2007   SEPTEMBER 23   #266

Passages from Finnegans Wake

Passages from Finnegans Wake - Side One (27:13)
Passages from Finnegans Wake - Side Two (25:08)

I'm not sure if I was aware that "Finnegans Wake" had been made into a movie when I came across this soundtrack, but I knew I'd better grab it. I found it in the cut out bin at the Happy Tunes record shop on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village, almost directly across the street from Electric Lady Land, in 1973 or 4. It was $1.99. All the cut outs were $1.99. It's the only copy I've ever seen.

This is, in a way, a real Old School soundtrack LP-not just the music, but dialogue and sound effects. This was pretty common in the pre-VHS days when owning the soundtrack was as close to owning the actual movie as you could hope. "Finnegans Wake" takes this to a remarkable extreme, with the mostly Irish cast singing and gabbing away in Joyce's artificial dream language for more than 50 minutes. I'd never heard anything like this.

The music is pretty terrific, and it's by one Elliot Kaplan. According to the IMDB he also wrote the theme for the old Raymond Burr "Ironsides" TV show, and the music for the Babette Bardot softcore porn "I, the Marquis de Sade," and orchestrated the score for "The Rocketeer" in 1991, but I'm not as sure as the IMDB that all this is the work of the same Elliot Kaplan. A 15 or 20 year gap in the resume and a total lack of biographical details suggests to me we may have multiple Elliots at work.

There's no ambiguity about the director. That would be Mary Ellen Bute, who was just turning 60 as this went before the cameras. This was her first (and only) feature; prior to this she'd made abstract animations, something along the lines of Jordon Belson's stuff, if the stills available online are anything to go by (though she got rolling years before he did). She was definitely one very wiggy chick. There's a page about Mary Ellen Bute and her films at The Center for Visual Music website, which provides a little bit of information about "Passages from Finnegans Wake." (No site on the Internet provides more than a little bit of information about it) (And I couldn't turn up a single still, aside from the ones on the back of the album).

This movie is so obscure I can't even say for certain when it was released; I've found dates ranging from 1963 to 1968, thought it was probably in late 1966 or early 1967, since it was often reviewed in tandem with Joseph Strick's 1967 adaptation of "Ulysses." In general it got better reviews than the Strick film, at least from critics like Dwight MacDonald and Stanley Kaufman. The daily critics appear to have given it the sort of respectful "something-a-little-different-for-the-discriminating-film-buff" sort of notices that are inevitably the kiss of death.

I've never seen it. I don't know anyone who's seen it. And when I say that, bear in mind that I was a film student living in Manhattan in the 70's, when art houses and revival theaters proliferated like Starbucks. Maybe "Passages from Finnegans Wake" was screened at the School of Visual Arts or MOMA while I was at the beach or something. Maybe not.

What else? The only actors here I'm familiar with are Peter Haskell and Leonard Frey (making his film debut in what's apparently a very small part). The script is based not only on the novel but on a dramatic adaptation of it by Mary Manning, who is credited with the screenplay according to some sources (others credit it to Bute, or list it as collaboration). Way down in the editing credits is Thelma Schoonmacher, just starting out in a career that would net her three Oscars (most recently last year, for "The Departed").

I'd love to see this thing, but it doesn't look that's going to happen any time soon. So far as I can tell, it's never been released on DVD or tape, anywhere, ever. A webpage that hasn't been updated since 2003 mentions a 16mm print available for rental to "museums, universities, and Joycean institutions" for $180 and gives a phone number. It seems a little steep, but if there's enough curious folks out there willing to become the, I don't know, WFMU James Joyce Marching Band and Koffee Klatch for one night, I'd kick in 10 bucks.

And just a note about the apostrophe, or the lack thereof. The book (which, just to be clear, I am never ever going to finish) (I did read the excerpts in The Portable Joyce) (I didn't understand them) (I also gave Anthony Burgess' A Shorter Finnegans Wake a shot) is Finnegans Wake. "Finnegan's Wake" is an old music hall song, and a pretty cool one (fragments of it pop up through out the soundtrack). You can download Roger McGuinn's version here, and he's also included full lyrics, chords, and the notated melody in case you'd like to take a whack at it.

Thanks to Chuck Ward (Passaic Valley High School) for transferring the vinyl to a CD, whence I ripped the mp3s.

- Contributed by: Jeff Grimshaw

Images: Front Cover, Back Cover, Back Cover Photo #1, Back Cover Photo #2, Back Cover Photo #3, Mary Ellen Bute

Media: LP
Album: Passages from Finnegans Wake
Label: RCA Red Seal
Date: 1967