Mary Ellen Bute's
Passages from Finnegans Wake

Introduction to a screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives, Summer 2008

By Kit Smyth Basquin, PhD

Mary Ellen Bute, (1906–1983) became an award winning independent filmmaker. She grew up in Houston Texas with my mother, Virginia Gibbs later Smyth, studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art as a teenager, and then moved to New York City. Finding the dynamic surfaces of Picasso and Kandinsky too static, she searched for another medium. Bute said in a talk at the Chicago Art Institute in 1976: “He [Kandinsky] used abstract, nonobjective elements so you could experience a canvas the way you experience a musical composition…Well I thought it was terrific…[but] these things should be unwound in time continuity. It was a dance. That became my [objective] I came to New York and tried to find the technical means. The most developed thing at the time was stage lighting.”

In 1925 she studied stage lighting at Yale School of Drama. Five feet tall with red hair, spiked heels, and a southern accent, Bute entered a room like an explosion of energy, making her presence known. She had a memorably enthusiastic laugh.

After various jobs, travel, and a debut in Houston, she returned to New York. In 1932 she directed the Visual Department at the Gerald Warburg Studio. There she collaborated with Joseph Schillinger, a composer of music derived from a mathematical system, and filmmaker Lewis Jacobs, on a film, Synchromy, which has not survived. Bute made the abstract drawings for the film.

In 1934 Bute met commercial cinematographer Ted Nemeth who collaborated on her films and later married her. Bute directed about fifteen short, abstract animated films and one live action short, based on a short story, before embarking on Finnegans Wake.

In 1958, she saw Mary Manning’s stage adaptation of James Joyce’s text, called Passages from Finnegans Wake, a title Bute replicated to avoid the struggle of acquiring permissions from the James Joyce Foundation. She simply got permission from Manning.

Bute was attracted to Joyce’s cinematic metaphors and circular structure, as well as to his musical qualities, not only the sound of his language but also his references to song titles. Bute had spent twenty-four years synchronizing music and abstract animation.

Some critics praised Bute’s visual and creative success in capturing the humor and spirit of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. She won a Cannes Film Festival prize for it in 1965 for the direction of a first feature film. Other critics charged that she muted the erotic overtones that permeate the text, substituting flirtation and sentimentality for frank sexuality, and departing too much from Joyce’s book. But if Bute’s inhibitions and refined upbringing influenced her selection and presentation of bodily functions and sexually explicit scenes, they did not affect her attraction to the novel and what she regarded as its central metaphor, filmmaking. Joyce, interested in the then new medium of cinema, had owned a movie theater in Dublin and used cinematic words in Finnegans Wake, such as “movietone” (FW 62.9) “longshots (FW221.22) and “film folk” (FW221.21). Joyce’s text, like movie reels, is circular, ending by starting a sentence it completes at the beginning of the book.

Bute, who often incorporated explanatory words in her films, started FW with words summarizing the text, that roll silently in front of the viewer, combining text and circulatory movement into a metaphor for film rolling from reel to reel in a projector.

Time in both Joyce’s text and Manning’s play is not chronological, but fabricated, as it is in cinema. In Bute’s film, montage editing juxtaposes different time frames into an integrated pattern, which justified in Joyce’s text the simulation of montage that appears in such phrases as: “seein as ow his thoughts consisted chiefly of the cheerio, he aptly sketched for our soontobe second parents (sukand see whybe!) the touching scene. (FW 52.34–36). The speaker’s thoughts and actions belong in the present, but “soontobe second parents” is in the future. Joyce’s simulated cinematic structural techniques are adapted by Bute, who employed television, photography, and conventions of the stage to manipulate time.

Examples of Bute’s techniques to telescope time include characters watching themselves on TV in an earlier age, viewing photographs with themselves in old fashioned costumes, and wearing costumes conveying an older age in stage presentations.

Costumes also help Bute visualize multiple points of view of the same character. By casting the same actress as ALP, Issy, and Isolde, Bute reinforces the link among these different personalities. Her consolidation of cast also reinforces the idea of incest apparent throughout the novel, and saves money, always a consideration. When Isolde embraces Tristan, who is also Shem, she is also Issy and ALP, embracing both brother and son as lover.

To minimize costs for the musical score of the film, the entire orchestral part was taped in five hours at a sound studio in New York City. The nineteen-person orchestra added some unusual instruments, such as the Honky-Tonk piano and the accordion. Composer Elliot Kaplan, who had received two degrees in music from Yale, where Bute could have known him, wrote original background music for Bute’s film, fitting into the sound track many musical illusions from the film script, which had been identified in Joyce’s text by Joyce scholar Zack Bowen. Bowen, just out of graduate school, became a lifelong friend of Mary Ellen Bute, and spoke about her at the Museum of Modern Art’s program in her honor, months before she died.

Bute directed live action as if it were animation, with special effects, impersonal characterization, and imaginative juxtapositions. Animation added to the film’s excitement. The sparkle of the sunrise at the end of the film is augmented by the use of special filters; pixilation or the broken illusion of continuous motion, characterizes figures in dream sequences; inanimate objects, like the egg, which becomes the face of HCE in the commercial/bath scene, are animated. All these techniques illustrate film vocabulary at its most dramatic. In addition, animation techniques convey the impression of surrealism, appropriate for a dream. Bute and Joyce met in the metaphor of cinema.

In addition to her work in the Drawings and Prints Department of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, Kit Smyth Basquin lectures internationally on Mary Ellen Bute.