label of being unreadable and, yes, maybe if you start on page 1 and try to read it to the end you will fail. But if you pick it up randomly and read it out loud I think you might have a bit of fun.
There’s great wordplay and there is a great playfulness in Joyce, playing with ideas, bouncing them and crushing them off each other. You can find so much in every page – and that is how I was reading it at one point: one page a day, and sometimes randomly. Obviously, there are sections of it that I had to sit down and read, if you can do such a thing. But for my own enjoyment, I was picking it up and reading one page every single day and playing with it.
Every single page has at least one kind of joke, a piece or humour, in it and that is one thing I wanted to carry over to the film – it needs humour if you are going to be that experimental. If you are going to demand your audience stay with you, for me, it has to be funny. Also, I don’t want anyone to feel stupid. That is not what it is about. There is this thing with Finnegans Wake; people feel stupid trying to read it. That is pointless.
I read somewhere that Joyce was laughing every single day while he was writing it.
And that is the spirit you want to get back. How do you get that back? I think you’ve got to start outside it. He’s got popular songs, he’s got comedy, he’s got music hall. There’s loads in it is that is not highly intellectual. Maybe they are the way you should go into it. And if one page doesn’t work for you, you can maybe skip to the next page.
Like the film, it is not linear in any way. It is a dream – and dream logic is fun.
Irish Times Donald Clarke Review, January 8th, 2016
Cinema’s interaction with James Joyce (who famously founded Dublin’s first movie house) has been erratic. Language is everything in the books. Yet film squirms under such logorrhoea.
In his delightful, playful study of the relationship between Joyce and John McCormack (Louis Lovett), the great tenor Pádraig Trehy, sensibly, approaches the work – Finnegans Wake in particular – from an oblique angle. There are a fair few words in Shem the Penman Sings Again, but this is undeniably a full-on cinematic experience.
Reminiscent of work by Guy Maddin, the great Canadian eccentric, Shem the Penman gestures towards silent film as it talks us through the careers of two very different talents. We get tight irises. We get some wonderful music – now avant garde, now sentimental – from John O’Brien. Hugh O’Conor, Frank Prendergast and Brian Fenton, playing Joyce at various stages of his life, offer performances that veer from the quietly naturalistic to the broadly pantomimic.
The sound design, featuring fizzes and pops from an imaginary wireless, further presses home the experimental aesthetic.
Now and then the film- makers give in to the greatest hits. Joyce really does point out that Ulysses will “Keep the academics busy for a century”. Shot on a tiny budget, the picture is, perhaps, just a little over-extended. But this remains a vital contribution to Joyceology.
Shem Review from Galway Film Fleadh Screening 2015
Ahead of its screening in Galway’s Town Hall Theatre on January 19th next, here is Seán Crosson’s insightful Review from Shem’s premiere there at the Fleadh last July.
‘Shem the Penman Sings Again’ Cork Film Festival Screening 13th November 2015
With just over 10 days passed since the Cork Premiere of Shem the Penman Sings Again, we have had a chance to calm down from the excitement of the Gala Screening in the Everyman Palace as part of this year’s 60th Cork Film Festival.
We would like to thank everyone who was involved in making the screening possible and so memorable, especially all the wonderful staff of the Everyman Palace and the Cork Film Festival.
The evening was, on several levels, a homecoming.
A homecoming for film to the Everyman, which hadn’t been used as a cinema since 1988;
a homecoming for it’s Director Pádraig Trehy and Producer Rossa Mullin, both from Cork and premiering their first feature film in their home-city; and finally for the film itself which was shot, in part, in the Everyman Theatre.
We are very pleased to announce that Shem will be getting a limited Irish theatrical release in 2016 and therefore there will be opportunities in the coming months to see Shem the Penman Sings Again throughout the country on the big screen, with more details to be announced very soon!
Shem’s Cinema World
Shem’s Cinema World – Exploring the links between James Joyce and the Cinema
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.
