review by Rosalie Gancie
John Macandrew, Mary Ellen Bute & William Tindall
Mary Ellen Bute
The television program Camera Three
started in the early 1950's as a collaboration between WCBS and the
University of the State of New York's Education Department. The
host, James Macandrew, believed strongly in using
television as a means of cultural education.
"If the airwaves can tempt us to laugh and to dance," Mr. Macandrew once
Over the years the program came to
include such topics as discussions of Robinson
Jeffers' poetry and interviews with John Cage. By the time of the
Mary Ellen Bute interview in 1965 the show was well entrenched
nationally as a
Sunday morning cultural affairs program on CBS. Professor William
York Tindall, the noted Joyce scholar and author of A Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake,
invited to participate in the discussion.
The Camera Three interview provides
a rare opportunity to hear Mary Ellen Bute discuss her film,
so in that
alone it's a welcome piece of film history. According to
film historian Cecile Starr (who was also the Finnegans Wake film's distributor),
Mary Ellen Bute was a "friendly, energetic & enthusiatic"
person. Those qualities come through clearly in her appearance on
this tape. Though Passages from
Finnegans Wake was in preparation for seven years (though
with only 32 days of actual filming), she maintains her delight
in the project and in the Joycean language that inspired her.
Bute was an abstract film pioneer, putting abstract shapes & music together on film starting in the 1930's. She admired the modernist aesthetic & was a fervent fan of James Joyce & of Finnegans Wake in particular. She was a long-standing member of the James Joyce Society and did much of her research for the film from the Society's archives. Founded in 1947, the Society met regularly at the celebrated Gotham Book Mart in New York City.
Frances Steloff of Gotham Book
Mart had been an early & ardent promoter of Joyce's work, selling
serializations of "Work in Progress" and later hosting a Wake
publication party with Viking in 1939 (The
Dead Come to Life at Finnegans Wake) in which "scores of
celebrities participated as mourners
and Frances herself as the bereaved widow." Word
from Eugene Jolas was that Joyce was "amused
at the unique wake and pleased with the photographs."
Gotham Book Mart became a central clearinghouse for writings by and
with the Society forming in 1947 as a method of bringing together
anyone with a passionate interest in Joyce, from the neophyte to the
"For ten years or more, avant garde
film maker Mary Ellen Bute sat on
the front row of Society meetings. Her full-length film, Passages
'Finnegans Wake,' was adapted from the Barnard College production
Mary Manning's work by the same name. Conceived and carried on in
concert with Frances Steloff, Padraic Colum, and other Joyce Society
members, it remains the most innovative cinematic interpretation of the
spirit of Joyce 's last work ever attempted. "
Bute addressed her response to those who questioned her apparent shift from abstract film to Joyce in the biographical note for the New York Film Association:
often asked how I moved from abstract films to Finnegan's Wake?
It's plausible...Joyce's premise: 'One
great part of
every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered
sensible by the use of wide-awake language, cut-and-dry grammar and
go-ahead plot' is, like abstract films, about our 'inner' landscape.
Joyce, like Whitman, and much Art, is about the essence of our Being;
so, we're traveling on the same terrain."
And in an interview about the film with
Gretchen Weinberg for Film Culture in 1964 she described
Finnegans Wake girl . . . I may never do another Joyce
work but I would
In the Camera Three interview we have the
opportunity to hear Bute recount
her interest in the Wake directly. She explains that
she was "first exposed" to the Wake
at a friend's ranch in Texas
and was immediately drawn to the singular response each reader could
bring to the work, and that she was
struck by its visual potential.
feeling that you were on your own in Finnegans
Wake was very encouraging," she says.
Professor Tindall's course and eventually saw the Barnard production of
Mary Manning's play "Passages from Finnegans Wake".
Manning, a childhood friend of Samuel Beckett's, was a founder of The
Poets' Theatre in Cambridge. Bute was attracted to the humor of
the play & realized that, for copyright reasons, it would be easier
to produce her film from the play than from the original Wake. Eventually Manning
helped co-write the film treatment and the script.
also affords a chance to see the noted scholar Tindall discuss Finnegans Wake as well as his
reactions to Bute's film. Before the start of the Joyce
Society, Frances Steloff had arranged for Tindall and noted book
James Gilvarry to
offer unofficial instruction to those who were new to Joyce's work.
Macandrew asks him to describe Joyce's
Finnegans Wake to the t.v. audience, Tindall replies that:
"Nothing could be easier to describe.
