The Sacrifice (1986)/The Dead (1987)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky; John Huston

I recently watched both Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice and John Huston’s The Dead and came away with a strong sense of how I felt but little understanding of how to talk about these movies.  Both movies, though, have so much in common that it’s almost as if they are made to be written about together.  Maybe I watched these at the same time because of those similarities, though I think it was only coincidence.

I’m more familiar with and interested in Tarkovsky’s work, but The Dead is only the second John Huston movie I’ve seen (as far as I know) after 1951’s The African Queen.  I have a sense of Tarkovsky’s style and know next to nothing about the aims of Huston’s work.

These two films, though, have much in common outside of the context of the director’s filmography.  All you really need to know is that they’re poetic, abstract stories about death, made in the final year of each director’s life.  In the case of Huston, his death preceded the release of the movie, and filming took place with his ailing health a very well-kept secret.

It’s not just that these two movies happen to be the final ones made by their director or that they’re about death.  They each feel like the summation of a a lifelong aim to figure out what the hell this is all about.  The Sacrifice is more of a question about life, humanity, what it means to desire, and The Dead is a much more blunt statement, we’re all going to die.

There is little meant to surprise you within each story, and they are both very loose on plot.  In The Sacrifice, a family is forced to contemplate their imminent mortality when they hear of the outbreak of the third world war, and the film is concerned with their devastated reactions to this as well as a series of philosophical musings about the meaning of life before there is any implication that time is running out.  In The Dead, set in 1904 Dublin, a small group of people meet for a dinner party on New Year’s Eve.  They drink, dance and celebrate shared stories of friends both living and dead.  The first hour is a sort of precursor to the final twenty minutes of the film in which a man learns a startling story about his wife and the childhood love of a now deceased man.  As snow falls all around them, we hear the man’s inner thoughts.  His monologue is verbatim to the prose in the James Joyce short story on which the film is based, and it details his musings about how the snow falls on both the living and the dead, and one day we’ll all be dead.

After watching each of these films my first thought was that I needed to immediately re-watch them, not because I enjoyed them so but because I knew it was like catching sand in a net.  I got the broad strokes, but I surely missed the nuance of each film.  I enjoyed The Sacrifice much more than The Dead, mostly because I found the philosophical musings much more interesting.  I’m biased, but I’m more pre-disposed to rambling conversations like those, similar to the ones found in a Richard Linklater or even a Jean-Luc Godard film.  Hell, just like hearing people talk and try to figure it out.  The beauty is not in what they say exactly but what they’re trying to say.

With The Dead, well I was quite bored.  It’s a movie I’ve heard is great, one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” and while I found the final minutes very striking and sobering, the previous hour was quite forgettable.  Granted I’m not always the most active viewer, and my attention was easily diverted elsewhere as I watched, but The Dead tries to appeal to you more through an atmosphere of people than any one character.  It’s only after watching the film in its entirety and understanding the ultimate focus of the film that I feel I can better watch it from the beginning.

The Sacrifice begins with a nine minute shot of a man and a boy (“Little Man”) planting a tree and discussing something like Greek myth and the idea of futility.  A friend shows up and they keep talking, but most of their conversation escapes me.  They discuss life and wonder why we do anything.  They address the fear of death and seem confident that if humans could conquer it than all of life would be simple.

We meet the man’s family, most of whom are vague in my mind, and then we get the news, as they watch on tv, that the third world war has begun, and they are surely doomed.  Their response is to sedate the children, seemingly putting them to sleep so that when the end comes they won’t realize it.  The man’s wife is hysterical before she herself is sedated, and the husband mourns to the camera, pleading with God to do away with his animal-like primal fear.  When another man tells him that all will be okay if he sleeps with the maid, well who is he to say no?  Desperate for any possible answer, he visits the maid, but his attempts at seduction go nowhere.

The film is two and a half hours long, and all I remember about the end is that the man then hides from his family, ashamed and possible insane.  Their fear is gone, but his remains.  If the war is still raging on, it hasn’t yet touched the wide open landscape where they live, though soon the man burns down their house, and we get a long, beautifully choreographed shot of the family and the man freaking out while the home crumbles.

The movie then ends with Little Man at that tree from the beginning of the movie.  He lies on the ground and quite possibly says something, but I’ll be damned if I remember what it was.  The end of the film bears some similarity to the first shot of Tarkovsky’s first feature, Ivan’s Childhood.  The camera rises up from the ground, tracing the growth of a not so sturdy tree, as if making the point that life is unlikely and itself death-defying.

It could also have something to do with the idea that we all come from the same place.  That idea of life and death as a unifying force is what drives the end of Huston’s The Dead.

