Seán Crosson finds himself “hoppy on akkant of his joyicity” at a screening of Shem the Penman Sings Again at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
James Joyce’s work has long been regarded as among the most difficult to adapt successfully to the cinema; certainly very few films have managed this challenging task with wide critical acclaim, with the possible exception of John Huston’s extraordinary rendering of The Dead, the final film from the great Irish-American director.
While this may apply to all of Joyce’s works, it is surely all the more so with respect to his final (and most demanding) novel, Finnegans Wake. Indeed, the novel itself is rightly regarded as one of the most difficult literary works to read (never mind film) with Joycean seminars sometimes dedicated to attempting to decipher no more than one page per session, if even that.
No doubt conscious of this challenge, Pádraig Trehy wisely choose to produce a work that though it draws on aspects and characters within Finnegans Wake, could not in any established sense be called an adaptation. Rather Trehy takes inspiration from two prominent characters and their actions in Joyce’s book, Shaun the Post and his twin brother Shem the Penman, and interweaves these scenes with reenactments of moments from the lives of the two individuals who inspired these characters, Irish tenor John McCormack (Louis Lovett) and Joyce himself, played at various stages of his life by Hugh O’Conor, Frank Prendergast, and Brian Fenton.
The concept of audience is a recurring concern in the film foregrounded through scenes of performance, by both Joyce and McCormack, and audience reaction, beginning with McCormack’s winning performance at the 1903 Feis Ceoil tenor singing competition. Structured in four episodes, the film contrasts the extraordinary popular success of McCormack with Joyce’s considerable critical acclaim, but limited popular impact.
A further focus of the film is the very difficult life Joyce and his family led, living in considerable poverty and coming to terms with the mental illness of Joyce’s daughter Lucia, whose dancing is a recurring feature of the film. However, this brief description of central concerns of the film and its structure cannot possibly communicate the eclecticism and imagination with which Trehy manages to tell this story, in a work very reminiscent of silent cinema. The director has acknowledged a debt to Charlie Chaplin, and Chaplin is certainly an influence in the sometimes hilarious (if surreal) slapstick moments that capture the relationship between Shem and Shaun.
Trehy draws heavily on silent film aesthetic for the realisation of these scenes, including the use of iris shots, title cards, and speeded-up movements, an aesthetic well complemented by John O’Brien’s excellent score. Though predominately in black and white, the film also includes flashes of colour to complement particular themes touched upon. While reminiscent of silent cinema visually, creative use of sound is also a feature, evoking the sounds of the wireless and phonograph of the early twentieth century (important elements in Joyce’s own life) whether in scenes featuring Joyce or McCormack singing or in conversations between the characters. These dialogue scenes also suggest the difficulty in trying to accurately capture figures from the past through the creative use of radio static between snippets of conversation.
Shem the Penman Sings Again was entirely funded by the Irish Film Board’s Micro Budget initiative though the film’s small budget is never evident in this innovative, highly imaginative, and impressively realised addition to the work the Board has funded to date.
Seán Crosson is the Programme Director of the MA in Film Studies: Theory and Practice at the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI Galway. His publications include Sport and Film (Routledge, 2013) and several co-edited volumes, including Contemporary Irish Film: New Perspectives on a National Cinema (Braumüller, 2011) and The Quiet Man … and Beyond: Reflections on a Classic Film, John Ford and Ireland (Liffey Press, 2009). He is currently President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS)
Shem the Penman Sings Again screened on Thursday, 9th July as part of the Galway Film Fleadh (7 – 12 July 2015)