Saturday, May 13, 2017

Interview: Bruce Woodside Talks Finnegans Wake Reading Groups, Animation, and the New Edition of 'Waywords & Meansigns'

Waywords art by Sara Jewell.

[Bruce Woodside is an animator/writer/musician out of Los Angeles, California. Beyond his career contributing to such notable films as 'Space Jam,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' and 'Ghostbusters,' Bruce has been an avid student of 'Finnegans Wake' for many years. He's participated in numerous Wake reading groups, regularly shares insightful commentary in the FWread study group, and most recently contributed a recording of HCE's monologue from pages 540-550 to the newest edition of 'Waywords & Meansigns.'  What follows is a recent chat we had about his background with Joyce, his creative career, the new recording, and some his favorite parts of Finnegans Wake. Enjoy. - PQ]


PQ: I’m always interested to hear readers’ background with the Wake, so tell me a bit about your first encounter with Finnegans Wake.

BW: My introduction to the Wake came as a result of becoming fascinated with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was fourteen. That book shaped my imagination in a way and at a time in my life when I desperately needed it, although I didn’t fully understand its impact on me until much later. My small town Ohio background and upbringing were completely different from Joyce’s, and much of the political and religious context of the novel went right over my head, but the book struck a chord. For better (and worse), it altered my life. In pursuit of gaining a better understanding of it, I picked up a copy of Anthony Burgess’s ReJoyce, and his brief guided tour through the entirety of Joyce’s body of work was actually my first encounter with the Wake. Based on his description, I ordered the hardbound Viking edition and have been turning its pages and wading through its waters ever since.

I saw on your Waywords & Meansigns bio you’ve participated in some Finnegans Wake reading groups. Which ones have you partaken in? What were they like? Ever been to the Finnegans Wake/Marshall McLuhan reading group in Venice?

My first experience with a reading group was an off-and-on flirtation with a group of academics in Boulder, Colorado, who decided to stage a live reading of the Wake for the public on Joyce’s birthday, sometime in the early 70’s. It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone reading it out loud, and the concluding soliloquy, in particular, performed by a woman with the loveliest melancholy Irish brogue, was extraordinarily powerful.

After moving to Los Angeles, I began to haunt the bookstore at UCLA (where they were selling things like Glasheen’s Third Census and the Classical Lexicon before McHugh became available) and discovered that there was a regular group meeting on campus, working its way through the book at a pace of a few pages each month. This included occasional visits from scholars like Margot Norris and Vincent Cheng. And there was Guinness involved. Everybody had their own copies of the book with tiny little notes and annotations scrawled in the margins and scribbled between lines, a practice I never adopted. I attended as often as I could, until family and career intervened.

In the 90’s, I heard about Gerry Fialka’s McLuhan/Wake group that gathered on a monthly basis at the Venice library, and sat in on a few sessions, but distance and my work schedule precluded regular attendance – and the Internet became a primary location for the gathering of the Wake clans. I was an early participant in the FWRead online group, and have continued to contribute when I can. Retirement from the movie business and a renewed interest in McLuhan’s media theories have lured me back to Gerry’s group (after twenty years) which now meets on the first Tuesday of each month in Marina del Rey. We’re up to page 518.

Do you have a favorite chapter/section/passage/sentence in Finnegans Wake?

My favorite chapters are ALP (chapter 8) and the introduction (chapter 1), which I have literally read countless times, as opposed to, say, chapter 14 (Jaun’s sermon), which I’ve probably only read completely through twice. Not my favorite.

Chapter 1 is terrific – how anyone could read that chapter and not be drawn into the rest of the book is a mystery to me. I mean, I get it: this novel is probably the most deliberately obscure and difficult work of literature ever committed to paper, and reading it is an act of faith – in Joyce’s skill, in his commitment to the truth of immediate experience (even the experience of being immobilized in sleep), and in his ability to control his technique and not drive it over the cliff into total incomprehensibility. Boredom and/or anger are two fairly common responses (is it a put-on? can any novel be worth so much effort?), but for me, an almost ecstatic vision of ordinary everyday human experience can also be evoked, and that has made it an essential part of my reading over the better part of a lifetime. Oh, and I think it’s fun. And funny.

How did you decide upon your selection for Waywords & Meansigns? Tell me about the experience you had creating the recording.

I was a little late to the party, and the section (“Haveth Childers Everywhere”, pp. 540-550) was unclaimed. I would have preferred to take it right to the end of the chapter, but the remainder was already spoken for. Still, I think it’s a coherent piece, given over for the most part to a single voice: after pages and pages of Yawn dodging questions from the Four, misunderstanding and misinterpreting the nature of the ritual inquest, darting in and out of various channeled personalities in a tortured séance, he finally sheds his confusion of disguises and emerges as HCE, pretty clearly making the case, as no one else can, that he isn’t such a bad guy after all. Except that he is, of course, and can’t quite conceal in his peroration the nature of the crimes to which the city of Dublin and his river/wife bear witness. The city itself becomes both a testament to his accomplishments and evidence of his inevitable defeat. To me, despite the increasingly meaningless intrusions of the Four (who I decided to treat as radio static), it feels triumphant: the hero reclaims his title, despite all the usual reservations. “Book to besure,” he concludes [FW p. 550].

