Sunday, 26 July 2009

To Live and Die in LA (1986)

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William Friedkin’s attempt to get his French Connection mojo working again in the era of Miami Vice is a blend of trashy thriller and something darker, close in theme to Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) in watching a protagonist engage in a subculture and become increasingly addicted to its mores. Scripted by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich from Petievich’s novel, To Live and Die’s initial deviation from standard cop-shop dramatics is to focus on a unit of Secret Service agents, the two inseparable partners of which, Richard Chance (William Peterson) and Jimmy Hart (Michael Greene), eliminate an Islamist suicide bomber at the opening, before Chance indulges his fondness of bungee jumping to celebrate Hart’s upcoming retirement..

Before you can say “McBain”, Hart is gunned down brutally whilst out on his last assignment, attempting to track down slimy counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), and Chance vows revenge at all costs. His new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow), is a competent loaf of white bread, who soon finds his ethical standards, along with every other variety of standard, tested by Chance’s unstinting expedience..

To Live and Die is a veritable lexicon of ‘80s tropes and Hollywood fetishisms mercilessly satirised since in everything from The Simpsons to The Player, and yet it’s got a gamey flavour that resists comedy. The grot-gilded photography by Robby Muller captures, like many other ‘80s thrillers, an urban landscape that’s pretty and shiny in places but rotten and corrupt beneath, populated by sleazebags and with heroes who morals are almost null and whose personalities are almost opaque, replete with scenes in slimy titty bars and kinkiness in white-walled mansions, an age living on the metaphorical smell of pure sensation – which would have all made perfect sense in the age of cocaine orgies and yuppie hubris.

Petersen’s character is period masculinity run amok: prone to designer stubble and aviator shades, he’s an adrenalin junkie for whom doing his job, and going beyond the job, are just further means to get high. He keeps a parolee informant, Ruth Lanier (Darlanne Flueghel), in what is basically forced concubinage, dropping in when he feels like it to strip off and make sweaty cyborg-level love.

It doesn’t take long to realise that’s he’s hardly much better than the creature he’s chasing, and whilst being just as big an asshole, he’s like the man Popeye Doyle may have wished he was. As in Connection, the cop’s quarry, Masters, lives very happily in higher socio-economic bracket; but unlike Doyle, Chance isn’t rendered preferable by being clearly the low man on the totem pole. He’s another player.


Masters is an ex-con who was sprung for his artistic ability, and now he lounges around his mansion, burning his artworks at whim, and printing large stacks of moolah, in between arranging threesomes with his bi-fi dancer girlfriend Bianca Torres (Debra Feuer). To bring him down, Chance and Vukovich decide to pose as buyers for his faux-lucre, but, refused a stake by the Treasury, Chance takes a far more dangerous path, ripping off a drug-money courier, an act that gets him and his partner in the hottest of hot water. Along the way they encounter such experts in slimebaggery as John Turturro and Dean Stockwell..

Pauline Kael called The French Connection a film in the new genre of the “Cinema du Zap” – speedy, lean, sharply made, dissociated from traditional literary and clear sociological values in skating across a chitinous surface of implications. Although it’s a dated pronouncement – the Cinema du Zap had yet to produce Michael Bay, where Connection if anything is still admired today for its off-hand grit and skilful mix of New Wave and blockbuster templates – it’s still a neat phrase. Here, Friedkin brings an updated version of the Cinema du Zap in upping the flashiness to the max, aping Michael Mann in cutting his early sequences up into cryptic flourishes, framing buildings, bridges, parks and people like posed elements in art photography, and adopting a fit but amusingly so-‘80s synth-pop score by Wang Chung.

