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Reviews

James Joyce: So This Is Dyoublong?

A cringe-inducing example of how not to honor one of the greatest writers who ever lived.


James Joyce: So This Is Dyoublong?

Director: Ciaran O'Connor
Cast: David Norris
Distributor: Kultur
MPAA rating: Unrated
Display Artist: Nuala Cunningham, Ciaran O'Connor
First date: 1999
US DVD Release Date: 2008-04-29

The DVD cover for James Joyce: So This is Dyoublong? claims that this short movie serves as "an in-depth look into the life and works of one of Ireland's most famous authors." As a deep, critical analysis of James Joyce's works, however, it falls remarkably short. As a glimpse into his complex personal life? It fails in that regard, as well.

As part of Kultur's ongoing "Great Literature" video series (which covers everyone from Shakespeare to Faulkner), it shouldn't be much of a surprise that this entry lacks in some aspects, skimming over some of the more crippling personal details that Joyce encountered in his lifetime, like the total loss of vision that he suffered in his final years, making it nearly impossible to finish Finnegan's Wake, his final (and most polarizing) novel.

Yet what makes Dyoublong? so utterly maddening lies simply in the presentation by David Norris, a noted Senator and human rights activist. There are three different parts in Dyoublong? when the documentary cuts to "An Evening with David Norris", in which our host stands on a mock stage and delivers anecdotes relating to Joyce's life while trying on ridiculous, silly voices amidst the sound of obviously-canned laughter and applause. "Cringe-inducing" is the kindest descriptor available for these moments.

Yet Dyoublong? passes over more than just the details of Joyce's life (while spending an inordinate amount of time on the notion that he was a decent singer). Much of his critical work is overlooked; for example, his poetry and sole play (1918's Exiles) are completely passed over, while Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is painfully slighted, getting a brief mention in favor of multiple references to a play that's based on it, Stephen D. (though an actor playing the title role -- Barry McGovern -- actually provides some of the most poignant commentary in the film).

Dyoublong? goes through the usual documentary motions: talking to descendents, historians, and digging up archival footage of personal friends to provide context. Near the end, an argument is made for Joyce being the greatest writer of the 20th century because of his respect for the common man, which -- though true -- is not Joyce's only lasting contribution to literature. Part of his greatness lay, oddly, in his utter profanity.

Though Dyoublong? does mention publishers' unwillingness to publish Dubliners due to its liberal use of the word "bloody", there's hardly a mention of Ulysses' sexually explicit nature prohibiting the book from being published altogether in the United States (due to a legal ban that lasted several years), much less the masturbatory references that pepper Finnegan's Wake. The movie is correct for applauding Joyce's respect for the common man, but his respect shines through because he understands the common man in all his dirty, lusty, and self-serving ways.

Furthermore, there's not a single passing mention of Joyce's single greatest literary contribution: making stream-of-consciousness writing a part of the mainstream. Few books prior had even dared to toy with the format, but Joyce not only introduced it: he mastered the form, as well.

Most of that credit is due to Ulysses, the epic masterpiece that took place over the course of a single day (yet another groundbreaking feat), and Joyce went on to expand upon that with the surreal dreamlike insanity that is Finnegan's Wake, which is more "stream-of-subconscious" than anything else, told in a pun-filled language that remains as unique and enigmatic as anything on this side of Ezra Pound's Cantos.

These achievements are pretty much stuffed away in favor of Norris regaling us with a tale of how his companions commemorated the birth of fictional character Leopold Bloom by unveiling a plaque commemorating his birthplace only to commemorate the wrong house. This presumably "in-depth look" into Joyce's life and legacy, turns out to be remarkably focused on Norris.

Though parts of Dyoublong? are dedicated to Joyce's lifelong lover Nora Barnacle (and the film based on their relationship, Nora), one can't help but feel slighted by the end, as too many facets of his life and work are ultimately thrown by the wayside. Such inattention to detail is reflected in the DVD itself, as we are given options for "Play Movie" and "Scene Selection" and nothing else. No production notes, Joyce bibliographies, or additional interviews. It's a quick and cheap overview of an artist whose rich body of work deserves far, far better treatment.

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