Apr 25, 2016

Under the Volcano

While I certainly feel accursed in other ways, I feel quite blessed that I am more or less allergic to alcohol and thus have never succumbed to the distinctly malevolent metaphysical affliction of alcoholism, as I have a feeling that I would drink myself to death if I were a dipsomaniac since I am not the sort of person that does things halfway and would probably prefer to be perpetually drunk than to deal with hangovers and alcohol withdraw. On a more personal level, I have seen friends go from be cerebral and deeply thoughtful individuals to extroverted drunken retards and insufferable human excrement practically overnight as a result of becoming drunks, not to mention the various friends and family members I have know whose childhoods were ruined by disgusting boozer bastards, thus I have a low tolerance for liquid courage fetishism; be it from date-rape-inclined fratboys that rock out to the Dave Matthews Band or schizophrenic negro hobos that get aggressive if you decline to give them the change that they shamelessly beg for whilst polluting urban areas with their bottom-of-the-barrel social parasitism. In fact, I must confess that I absolutely loathe just about everything about alcohol and alcoholics, so naturally a film about a degenerate drunkard has to be pretty damn good for me to be able to even finish watching it, let alone consider it a notable cinematic work. Of course, Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987) starring Mickey Rourke as the far-too-handsome alter-ego of perpetually shit-faced Ameri-kraut wordsmith Charles Bukowski is a fun novelty and Marco Ferreri’s delectably debauched ‘dirty realism’ adaptation Storie di ordinaria follia (1981) aka Tales of Ordinary Madness is even better, but both of these films utilize lowlife dark humor as a means to make the rather dejecting material easier to swallow without vomiting in disgust. In a somewhat difference fashion, Bavarian auteur Herbert Achternbusch's darkly yet mirthfully melancholic absurdist comedies like Bierkampf (1977) aka Beer Chase and Das letzte Loch (1981) aka The Last Hole manage to somewhat distance the viewer from the true severity ugliness of kraut carousers, who sometimes seem demonically possessed by drink, by incorporating humor. Undoubtedly, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early masterpiece Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (1971) aka The Merchant of Four Seasons—a film loosely based on the German auteur's tragic loser uncle—features one of the best and most harrowing depictions of a drunk ever committed to celluloid to the point where it makes the dipsomaniac as portrayed by Robert Stack in the director’s mentor Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) seem like a bad Jim Carey sketch by comparison. Aside from Fassbinder’s flick, I would have to say one of the greatest and most entrancingly devastating depicts of rampant drunkenness is Hollywood maverick John Huston’s antepenultimate feature Under the Volcano (1984) starring English actor Albert Finney in arguably the greatest performance of his career as an eloquently erratic drunkard who has not put down the bottle once ever since his much younger and more handsome half-American bastard of a half-brother had a lurid love affair with his gorgeous actress wife. Based on the semi-autobiographical 1947 novel of the same name written by tragic alcohol-addled Englishman(child) Malcolm Lowry, the film has the perfect setting for a cinematic work with a protagonist that has given up on life and is about to die as it takes place in a small Mexican town during the Day of the Dead in 1938 on the eve of the Second World War. 

 As the lives of savage satirist and fabulist Ambrose Bierce, who completely disappeared while he was in his early 70s after traveling south of the border in 1913 to get first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution and joining Pancho Villa's army, and junky queer William S. Burroughs, who ‘accidentally’ killed his second wife during a less than fortuitous game of ‘William Tell’ while living in Mexico City, clearly demonstrate, Mexico is a place that self-destructive, suicidal, and/or otherwise dysfunctional gringos travel to when they have given up on life and want to gamble with their mortality.  Notably Huston’s third and final film in a sort of unofficial Mexican trilogy following The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart and the director’s father Walter Huston and the tastefully trashy black-and-white Tennessee Williams adaptation The Night of the Iguana (1964), Under the Volcano is a tale of exotic and oftentimes eccentric self-obliteration where a cultivated yet spiritually vacant and deracinated Englishman that is quite fond of noble savages learns the hard way that good manners, elegance, and refinement only go so far when you’re dealing with a group of people who are not beneath shooting and killing their best amigo during an argument over the prowess of a young matador.  Not unlike French libertine poet Arthur Rimbaud, the emotionally perturbed protagonist is a perennial drunken wanderer that is just as every bit rude and crude as he is refined and charismatic, as a sort of fallen spiritual aristocrat and upperclass wino that has decided that self-imposed exile in a strange foreign land that resembles both heaven and hell is the only appropriate existence for a foredoomed fellow like himself with nothing to lose to live. Quite fittingly shot by veteran Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who began his career shooting Sergei M. Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932)—a film that is also set partly during the Day of the Dead and features a somewhat paganistic portrayal of Mexicans—Under the Volcano is, not unlike various films by Huston's fellow rough old hard-ass Hollywood maverick Sam Peckinpah, especially Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), a beauteously bleak and nihilistic love letter to a culturally conflicted yet deeply spiritual third world hellhole that the gringo may have officially created and still somewhat controls but ultimately still very much contains the spirit of human-sacrificing Aztecs that once ruled the land.  Featuring a spiritually castrated loser who has lost both his soul and purpose in life and thus has replaced them with the devil's mouthwash, Huston's film is an almost sometimes infuriating tragedy that reveals in a somewhat subtle way how it is usually the most broken and hopeless of individuals that fall into the (anti)solacing metaphysical purgatory of alcoholism.  In its depiction of a superficially dignified dipsomaniacal degenerate that is driven to drink due to both his incapacity to grieve and stop loving the woman that betrayed him, I think Under the Volcano also says a lot about Huston and might arguably be his most auteurist oriented cinematic work.

