Jan 2, 2017

The Dead (1987)

While this Christmas season has been even more miserable for me than usual, I really had no interest in celebrating it in a violent nihilistic by watching another sleazy Xmas slasher like Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) or Lewis Jackson's Christmas Evil (1980), even if I have come to the natural conclusion that blood and boobs (and especially the combination of the two) make for rather aesthetically pleasing additions to images of Santa Claus, mistletoe, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Instead, I was looking for something more melancholically nostalgic and unpleasantly poignant, so I was lucky to remember at the last minute about Hollywood auteur John Huston’s swansong The Dead (1987) starring his half-wop daughter Anjelica Huston and adapted by his one-time screenwriter son Tony Huston from the story of the same name (from the short works collection Dubliners) by famous Irish novelist and poet James Joyce. Directed by the auteur from the relative luxury of a wheelchair at age 80, the film was not just a labor of love because it was a filmic family affair, but also because it was based on a work from one of the director's favorite writers and set in the land of his Celtic ancestors where his children were brought up.  While Huston might have already been an old disgruntled fart at the time he directed the film, his later classic works like his underrated Flannery O'Connor adaptation Wise Blood (1979) and delightful dipsomaniac odyssey Under the Volcano (1984) clearly demonstrate that he, unlike many filmmakers, only got more artistically ambitious and subversive with age, or as oftentimes wrong Jewess Pauline Kael certainly got quite right regarding his final flick, “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—funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range. Huston never before blended his actors so intuitively, so musically.”

Indeed, The Dead is oftentimes quite sentimental and humanistic in the best sort of way (and I say that as someone that typically feels the urge to smash something if I hear someone describe something as being ‘sentimental’ or ‘humanistic’), but it also climaxes in a bittersweetly somber yet strangely hopeful fashion with a beta-male husband coming to terms with the fact that neither he nor his wife truly love one another and that he is more or less a phony that has never truly lived life.  As someone that has always seen the Irish, especially the McCatholics, as the red-haired and red-faced pug-nosed negroes of Northern Europe, I am also happy to report that Huston has managed to give the Irish cultivation and even dignity, even if the film does feature a terribly inebriated mick degenerate or two.  In other words, The Dead is the perfect cultural antidote to the typical sub-literate Irish-American that proudly describes themselves as ‘Irish’ despite not being able to locate Ireland on a map.  Of course, it would be dishonest of me not to disclose the fact that there is a scene in the film where the character discuss the social and cultural superiority of Italians in comparison to their own Irish culture, but one should not expect anything less in a film directed by a man who got his half-Italian daughter to play the lead and half-Italian son to right the screenplay (which he received an Oscar nomination for).

Set in 1904 at an Epiphany party held by two elderly spinster sisters and their equally barren and unmarried niece, the film certainly features an eclectic collection of quasi-bourgeois characters, including a goofy middle-aged drunk with an overbearing mother, fierce proto-feminist bitch with an obsession with Irish independence, elderly protestant pervert, and various other ‘idiosyncratic’ individuals that ‘normal’ people try to avoid every other day of the year aside from the holiday season when they are forced to be in their company due to family tradition. A virtual chamber piece that Kael probably enjoyed due to its Altman-esque emphasis on a bunch of not-always-civil talking heads, the film is somewhat genius in the sense that the main characters are hardly the center of attention, at least not until the final 15 minutes or so, yet it somehow manages to work in the end. In fact, for a good portion of the time you forget that Mrs. Huston is even in the film yet she somehow manages to give the most overtly dramatic and unforgettable performance as a character that is forced to confront her lack of love for her hubby as inspired by her bittersweet remembrance of the tragic death of her one-true-love, who died when she was still just a girl under rather heartbreaking circumstances.

