Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Dead (1987)

.
.
John Huston’s final film begins with a long, static shot of the door to the house we're visiting. It's a yearly chore, enjoyed and suffered through to equal degrees. We know who'll turn up, and in what state. They're people utterly familiar with each other, not madly close, and not mere acquaintances. The law of averages is in effect.
.
.
Hosts for the evening: Kate (Helena Carroll) and Julia Morkan (Cathleen Delany), and their niece Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie). Not rich, not poor; genteel is the word. Ebullient without being joyous, emotional without being demonstrative, proper without being passionate. Everyone who comes has swallowed their misgivings and is given over to the half-attentive frivolity. Mr Browne (Dan O'Herlihy) is the consummate type. White-haired, impeccably dapper and neat, carrying the specious gravitas of the boss of a mid-sized firm, he greets his hostesses with sprightly, practised charm.
.
.
They're fairly sure that, say, Freddy Malins (Donal Donnelly) will turn up drunk, despite his New Year's promise to his mother that he will give up. They're Irish, which means they're never quite rigid or intimidatingly polite, indeed of course it’s the Irish high spirits that they would hold as a mark of superiority over the stiff-necked English.
.
.
When Gabriel (Donal McCann) and Gretta Conroy (Anjelica Huston) arrive, the set is been complete, for the proper soiree. Gabriel is a writer, a journalist for a British paper. His literary credentials, fair wit and pleasantness make him one of the lynchpins of such a gathering, and his wife just close enough to good-looking to also be a prize. Gabriel talks amiably with a servant (all these people know they're not quite far enough above the servants to be haughty) and worries about the speech he's going to make at the dinner table. He's always checking the card he has it written on, nervous like a schoolboy.
.
.
Gabriel passes through the dancers who are trying to relax even as they make tight circles in a not very large drawing room. Gabriel resists the temptation to follow the unattached men who are hurriedly downing sherry in another room, preparing for the doldrums. Instead he sits and talks with Freddy's mother, a grey old woman, agreeable and boring, and sits dully as she talks about her life living in Scotland with relatives, and after too long he finally finds an excuse to detach himself from her. Gabriel is effortlessly comfortable and takes the process of grinding disinterest as worthy punishment for his lack of bravery in searching for anything else.
. .
There's a popular tenor at the party, not really one of the circle, but well-known and charming enough so that he is easily gathered into the fold. His presence lends a touch of real weight to the evening, yes, there's someone who really achieves excellence present. He's beguiling, sweet-voiced, fine in talking about other singers, utterly void of concern, swaying through the evening with a smile on his face. The three spinsters begin performing for the gathering; the youngest plays a modern piano piece that is dynamic, hard-listening, arty, and utterly unsuited for the intimate treacly evening.
.
.
The men swig down as much booze as they can in this interlude and rush back to join the applause, the rest of the guests bemused by the music but of course generous in their praise. It's the service that must be done, the payment for the dinner, is in listening to the ladies' performances in the only moment their hobby artistry amounts to anything.
.
.
Being a Celtic gathering there's time for everyone's party pieces; one of the aging gentlemen, Mr Grace (Sean McClory) who has a reputation for his readings steps forward to read an Eighth-century poem, “Donal Óg” (“Lady Gregory”), a dark, melancholy ode of a jilted lady for her lover who has abandoned her. Grace’s character was added by Huston and his screenwriter son Tony; his courtly manner offsets other, slightly malodorous guests, and his poem prefigures the conclusion, and the pall he casts on the party reveals how far the Dublin society has drifted from its Celtic roots and how it cannot forget them. Gretta listens, her affect pale and stricken. It has evoked something powerful for her, her alone out of a room of absent and polite guests.
.
.
Nostalgia is the lynch-pin of such occasions, and so each passing year is a boon to the next, the further behind in the past everyone's youth recedes, the stronger their pining for it, and their reminiscences become the more romanticized and rapturous. They're dying from it, collapsing under the gathered weight of too many memories and codes and niceties. It will all be exploded in the modernist rush its author will help bring on. The only counter-acting force to the sluggishness of the spirit is Molly Ivors (Maria McDermottroe) fierce, glass-eyed idealist, a young woman nationalist who Gabriel is assigned to dance with.
.
.
Molly’s gleaming idealism allows her many luxuries, including being allowed to trample the feelings of others, as she impolitely prods Gabriel for his working for an English newspaper and making holiday plans to go to Europe, instead of accepting her proposal to go with herself and some others to the north of Ireland. She leaves early to go to a speech by James Connolly, unaware of the fate awaiting him; eventually, although that is beyond the mind of the people at the party or even the young author Joyce, all of these idealists will become weary sentimentalists too after the beatings of the future.
..
Few directors ever bridged the gap between the literary and the cinematic, the verbal and the painterly, like John Huston. As a young tyro he was a strident, macho, adventurous, flailing talent, but also delicate and precise in his love of the literary. He reconstituted himself from film to film, sometimes successful, sometimes terrible, burrowing into the soul of a story and working into traces of dialogue and visual moments; he was almost completely self-effacing as a filmmaker, except that when he got it right the precision of his match of character and story and visual was such that could only be his work. Like Ford he tended to make his shoots into parties or holidays, and sometimes the distance from Hollywood and studio execs could make him careless, and botch projects. Like so many of his era he shoved aside the fine for brawling, drink, and life on the edge, taking the risk of losing his faculties and art, as long as his sense of life killed the pangs of being artistic in a barbarian system and kept the very nerve of his art green and growing. But The Dead was something different; it was a dying man's statement, and affirmation of faith, in one of his favourite artists, and the possibilites to stretch both the cinematic and literary mediums in such a way that one hardly notices.
.
.
In The Dead we see the Huston, the Huston of minutia, detail, and nuance, always apparent in films like The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and his other best works, except usually he had some eruptive story in between himself and the audience. Here he's just living by his wits, an aging visitor, taking a last look around at people he's wiser than but not above; one forgets the last third of Falcon is mostly talking in a small room. It's a contrast, the young Joyce who withholds from the Dublin bourgeoisie and despises their hypocrisies and formalism, and the old Huston, who sympathizes with their foibles, nostalgia, and sense of the world slipping from their grasp, and both men who capture the microcosm of the human experience in it.
.
.
Huston isn't indulgent, though; he's not engaged in Merchant Ivory prettification. He's reconstituting a work by a dry artist in a dry way. He doesn't overstate the sterility; in some ways it’s al la rather charming scene. The characters have real warmth and real friendship, a real enjoyment of togetherness when the party flows freely. The film moves at a fair clip, everything in its place, invisible storytelling at its most triumphant. There are few verbal fireworks or confrontations, so apart from the lilting meditation of human limits there's not much going on.