Dream Duet of James Joyce and John McCormack
Dream Duet of James Joyce and John McCormack
Thursday, October 15, 2015
Cork filmmaker Pádraig Trehy used music to explore the friendship of two of Ireland’s great cultural figures, writes Richard Fitzpatrick in The Irish Examiner.
Source: Irish Examiner
The later works of James Joyce can be hard nuts to crack, most famously his final novel, the dreamlike Finnegans Wake, which is stitched together with an invented language made up of composite words from the guts of 70 world languages.
The filmmaker Pádraig Trehy has used music — and Joyce’s friendship with the tenor John McCormack — as a way into the novel in his film, Shem the Penman Sings Again.
Trehy takes one of the threads from Finnegans Wake and weaves it through a series of silent films. He has the novel’s protagonist Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker tell a bedtime story to his three children — Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and their sister Issy — about the blossoming friendship between Joyce and McCormack.
“Both men became quick friends through their shared passion for singing,” he reads to them. “Jim loved his perambulation. Both men loved the sounds of their own voices.”
Joyce, who was born in 1882, and McCormack, who was two years younger than him, became chummy in 1904, which was also the year Joyce fell in love with Nora Barnacle. McCormack encouraged Joyce, who was toying with the idea of becoming a professional singer. The pair sang on stage together during Dublin’s Horse Show Week in August 1904. Shortly afterwards, McCormack set off for Milan to study opera singing, and Joyce left Ireland, too, to pursue his career as a novelist, but they met up again several times in Paris, where Joyce was stationed, in the 1920s.
“I don’t think Joyce ever lost the idea of being a singer or a performer,” says Trehy. “That Joyce had woven bits of his friendship with McCormack and then McCormack’s public persona into Shaun the Post, and that he had decided to make that character a twin of Shem the Penman — which is very clearly a line to him, but twin halves of the same thing — intrigued me.
“What struck me, and you see it later in the film, is the shots of the older Joyce dictating Finnegans Wake because he can’t write. He’s performing it. It’s that idea that the singer in him never left. It creates a line back into oral tradition where the bard would have been the carrier of stories and meaning. A critic has equated Finnegans Wake as being like a libretto, that it’s better to sing it than to read it.”
It’s fascinating to think Joyce, who got by from the kindness of benefactors for much of his days, could have made it as a tenor. Nora Barnacle was badgering him as late as the 1920s for having chosen writing over singing. McCormack, for example, made untold riches from the trade.
“It was a realisable vocation for Joyce,” says Trehy. “You could have made a good living if you reached a high enough standard. Seemingly Joyce did have the voice. McCormack reckoned he was good enough to be professional. He may not have made it as an opera singer but he could have made a very good career. It was also the time of the birth of the recording industry. Within 10 years, these guys who were making a decent living in concert performances or in musical theatre or opera were suddenly making ridiculous amounts of money from record sales.”
The amount of money McCormack was making is incredible in today’s terms. “During the First World War he was giving money away by the hatful, writing charity cheques every week between $25,000 and $50,000. He lived the rock’n’roll lifestyle too. He ate and drank and feasted all around him. He had eight houses and 15 cars. People in this country have forgotten how big John McCormack was. He was Elvis. He was a guy who almost created the recording industry.”
The filmmakers Pooleen Productions used a number of locations around Cork to shoot the film, including Fota House; Mr Bradley’s pub on Barrack Street; and the evocative Everyman Palace Theatre for a dream sequence.
“The Everyman is very like now what it would have been like in 1890,” says Trehy.
“It’s the twin theatre of the Olympia. It was originally built as ‘a palace of varieties’ for music hall stuff. It became a cinema at some point in the 20th century; then it closed in the 1980s as a cinema.
“They refurbished it about 20-odd years ago and brought it back to its former glory and re-opened it as a theatre. It has multiple connections for me of having been a cinema when I was a kid, then having shot it as a theatre in the film and now we’re going to be screening it back there again, which is a lovely bit of symmetry.”
Shem the Penman Sings Again will be screened at the Everyman as part of the Cork Film Festival, 8pm, Friday, Nov 13, 2015.