Indeed, if there is any good reason that the suicide rate skyrockets during the holidays, it is because the pain of remembering a past love is multiplied to an excoriating degree, which is surely quit effectively depicted in an effortlessly elegant fashion in Huston’s film where a middle-aged married woman with children still cannot get over the pangs of heartbreak and guilt associated with a long dead boy who made her feel a way that her short and stocky beta-dork husband never could. Featuring a well liked but ultimately rather pathetic and unremarkable male protagonist that must come to terms with the fact that he has been emotionally cuckolded by a young man that died at the merge age of 17 before he even met his wife, The Dead—a surely fittingly titled flick with more than one meaning—is arguably Huston’s most vulnerable and tender film and a cinematic work that seems to carry some cryptic personal message from the auteur about his own lost love, or at least some would assume (it should be noted that the filmmaker's fourth and most beauteous wife Enrica Soma—the mother of actress Anjelica and screenwriter Tony—died tragically in 1969 at the premature age of 39 in a car accident). Needless to say, as someone that is currently single, the film has more special significance for me than I would like to admit, so it felt like bittersweet kismet to re-watch it while recalling the seemingly perennial pain of a certain romantic loss.  Undoubtedly, The Dead is not the sort of film you want to watch if you are currently in a happy relationship that you cannot possibly fathom ending.

At the beginning of The Dead, it seems like a Dublin Epiphany party—a Santa-less Christian feast day on January 6 that celebrates the revelation of God in his Son as human in Jesus Christ—could turn into a disaster due to drunk degenerates like McDrunkard Theodore Alfred ‘Freddy’ Malins (Donal Donnelly) and mouthy perverted old protestant fart Mr. Browne (Dan O'Herlihy), but the year is 1904 and these characters are far too classy and organically European to engage in the sort of sordid mick degeneracy that the city is best known for nowadays.  After all, poor Freddy is so hopelessly bourgeois that he cannot bear to piss in another man's company, even when he is stumbling around drunk like a fool. The party is at the charming two-story humble abode of two elderly spinster sisters, Aunt Julia Morkan (Cathleen Delany) and Aunt Kate Morkan (Helena Carroll) and their much younger but similarly childless and husbandless pianist niece Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie). Although never really alluded to, one might assume Mary Jane is a dyke as she has a number of hot young redheaded debutante students, including Miss Furlong (Kate O'Toole), Miss O’Callaghan (Maria Hayden), and Miss Higgins (Cormac O’Herlihy). Stocky dark-haired male protagonist Gabriel Conry (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) are some of the last people to arrive at the party because, as the former complains regarding the latter, “[she] takes three mortal hours to dress herself.” Likewise, Gretta bitches about her husband making her wear “galoshes” because, “Gabriel says everyone where them on the continent.”

Happy to be away from their children but hardly touchy and feeling with each other, Gabriel and Gretta seem to be stuck in a stagnating loveless marriage of convenience, or at least so will the viewer will most certainly assume by the end of the film. While Gretta seems to be simply bored with her hubby, Gabriel—a rather uptight chap with a somewhat phony personality who spends a good portion of the night attempting to memorize a rather contrived speech—just seems to lack the emotional capacity to truly love anyone.  In short, Gabriel is the kind of fellow that seems like he would be more interested in video-games and fedoras than women if he lived in contemporary times.  Seemingly asexual, Gabriel even acts annoyed when a proto-IRA bitch named Molly Ivors (Maria McDermottroe). In a seeming attempt to flirt with him in an aggressively teasing fashion, Ms. Ivors later mocks Gabriel for his lack of love for Ireland by calling him a “West Britain.” A proudly deracinated cosmopolitan type whose petty boasts of continental open-mindedness ultimately reveal a sort of insufferable passive-aggressive arrogance that is oh-so typical of effeminate males, Gabriel even proudly declares to Ms. Ivors, “To tell you the truth, I’m sick of my country.”  Needless to say, if Gabriel and Ms. Ivors were to actually fuck, it would naturally involve the latter violently penetrating the former with a large ribbed strap-on dildo.

