Now begin the Twelve Days of Christmas culminating in Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, a celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Since I am not particularly religious, I am inclined on these cold, quiet, reflective evenings following the often exaggerated merriment of Christmas to consider instead internal pilgrimages and transformations. It’s a time I like to spend watching thoughtful movies that I have missed, movies that explore the deeper questions. Kind of like craving plain oatmeal after a surfeit of chocolate éclairs.
One film I love watching again and again is The Dead, the 1987 John Huston adaptation of the final story in James Joyce’s story collection Dubliners. I find it perfect for this season, not only because it takes place in January—dark, cold, snowy—and is, in every sense, an elegy—to Huston himself and his filmmaking, to his favorite writer, and to his native Ireland—but because it is also true to Joycean themes of transience, mortality, remembrance, themes that cannot be denied in midwinter.
The Dead is Huston’s last film. Pauline Kael, in her film essay collection Hooked, said that “Huston directed the movie, at eighty, from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator; most of the time, he had to watch the actors on a video monitor outside the set and use a microphone to speak to the crew. Yet he went into dramatic areas that he’d never gone into before. . . . [and] never before blended his actors so intuitively, so musically.” The film was released the following year, posthumously.
The Dead takes place in one evening, the annual Epiphany dinner/dance hosted by the elderly Morkan sisters. It is set in Dublin, and the entire cast is Irish by birth or citizenship. Like a great poem, it has universality, is brilliantly paced, concise, and has an element of surprise—every detail, no matter how small or seemingly unremarkable is crucial to the movement toward the emotional, transcendent closure, in this case, the epiphany of the character Gabriel Conroy. For the reader or viewer, it invites participation by holding up a mirror; if you have the courage to look, the rewards are great. It is definitely somber and not everyone’s cup of tea. For me, these kinds of films are essential. Love, Actually, a holiday film I adore, is a chocolate éclair; The Dead is salted-only oatmeal, food for some perverted melancholic DNA that surfaced early on.
My first memory of a Christmas movie is one I saw on television in the home of a widowed aunt when I was around five or six. We didn’t own a TV and wouldn’t have one for several years later. The film was a 16mm short live-action black and white version of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. A tinted version is now available, and the original can be seen on YouTube. I had never heard of the little match girl. It was heart-wrenching—the little orphan, after all, freezes to death after having lighted the last of her matches in an attempt to get warm. The final image of her floating up to Heaven in the arms of a beautiful Madonna, is still clear decades later.
In The Dead, of course, there is no heaven at the end. It is a sepia daguerreotype brought to life in which party guests arrayed in holiday finery arrive in a festive mood and move, through the course of the evening, from nostalgia into the uncomfortable reaches of decay and annihilation. It is that slow unspoken recognition, what the heart understands but tongue cannot articulate and mind recoils from, that gives the film its power. When one of the dinner guests, Mr. Grace, a character not in the original story but added by Huston and his son Tony, begins to recite an anonymous eighth-century Irish poem, Donal Og (“Young Donal”), I suddenly became one of the other guests, held in thrall by the haunting words and tone, pulled along with them into heretofore repressed loss, guilt, grief, illimitable sadness.
How such engagement is achieved is mysterious and magical to me. When I think of great film directors, two quotes come to mind. One is by the poet Wallace Stevens in his poem, “The Snow Man”:
“One must have a mind of winter/ To regard the frost and the boughs/ Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;/ And have been cold a long time/ To behold the junipers shagged with ice,/ The spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January sun; and not to think/ Of any misery in the sound of the wind….”
A director must have a mind of such things and the cinematic imagination and skill to bring them faithfully to the screen.
The other quote comes from an article James Agee wrote on John Huston for Life, in 1950:
Most movies are made in the evident assumption that the audience is passive and wants to remain passive; every effort is made to do all the work—the seeing, the explaining, the understanding, even the feeling. Huston is one of the few movie artists who, without thinking twice about it, honors his audience. His pictures are not acts of seduction or of benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty. They continually open the eye and require it to work vigorously; and through the eye they awaken curiosity and intelligence. That, by any virile standard, is essential to good entertainment. It is unquestionably essential to good art.
Too bad Agee, who had a mind for such things, didn’t live to see the next three decades of Huston’s art, especially this superb denouement to a brilliant career. At the end of the film, when Gabriel stands alone at the hotel room window watching “snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead,” I am reminded of Agee again, this time from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
Above that shell and carapace [roof] more frail against heaven than fragilest membrane of glass, nothing, straight to the terrific stars: whereof all heaven is chalky; and of whom the nearest is so wild a reach my substance wilts to think on: and we, this Arctic flower snow-rooted, last matchflame guarded on a windy plain, are seated among these stars alone: none to turn to, none to make us known; a little country settlement so deep, so lost in shelve and shade of dew, no one so much as laughs at us. Small wonder how pitiably we love our home, cling in her skirts at night, rejoice in her wide star-seducing smile, when every star strikes us sick with fright: do we really exist at all?
Joyce, in the last four or five paragraphs, answers that question perhaps better than anyone ever has. And Huston brought that epiphany to the screen. He died just shortly after the film was finished. I’ve no doubt he was there, too, at the window with Gabriel, watching the snow fall and sharing his thoughts, his recognition that we are all becoming shades, that we can never really know another person no matter how intimate the relationship, that love will not save us, that we will, like Michael Furey and all the dead who have preceded us, soon fade “out into a grey impalpable world.” Agee said, “my substance wilts to think on [it]”; Joyce said of Gabriel, “his soul swooned”–how meager is our vocabulary for describing such a shattering experience. And how fortunate for us that there were those who made such bold attempts.