Anyway, that was the emotional throughline I decided to take with it. I’m fairly certain it could be interpreted in a variety of other ways, but that was the one that made sense to me, even when I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was saying. The reading came first; the music was designed to underscore the places in the text where I perceived emotional transitions taking place, e.g., from Humphrey’s initial lyrical boasts into the depressingly repetitive passages describing the “respectable” citizens of Dublin who have benefited from his city-building efforts.

The experience was rather like doing a deep reading of any page of the Wake: what starts out as a bizarre and confusing collage of barely recognizable English, smudged with overlays of other sounds, other senses, dimly connected by obscure distortions of dissolved grammar, eventually emerges into a foreground of tentative understanding – not a final identification but something closer to a kind of dark energy, an indicator of the invisible engine of an unconscious mind. The wonder of it, for me, is that real characters emerge out of that darkness, with real relationships, even though their outlines are blurred and they are in a near-constant state of transformation.

Your reading has the same lilt and tone as Joyce’s recording of Anna Livia Plurabelle---was this style intentional?

I read somewhere once that the Wake is best read out loud with a kind of “stage Irish” accent, this rough approximation of which was the best I could manage. I have listened to Joyce’s recording of ALP many times, and I did take my cue from what clearly seems to me to be a performance of the piece rather than a straightforward reading – it’s his notion of what Dublin washerwomen sound like, and he should know. I, on the other hand, am probably doing something closer to a parody of an Irish accent, but I have no way of judging it. An actual Irish speaker will probably wince.

I understand you’re an illustrator who’s done work for Disney and Warner Bros.---can you tell me a bit about your job and how you got into it?

I spent nearly forty years in the entertainment business as an animator, traveling a career arc that took me from a lightbox on which I drew cartoons with a pencil on sheets of punched paper all the way up to a digital screen on which I helped design always-on persistent virtual reality worlds in 3D that could be entered via an Internet portal. In between those two poles, I worked a variety of jobs as the nature of the business slowly (and then all at once) shifted from analog to digital technologies.

I started out in Denver, Colorado, after graduating in 1971 with a degree in English Lit., hoping to write and direct live action films, but my entrance into the field came by way of cartoons, after which I decided that drawing films as opposed to shooting them on location was a more pleasurable (and less strenuous) way of earning a living. I relocated to Los Angeles in the late 70’s, moving from commercials to feature projects. The advance of computer technology was a huge disruption for many people in the cartoon business, but somehow I managed to transition during the 90’s from animation into storyboards and, eventually, direction in the new CG environment, which included working for Disney Imagineering on their VR projects. And then, right out the door into retirement, although I still animate for my own pleasure and for distribution on the Internet (and even occasionally do so with a pencil on paper.)

Has your Joyce fanhood ever factored into your creative career at all?

On the whole and in a word, no. When I first began writing (poetry, novellas, eventually unproduced screenplays) Joyce was, of course, an inspiration; but attempting to model one’s writing on Joyce in any way can be an enormously exhausting and eventually dispiriting endeavor. Had I single-mindedly pursued a career in writing, I might have worked my way through the difficulty and found my own voice, but Joyce’s writing sets a very high bar, and unfortunately it isn’t a bar that is of much value in what passes for a lot of writing in the medium of film.

While I find Joyce’s writing to be a model of scrupulous clarity, it is precision acquired at a cost. It takes real discipline (and time) to remove all the extraneous material and arrive at a linguistic approximation of the truth, without offering your reader the helping hand of explanation or the familiar scaffolding of a neat three-act structure. Hollywood in general is a land of lazy readers, of fifteen-second plot synopses and elevator pitches. The image is king, language its court jester.

I’ve always thought the only way to really film FW would be in that kind of quasi-animated Waking Life/A Scanner Darkly style. Have you ever contemplated that kind of endeavor?

I don’t think Finnegans Wake needs to be a film (I think the Wake has probably achieved its ideal form as a book), but that won’t stop people from trying to turn it into one, including yours truly who has for years nursed the dream of animating to Joyce’s reading of ALP. Animation (though not necessarily the rotoscoping of Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly) seems the correct medium for the continual watery transformations a Wakean film demands, and I think some animated efforts have gotten close (Adam Harvey’s version of Chapter 7, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWSdxwXufsA, strikes me as one of the best to date), but most (like Mary Ellen Bute’s Passages) are still too solid and well-defined to render the slippery and playful quality of the fluid dream. Joyce solved the problem by inventing a new language that only just barely resembles the old one, but translating it into some visual counterpart tends to nail down the meanings to a limiting singular point of view. Taking a cue from the Waywords project, it might work best as an anthology, soliciting a variety of stylistic takes from individual directors. Amazon? Netflix? Are you listening?

Lastly, what other authors and books do you love besides Joyce and Finnegans Wake?

When I was a kid growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my imagination was nurtured by comic books, movies, cartoons, science fiction, TV shows – the entire junk floodtide of popular media that saturated the consumer landscape pre-Internet. Hence: my career. So my tastes are all over the place, but there are other authors who from time to time have managed to seize my attention: William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Hart Crane come to mind, as well as Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, H.G Wells, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon – and one minor little shout-out here to the once-famous, now forgotten fantasy writer James Branch Cabell, whose elegant mock-romantic prose in Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice, was the subject of an obscenity trial in this country several years in advance of the battle over Joyce’s Ulysses.

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