The Dead – A Movie Review

The Dead is the film adaptation of a James Joyce short story of the same name that is part of the “Dubliners” collection.  It was the last picture directed by John Huston and was made shortly before he died.  It starred his daughter Angelica Huston and a cast of Irish actors who are mostly unknown to American audiences.  It’s the story of a New Year’s Party in Ireland in 1904.  The protagonists are a husband and wife, Gabriel and Greta, visiting his aunts for the party.  There are a number of characters who interact and exhibit the various foibles and characteristics found in a gathering of middle-class city dwellers.  There is the drunkard and the old maids and the young women and men full of excitement about the cultural and political happenings.  Music is a big part of the story with opera arias and piano concertos along the course of the party.  But at last the story is a meditation on the transitory nature of life.  Because it is an Irish story and specifically because it is James Joyce story it is very melancholy.  But there is humor and the portrayal of the party is an amusing period piece of turn of the twentieth century Ireland.  There is a number of mentions of the Irish Republican Army meetings plotting the coming uprising and the story is full of allusions to the Roman Catholic religion and the changing mores of the times.

But in the end, as the summation of the story, we see an intellectual coming to terms with the visceral nature of life.  He feels that he’s never touched his wife’s heart the way the death of a childhood sweetheart did many years ago.

John Huston was a very sick old man when he made this film and the concept of mortality was of prime importance to him.  And the James Joyce story is a good one.  But I wonder how big the audience is for this movie.  It’s a period piece and all the humor is mild and subdued.  It’s highly sentimental and slow paced.  I enjoy it a great deal and like it as a good end of year picture.  But I would recommend prospective viewers consider in advance if they care for such tame and sad entertainment.  I recommend this movie for the philosophic spirits out there.

In Praise of Brevity

Warning:  What follows is profound.  Extinguish all smiles and assume an air of philosophical introspection.  It will probably help to slightly furrow your brow.

Polonius said that “brevity is the soul of wit.”  And since Polonius was a windbag I feel that I am in good company praising it.  Maybe it’s because of Amazon and the payouts on Kindle reads.  But for whatever the reason we live in the age of the mega-novel.  More than that, we live in the age of the endless book series.  Sometimes that’s a not a terrible thing.  I’ve been enjoying the Galaxy’s Edge series.  They’re a lot of fun.  But hand in hand with this emphasis on long novels, short stories have sort of disappeared.  I freely admit that statement is an exaggeration.  I’m currently reading a collection of short stories taking place in Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter universe.  There are short stories to be found.  But I can only imagine the meager income an author would earn if he limited his efforts to short stories.  I mean, what does Amazon pay an author if someone reads a ten-page short story?  Five cents?  You could see how that would limit grocery purchases.  So, I do not fault the authors who need to eat for gearing their output to the five hundred-page novel.  And the same goes for the series.  Characters that have proven popular are the obvious candidate for more success for an author.

But I want to throw my weight behind short stories.  A good short story is like a good poem.  It is concentrated creativity.  Without a doubt, Dickens or Tolstoy can create an epic creation of many hundreds of pages with a huge cast of characters that are lovingly depicted in amazing detail.  Reading this work is a feast of literary pleasures.  Without a doubt.  But if a master craftsman writes a short story barely two dozen pages long it can be a revelation.  Like some kind of minimalist sketch, he can use a few brush strokes to bring life to a story or a character.  And the effect can actually be more vivid than the grand epic.  Carefully done, the few words can resonate with the soul where the hundreds of thousands merely numb.

I love short stories.  Let me clarify.  I love really well written short stories.  Edgar Allen Poe, James Joyce, Jack London, Kipling.  And in science fiction, Sturgeon, Ellison, Dick, Aldiss.  These authors have produced short stories that stand out as original and memorable.  They leave an impression on the mind that can be indelible.  And of course, not every short story they did is in that category.  But that’s okay.  It’s the exception that proves the rule.  After all it was Sturgeon’s Law that says that “90% of everything is crud.”

 

I’ll list a few of my favorite short stories.  If you feel like playing leave a few of yours in the comments.

To Build a Fire by Jack London

Counterparts by James Joyce

The Dead by James Joyce

And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon