Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sinking like a Tar Pit Tapir: UNDER THE VOLCANO (1980)

 "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 in Mexico in the 1930s. After a late night screening on my blurry VHS dupe, 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, who regularly reaches out for the shimmering Jacquelyn Bisset as the  ex-wife who drifts in like she's a mirage conjured from his wracked longing (like Susan Strasberg in THE TRIP), before shrugging her off like just another hallucination, the last temptation of a booze-crucified saint, before resuming his wide-eyed stare into the abyss.

His brother Hugh has been taking care of Finney in his darkest hours, giving him strychnine to taper off with (good grief!) and listening to his endless impersonations of pirates, 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 (even if it kills you faster and you remember even less of your genius thoughts) 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, 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, and it seems to drive Huston crazy (it's because Finney's not thin enough, perhaps). But that's the problem: on the superbly rendered new Criterion DVD these allusions are glaringly obvious; they 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 - a perfect symbol for the characters' own 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 polished old cars and conniving Nazi sympathizers in tuxedos the story will add up to anything that might qualify as "sweeping" or "romantic." 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!

But there's some moments when things really get properly weird, 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). And Finney has a groovy strange monologue about halfway in: staring off into the abyss as Bisset and Hugh (with whom she had an affair -which led to the beginning of his bender - allegedly - great excuse, but it doesn't happen within the film, so the art at left is false advertising) 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.

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 physical dead ends. Perhaps the problem in the end is that 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, 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. 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.

But Finney doesn't go that route. With his weird wavy hair and puffy pink froggish face, he looks like a drunk-- blushing and bloated on too many empty booze calories. In fact the only other actor of his caliber 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. I had become less a Burton and more a Finney, and though I loved them both at the time, now that I'm sober I can't watch either one without an AA big book handy and a finger on the remote to flip past the grim, terrifying... I AM BLACKSTONE THE PIRATE DO YOU HE----BLACKSTONE!!!


  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.

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

  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.


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