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 UNDER THE VOLCANO, John Huston's 1980 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. Slouching against a historical backdrop of jostling Nazi and British diplomats, our Firmin (Albert Finney) drinks heroically to metaphorically match the decay of the global politic, shot by shot (and if that analogy runs out he'll find another excuse). My friends and I loved this film in the same way; it validated our drinking the way the incumbent world war validated Geoffrey's. 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 were all too aware of being the punch line, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Neither would Finney's Geoffrey, even after Jacquelyn Bisset as his 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 she does while he's contemplating the early dawn and an old woman with a chiggen (incluse me, "chicken"), he figures she's a contrasting DT hallucination, and so shrugs her off. Then he realizes maybe it is her, come back to him. But 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 (the invention of benzodiazepine being, sadly, still decades away) 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 belabored attention to visual metaphor as he cuts from El Dia de la Muerte skeletons to Finney's "skull eye socket" sunglasses and white tuxedo over and over. Despite the incessant cutting, the comparison never quite gels--Finney's too plump--and the fact that his bloated face never looks enough like a skull seems to drive Huston crazy, but that's the problem--we associate the big dark glasses white linen Panama suit look with drug cartel kingpins and Nazi secret agents smuggling uranium in Buenos Aires --that slot is 'filled' in our iconography. Huston keeps trying though, and now, on the superbly rendered new Criterion DVD, these allusions scream with subtlety. On the muddy VHS tape I had (old and heavy and faded), by contrast, the tracking was bad and the image was so blurred that Finney in his many close-ups seemed to be slowly 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), lots of flowers in the Mexican sun and a romantic Alex North score that clearly doesn't get it either (one longs to hear what a master of abstract antithesis like Ennio Morricone might have done instead). Alas, now we see--in the clear pretty light of dawn--that even a fellow great white writer facing drunken death like 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, a story will add up to anything that might qualify as "sweeping" or "romantic." We all know Lowry's book is 'great literature' adapted from one Great White Drunk by another. But does the greatness transfer to historical evocation and white elephant sweep when Even George Stevens or William Wyler would have realized expressionism was being loudly and clearly called for!

The video cover (pictured lower left) tries to spin the film's plot around to a love triangle, playing up Bisset's infidelity with Hugh (reflected in Finney's skull socket shades) as the trigger for some kind of cold blooded vengeance, rather than just the alleged wound for which booze is the cure (the vertical lines making it seem like he's some merciless killer watching them from outside their window at night in the rain). It's misleading but in a way might be the poster designed by Geoffrey himself, were he in denial and playing the blame game, turning the whole film into a kind of remorseful drunkard rationalizing. Considering Huston's own legendary propensity for indulgence... and Lowry's of course, it might make sense but it's certainly misleading from what the film is really about.

Still, I'm not complaining, because when things really get properly weird, they go all the way, as if Huston has been holding back the surrealism gates to make the entrance of a dwarf whoremaster--(Rene Ruiz) making lewd gestures towards these drunk British marks-all the more shocking, a kind of 'too late to turn back' signpost. I think he was a regular villain on WILD WILD WEST, which gives his raw vulgarity a traumatic association with hazy childhood (like if you saw Gilligan making lewd tongue gestures at Ginger in a bad dream). Seeing him arrive, and leap atop the bar, we know this dwarf pimp is the rat Don Birnim sees peeping out from the hole in the middle of his apartment wall but this is no hallucination, this is the real that makes his last 24 hours seem a final dream of placid river drifting before plunging over the falls.

The rest of the horror comes from Finney--his wild eyes, each floating in the liquid of his skull with no thought to the other one's direction of gaze; his skin flushing and growing pale as each new wild thought cascades down his spine; he is a formative titan, his groovy-strange monologue about halfway in: staring off into the abyss as Yvonne and Hugh try to reason with him, trying to urge him to get help, says it all.

"Geoffrey, what possesses you?" Yvonne asks.
"Sobriety, I'm afraid," he answers. "I must drink desperately to regain my balance." And so he does. And so used to I. 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 novel really 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, someone like 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 --or the way Dean Martin in RIO BRAVO or Ray Milland in LOST WEEKEND never quite made their characters' drinking problem unsexy. These were actors who were real life notorious drinkers so they certainly knew what their characters were suffering through yet they never really seemed to sink deep into the depths, understanding implicitly that even in social message movies we don't like to be turned off. Most actors are far too vain to get too ugly. No matter how low their character sinks, they know we still want them to be charismatic stars --we have to look at them on big screens after all, for a long time. We can't look away and keep walking, stepping over them in a hurried manner. These actors wiseky figure we can use our imagination to carry their character the rest of the way into the pit --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.

That's the thing --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 while playing a near-end drunk before. Finney gets the jerky St. Vitus movements and out-of-breath reality-break 'keep it togethergottakeepitogetherkeepitgetherrrr" wits' ended spastic hilarity of real alcoholism just right, maybe 'too' right.

In fact the only other actor of his caliber who would even come close, who would really open himself up like a can of prickly pears and dump 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 mastered the St. Vitus, 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...


  1. Anonymous31 July, 2009

    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.

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

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Dean Martin only pretended to be a drunk. His voice would never have otherwise survived so beautifully into old age.

  5. Must say I admire this film greatly,as a study of self destruction,the passing of one societal structure,late period Huston(who is up there with Welles in my estimation-that's why I savor The Other Side Of The Wind-Welles and Huston in the same project! no one else could have played Jake Hanniford) and the staggering performance of Mr. Finney.


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