Friday, January 06, 2006
Reliving The Dead
Today is January 6th, The Feast of the Epiphany (also known as, The 12th Day of Christmas or The Feast of the Three Kings). In Europe, there is a longstanding tradition of celebration on this day, when it is believed that the Magi from the East visited the Christ child, thus revealing his existence to the gentile world (the epiphany). In fact, there was a time in Europe when January 6th was even more popular than Christmas Day itself. Twelfth Night parties were once commonplace throughout Europe to celebrate this day, and to close out the Christmas season. It's on this day that the events of director John Huston's last film, The Dead -- based on the short story by James Joyce -- takes place. I remember when I first saw this film, at a press screening, sitting far too close to the screen because, by the time I got to the theater, it was filled to capacity with people eager to view Huston's last film. (He had died shortly after it was finished, but before it was released.) The film is gentle. It essentially has no plot. In essence, we are invited to be part of a Twelfth Night party taking place on January 6, 1904, given by two aunts and their niece for family and friends in Ireland. The party, as one might expect, is filled with merriment -- good food, drink, singing and dancing. On the surface, it's a wonderful Christmastime gathering. But, it's at the end of this film, as one of the guests, Gretta, returns to the hotel with her husband, Gabriel, that she reveals that one of the songs at the party reminded her of a teenage love -- a 17-year-old boy named Michael Furey who loved her so much, though ill, stood outside her window in the rain to persuade her not to move away for school. He died a week later. But all these years, she has never forgotten him. And for her husband, hearing this, makes him realize he has never loved a woman as it seemed Michael loved his wife, as a teenager. And this personal epiphany makes him weep not only for Michael but for himself, since he suddenly understands the difference between merely existing and truly living. The source story by Joyce is considered by many to be one of the greatest short stories ever written. (And, like all great short story writers, Joyce understood that the end should have a twist.) Still, it is a near-impossible task to film a movie without a plot, and, at best, ill-advised to stretch a short story into a feature length film. However, Huston made the best film that could be made from this story. In doing so, he preserved on screen a tale many don't read any longer, and on the Epiphany, showed that there is sometimes more to life than the mere trappings of day-to-day living (even a merry Twelfth Night party) may show us.