Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Dead (1987 - dir. John Huston)

Romantic single film can capture every aspect of this profound human experience. However, I'll attempt to give just a little insight into this most complex of subjects, using as a cinematic template, John Huston's final film, The Dead, elegantly adapted from James Joyce's majestic short story of the same name from his Dubliners collection. Being male, I'll focus this post on the masculine orientation to the problem and do my best to approach the feminine down the line. That should be interesting....

I remember attending a conference of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society in Alburquerque, New Mexico (I think it was in 1992). During dinner before the keynote talk (I was privileged to hear the late evolutionary biologist William Hamilton deliver that year's address), I was engaged in a conversation with another legendary biologist, George Williams, and Patty Gowaty, a biologist now at UCLA. I apologize for all the name dropping but, the point is, during the conversation with Williams and Gowaty, I remember mentioning that a strong case could be made for the possibility that male "romantic" love was a consequence of self-deception on the part of the male. The idea is that multiple matings increase the reproductive fitness of human males relative to human females. Consequently, it would seem possible that expressions of exclusionary feelings of romantic love by a male directed towards a female would likely be deceptive expressions designed to win the woman over by feigning long-term commitment. However, as Robert Trivers (another monster evolutionary biologist) has pointed out, the most successful acts of deception are those that are performed by those individuals that actually believe their deceptions (self-deceivers). Therefore, deceptive male expressions of long-term romantic "love" may be more effective if males actually believe their own deceptions, i.e., are self-deceived. I remember Gowaty vigorously disagreeing with me about this. But, I particularly remember Williams agreeing with me and feeling all puffed up about one of the giants in 20th century evolutionary biology putting his imprimatur on one of my ideas.

So......The Dead. After a holiday party in Dublin, full of marvelous slice-of-life moments, songs, toasts, dance, a man (Gabriel) and his wife (Gretta) prepare to take a horse-drawn taxi back to their residence. Suddenly, an Irish tenor begins to sing a song ("The Lass of Aughrim") at the top of the stairs and Gretta, who is preparing to go out into the cold, is transfixed. Later, Gabriel is confronted by Gretta's memories of a love in her life that, he realizes, is stronger and more powerful than he is capable of. He realizes that his "love" for his wife pales in comparison to the "true" love described to him by his wife.....the love of Michael Furey, years and years ago, the source of her transfixed reverie. Michael sang her that very song, alone in the bitter Irish winter, causing his death. Gabriel is decimated - overwhelmed by the realization that all is vanity and, in the end, the Irish snow covers both the living...and the dead.

Expressions of romantic love are mercurial things for human males. I'm reminded of another film, Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) where the Tony Roberts character describes marriage as "the death of hope." Do men really mean what they are saying when they say, "I love you"? they know for sure? Gabriel comes to the realization that his love for his wife was not the best "offer" she has received...Michael Furey, in his absence, still claims that honor. And, in fact, maybe Gabriel doesn't really love her at all. Maybe, he has deceived her, and himself. Maybe, the only way to approach Michael Furey's degree of certainty is to be in the grave...with him.


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