 As someone that has never really cared for that virtual human booger Bogart and thus have little affection for the filmmaker's early classic films The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The African Queen (1951), I can state without even the slightest degree of hesitation that I believe Huston directed his greatest, most original, and subversive films during his golden years, which is somewhat ironic considering he assembled some of his most astonishingly horrendous cinematic works during the same exact period. Indeed, his commissioned works like wholly worthless horror-thriller Phobia (1980) and the WWII POW soccer flick Victory (1981) seem like they could have been directed by the worst of Roger Corman-trained for-hire hacks. According to Orson Welles, who starred in a couple of the Huston’s films (and vice versa), the filmmaker did not even bother to actually direct a number of his films and instead he would coerce someone else to do it for him, or as the Citizen Kane director stated to Henry Jaglom during a conversation featured in the book My Lunches With Orson (2013), “What you don’t understand is that he [Huston] doesn’t [direct his films]. He just knows how to make a picture without directing it. He just sits and lets the choreographer or somebody else do it. He stays up and plays poker all night, and when he’s shooting, that’s when he’s resting.”

Of course, despite his early training as both a fine painter in Paris and writer (notably, German-American iconoclast H. L. Mencken bought two of his early stories for his popular magazine American Mercury), Huston never considered himself an auteur and virtually all of his greatest films are adaptations of popular novels, including his last three films: Wise Blood (1979), Under the Volcano, and The Dead (1987). Personally, my favorite Huston film is his almost sadistically sardonic Flannery O'Connor adaptation Wise Blood, which feels like it was directed by a young rebellious anti-Hollywood auteur and not an old golden age studio filmmaker that was in his 70s. Aside from being unquestionably my second favorite Huston flick, Under the Volcano is the film that I regard as the director’s most overtly personal and auteur orientated cinematic work, even if lead actor Albert Finney’s true tour-de-force performance is indubitably the most potent and memorable aspect of the entire film (notably, Huston would state of the actor’s performance, “I think it's the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed”). In fact, Finney’s performance is so great as a jovially nihilistic alcoholic (ex)consul that many people seem to believe that the actor was actually thoroughly shit-faced during the filming, which he most certainly was not. 

 Beginning with an unforgettable chiaroscuro opening sequence that was actually directed by the director’s then-21-year-old-son Danny Huston (who went on to be a Hollywood actor and sometimes director and who gave his own Finney-esque tour-de-force performance in Bernard Rose’s underrated Tolstoy update Ivansxtc (2000)) featuring dancing Day of the Dead skeleton marionettes, the film then cuts to a shot of a volcano juxtaposed with an title reading, “Cuernavaca, Mexico – November 1, 1938 – The Day of the Dead.”  Despite the fact that he has quit his job as the British consul of the area, protagonist Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) has decided to stay in Mexico as he rather enjoys the scenic region and its equally exotic people, even though most of the locals seem to find him to be quite inexplicable and see him as either a deranged old gringo or a drunken old fool with too much money (to his credit, the protagonist sometimes appeases the many beggars that seem to be always bothering him).  While he can barely communicate with many of these individuals in linguistic terms, Geoffrey has some bizarre wordless relationships with rather eccentric folks, including an elderly Indian peasant woman that plays dominoes with an alcoholic chicken (in fact, said elderly Indian peasant woman attempts to save the protagonist's life towards the end of the film, but he fails to take heed of her rather clear warning).

The film begins the night before the Day of the Dead and Geoffrey spends most of the evening strolling around in the dark in black sunglasses while a stray dog that he lovingly feeds follows him around town. The only local that Geoffrey has any sort of truly meaningful friendship with that involves actual deep conversations is a charming old Mestizo chap named Dr. Vigil (Ignacio López Tarso), who may be a man of science but he seems to be just as supremely superstitious as every other Mexican in the area.  Indeed, when the protagonist states, “Only in Mexico is death an occasion for laughter,” Dr. Vigil unwittingly illustrates the innate difference in terms of mindsets between Mexicans and ungodly Anglo-Saxons by replying, “On the Day of the Dead, when their spirits come back to us…the road from heaven must be made – made easy…and not slippery with tears.” Of course, being a perpetually drunk nihilist of sorts who is fed up with everything about his life except alcohol, Geoffrey is not exactly your typical Anglo as reflected in remarks like, “How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?” Likewise, when a friend of Dr. Vigil describes the plot of Karl Freund’s classic Maurice Renard adaptation Mad Love (1935) aka The Hands of Orlac and how a character in the film named Stephen Orlac becomes extremely upset and sorry that the new hands he received in a transplant are responsible for killing people against his will, Geoffrey remarks with a certain poetic confidence, “There are things for which one cannot apologize,” which ultimately prove to be weighty words if considered in the context of the romantic betrayal that his (ex)wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) and half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) committed against him.  Naturally, as the losing party of a bizarre love triangle involving two much younger and more attractive individuals, Geoffrey is consumed with a sort of undying sense of despair that seems to be reminding him that death is not too far away.

