Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Hell ish my Natural Habitat" - UNDER THE VOLCANO (Great Acid Movies #88)


 "Theresh nothing betterr.. to sober one uhpp... than beer!"

That's a line my friends and I would quote amongst ourselves when surrendering to the grim alcoholic gallows humor of John Huston's adaptation of the "towering" Malcolm Lowery novel (which I've never been able to get more than 5-8 pages into) about the last day in the life of a British consul named Geoffrey Firmin in the 30s Mexico. Watching as the Nazis and England vie for political influence, Goeffrey can only drink heroically to metaphorically match the decay of the global politic, shot by shot (and if that runs out he'll find another excuse). After a late night screening (and drinking 'heroically' along) of my old, blurry VHS version, we'd talk for days in Albert Finney's eloquent slur, digging that our mirth was rooted in violently escalating alcoholism, a black humor joke where we too were the punch line. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Neither would Finney, even after Jacquelyn Bisset as Geoffrey's gorgeous ex-wife Yvonne drifts suddenly back into his life. At first he thinks she's a mirage conjured from his wracked longing (like Susan Strasberg in THE TRIP)--appearing as he does while he's contemplating the early dawn and an old woman with a chiggen (incluse me, "chicken") in the all-night cafe's dawn---he figures she's there for contrast, and then shrugs her off. Then he realizes maybe it is her, come back to him, why didn't she write? No, she's just another hallucination, the last temptation of a booze-crucified saint. Now excuse him while he resumes his wide-eyed stare into the abyss. No, he didn't get your letters, Yvonne. He's been busy as you can see.

While Yvonne's been away, brother Hugh has been taking care of Geoffrey, giving him strychnine to taper off with (good grief!) and listening to his endless impersonations of pirates with detached indulgence, but he's also very creepy and laden with suspicious agendas ala Bruce Dern from THE TRIP (if Dern was after Strasberg instead of Fonda). There's no acid in the film (though surely that would be good to "shober up with" as well) but I assure you that being drunk for days on end will get you pretty much to the same psychedelic place (just sloppier) and this movie has the same ability to transcend the life/death dichotomy and point towards the terrifying ambiguity of the real.

Finney's slur is much more decipherable when heard under some sort of influence (I dimly remember), but there's little that can help with Huston's constant visual metaphor as he cuts from El Dia de la Muerte skeletons to Finney's "skull eye socket" sunglasses and white tuxedo. The comparison never quite gels--Finney's too plump--and it seems to drive Huston crazy, but that's the problem--we associate the big dark glasses white linen suit look with drug cartel kingpins and Nazi secret agents, that slot is 'filled' in our iconography. He keeps trying though, and on the superbly rendered new Criterion DVD these allusions scream with subtlety. On the muddy VHS tape I had (old and heavy and faded) the tracking was bad and the image was so blurred that Finney in his many close-ups seemed to be always dissolving into wormy, mismatched horizontal lines of Gerhard Richter-style abstraction, which mirrored the souvenir skulls mucho mejor- each a perfect symbol for our drunken viewer souls' unstoppable slow drip deterioration.

The Criterion DVD of course loses that blur, and reveals Huston's sense of period piece over-craftsmanship. Every scene is packed with prettiness now (no matter who's throwing up), an indication that even the great John Huston can make the mistake of assuming that just by filling a drunkalog with (suspiciously well-polished) old cars and conniving Nazi sympathizers in tuxedos, the story will add up to anything that might qualify as "sweeping" or "romantic." After all --it's 'great literature' adapted from one Great White Drunk by another. The video cover (pictured lower left) hints that Bisset's infidelity with Hugh (reflected in Finney's skull socket shades) is triggering some kind of cold blooded vengeance, rather than just the alleged wound for which booze is the cure. It's not even remotely true, but really the whole film is a kind of remorseful drunkard rationalizing, which makes sense considering Huston's own legendary propensity for indulgence... and Lowry's of course. Now that boy could take a drink or two!

Still, I'm not complaining, because when things really get properly weird, they go all the way, like the entrance of a dwarf whoremaster (Rene Ruiz). I think he was a regular villain on WILD WILD WEST, which gives his obscene gestures a traumatic association with hazy childhood (like if you saw Gilligan making lewd tongue gestures at Ginger in a bad dream). And Finney has a groovy-strange monologue about halfway in: staring off into the abyss as Bisset and Hugh try to reason with him, trying to urge him to get help.

"Geoffrey, what possesses you?" Bisset asks.
"Sobriety, I'm afraid," he answers. "I must drink desperately to regain my balance."

Hell yeah! I drank like that all the time! And my friends and I used that line constantly when toasting out ninth and tenth glasses of the hour.

I think in the same scene he also leans back and says, "Hell.... is my natural.... habitat!" A perfect battle cry for those of us for whom booze, drugs, and the inability or unwillingness to stop using them, had led to spiritual, mental, and cul-de-sacs. Perhaps the story cries out for a more poetic or abstract approach, something they might do today with CGI to create ever so slightly shifting hallucinations or, failing that, to cast an actor we perhaps love more than we do Finney, like say Richard Burton, who had to tell us he "was at the end of his rope" in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, but we never really believed it (vs. when he seems like he really is at the end of it, as in EXORCIST II), or the way Dean Martin in RIO BRAVO or Ray Milland in LOST WEEKEND --all actors who were real life notorious drinkers so they certainly knew the rough issues they depicted--never really seemed to sink deep into the depths they depicted. Most actors are far too vain for that. No matter how low their character gets, these other actors know we really want to see them still be charismatic stars. They figure we can use our imagination to carry their character the rest of the way --and they're right. We don't want to see them get all bloated and sweaty and wild-eyed -- we see enough of that just looking into the mirror.

With his weird wavy hair and puffy pink froggish face, Finney looks like a drunk--his face pale and pink, blushing and bloated on too many empty booze calories. No one had ever come this close to actually looking like a near-end drunk, getting all the jerky St. Vitus movements and out-of-breath reality-break 'keep it togethergottakeepitogetherkeepitgetherrrr" wits' ended spastic hilarity of real alcoholism. In fact the only other actor of his caliber who ever even came close, who really opened himself up like a can of prickly pears and dumped his guts all over the floor, wouldn't even get the part for another 17 or so years. Of course I mean Nic Cage in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. By then, though, even I had the shakes and now that I'm sober I can't watch either one without an AA Big Book around and a finger on the remote to flip past the grim, terrifying... I AM BLACKSTONE THE PIRATE DO YOU HE--BLACKSTONE!!! ranting. Pay no attention, madame...

3 comments:

  1. At what point does an alcoholism film turn into an acid movie? In THE LOST WEEKEND, I think it's the point when Ray Milland starts hallucinating cracks in the ceiling and bats.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Exactly, C.J., there's a crucible of madness where hardcore delusional alcoholism, psychedelics, spiritual enlightenment, and schizophrenia all meet.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I think I will leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    ReplyDelete

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