Note: This discussion of The Dead was submitted to Adam Zanzie for the currently running blogothon on John Huston at Icebox Movies.
by Sam Juliano
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The final paragraph of The Dead, James Joyce’s last story in his “Dubliners” collection stands today as one of the most celebrated passages in all of world literature. In John Huston’s film version, the final work of his illustrious career, the dying 81 director wisely chose to let the words speak for themselves, utilizing a voiceover with some blue-tinted wintry visuals. It’s a surrender to the power of literature, and the inability of film to bridge the gap in cinematic and texual respresentation. But it remains the most arresting sequence in the film, and perhaps in Huston’s entire career, solely as a replication of language, in a form that heightens its soulful beauty. Indeed, no filmmaker could be expected to convey the depth inherent in the literature of one of the most cerebral of all writers, and critic Jon Lanthier is right to decry the absence of the ‘longing spirit’ in this narrative. But Huston can’t be held accountable for wisely choosing to remain neutral in the film’s most critical stanza, and the “self-doubt” that Mr. Lanthier feels is violated, is actually woven into the language, oblivious to all the atmospheric tinsel dressing that still serves to provide the seasonal underpinning. If this isn’t the most memorable snow sequence in film history, it’s certainly the most provocative, and the one that skillfully employs cinematic minimalism to provide the right mood for the spoken word. (delivered here with hypnotizing power by Donal McCann, who plays Gabriel)
Joyce actually got the idea for this shattering passage from American writer Bret Harte, who wrote in Gabriel Conroy:
Snow. Everywhere. As far as the eye could reach — fifty miles, looking southward from the highest white peak — filling ravines and gulches, and dropping from the walls of canyons in white shroud-like drifts, fashioning the dividing ridge into the likeness of a monstrous grave, hiding the bases of giant pines, and completely covering young trees and larches, rimming with porcelain the bowl-like edges of still, cold lakes, and undulating in motionless white billows to the edge of the distant horizon. Snow lying everywhere over the California Sierras on the 15th day of March 1848, and still falling. It had been snowing for ten days: snowing in finely granulated powder, in damp spongy flakes, in thin, feathery plumes, snowing from a leaden sky steadily, snowing fiercely, shaken out of purple-black clouds in white flocculent masses, or dropping in long level lines, like white lances from the tumbled and broken heavens. But always silently!
There is a clear elegiac undercurrent in Joyce’s metaphysics, but Huston’s filmic interpretation falls short of anything more profound than propping up the immortal words with the right mix of mood and setting. It is always far more preferable to watch a film adaptation of a given literary work after reading that work because of the importance of creating a mental picture of what the literary characters and places are like. It’s rare that one would often agree with a director’s interpretation, and that can surely be applied to Huston’s previous adaptations, including The Red Badge of Courage, Moby Dick, Wise Blood and Under the Volcano. Many of us raise questions of faithfulness to a particular text, and by refusing to leave the box with the big Michael Flory snow sequence John Huston left the psychology in the minds in the viewers. All things considered, I think Huston made the right decision by refusing to probe deeper into Joyce’s state of mind, and allowing the eloquence and descriptive beauty of the words to weave their own spell, albeit to disperate translations.
The problem with The Dead, (if it could really be categorized as such) is that the awe-inspiring power and ravishing wonderment of the final sequence overshadows everything before it, and the film is primarily remembered for its final minutes. Yet, there is an ethereal beauty and a permeating melancholy that is transporting, which can’t be criticized for any fraudulent interpretation. Line for line, scene for scene, The Dead sustains remarkable fidelity to the source material, bringing up – yet again – the inherent problems with films adapted from literary works. The question is always whether the director should let the novels or stories speak without textual and stylistic embellishments, or whether they should serve as an inspiration to forge a new path. It’s clear that Huston stood behind the former option, but he achieved some miraculous success in acting -the prime purveyor in such artistic adherence- to manage as close a filmic realization that this three-scene story could possibly reach.
The story is straightforward enough: In 1904 Dublin, a holiday party is thrown by two musically gifted older sisters and a niece. Guests arrive and in this hour-long segment in the film, their conversation and intermingling serves as a kind of thematic underpinning, as it’s clear enough that the meaning of what they saying outstrips the pedestrian aspect of it’s surface conscription. Huston is a painter and a choreographer here in conjurring up Joyce’s specter to create an extended sequence that fully captures all that was written. Later in the hotel, in the second big scene, Gretta (Angelica Huston) tells her lover Gabriel (the aforementioned McCann) that she was once adored by a 17 year-old boy (who was sickly) named Michael Florey, who stood in the rain before Gabriel was to leave for convent school. He died shortly thereafter, and Gretta tells Gabriel: “I think he died from me.” Later Gabriel contemplates the connection here with everyone who lusts, is felled by loss, disappointment and tragedy, and whose death is the final coda to a life unfullfilled.
Huston’s love for Ireland and for its literature led to the incubation of this final project years before, and his enables him to work with his daughter a last time. Almost on cue she delivered one of her finest performance, and Huston achieved a consumate triumph that had eluded so many great directors in their final ventures. Only John Huston, that pre-eminent proponent of the film adaptation could lay claim to bringing Herman Melville and James Joyce to the masses.
Here’s the link to latest post on John Huston blogothon at Icebox Movies: http://iceboxmovies.blogspot.com/2010/08/john-huston-blogathon-day-6.html