The bulk of the film is admirable and well-crafted, though it felt aimless and never-ending.  It’s something that I’m much more likely to stick with upon a re-watch because that meandering quality reflects the dream-like nostalgia of Huston himself.  I think I could appreciate what he was seeking to capture, the sense memories of his youth, but for myself, with no ties to the characters or the place and time, it didn’t quite work.

The Dead was likely Huston’s most personal film.  There is no effort on his part to make the story or the world accessible.  These are people he knew, and by the end they should feel like people we all know.

The distinct qualities of these Irish partygoers makes them feel inaccessible, but the eventual point of the film is to suggest that none of our differences matter.  We’re all living, and then we’ll all be dead.  It’s a cleansing effect that washes away all of the nuances of the characters or at least, for me, made it feel more forgiving that I had forgotten so many of the details of their lives.

It’s a party, with everyone dressed to the nines, and with their lavish outfits they bring with them a jovial spirit, even if it covers up what they’re really feeling underneath.  We meet a wide variety of characters, the most memorable of which is a notorious drunk who embarrasses an older woman after she volunteers to sing them a song.  The main characters are ostensibly Gabriel and Gretta (Huston’s daughter Anjelica), though they mostly blend in with the rest of the ensemble cast for the first hour.

We don’t know these characters deeply, but we get a sense that this is one of the good times.  They acknowledge the dead and the need for celebration, and much of the film can be summed up in a speech given by one man 51 minutes into the movie.

“No tradition does our country more honor than its overwhelming hospitality.  Some might consider it a failing, and if so it is a princely one.  Ladies and gentlemen, we are living in a skeptical… tormented world, where the values of the past are often at a discount, but it gives me joy that under this one roof, the spirit of good, old-fashioned warm-hearted, courteous Irish hospitality is still alive among us.  Long may it continue.”

“And yet, in gatherings such as this, sadder thoughts will occur to our minds.  Thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, perhaps some friends that we miss here tonight.  But our work is among the living.  We must not brood or stoop to gloomy moralizing.  We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly, our strenuous endeavors.  Here we all met, momentarily away from the bustle of our everyday routines, in a spirit of good fellowship, in the true spirit of camaraderie.  And as the guests of, what shall I call them?  The three graces of the Dublin musical world.”

“What did he say?”  “He said we are the three graces of the musical world.”

Or maybe this just stood out to me because it’s the first part of the film which feels focused.  One man gives a lengthy monologue, and I’m forced to listen like the rest of the guests.

The man discusses life in broad terms, and the camera drifts down the table of guests, settling on the three “graces” who are hosting the gathering.  Gabriel and Gretta are no different than the rest, and the degree to which we get to know them more deeply in the end suggests that all the other guests have similar depths to explore.

As they’re leaving, Gretta is momentarily frozen, enraptured with a song played in the other room.  She stands and listens, still as in a painting, and Gabriel watches her as she does.  On the ride home she explains how this song reminded her of a boy who had been in love with her in their youth but who died when she returned home from a long trip away.  She breaks down in tears, and Gabriel, who has never heard this before, begins to wonder how much he really knows her.

Gabriel watches her sleep and ruminates on the night’s events as well as the living and the dead.

“One by one, we’re all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. How long you locked away in your heart the image of your lover’s eyes when he told you that he did not wish to live. I’ve never felt that way myself towards any woman, but I know that such a feeling must be love. Think of all those who ever were, back to the start of time. And me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their grey world. Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead.”

Gabriel refers to him and Gretta as separate entities, seemingly isolated by their own experience even as death will someday unify them.  As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, was all of this running through John Huston’s mind as he made the movie?  It must have been.

The feeling is melancholic to be sure, but there’s something strangely comforting about it.  Death isn’t anything to run away from, and Gabriel considers not the avoidance or fear of death but rather the method of dying, “pass boldly into that other world.”

In The Sacrifice, characters express more bluntly their disturbing fear of death, at least of an untimely one.  The characters consider mortality with less grace than in The Dead, but each film seems to use the construction of the story like bubble wrap, nestling it’s character inside.  Tarkovsky’s film ends with a shot of a tree while Huston settles on the pleasant, calming landscape outside Gabriel’s window.  In both cases the camera floats away from our main characters, letting them drift away softly and safely.  Even if they fear what might happen or struggle to comprehend it, none of it matters.

But because these are man-made constructions, being movies and all, the omniscience of the movie’s framing comes from someone like ourselves, suggesting that we can transcend this fear or lack of understanding.  Though life is full of mystery and strange meaning, the feeling I got from each movie was that in the end we won’t know everything but we’ll know enough to be satisfied.  At least enough to lull us to sleep.

Up Next: Dumbo (1941), Beaver Trilogy Part IV (2015), The Day of the Jackal (1973)

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