.
.
Freddy, when he arrives, is indeed drunk. He's a lanky, moustachioed middle-aged adolescent. One is immediately afraid for him, for you just know sometime during the evening he's going to say or do something that will cause eyes to roll and his name to be tutted over later, in the slow murder of society. Nobody notices that Browne gets steadily blotto at the same time and tries not to show it, an ugly flipside to his noisy schmoozing and praise. His social mask only slips at a certain stage where it's hard to notice. When the eldest of the lady guests gives her performance, it's a testing moment. Exactly the same enthusiastic applause is given, however, by the listeners, and Browne and Freddy compete for the most effusive praise.
.
.
As the pain of the singing continues, Huston gives us a break, like a guest just ducked out for a smoke in the other rooms of the house, finding them filled with the accumulated possessions of a life-time, neat, well-arranged, well-kept. There are hand-woven tapestries, statuettes and trinkets and photos with war medals; life-long accompanying totems, each probably with some emotional label attached, representing a time in life. It's all kept within these dim silent rooms that now admit little life and will soon admit even less.
.
.
At the dinner table the group get into talking about opera singers, as their own singing guest unfavourably reviews a new production he saw. Interested, they all begin recalling their favourite performances and performers, exalted names from the just-lost past, these people from the nineteenth century who have edged into the early twentieth, looking back on the mid-century before them. In their nostalgia of course they're in the sorrow of lost fineness and lost youth. They discuss their moments of artistic passion because only art can grab a person's soul, or at least it's the only force that can and can also be discussed at the dinner table.
.
.
The names gather power from their distance, the past seems so much grander and beautiful, which compensates a large degree for its loss. One great lost tenor in particular, who the middle of the lady hosts recalls with particular chest-enlarging longing, an obscure name whom only Mr Grace can also recall, and their suggestion fills the man out to resemble all the lost glory of the disappearing century.
.
.
Freddy mentions a Negro singer at a popular theatre, claiming him to be one of the best voices he'd ever heard. His comment immediately upsets the balance of the moment without realising it, the unlikeliness of the idea of a black being as fine as these exalted Irishmen and Italians comes is curiously unsettling, and not merely for obvious reasons: they know Freddy's trying to stir the pot. Browne is sarcastic to Freddy and Freddy heatedly enquires if he's prejudiced at idea of a black singing well. His mother (Marie Kean) restrains him, for Freddy's ineffectualy, half-hearted provocation seem to define his life.
.
.
We see easily the pattern between Freddy and his mother; she tries to impress stability, religion, and temperance upon him, and Freddy of course goes the other way. He says the truth and breaks barriers like the classical fool, but he is absurd, perhaps he can only survive as such; Freddy has learnt to drift carelessly in his world. He seems at odds with Browne, but as his mother says later, "You should stop associating with that man", indicating the two men get drunk together often.
.
.
Mother is sending Freddy on a religious retreat, to a monastery where the monks sleep in coffins, trying to absolve the sins of the world about them. This society, with a veneer of religious, respects and appreciates the idea of these monks, and Mrs Malins wants Freddy to go there and absorb something. But Freddy will go on being a vague sorrow for his mother and an entertaining nuisance at parties. Browne, however, is upset by these monks; he is of "the other persuasion", Protestant, and it might be his soul the monks think they are saving as well as Heretics and Atheists. Browne has the prickly self-consciousness of a man who is entirely respectable except in the one area, the aspect of him that can't be coalesced into the mainstream. Fortunately the official politeness skips around this.
.
.
Finally, Gabriel gets to make his speech, a well-worded piece of claptrap warning against sentimentality and looking to life, then paying service to their hostesses and leading a round of tribute for them that has the aging women sobbing with gratitude. A stately dissolve takes us through to the break-up of the party, and small piece of painful comedy as Freddy tries to get his ailing mother and Browne into a cab to get them home, and finds the driver is new to Dublin and doesn't know his way around. They set off into the snowy night, we hope they'll get home before dawn.
.
.
Inside, Gabriel, getting his coat, looks for his wife as upstairs the tenor talks with an admiring lady guest. As Gretta comes around the shoulder of the stairs, the tenor begins to sing The Lass of Aughrin, and she stops to listen. She appears at the top of the stairs, a simple enough movement, but yet as she stops and is held by the song her appearance suddenly changes, she is like a vision to Gabriel. It's the first time he's seen her, radiant, emotional yet aloof like a glacier to him, reverent on something unseen in the beauty of the song.
.
.
Huston meets the moment like a Vermeer painting, clean, coolly lit, and the film changes tone from here. As they go home, Gabriel tries to win his wife back from her gathering apartness, taking her hand but being rebuffed, then telling a limply comic story that just grates in the frigid mood. When they get home and Gabriel asks her what she is thinking of, she tells him of a youthful romance she had with a young man in Galway, by the name of Michael Fury.
.
.
Her tale confirms that Gretta comes from beyond the tedious social circles of Dublin, a history in the wild pastoral north, past and passions buried but never forgotten, waiting to consume the dolorous present. Fury died from consumption in meeting with Gretta, not caring whether he lived if he couldn't be with her, imprinting himself on Gretta's soul and mind in the most intense, youthful, eternal fashion. Even the dead lad’s name evokes something the grown-up, studious, drab marriage she has with Gabriel now can't compete with.
.
.
As Gretta cries herself to sleep Gabriel is left to his own thoughts, bitter, but moving beyond bitterness, into a new realm of thought. True to its being set on the feast of Epiphany, Joyce has Gabriel go through one of the vast realizations, those epiphanies of Joyce’s, the small moment that encapsulates a great truth.
.
.
As well as his new shock at his wife's identity, Gabriel knows his own lack of one; he has the empty nausea of a man who had just realized he has done and said stupid things, in his sentimental overcooked speech, and that he has so little use for his shrivelled literary ambition that he worries about the impression he make with what's left of it on a bunch of doddering bourgeoisie at a dinner party.
.
.
He has never felt the raw passion of love Gretta had for Michael, no feeling for wilderness and eruption drawn right from the Earth. Here Huston at last can stretch his legs, his filmmaking going from dancing interpersonal to physically poetic. He gives a magnificent series of landscapes being buried by the snow that falls over all Ireland, a unifying force that ends all barriers, including between the living and the dead, a world being silently being put to sleep with only the lonely castrated Gabriel to recognize it. And Huston, saying good-bye with his most deceptively perfect filmmaking.
.
.
Composed 11/2/2002; Revised ‘09

