May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 27, 2009
I know the film version of The Dead was practically a dying man’s last wish, at least John Huston died after it was finished, his final work, the cap of his career. I know he was Irish, or of Irish descent (he became a citizen and renounced his American citizenship at the end). I know we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. But Huston’s style, his characteristic static, deliberately emasculating style, and his over-reverent handling of the work; his turning of living ambiguities into frozen certainties – by means of both the literalizing propensities of film and the literalizing propensities of his treatment; his additions and deletions (of my favorite line!) to shape according to his perspective – all this leaves me feeling like the man’s 1987 film of this short story beloved to him was DOA.
The fact that Huston was an Irishman himself, as always, tells but half the tale, for Huston is Scots-Irish, and his film feels like a sterile Protestant sermon, unlike the earthy Catholicism of even lapsed-Catholic Joyce’s original short story. Indeed, The Quiet Man is a much better film about Ireland, for me at least, even with the sentimentality or mugging that Huston hoped to get beyond in his quiet, civilized, drawing room treatment of the culture. John Ford reaches through realism to myth; John Huston’s view of reality has more to do with shooting on location (which he wanted to do but couldn’t) or using authentic period dinner plates for his adaptation.
Aye, laddie — “authenticity,” that elusive quality, ever moreso as one peels back the arguments by claimants of it. And “adaptation” – another topic for heated argument, by turns, art, science and voodoo. Huston obviously knows film and literature are different languages, and that translation is required. Kevin Barry, in his outstanding book on both Joyce’s story and Huston’s film, catalogs the additions and deletions of the director (and his screenwriter son Tony). From a purely technical standpoint, there is much to admire in the film script’s grammatical adjustments, aimed at fitting Joyce’s story into the style and structure of film, and a John Huston film in particular. Yet, Barry in his The Dead, quotes critic James Narramore’s suggestion that any translation may have fallen short:
…any effort at rendering Joyce in another medium entails a series of assumptions and procedures that are fundamentally unJoycean… a reverend adaptation continually runs the risk of becoming just the sort of middlebrow artifact that Joyce had quietly satirized throughout his story.
The most subtle betrayal, says Barry, is that Huston’s version most undermines the original because it presents itself as delivering the material so faithfully, so “transparently”:
The film is a powerful misreading of the story. By this I do not only mean that the film is formally unfaithful to the aesthetic upon which the story depends, precisely because it pretends to be faithful to its milieu and tone. Rather, I mean that the film misreads the story powerfully because it alters it almost invisibly: the viewer is often persuaded that the film has not changed the story at all, because Huston’s adaptation so tactfully satisfies the viewers expectations.
In other words, sometimes Satan comes disguised (perhaps even as a man of peace, or as a young friend once had it, as a “can of peas.”) Or, rather than speak quite so ill of the director, let’s say that when it come to adaptations, like anything else, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” — a truism with particular irony in this connection.
The setting for The Dead is The Feast of Epiphany, that commemoration of the visit of the Magi, the Wise Men from the East, bearing gifts for the Christ child, of Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. “Epiphany” is an expression from pagan religion, referring to an appearance of the god, the advent of the Divine. Indeed, in a Christian context, epiphany arrives in the Incarnation: Word-Become-Flesh. As a literary term, “epiphany” became associated with James Joyce, for whom a epiphany was the sudden manifestation of revelatory import: an unexpected glimpse of the Real. “‘Showings forth,'” says Anthony Burgess, “of beauty and truth in the squalid and commonplace was Joyce’s vocation .” Burgess compares Joyce to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, with whom the Irishman shares a “common belief in the powers of ordinary life to burst forth — suddenly and miraculously — with a revelation of truth. ” These two writers
were so acutely aware of the numinous in the commonplace that they found it necessary to manipulate the commonplaces of language into a new medium that should shock the reader into a new awareness.
The Dead, Joyce’s most famous short story, from his collection Dubliners, unfolds on Epiphany, at a holiday party in Dublin. The party is hosted primarily by a pair of elderly sisters, whose guests include their nephew, Gabriel Conroy, a middle-aged university instructor. Gabriel probably isn’t a very good teacher, since he treats everything – books, people, ideas – as an opportunity to affirm himself; so he is blind to everything that is not himself, which, one would think, would make him blind to literature, as well. The evening offers a series of blows against Gabriel’s self-satisfied egoism, the last a revelation which exposes the smallness of Gabriel Conroy even to himself. Alone in their room, as his wife sleeps, he watches snow fall, and The Dead reaches epiphany.
It’s easy to see why John Huston wanted so badly to make a film of this story, and why he treated it as sacred text. Another filmmaker who seemed to treat his sports car as sacred and not much else, Roberto Rossellini, gleefully pilfered The Dead and wove it into a film which, unlike Huston’s, translates Joyce’s epiphanous power into cinema.
Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy) concerns a bored, modern — lifeless! — English couple on a trip to Italy, where they’re faced with death, but also through it, life. A scene from The Dead, where Gabriel Conroy’s wife Gretta makes a shattering revelation, is lifted almost verbatim from the short story and placed into a scene with this couple — whose last name is (no coincidence) Joyce. They sit in the shadow of Vesuvius, as much within the volcano’s red zone as poor, ruined Pompeii. Death is in the air, in the museums, in the catacombs, and in the wife’s revelation. But the real climax in this version is a visceral confrontation with not just an idea of death, but the idea-in-flesh, a genuine epiphany — which somehow makes for a great reversal — the greatest one possible — in making of death new life.
Rossellini’s bold reconfiguring of the language of his art has surely been as influential as Joyce’s was — and equally frustrating to much of their audiences. Kevin Barry quotes a French critic as describing Viaggio “a new cinema of the non-event,” in which “in the immobile and the insignificant is the very power of life.” The film was non-eventful enough to drive viewers stir-crazy, along with the lead actor George Sanders, who Rossellini directed (or didn’t, as Mr. Sanders thought) as the uptight Mr. Joyce. Yet the quest for “the numinous in the commonplace” was the very definition of neo-realism, the film style associated with Rossellini which places more faith in the material reality of whatever the camera is pointed at than any screenplay ostensibly calling the shots.
Thus, says Barry, Viaggio is “a profoundly Joycean text, both in its modernism and in its playing fast and loose with Joyce’s own story.” Ironically, while Huston tries to focus on what Barry calls “small highlights,” ordinary moments of human exchange, the image seems mainly for him a tool for illustrating the text, faithfully in the narrowest sense, and so to a fault. The difference is that between idol and icon: in Huston, image becomes a wall, in Rossellini, a window; in Rossellini and Joyce, epiphany happens because the word becomes flesh.
Whatever else it is, as Kevin Barry says, The Dead is a ghost story. For me, Huston’s The Dead is not nearly so haunted as Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia. But the former is, at least, haunted by James Joyce’s original short story; one gets occasional glimpses of the power of the text simply because the film is so talky and includes so much of the text. If that’s the case, one wonders, why not just go back to the original text? Indeed, but on the other hand, Barry makes some interesting observations about how John Huston’s adaptation “destabilizes” traditional readings of the original short story, and so becomes a valuable conversation partner in the ongoing discussion about The Dead in any form.
In the meantime, let’s close by cutting straight to the epiphany — beginning with the line John Huston inexplicably leaves out, in all James Joyce’s glorious — and somehow strangely revelatory — ambiguity:
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, falling softly 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 upon 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.