First We Feel Then We Fall: Finnegans Wake On-screen
Despite being considered untranslatable, unadaptable, or even unreadable, Finnegans Wake has attracted a growing wave of interpretative attempts in recent years. Now, this beast of a book has just been turned into a film by a visual artist and a Joyce scholar.
Interest in the interpretative and transformative possibilities of James Joyce’s last work has been gaining momentum since the book entered the public domain in the EU in 2012. Some of these most recent activities, like hypertext editions, music adaptations, and radical audio renditions, along with graphic adaptations, were surely facilitated by the new possibilities offered by the internet, a phenomenon which even earned the book the epithet of ‘a book the web was invented for’.
The internet project First We Feel Then We Fall by Polish visual artist Jakub Wróblewski and scholar Katarzyna Bazarnik is definitely tied to this wave. But even compared to the most impressive interpretative web takes on the Wake, the act of turning Joyce’s late masterpiece into film seems a far more ambitious challenge, if at all thinkable, since it would call for much more advanced digital technology.
But before we go any further let’s ask a simple question: how to adapt a novel like Finnegans Wake into film? In other words, how to turn a 628-page-long book, without plot but thick with meanings, puns and innuendos inscribed in any of the several dozen languages employed throughout, into a totally different medium? A medium that, in its most conventional and traditional form, feeds on narrative?
Visualising the meandertale
The first step is obvious: reducing the material. This was done by Katarzyna Bazarnik, a Joyce scholar from Kraków's Jagiellonian University, who selected 32 segments in the original text of the Wake. These segments, roughly equivalent to 32 pages in Finnegans Wake, could be as short as the initial sentence of the Wake: ‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs’. Or they could go on for much longer and be substantially more difficult, like the fragment from page 123:
These paper wounds, four in type, were gradually and correctly understood to mean stop, please stop, do please stop, and O do please stop respectively, and following up their one true clue, the circumflexuous wall of a singleminded men's asylum, accentuated by bi tso fb rok engl a ssan dspl itch ina, — Yard inquiries pointed out → that they ad bîn “provoked” ay D fork, of à grave Brofèsor; àth é’s Brèak — fast — table; ; acùtely profèššionally piquéd, to = introdùce a notion of time [ùpon àplane (?) sù ’ ’ fàç’e’] by pùnct! ingh oles (sic) in iSpace?!
Fragments like these, which well illustrate the ‘meandertaling’ character of Joyce's novel, became then a kind of screenplay and the basis for the video sequences created by Wróblewski. Speaking about his journey through the structure of Finnegans Wake and the nature of his collaboration with Bazarnik, Wróblewski has compared his role to that of someone being led by a guiding hand, as he explains:
I’m wearing a thick black blindfold. Though sometimes I peek out. I think this is the most important part of the project.
The selected fragments were then read, that is interpreted and, at times, improvised by Canadian artist Martin Siemieński, Polish slam poet Weronika Lewandowska, and Bazarnik herself.
Drawing on this audio material Wróblewski was then able to begin the complex process of illustrating the fragments of the text. This was done either through producing new material shot by Wróblewski himself (a cameraman), but also collages, 2-D and 3-D animations, and scans of original manuscripts: among them, those of Joyce’s text as well as the Book of Kells, (provided by Trinity College). This last book, as Wróblewski explains, played a central role in Joyce's writing process (reportedly Joyce took a copy of the book everywhere he went).
The remaining visual material (found and archival footage) was gleaned from various digital collections available in the public domain, like the Prelinger Archives (part of Library of Congress) or the Internet Archive. In one extreme but telling case, the material was yielded by a serendipitous find made by Wróblewski in a waste container in Warsaw's Saska Kępa district: a stack of 8mm tapes which turned out to be a family archive. ‘For me, this was already a reference to the story of the family in Finnegans Wake,’ explains Wróblewski.
Wróblewski emphasises that the selected segments are not merely an accidental selection but can serve as a synopsis of Finnegans Wake.
But perhaps the most important of all the authorial decisions along the path of transmogrifying the Wake into audiovisual material was to divide the visual material into four separate channels. Each of them is devoted to one aspect of the novel, following criteria, which have been defined as: Family / Nature and Natural History/ Culture / and Other. But as Wróblewski emphasises, the repartition of the material was overall rather fluid.
This decision also meant that users cannot watch the visual material as one film. Instead, they are encouraged to switch between the video tracks of the four channels.
As Wróblewski explains:
We considered allowing the user to see all of the four channels simultaneously, but eventually decided to provide tracks which allow for greater interactivity on the part of the user.
This is in keeping with the overall goal of the project. The authors wish to create an experience where users are ‘offered the opportunity to choose which path they want to follow’:
This system is supposed to reflect the tenets of Joyce’s fiction: that the book can be read in different ways, while the readers can solve its verbal puzzles, yield to the melodious rhythm or look for hidden meanings.
But those different ways of reading Finnegans Wake, and now watching it too, can only be experienced by navigating through the app yourself: switching between tracks, and creating a personalised experience of the Finnegans Wake film. The results can be quite surprising, like the fragment about the hen Biddy unearthing the ancient manuscript (page 112 in the original book) or the erotic extravaganza of Shem’s dream (page 247).
Experimental in character, First We Feel Then We Fall was designed as a web application which premiered in June 2016. But as it was also conceived as a research project, it will have an academic life of its own. The app was designed to track users' reaction patterns, their decisions and habits while watching the film. This data will provide for research material for a virtual sociology experiment which is set to start in September 2016.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 18 August 2016