The fast-‘n’-sexy thriller was the Hollywood sub-genre that Joe Eszterhas annexed and laid waste to. But it’s also quite in line with Friedkin’s interest in the immutably seamy side of human nature and the way it can infect even the most stable of institutions. Living up to the pretences of the genre style limits Friedkin’s lingering desire to make a tale about the corrupting nature of power and the less-than-courtly ideals of men in law enforcement. Vukovich’s final plunge into entirely adopting Petersen’s dress and manner, even claiming Ruth as his chattel at the end, is in line with the final loss of distinctness in works like The French Connection and Cruising, but the resulting film hovers uneasily between being a pop thriller for the Don Johnson crowd and a cynical, dissolute noir.


Friedkin makes a meal out of detailed sequences such as when Dafoe engages in his counterfeiting craft, and the startlingly well-done car chase that is something a lost treasure of ‘80s action; but the film chucks believability when it suits (see how many blows from a piece of 4x2 Pankow receives in the finale and yet still retains full body motor control!) and tosses in lukewarm suggested lesbian trysts, flashy club dance sequences, and extreme sports, to touch all the fashionable bases. A sex scene between Flueghel (or her butt-double) and Petersen sports an intricacy of flashed skin as choreographed as the dancing and action, so much so you can almost hear the slobbering around the executive table. The two personas of the film are irreconcilable, because one is an advertisement for all that's fast and loose, and the other a screed against it.

But that's an old contradiction in the genre, and To Live and Die is a long way from being the turkey many called in ’86; it’s harsh, adult, and altogether entertaining. Petersen, whose only previous film work was a small part in Thief, is strong, and Dafoe, as always, makes a great villain, suggesting with his feral sneer and cherubic lips some dark angel long since fallen.

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Monday, 20 July 2009

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti, 1974)

aka The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue


Ideally, great horror movies begin with small quirks of the everyday slowly snowballing into scenes of unimaginable carnage. Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, undoubtedly the greatest Spanish-Italian-British eco-zombie film ever made, gains strength in a slowly mounting atmosphere of oppression and paranoia, taking it time to deliver the gory goods.



The opening sees a young hippie antiques dealer, George Meaning (Ray Lovelock), leaving a London which seems to be quietly rotting, littered with dead animal life, alienated commuters, and female streakers for peace (only in 1974!). George is heading to an area near Windermere, in Cumbria, where he and some friends keep a vacation house, and he’s glad to be escaping the rat race for a spell. But his motorcycle is damaged in an accident when Edna (Cristina Galbo), tired from driving from London, backs her Mini into it at a petrol station. George has to leave his bike to be repaired, so he takes over Edna’s car and drives them both north, as they’re heading for the same area.


When Edna is unable to remember the way to the property she’s heading for, George stops by a river and approaches a farmer who is aiding a Department of Agriculture experiment to ask for directions. The scientists working the experiment, which is designed to eliminate insect life by setting primitive nervous systems, disdain George’s environmentalist concerns.


Edna, alone in her Mini, is assaulted by a strange, gnarled figure, and she flees. Naturally, the figure disappears before she, George, and the farmer return, but the farmer comments that Edna’s description sounds like that of a tramp who drowned a week before.


Meanwhile, Edna’s sister, Katie (Jeannine Mestre), a drug addict whose photographer husband Martin (José Ruiz Lefante) has kept away from the city in a cottage, is soon assaulted in the course of procuring herself a fix in their cottage’s shed by the same dead tramp. He kills Martin, and Katie is only saved by Edna and George arriving. But the police investigator, the intolerant, reactionary Sergeant (Arthur Kennedy), would rather accuse these weirdo city types of murder.



The only person George gets to listen to his theories is Dr Duffield (Vicente Vega), who works at the local hospital, bewildered by the fact that the newborn babies there seem to have turned into blood-lusting savages too. Of course, it’s the experiment, which is sending out radioactive waves that drive primitive nervous systems to acts of crazed mutual destruction.



