The Dead

This 20-year old film based on a James Joyce short story is finally available on DVD.  Directed by John Huston (it was his last film) and starring Anjelica Huston and a cast of little known Irish actors, this accessible story by a famously difficult author is memorably brought to life by a mature director at the height of his powers, who understood the work well enough to keep the scale small.

Joyce wrote this tale of a generous holiday dinner given by elderly maiden ladies in Dublin while he himself was starving in Rome. Joyce evinces an almost unbearable loneliness for the land of his birth, even though he must have known that he could never live in Ireland again. As befits a literary adaptation, this is a movie where nothing very much happens — it is really a series of vignettes. We are given tantalizing glimpses of characters who speak to each other in the shorthand of people who all know each other very well (or think they do). And they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, affected by the ghosts of people they once knew, or the lives they might have had. Not everybody likes this kind of thing (Ted found it deathly dull).  But pay attention — the most important, and moving, scenes in the movie come about 20 minutes before the end, when it looks as though the story is over, and one of the characters is only musing on the weather, “Snow was general all over Ireland.”  It’s a rare occasion when a voiceover of an actor reading from the author’s story actually works.

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Flash Forward

A well-written sci fi show is a rarity in the TV world, but based on the first two episodes this appears to be one. The premise — just about everyone in the world “blacks out” for 2 minutes. There is tremendous loss of life, from those who were unlucky enough to be driving a car or flying in a plane at the time.  When folks wake up, they realize that many of them have had visions of their own lives, 6 months in the future. Some visions are good, some are bad, some are seemingly impossible.  Some have no visions at all — what does that mean? Some visions lead to interesting moral problems — if a wife sees herself with another man, does she confess her future adultery?  Ted thought the pacing was a little slow, but I appreciated the writers taking enough time to tell a complex story slowly. It’s the opposite of the frenetic pace on 24 (although this show clearly builds on 24’s government agency mystique — they even have their own girl geek). The cast features some very good actors — Joseph Fiennes as an FBI agent, and John Cho (“Sulu” in the recent Star Trek movie) as his Korean partner (although, since his first name is “Demetri,” he’s apparently a North Korean).  [Irresistable meta-note: the English actress Alex Kingston, who has a guest spot in the first episode, used to be married to Joe’s brother Ralph.]

Despite the recaps at the beginning of each episode, this is not a show where you can catch an episode once in a while and expect to figure out what’s going on. If you don[t have a DVR, ABC is apparently running reruns of Thursday’s first-run programs on Friday nights.  Enjoy!

National Parks — America’s Best Idea

Based on the first two programs, this is best thing Ken Burns has done since his epic on the Civil War.  The photography is spectacular (especially if you have HD). Burns does his usual masterful job of wading through mountains of interviews and documentary material and creating a coherent story. The story of the development of the national parks is mixes familiar heroes (John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt) with less familiar ones (the Buffalo soldiers who built the roads in Yosemite, the cowboys-turned-archeologists determined to understand the abandoned cliff dwellings of the Southwest, or the Iowa congressman who saved the Everglades).  And Burns finds, once again, the remarkable incandescent voice as the soul of the story — in this case, the amazing poetry of an African-American Yellowstone Park ranger.

Some of the vignettes illustrate just how much has changed in American life.  Visting Yosemite, Teddy Roosevelt ditched his security detail to go hiking with John Muir; he was gone for three days. These days, “hiking the Appalachian trail” has become a metaphor for dishonest behavior; TR did it for real.

Politically, it was also interesting how even in that era of much smaller government, public consensus developed that only the federal government could protect the nation’s most beautiful natural sites from irresponsible development.

The program is being shown this week  on PBS, with numerous reruns, and I’m sure it will be available on DVD shortly. There’s no excuse not to see it.