Although a nice lass that does not seem to have a mean bone in her entire body, Gretta seems somewhat disconnected from everyone else, especially her husband, who seems to be totally oblivious to her dubious emotional state, at least at first. Unfortunately, an old unhealed internal wound in Gretta is violently ripped open at the party when a somewhat fat fellow named Mr. Grace (Sean McClory) unexpectedly recites an eighth-century Middle Irish poem entitled “Donal Óg” translated from Gaelic by someone named Lady Augusta Gregory that concludes with the forlornly lovelorn lines, “My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe, or as the black coal that is on the smith's forge; or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls; it was you put that darkness over my life. You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me; you have taken what is before me and what is behind me; you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me; and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!” While Mr. Grace’s recitation does not push Gretta over the edge, it does make her vulnerable enough to completely break down later in the film upon hearing a traditional Irish song that her long-dead teenage lover used to sing to her. In fact, the viewer does not even see much of Gretta again after Mr. Grace’s recitation until towards the end of the film after the party has already ended, though we see a lot more of her phony husband than we would like to due to a ridiculous contrived speech where he declares that his two elderly aunts and their niece are the “Three Graces” of Dublin and brags about the hospitality of Irish folks.  While Gabriel is keen on demonstrating niceness and kindness, his actions do not always seem sincere.  When Freddy Malins arrives at the party drunk and disheveled at the beginning of the film, Gabriel goes out of his way to clean him up, but one gets the sense that his kind acts are more motivated by a desire to avoid conflict at all costs than a sort of pure kindness.  Indeed, Gabriel is certainly the sort of archetypal ‘nice guy’ type that is unfortunately now all too common in the Western world as his occasional bitchy passive-aggressive behavior reveals.  Luckily, Gretta gets so ludicrously lovesick after being confronted with reminders from the past that no amount of nice guy nonsense can prevent her from pouring out her heart to her husband Gabriel about how she really feels.

After the party ends, Gabriel only goes looking for his wife after helping Freddy's disgruntled mother get into a carriage, so naturally he is somewhat shocked when he finds her crying at the top of a set of stairs of the Morkan house while secretly listening to a fat chap named Bartell D'Arcy (famous Irish tenor Frank Patterson) singing the traditional Irish song “The Lass of Aughrim.” Unbeknownst to poor Gabriel, the song was regularly sung by Gretta’s long dead teenage lover Michael Furey. During their somewhat awkward carriage ride back to their hotel, Gabriel makes various failed pathetic attempts to comfort Gretta, including telling a stupid family story about a horse and kissing her hand, but she just cannot seem to stop brooding over her memories. When they eventually get back to their hotel room, Gabriel finally gets the gall to ask Gretta what is wrong, so she admits she was thinking about the song “The Lass of Aughrim,” because, as she somberly confesses while on the verge of tears, “I’m thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” From there, Gretta sobs while she tells the tragic prematurely ended love story about her and an inordinately romantic boy named Michael Furey from Galway that died when he was only 17 after assumedly risking his life to see her one last time. Indeed, as her remark, “I think he died for me” clearly reveals, Gretta blames herself for Furey’s untimely demise, though one also suspects that she is also mad at herself for marrying a man that she does not really love. A sickly boy that died a week after he risked his life to visit Gretta during a rainy winter night despite his failing health because he discovered that she was moving to Dublin, Furey certainly loved her in a manner that quasi-narcissist Gabriel never could, but as the clearly haunted female protagonist reveals to her husband regarding her youthful love, “I am implored him to go home at once. I told him he’d get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live.” Needless to say, Gabriel is rather taken aback by the entire story and its dejecting implications, not least of all because he has no intrinsic understanding of how a man could love a woman so much, even though the woman in question is his own wife.

While Gretta practically passes out while sobbing after telling her deeply disconcerting story of tragic young love, Gabriel finds his mind racing, not least of all because he finally realizes that he does not truly understand his own wife, or as he thinks to himself while staring at her in bed, “How poor a part I’ve played in your life. It’s almost as though I’m not your husband and we’ve never lived together as man and wife.” Indeed, the viewer soon realizes that Gabriel is an emotionally underdeveloped individual that has never loved another person in his entire life as reflected in his clearly articulated racing thoughts, “To me your face is still beautiful, but it’s no longer the one for which Michael Furey braved death. Why am I feeling this riot of emotion? What stirred it up? […]One by one, we're all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and whither dismally with age. How long you locked away in your heart the image of your lover's eyes when he told you that he did not wish to live. I've never felt that way myself towards any woman, but I know that such a feeling must be love. Think of all those who ever were, back to the start of time. And me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their grey world. Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead.” Of course, during his rather short life, Michael Furey certainly truly lived more than sad beta-cuck Gabriel Conroy, whose wife’s soul belongs to a dead teenager.  Notably, Gabriel also contemplates his old spinster Aunt Julia and how she will probably die soon, as if he realizes that he will also die lonely just like his spinster aunt, even though he technically has a wife.  Of course, as the film reveals with its shots of a snowy cemetery where Michael Furey was buried, death is an innately solitary affair that no one escapes, not even pretentious self-absorbed twats.

