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The Dead on 35mm presented by The Badlands Collective
Institute of Contemporary Arts
The Dead, dir. John Huston, UK / USA / West Germany 1987, 83 min., English

‘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.’

Based on one of the most celebrated short stories ever written, which comprises the final chapter in James Joyce’s Dubliners, the film takes place at a seasonal dinner party in 1908 and intently follows the ritual of what appears to be a buttoned-down family gathering, while building to a blindsiding revelation. We are delighted to be screening this masterful adaptation of the story on Epiphany, the holiday on which the film takes place, as well as in the year of the film’s 35th anniversary.

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Known for his tough and gritty classics like The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Fat City, The Dead is an uncharacteristically beautiful and tender film for Huston, in which a seasonal feast is the locus for a reflection on family, marriage and the pull of home. Adapted by his son Tony and starring his daughter Anjelica, The Dead was an intensely personal film for Huston. Though he was very ill, often incapacitated, during the shoot and died shortly after wrapping, Pauline Kael said ‘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.’ 

Joyce wrote much of his work from self-imposed exile in Europe and so his story is often ambivalent and bittersweet about his Irish homeland, whereas Huston, an American who moved to Ireland in later life, approached the material from a gentler perspective, finding a sense of real yearning in the material as well as nostalgia for a time and place he never knew. Accordingly, he and cinematographer Fred Murphy gave the film a golden glow, where everything feels like a memory or a fondly-remembered dream. Joyce’s body of work may have a forbidding reputation but, having made a brilliant, elemental adaptation of Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano a few years earlier, Huston was no stranger to bringing supposedly unfilmable material to a wide audience.

In The Dead, his elegant and classical approach found the romance, the longing and the emotion at the heart of Joyce’s story. This moving and revitalising masterpiece – the final testament of a master filmmaker – is a film made to be seen in the middle of winter and the perfect way to see in the new year. 
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