The Dead

The Dead

The Dead is an adaptation of a James Joyce short story that I have not read. (I haven’t read any James Joyce in fact.) It was made by John Huston when he was wasting away with emphysema; he died very shortly after finishing the film.

To say that this film is not for everyone would be an understatement. It is a very talky psychological study of upper class Irish folks gathered together for a snooty party and dinner in 1904.

It has the feel of a very professional, very well-crafted movie. The acting is crisp, the attention to detail of costume and furnishing and such is impressive, the music and poetry is haunting; it’s really a beautiful film in a lot of ways.

On the other hand, while I appreciate that, it probably doesn’t impact me the way it would a certain type of person who is a lot more in tune with that. I’m a lot more focused on the substance of what’s going on in a movie.

And as far as that goes, I’m sure I didn’t get as much out of this movie as I could have. It’s mildly interesting seeing the way people of that social class in that historical period interacted, but my guess is I absorbed about 20% of what this movie is trying to get across. It is worthy of a much closer viewing, and indeed I’m confident it’s the kind of movie you can much better grasp by seeing multiple times. It would also help to have relevant background knowledge, such as knowledge of the Irish politics of that time.

So there are a lot of nuances I’m sure went over my head, having to do with how the servants were addressed, how this person’s tone of voice altered when he was talking to this person, or the look this person gave this other person, etc.

One thing that did tickle me was the middle aged amiable drunk guy with the disapproving mother. He’s more impulsive and frank in his speech than the others, he tends to be a beat or two behind the conversation, he’s at times vaguely aware he’s being made fun of—in general he’s just an entertaining character to watch.

I also rather like the whole tradition in old novels and stories of upper class people engaging in artistic endeavors for each other at these gatherings. That is, a young person will play the piano, and later a professor or poet will do a reading, or perhaps someone will sing—all in an effort to add some beauty to the occasion, and always so appreciated by all present. Is there any class that does anything comparable to that in the present? I’m trying to imagine what would be the analogue of that today, and I don’t know that there is one.

Really about the only “action” of the movie occurs near the very end when a wife reveals to her husband the story of the great love of her life, who died when they were in their teens, and the husband gazes out the window as we hear his internal monologue reflecting on what it all means.

And that is affecting. I suspect my understanding of it is fairly superficial, but I can only do what I can do. I can only relate it to my beliefs and values, and my life experiences. It meant something to me (though I won’t try to articulate it here—I’ll leave to others to experience and interpret it in their own way), even if it’s not precisely what Joyce intended, or is only part of what he intended.

So I found the goings on at this affair a bit socially and psychologically interesting, and the closing scene did connect with me emotionally, but honestly, purely in terms of how much I enjoyed The Dead, how much I got out of it, I’d put this film below the middle of the ones I’ve written about so far. At the same time, my guess is on its merits it deserves to be in the top 10%. I just don’t think I’m in a position to fully appreciate it.

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