The not-exactly-morbidly titled The Dead was certainly an exquisite and even poetically fitting way for John Huston to conclude his fairly singular filmmaking career, but I would probably stop short of pulling a Roger Ebert, who included it in his book The Great Movies III (2010) despite giving the film only 3 out of 4 stars in his original 1987 review, and describing it as an immaculate masterwork.  In fact, I consider Huston's other later cinematic efforts Wise Blood and Under the Volcano to be superior to his swansong in just about every way, especially in terms of entertainment value, subversiveness and sheer replay value.  Of course, then again, I cannot think of a more artistically sound yet vulnerable film for a filmmaker to end both his life and career with, so I do not want to underplay its value in the context of Huston's entire oeuvre, especially since so many other great filmmakers (e.g. Fellini, Bergman) concluded their careers in less than memorable fashions. Naturally, the film only seems all the more poignant and haunting now that virtually all of the actors featured in it are also dead, yet their memory now lives on via cinema not unlike how the memory of Michael Furey lives on in the mind of poor Gretta, but of course that was probably Huston's intention, hence the film's subtle multilayered brilliance as both a nuanced melodrama and virtual self-obituary in poetic cinematic form. While I cannot say that I am perennially internally wounded by the memory of a dead teenage boy, The Dead inspired a sort of vaguely unsettling bittersweet nostalgia-cum-misery in me, especially in regard to the unwavering feeling of preferring death over being without the bitch I love(d) most.  Unlike many lovesick individuals, Gretta certainly has a certain convenience of memory, as her great love died young in what seemed to be the ideal youthful romance before hate and negativity came into play in her relationship.  Indeed, there seems to be a certain romantic purity in regard to Gretta's memory of Michael Furey, hence the intolerable nature of her loveless marriage with Gabriel.

Of course, the film's male protagonist Gabriel represents the height of beta-male sterility as a man that is so out of touch with his own wife that he has no clue that she finds him to be both emotionally and sexually banal and thus clings to ancient memories in regard to a dead boy that she probably did not even have the pleasure of feeling inside of her. A prosaic pansy whose phony panache is a pathetic substitute for an authentic personality and whose cosmopolitan tendencies reveal a laughably contrived sense of class and superiority, Gabriel is ultimately a truly singularly horrifying character of cinema history in that he represents the everyman par excellence; a walking and talking eunuch corpse that merely floats through life instead of actually living it. Of course, I think it is safe to say that Huston actually lived life as his long and eclectic filmmaking career, various wives and lovers, and children demonstrate, so it seems somewhat curious that he would focus on such a soulless character, but then again he was a man that truly loved classic mick literature and was probably just happy to adapt his homeboy Joyce.

After roaming around a small oceanic city until 5am the next morning this past New Year's Eve and seeing countless drunk sluts with fake blonde hair stumble down the streets and tons of brain-dead bros attemptting to pick fight with strangers and harass workers and business owners, I cannot help but think a lot has been lost in the Occident in terms of love, romance, and chivalry since the days of Joyce's Ireland as depicted in Huston's The Dead; a film with a title that best describes the both the spiritual and cultural status of modern Western man.  Not just a dapperly dressed candy ass that lacks the capacity to love, Gabriel is a sad symbol of European decadence and an entire race's unconscious obsession with collective suicide, which is surely something that would have pained Mr. Joyce to see as demonstrated by his wise words, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”  As for Mr. Huston, he might have been somewhat spiritually and politically decadent, but he was unequivocally a true Faustian Man that expressed a certain degree authentic Aryan masculinity, even in a depressing melodrama like The Dead.

-Ty E

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