The Wake / A Dream in Progress
- One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutandry grammar and goahead plot.
(James Joyce in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 1926)
By Lars Movin
In his foreword to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Seamus Deane calls the book "a transcription into a miniaturized form of the whole western literary tradition". This formulation contains the essence of the ideas that have been associated with this, since its publication in 1939, most outstanding work in twentieth century modernistic literature. A work that contains everything, hazards everything, and exhausts every possibility of the language. Unapproachable, yes, but also unavoidable, like a monolith rising above the other plants in the landscape, and despite its impenetrability reaching the remotest corners of western culture with its dark force.
If its predecessor, Ulysses (1922), was radical, then Finnegans Wake was monstrous. If Joyce's first accomplishment was an almost all-encompassing exploration of the great Day, his swan song was a manic and subversive transcription of the pitch black Night of life. Finnegans Wake is quite simply not like any other work in world literature. Unreadable is the word most often pinned on the book. And, on listening to those literary scholars and Joyce fanatics who have taken up the challenge, one of the possible interpretations is that Finnegans Wake must be regarded as dream wideawake, a rambling and drunken decoding of the price that consciousness, under its dark mirror of sleep, pays for during the light of day to be able to maintain a somewhat civilized discipline.
At first glance, one might say, not the most obvious basis for a film, and unlike the rest of Joyce's works, Finnegans Wake has never been subjected to approaches from the film world. Not until now, when two Danish pictorial artists, Michael Kvium and Christian Lemmerz, have created a monumental filmic work based on James Joyce's linguistic tour de force, its title: The Wake.
Though Kvium/Lemmerz makes no secret of the connection between The Wake and Finnegans Wake their intention has not been to make a regular screen adaptation. Rather, the two artists have taken up the thread from Joyce and let the film grow out of the queer undercurrents of the book. Literally, they have dreamed on upon the closewoven carpet of deconstructed language which Joyce had had simmering over a period of sixteen years, until eventually, one and a half years before his death, he published the work and thereby re-circulated the more than six hundred pages of stream-of-unconsciousness in the Babylonian ocean of language out of which he had fished the elements for his countless plays on words and distorted sentence constructions.
Seamus Deane continues his Joyce-introduction by pointing out that it may well be problematic to maintain that Finnegans Wake is a novel, but that it would be equally difficult to uphold the point of view that it is not. Something similar applies to The Wake. Whether we insist upon calling it a film or the opposite, the work gives rise to fundamental questions about the conventions of pictorial language and ideas of the medium. Its running time alone.
In the cinema version eight hours, corresponding to a filmic night - perhaps the cinematographic answer of the subconscious to Andy Warhol's Sleep? And then the concept. A film which, in the same manner as the book, contains everything, hazards everything and tends towards dissolving everything. A film which in its ambition spans from absolute underexposure to the absolute overexposure, from black to white, from emptiness to pictorial noise nullifying any meaning. And a film that apart from its multitude of cinematographic experiments draws elements from literature, the visual arts, and performance art onto the arena of the moving pictures in an effort to emancipate the medium from Hollywood and the tyranny of the traditional linear narrative.
One might say that with Finnegans Wake Joyce disseminated a virus into the English language, perhaps into the languages of the world. A microbe still active in undermining the connections between language and authority. At the same time, he tore down several formal boundaries and changed the ideas of half a century on literature and art. The Wake should be seen as part of the same tradition, as its ambition has been, within the world of film, in a similar manner, to transcend or bust conventions and to melt down and re-vitalize the filmic language by turning back to its basic elements. In the way that Finnegans Wake can be read as a catalogue of linguistic quirks, The Wake can be viewed as a display of the possibilities of imagery, a playful exploration of montage techniques, camera types and lenses. A rediscovery of film from scratch.
With The Wake, Kvium/Lemmerz do not only wish to release the cinematic medium from the conventions of pictorial language, but also to pull the film out of the darkness of the cinema and thereby put an end to the notion of the audience as bodyless sensory machines. While the traditional film show ideally demands suspension of disbelief - a dissolution of the boundary between the illusion of the images and the consciousness of the audience - The Wake has been conceived as a filmic object, a living sculpture and a generator of images, a phenomenon existing in the world independently of the attention of the audience and which for this reason may emerge anywhere and in any conceivable shape.
The possibilities are legion. Why not let the images roll like a silent and drunken dream on the walls of the public house where the creamy, dark beer of the funereal feast flows like paste on all surfaces? With husky voices and the clinking of glasse as sound track. It is like this that The Wake will emerge. On a wall in New York, on a sailor's arm in Amsterdam, on a mountain side far from the nearest civilization. As a flickering of light under the tree crowns of the Phoenix Park in Dublin. And why not show the film as an event? As the back screen to a black tie piano concert or the sets round a nightlong techno rave. Or on TV, the twentieth century answer to a collective subconscious? And by the way, a more obvious forum than one would immediately expect.
In the the infancy of the medium, Joyce fantasized about groteque television plays with mythological undertones. So why not put the medium to bed with The Wake and let the film put its weird visions on the air as furry dreams that can be taken down with the indoor arial? Not to speak of the internet. Why nor split the manic flow of images and blow it to atoms in cyberspace where it may reorganize and rise again in countless variants as a universal and constantly fluctuating subconscious mind with a drinking straw straight into the large sloshy beer of the burial feast that is our existence?
To this can be added an important incarnation of The Wake as a video installation with four projections distributed on the walls of a room so that the onlooker will be surrounded by the work and physically mount new individual versions with the movements of his body. In this version, The Wake's eight hours will be made up to four times two hours, shown simultaneously, and thus the tight, repetitive and cyclic character of the work is intensified.
Michael Kvium and Christian Lemmerz are a painter and a sculptor, respectively. Since the early eighties, they have, along with their primary activities, alone or together, also explored other ways of expression, such as film, video, performance, and theatre. In 1984, they were co-founders of the performance group 'Værst' ('Worst') where they engaged in a kind of taboo-storming and often static experimental theatre with borrowings from a number of different expressions, from comics to butoh.
In 1986, the performance activities led to the couple's first film 'Grød'('Porridge'), a short piece of fiction which in distorted form displays how the stereotyped ideas of social realism fancy everyday life of a working-class family. In 1990, they paid homage to a father figure, the artist Albert Mertz, in 'Albert på Andy's' ('Albert at Andy's'), a public house conversation recorded at Andy's Bar in Copenhagen with the two directors in the roles of humble listeners with giant ears pasted onto their heads.
And in 1994 followed the first long film by Kvium/Lemmerz, 'Voodoo Europa', a low-budget feature film recorded on video and scanned to a 35mm cinema copy. With its starting point in a classical set-up, nine women isolated in a summer house, the film explores the mental climate in Europe in the years immediately before the millennium. The women drink, have fun, talk, and laugh. And they quarrel, vomit and drive each other into physical and mental states where the distance to violence, terror, disease and death becomes wafer-thin. The recurrent fulcrum is is an orgy where the girls drink like sailors, tell horrible stories, smoke, laugh and reel about, close to passing out from booze. The greater part of the remaing material consists of the situations supposedly lying between the silent battlefield of the opening scene and the ecstasy of the party. After the drunken culmination follow downs, confrontations and defeats where the worst sides of the body, the mind, and the language force their way into the space between the characters, eating from the veneer of the surface like growths of evil, flawed characters, mean instincts, perishableness and destruction. Altogether a desparate and tragicomic portrait of a state before death called life. The ravaged naked bodies exposed in the opening montage seem to be the end of a course of events that the audience is not allowed to witness in full and thus the film make use of a cyclic structure which anticipates the even more dissipated time dimension in The Wake.
Also in other contexts, the absorption in James Joyce and Finnegans Wake has put its mark on the oeuvre of Kvium/Lemmerz. For both artists, the book has been present for years as a soundboard, a work of reference, whence motives and figures, indirectly or as distant echoes, have been transposed to paintings, sculptures and performances. And in 1996 they approached the source more directly with the performance Failagain Wake, shown at the art museum Arken south of Copenhagen. The year after, Lemmerz created, with his starting point in Anna Livia Plurabelle's final monologue in Finnegans Wake, the play Alptraum at the Edison Thaeatre in Copenhagen.
A recurrent theme in cultural criticism is the relation between book and film, between literary source and visual interpretation. How does the director organize the material of the novel? Does the film version convey an exhaustive rendering of the books universe? Does the film get about all those matters that might be the books? Has the scriptwriter cleaned his plate or are their still half-eaten left-overs on the dish?
Questions of this kind are of less relevance when it comes to The Wake. First, Finnegans Wake is an inexhaustible source, a bottomless storeroom of linguistic material, themes, and formal experiements. Secondly, The Wake operates like a dream in progress, a series of filmic representations of states lifted from sleep-drugged readings of Joyce. A homage, a continuation, a translation. Anything else than a straight film adaptation.
Nevertheless, a connoisseur of Joyce will recognize elements from Finnegans Wake. The Earwicker family. The father, in no less than two shapes. The mother, she split, too. The twins, Shem and Shaun. The daughter Issy. The obscene defiling of the Garden of Eden. The grotesque TV-fantasies. The drunken scenes of burial beer at the public house in the Dublin suburb of Chapelizod, accompanied and eroded by the everflowing river Liffey. All seen through a haze of defocussed images, surreal tableaus and fragmented montages. Like a frenetic fantasy over civilization as it might look, spied upon through a muddy prism drawn in the wake of the dream boat of James Joyce.
For sixteen years, the manuscript of James Joyce wore the working title of Work in Progress. This could be the case with the film by Kvium/Lemmerz. The version now accessible is the result of two years' work. Who knows what transformations The Wake will undergo during the next fourteen years? Perhaps we have only seen the beginning of a cinematic work which, with the passing of time, will melt down and black out, only to rise again as a pictorial stream of consciousness, closer still to that grammar and systematics of dreams yet unknown to the discourse of the light of day. Perhaps at last the film, in its ultimative form, will realize the idea of dreaming wit our eyes wide open. And perhaps the wisdom of the slag heaps of culture will reveal itself in a glimpse, at the very moment the language we know has been put to rest and a new one has come alive.