Roll away the reel world


2009 sees the centenary of one of the odder corners of early film history. In December 1909, the then unknown James Joyce, future author of Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, opened a cinema in Dublin. This was through no particular passion for film; Joyce was merely seeking the means to get rich quick, and like a good many other people at the time, he saw the new cinema business as the way to do so. Cinemas were springing up all over Europe, and in Trieste – where Joyce was based – he had fallen in with a group of cinema owners, to whom he sold the idea of a city in Europe which had a half a million inhabitants, and yet not a single cinema. That city was Dublin, and although recent research indicates that there probably were one or two cinemas in Dublin at that time (and numerous film shows not in cinemas as such), Joyce’s business partners were interested enough to send him across to Dublin to establish the Volta Cinematograph.

Happily for literature, Joyce turned out to be a hopeless cinema manager, or rather he left the business all too quickly in other hands, only to see the hoped-for source of his fortune rapidly fail. The Volta (which was located at 45 Mary Street) floundered, as much through competition from other film entertainments as its own mismanagement, and it was sold at a loss in June 1910. Joyce’s own specific involvement with the cinema was brief, but intense. He spent several weeks setting up the business, staffing and equipping, promoting it, obtaining a cinematograph licence, and – it is to be assumed – selecting the films.

It is this last element that continues to attract scholarly interest. What films were shown at the Volta, what role did Joyce play in their selection, what did he think of such films, and what traces of the cinema can be uncovered in his art? These questions are all to be covered in in a two-day conference organised by the Trieste Joyce School and the Alpe Adria Film Festival, entitled ‘Roll away the reel world’: James Joyce e il Cinema, to be held 15-16 January 2009 at the Sala Tessitori of the “Consiglio della Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia, piazza Oberdan, 5, Trieste, Italy.


Le Huguenot (Gaumont 1909 d. Louis Feuillade), shown at the Volta 24-26 January 1910

Speakers include Luke McKernan (yours truly), who will introduce a programme of films known to have been shown at the Volta and give a talk, ‘James Joyce and the Volta Programme’, Eric Schneider (‘Dedalus among the film folk’), Maria di Battista (‘The Ghost Walks: Joyce and the spectres of silent cinema’), Louis Armand (‘Joyce and Godard’), Jesse Meyers (‘James Joyce, Contemporary Screenwriter?’), Cleo Hannaway (‘”See ourselves as others see us”: Cinematic Ways of Seeing and Being in Ulysses’), Marco Camerani (‘Circe, Fregoli and Cinema’), Carla Marengo Vaglio (‘Joyce, between futurist music-hall and cinema’), Philip Sicker (‘Mirages in the Lampglow: Joyce’s “Circe” and Méliès’s Dream Cinema’), Katy Mullin (‘Joyce, Early Cinema and the Erotics of Everyday Life’), Davide Maschio (‘On Bute’s Finnegans Wake’), and Keith Williams (‘Odysseys of Sound and Image: “Cinematicity” and the Ulysses Adaptations’).

Added to all that, the Alpe Adria Film Festival, or Trieste Film Festival, is hosting a retrospective on Joyce and cinema, running 15-22 January, co-ordinated by Elisabetta D’Erme; and there is to be an exhibition, entitled Trieste, Joyce and Cinema: A History of Possible Worlds curated by Erik Schneider, tracing the connections between Joyce’s imaginative world, the city, and the cinema. For further information on the conference, which is free of charge and open to all, contact Professor John McCourt at mccourt [at], or visit the Trieste Joyce School site for the programme details.

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