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“Why would I bother to read Ulysses?” once asked Nora Joyce, the wife of its famed author James Joyce. Sadly, that sentiment has been echoed by others countless times, as is made clear in the opening moments of In Bed With Ulysses, the new documentary by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna currently receiving a limited theatrical release timed in conjunction with Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the novel.
“I just couldn’t get into it,” says a typical interview subject about the famously challenging work. Fortunately, this incisive documentary serves as a handy primer for the uninitiated, both to the book’s literary richness and the backstory behind its writing and controversy-laden publication.
Interweaving fascinating archival footage of Dublin in the early part of the twentieth century with interviews with scholars and authors as well as footage of a staged reading of selections from the work by several performers including acclaimed actress Kathleen Chalfant, the film details the history of the book inspired by its author’s tortured relationship with his wife, who once wrote a letter to him addressed “Dear Cuckold.”
Co-director Adelson, who also narrates, is the host for this cinematic journey that includes stops at Joyce Tower in Sandycove, the locale of the book’s opening section, and Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum, where he breathlessly examines pages from the original manuscript.
The film is most fascinating in its account of the book’s troubled publication history, which included the editors of the literary magazine that first published excerpts from it being charged with obscenity. The attempts to ban the book led to one of the most celebrated censorship cases in American legal history, with Random House eventually winning the case and publishing the book in 1934.
While the segments from the staged reading are unlikely to induce casual readers to suddenly immerse themselves in the massive tome, it does provide a sterling showcase for Chalfant, seen reciting portions of the famous Molly Bloom soliloquy while appropriately lounging in bed.
Opened June 16 (Films for Humanity)
Directors/producers: Alan Adelson, Kate Taverna
Screenwriter: Alan Adelson
Directors of photography: Michael Berz, Marc Dagenaar, Scott Sinkler
Editor: Kate Taverna
Composers: Ilir Bajri, Mark De Gli Antoni, Joel Goodman, Dave Soldier
Not rated, 80 min.
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