5 comments:

Marilyn said...

I think this is a miraculous production. Like all of Huston's Irish films, it hits at his heart most closely. There is more than a touch of Tennessee Williams in this story (Michael Fury/young gay husband of Blanche du Bois), but Joyce and Huston focus less on the idealized passion of the women and more on atherosclerosis of Ireland. It was, like Gretta, drowning in a passionate nostalgia every bit as stultifying as the petty bourgeois pretensions of the partygoers.

Such a strange, sad story.

Roderick Heath said...

I surely agree. I think a lot of Joyce's cynicism over the proposed cure-all of Irish Nationalism is present too. Part of the work's point is that real, authentic, gritty passion, of the kind out of the Irish mythology that the Celtic Renaissance of the era was fetishizing and yet was also rendering distant and homogenized, was verboten in the era; whilst the authority of the English was being questioned, the authority of the Catholic Church and Victorian Bourgeois morality was unquestioned, and when questions of patriotism became invoked, heaven help the artists like Joyce and Synge, who were abhorred for attempting to capture some of its authentic flavour in their art.

I admit that I've seen relatively little of Huston's Irish films. They're hard to get hold of. Unless you count The Mackintosh Man...

Marilyn said...

The Quiet Man is a good Huston for comparison, a pretty readily available. And yes, the republican movement isn't seen as a cure-all, certainly not in this film. It breaks up the closeness of the "family" by taking one of its partygoers away early. For me, that leave-taking feels so wrenching for some reason.

Roderick Heath said...

Err, The Quiet Man is John Ford, Mare.

Marilyn said...

Oops. I always get those mixed up.