Uncle Bardie’s Movie of the Week: John Houston’s Last Movie

Once a week on Monday, Uncle Bardie shares a movie with his Readers he gives a big two thumbs up. It will simply be a short excerpt or a trailer. Uncle Bardie might even throw in a reflection on the movie. If so, it will make an appearance below the video. So pop some popcorn and give yourself a treat. This week’s movie is “The Dead” (1987).

Like so many of you, I have a New Year’s Eve tradition. Come Thursday night this year, I plan on the same ritual I have performed the past ten years or so.

No, it’s not going out drinking with all the amateurs. I stay off the streets ’cause there’s danger out there, Will Robinson. If I am taking to the bottle on New Year’s Eve, I do it at home. But mostly I stay off the booze, except for a little of the bubbly.

I don’t sacrifice a chicken or howl at the moon either. Although the howling-at-the-moon has occurred to me. It would give some competition to those blasting firecrackers away all night because they can. They scare the whatchamacallit out of my cats. At least, my cats would appreciate the howling.

I am not into watching three hours of programming crawling up to the countdown to the ball dropping. (I kinda wonder what you do in that crowd when you have to pee, and you have to pee bad. Where do you go?)

All the twerking by artists, mouthing their latest fifteen-minutes-of-fame plastic, bores me. I’m not ever sure who they are, but they’re not for moi. They are not Dylan or Sinatra or Elvis or the Beatles or the Supremes. Those guys didn’t have to twerk their way to greatness. Well, maybe Elvis did.

If I hear Paul McCartney do one more performance of “Yesterday”, I think I’ll scream. You were great once, Sir Paul, but you’re beginning to wear out your welcome. Mostly I’m thinking it’s been a while since Guy Lombardi did the Auld Lang Syne thing, and I kinda miss it. Don’t worry I haven’t gone Lawrence Welk on you. Yet.

My tradition? I sit down and watch John Huston’s last movie, “The Dead”. And before you even think it, it’s not about zombies. Rather it is based on James Joyce’s great story. If the man wrote no other work, “The Dead” would establish him as one of the greats. It takes place in 1904 Dublin. A group of friends gather at the home of the Morkan sisters and their niece to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, that memorial to the Three Magi who came to visit the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

Outside there is snow. Inside there is cheer and music and dinner and memories of the past. It is these memories of the dead that call to mind all who have passed my way. Old friends, childhood buddies, and family, Some passed on and some not, some nearby and some in faraway places, some in places known and some in places unknown.

Like the story, the final scene of the movie calls to mind the most bittersweet of memories. All those who left, leaving only their footprints in the snow behind. All those wayfarers who came my way and left their mark on my life in an unforgettable manner. For a moment, tears well up in my eyes and I raise a glass to the wonder of who they were.

Soon it will be time to move on, what with a new year coming. This brief time I give to those who have passed over to a new world. I miss their words. I miss their smiles. I miss their voices. I miss the music that was their lives. So I shed a few tears. Not for them, but for myself. That I could have been a better friend. A better brother. A better son.

For these few moments, I am thankful to James Joyce and to John Huston for their extraordinary works of art.

Where will you be this New Year’s Eve?

Read a Good Story Lately?

I am a sucker for short stories. Short stories by such amazing writers as Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien and Kevin Brockmeier often blow me away. For my money though, the Irish writer William Trevor is one of the best, a real master of the craft. If you love short stories the way I do, you’ll enjoy his Selected Stories.

There’s nothing like a good start to a story. Here’s the opening sentence from Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”: Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man, Belle married him when he was old. When a story gets off to a good start like that, I know I am in for a treat.

The story, “A Friendship”, opens with a practical joke two brothers play on their father. But soon the tale turns into the story of a slowly dissipating marriage. As is true for many of Trevor’s stories, it doesn’t take you where you thought you were going. When I finished the story, I could see the influence Trevor may have had on another writer, Alice Munro, and her “Runaway”. In “Child’s Play”, there is the story of two children. They use their imagination to create dramas to help them overcome the pain of separation from their divorced parents.

If you think Trevor only creates tragic stories, think again. For instance, there’s “A Bit of Business”. Two thieves see an ideal opportunity for burglary on the day the Pope visits Dublin. They’ve done their business for the day. It’s been a successful business. Then, on a whim, they decide to do one more house. One more house. That will always get you into trouble.

Trevor’s endings can be just as stunning as his beginnings. Such is the masterpiece of a story called “After Rain”. A woman entering her thirties finds herself ditched by her boyfriend. She returns to the Italian hotel where her parents took her when she was a girl. It concludes with this: She sees again the brown-and-green striped tie of the old man who talked about being on your own, and the freckles that are blotches on the forehead. She sees herself walking in the morning heat past the graveyard and the rusted petrol pumps. She sees herself seeking the shade of the chestnut trees in the park, and crossing the piazza to the trattoria when the first raindrops fell. She hears the swish of the cleaner’s mop in the church of Santa Fabiola, she hears the tourists’ whisper. The fingers of the praying woman flutter on her beads, the candles flare. The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death. Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also. These closing lines remind me of another Irish master of the short story, James Joyce, and the end of his most famous story, “The Dead”.

Trevor’s stories often have echoes of other great predecessors of the short story, most of all Anton Chekhov. Trevor does for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia. He explores the landscape of a country and its people, giving each character her dignity. With a rich, lush language, he is as likely to offer the life of a woman as he is a man, of a Catholic or a Protestant, and to burrow in deep to find out what that character carries in his or her heart.

In his stories, there are priests, wives, businessmen, tramps, blind piano tuners, farmers, children, burglars, auto mechanics and dressmakers, people from many of the nooks and crannies of Irish society. And there is love, or the desire for love no matter the consequences. Trevor shows us that it’s the little things, the quiet moments that matter in a life, and that a life can mean so much.

His particular way of saying things often makes me stop in awe and question how I might write like that. Lines that soar. Lines that are more than lines. There never is fairness when vengeance is evoked or Their own way of life was so much debris all around them or This no-man’s land was where Gerard and Rebecca played their game of marriage and divorce or All the love there had been, all the love there still was–love that might have nourished Ellie’s child, that might have warmed her–was the deprivation the child suffered or gratitude was always expressed around this table. It’s a great writer working his magic and I am never disappointed with that magic. He always leaves me wanting more.