Sleeping Corpses bears the usual limitations of ‘70s European genre cinema, sporting some awful dubbing for the mostly Spanish cast, and fascinatingly dodgy northern county accents for others (Kennedy seems to think he’s somewhere in Ireland). Post-production interiors were shot at Cinecitta, which accounts for an hilarious goof where, in what’s supposed to be the inside of the Old Owl Hotel, a sign reads “Olw”. But if, like me, you’re long since immune to such quirks of the horror cinema, it’s easy to perceive what is actually a damn well done film.



Grau’s storytelling and pacing are exact and forceful, making effective use of some gorgeous locations, evoking an English landscape that’s grey, chilly, and foreboding, eventually employing classic genre flourishes like swirling fog, eerie graveyards, deserted hospitals, and chewed intestines.


The staging is impeccable, as Grau cranks his narrative up from the eerie early sequence when Edna is first attacked by the perpetually dripping-wet tramp (I would think he’d have dried off after a week), shot at dusk, to the nailbiting sequence in which George, Edna, and a policeman, Craig (Giorgio Trestini), are trapped in a church by a newly awoken horde of the dead. And, the gut-wrenching (literally) finale that sees all hell break loose in the county hospital.




Many years before Zack Snyder and Danny Boyle thought to have their zombies move quickly and powerfully, Grau’s zombies, if no faster on their feet than George Romero’s lurching brain-eaters, are rather stronger and more formidable, constantly entrapping characters who you expect to have a fighting chance and overwhelming them. They seem impervious to anything until George discovers a suitable home remedy: a large dose of fire.



The efforts to construct a countercultural genre film are cartoonish (“You come around here with your long hair and faggot clothes!” the Sergeant berates George), but likeable nonetheless, envisioning the self-impressed, pushy, but essentially decent George at first espousing to the heedless scientists the beauties of organic produce, and struggles with increasing desperation to prove that something beyond the ordinary is taking place, matched against the Sergeant’s growing certainty that he’s dealing with evil Satanist drug-crazed hippie scum.


The cop and greenie’s conflict has the appropriate ferocity to match and fuel the mounting violence. It’s particularly amusing when the Sergeant construes some of George’s antique statuettes for evidence of his Satanist practises. Chided by a pathologist for slapping George in the fact, the Sergeant insists police only need “a free hand” in dealing with criminals and later predicts his successes will empower the citizenry against this evil permissiveness. This leads to a splendidly cynical finale in which the policeman guns down our hero, only to later come face to face with an undead, and very pissed-off, George...

His Girl Friday (1940)

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Random and unimportant thoughts on a well-regarded classic:

Memories of the excruciatingly bland and forced recycling job that was Switching Channels (1988) had always inhibited me in approaching this, despite my adoration for all things Howard Hawks.

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Watching the amazing pace that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell work at in this film is a salutary experience: very few contemporary actresses who pretend to act in comedies could dare to keep pace with Russell in moments like when she chases down a fleeing witness in heels, or converses on two telephones at once, without worrying about dislodging their plastic surgery implants.

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The material, written by Charles Lederer from Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur’s The Front Page, isn’t actually as flat-out funny as Hecht’s script for Nothing Sacred, relying on the increasingly frantic shenanigans to provoke a kind of comedic incredulity. But it’s even more awesomely cynical, portraying politicians ready to murder men for gain, incompetent sheriffs, eminently bribable officials of state, and a newspaper trade that’s a nest of scumbaggery, sufficiently exhausting for Molly Malloy (Helen Mack) to cause her to hurl herself out a window.

Anti-hero Walter Burns is conniving creep only rescued narrowly by being dedicated to the higher ideals of his profession even whilst indulging in any pretext to get what he wants. Ah but he’s a man in love, both with his profession and his ex-wife, which makes it all okay…yeah, still wouldn’t make it past the focus groups these days.

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Cary Grant, under that suit, seems to have the build of a rugby player. Ever notice?

Watching Russell’s flapping legs when running is as funny as her exercise routine with Joan Fontaine in The Women...but not quite as hot.

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Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Dead (1987)

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Composed 11/2/2002; Revised ‘09