Saturday, December 29, 2007

Great Old Drunk Writers and their Great Big Black Death


Oh I get it, with the sunglasses and the white shirt and the black tie, he looksh like a skeleton himshelf.

I'm finally getting around to watching the Criterion DVD of UNDER THE VOLCANO. I was waiting for a crisis moment like this post-Christmas pre-New Years ennui. John Huston is clearly doing an ALL THAT JAZZ thing here, only instead of being more or less autobiographical, he taps into the "universal" self he shares with all the great drunken white male writers of America, such as: Malcolm Lowry, Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams (with whom Huston made the similar "Night of the Iguana.") Every great writer has been led by the wicked bottle into a boxing ring too big and byzantine to ever emerge from triumphant... For what is to be alcoholic and stay home alone to write, or to act or to edit, but a dance with death? Mortality, that's the dance partner of choice for the real artist, the real drunk artist, that is.

On the other hand, there's the pre-chewed immortality of post-70s cinema.. the Spielberg years and beyond. Uh oh, you think, here he goes again, about to get all pouncy on Richard Dreyfuss in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. But no, man. Spielberg has clearly seen the light of his wrongdoing, as the genetic masculine encoded subtexts of WAR OF THE WORLDS and PRIVATE RYAN make semi-clear. I'm talking about Huston, and UNDER THE VOLCANO. And while we're on the subject, where the hell is Huston's FREUD (1961), starring Montgomery Clift?

Where indeed is Freud, not just on DVD but anywhere? Once upon a time our screens were awash in Freud. Is he really someone we should just "outgrow" like we outgrew the mullet, poodle skirts and Bob Denver? Seeing Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER I thrilled to Freud's continued relevance in our 21st centurty nation of hunger artist Britney birds. But then as if by contrast, I followed it with the Paul Newman/Liz Taylor version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and saw how the claws of that play were removed in a weird deal with some obscene church censor. I saw how the notions of Sigmund were made dogmatic and treacly through compromise. I saw Liz Taylor being allowed to ooze sex in a white nightgown in exchange for procreation, forgiveness and acceptance of "god's natural order." I sneered in contempt as I'd already seen the real version, which featured a daringly boozy defiance to the bitter, childless end... the one done by Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones for Showtime in 1985.

And it's a hard, it's a hard... Jeffrey the conshulate in UNDER THE VOLCANO takes a shower and shivers in the heat, and all the little mythic links are perhaps lost on the kids today. You got to maybe point out the sunglasses are to make him look like a Mexican Day of the Dead skeleton... and even then, you have to point out why. Even on the commentary track they seem oblivious to the meanings, they can only hint that meanings are there, as if remembered documents deep in an attic too distant and dusty to bother with. Thus even on the day of the dead Finney's just another Merchant Ivory white elephant, staggering invisibly around America's dysfunctional living room, swollen with Meaning.

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