It's about everything and everybody at all times...
the Joyce aficianado comes through clearly as she discusses not only
the time commitment to completing the film but the nuances of Joyce's
text. When Tindall discusses Finnegans
Wake as being a story about a family she explains
"We did take this family story
Tindall spoke of just now. . .You see, Shem and Shaun, as well as being
Finnegans sons, are also
conflicting parts of himself. He has to come to terms with these
parts--realize the excesses--in order to wake up. I was very eager to
do the waking up part of Finnegans Wake--you know, the part
says 'it's the problem passion play of the millentary going strong
Tindall is complimentary about
Bute's film and explains that even though Finnegans Wake "appeals to the
Bute has "translated, transformed and transfigured it into visual
form." And that the problem of "selection and condensing
the material took
But in spite of this "fortitude,"
one later senses that Tindall can't dismiss his respect for the written
text so easily. In a particularly compelling part of the
interview, Macandrew asks Bute if the language used in the film was a
problem, because the actors were essentially 'speaking words that had
never existed before.'
Bute replies that she was delighted with the cast:
"You see it's an Irish cast. Most had had great experience. And you know how Joyce, among other things, wrote the Irish dialect into many of the words. If they're pronounced the way they're spelt they come out with a bit of an Irish brogue with a Dublin lilt.
When John Macandrew comments that he feels that the use of subtitles is a "tremendous bridge" for the audience, Bute pleasantly responds with:
"It makes it so much more entertaining when you see..if one of the celebrants says 'tis really the truth' and you see 'Tis (she spells out) 'R,' 'A,' 'R,' 'E,' 'L,' 'Y' the truth.' It's much funnier than if you just think it's a British pronunciation of 'really.' You see?
And throughout if it's a 'wallstrait oldparr' then you know that the actors are saying what you think they're saying."
Bute laughs delightfully, but at this point the discussion becomes a bit energized as Tindall the literary scholar objects and we perhaps get a sense of the mentor the Joyce initiates experienced at the Gotham Book Mart: "But how are you going to understand what 'oldparr' means? That takes 15 minutes of contemplation and this goes right by...."
Bute interrupts: "But now you know how we do that--we have him falling out of bed so it's visual, it's being said...."
Tindall interrupts: "Wall
Street.....falling off a
wall.....wall street crash....par value stocks....'oldparr?'"
Bute shakes her head: "Oh now please, we had to simplify it a little. But we did have a montage of all that."
Tindall still objects that the
viewer "cannot get more than a
little fleeting part of this tremendous whole and that's the problem."
At this point Mary Ellen Bute
concurs, but we know from watching the film with its energized editing
techniques & inclusions of such modern day images as television
screens & rockets that she took seriously her belief that one could
come to Finnegans Wake on their own terms. In her
Culture interview with Gretchen Weinberg she pointed out that "the
is not a translation of the book but a reaction to it."
The interview contains other tales of her experiences with the film. She says she had one typical "Joycean" calamity after another, and describes calling Erik Barnouw of Columbia University to come down for a screening. She apologized that the film took so long to make--after all it was in preparation for 7 years. But she is obviously delighted in relating Barnouw's response that "it would be presumptious to do Joyce too fast!".
The interview concludes with a few
segments from the film. Mary Ellen Bute must have been satisfied
with the outcome of the film, because in that same year it won a prize
at Cannes for best feature film debut.
Initially a local New York City program, Camera Three premiered on Saturday, May 16th, 1953 as a co-production between WCBS-TV and the State Education Department of the University of the State of New York, with James Macandrew as moderator/host. At first, the series ran from 2-2:45PM. Its panel of experts covered all manner of topics, from Shakespeare to economics and everything in between. In April of 1954 it won a Peabody Award in the Television Education category, shared with with station KNXT in Los Angeles for its Cavalcade of Books series .
The series also dramatized classic works of literature, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and over the course of eight weeks in November and December of 1955, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. On December 18th, 1955, The New York Times reported that CBS had decided to broadcast Camera Three nationally beginning Sunday, January 22nd, 1956 at 11AM
Macandrew Leader in New York In Educational TV
3. Southern Illinois University Carbondale has 17 production still images in their Morris Library online digital collection. Search String "finnegans wake".
4. Wise Men Fish Here, The Story of
Frances Steloff and the
Gotham Book Mart
FIVE: FRANCES STELOFF REMINISCES:
One day, one of my nice customers who was a lawyer, a very fatherly sort of person, said, 'How are things and what are your problems?'After conferring with Steloff they asked if they could return on February 3rd, 1947, which was the day after Joyce's birthday. She concurred and the James Joyce Society had officially begun.
6. The New York
James Joyce Society
Gretchen. "An Interview with Mary Ellen Bute on the Filming of
Wake, by James Joyce Page 1, lines 15 through 24, from Finnegans Web:
The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.
Videotape Information: Creative Arts Television
Title: Mary Ellen Bute films “Finnegans Wake”, Reference: 651128
"A portion of the feature film "Passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake" is shown, with discussion by its producer-director Mary Ellen Bute and William Tindall, Professor of English at Columbia University, New York City, author of "The Reader's Guide to James Joyce." 1965." As a side note, Creative Arts also offers Anthony Burgess explains Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”.
further information on