 On the night before the Day of the Dead when locals are getting good and wasted while hanging up flashy traditional holiday decorations, Geoffrey follows Dr. Vigil to a church and, despite being an innately irreligious chap, prays to Mary the Blessed Virgin that his estranged wife will come back to him, stating during a rare moment where he totally submits to vulnerability, “I’m dying without you. Come back to me, Yvonne,” which ultimately prove to be somewhat ironic words considering how the protagonist ends up at the conclusion of the film. In what Dr. Vigil later sincerely describes as a “miracle,” Yvonne does indeed return the next day, but it is hardly a happy reunion, as Geoffrey is trapped in a tequila-fueled inward pandemonium and lacks the capacity to embrace her the same way he did when they were once happily married together because he cannot get over the fact that she betrayed him and had a lurid love affair with his little half-brother Hugh, who also seems to be still in love with her as his behavior will demonstrate. Indeed, despite divorcing him in a rather cold and unexpected way without even giving him any forewarning, Yvonne still believes that she is in love with Geoffrey and has yet to even take her wedding ring off, hence why she has traveled all the way to the fiery bowels of Mexico to see and reconcile with him.

When Yvonne unexpectedly arrives at a bar where the protagonist is telling a dubious story about how he was the commander of a ship named S.S. Samaritan during World War I and how he received a prestigious medal for capturing an enemy ship, even though he was also court-martialed for ostensibly incinerating seven German officers in a furnace, Geoffrey literally cannot believe his eyes upon seeing her and he only realizes it is really her and not a hallucination after continuing to tell his story and taking a second hard look in what is indubitably a brilliant Hustonian moment that demonstrates that the director has a good grasp of the pathetic perpetual delirium that is the dipsomaniacal mind. While one would expect that a man that prayed to the Mother Mary to bring his estranged wife back would immediately engage in a long, passionate, and otherworldly orgasmic love session with their estranged beloved within minutes, if not seconds, of being reunited with her, Geoffrey is largely evasive and does not do much more than awkwardly kiss her, even though Yvonne gets somewhat aggressive and forces him to get in bed with her. While Geoffrey joins Yvonne in bed, he cannot seem to restore the love and affection he once had for her and soon finds an excuse to exit the room so that he can get even drunker. Needless to say, as the films progresses, Geoffrey only gets all the more intoxicated and, in turn, irrational and belligerent, among other things. Rather unfortunately, like most addicts, Geoffrey has unwittingly accursed his love ones and will ultimately bring them down with him in what is ultimately one of the most tragically anti-romantic endings in cinema history. 

 It is not clear what the exact circumstances were in regard to the adulterous affair between Yvonne and Hugh, but what is clear is that it left Geoffrey an irreparably broken man who, despite his desire to move on with his life, unfortunately lacks the capacity to forgive both of them. Of course, naturally the viewer strongly suspects that the affair was partly the result of Geoffrey’s belligerent drinking. After all, it is much easier to both sexually and emotionally satisfy a woman when you’re not drunk off your ass all the time, on top of the fact that the protagonist would have been more aware of the relationship between his wife and brother had he not been perpetually inebriated (indeed, while MTV and shitty Hollywood comedies love linking sex and alcohol together like peas and carrots, alcoholism oftentimes causes sexual impotence in men). Undoubtedly, as a younger and handsomer chap with a talent for music, poetry, and showing off like a fearless jackass, Hugh has certain attractive qualities that his somewhat more docile brother lacks, not to mention the fact that he is much closer in age to Yvonne. In fact, defeatist cynic Geoffrey is more or less the total opposite of Hugh, who has a thirst for life instead of drink and spends much of his time traveling around the world as a communist journalist who fought on the side of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (at one point, he lovingly describes a British comrade that perished in the war as, “a communist…approximately the best man I ever met”). While ex-consul Geoffrey is certainly no patriot, let alone a fascist, he is far too wise and cynical to have faith in the big Marxist scam. Naturally, Geoffrey’s lack of political idealism does not stop him from mocking a German Attaché named Herr Krausberg (Günter Meisner of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Agustí Villaronga’s Tras el cristal (1986) aka In a Glass Cage) by alluding to Nazi murders and screaming in a ballroom full of tons of people, “Corpses must be transported by express. Each of these express corpses…must be accompanied by a first-class passenger. Now, let’s supposed, uh, the treaty fails and it’s bloody Armageddon. Just thinks of it. Railways stand to make a fortune [...] The whole world will learn to laugh at the sight of stinking cadavers. Oh, ha! Ha! Ha! Bloody, ha! Ha! Ha!” As a favor to his brother, Geoffrey also has the gall to ask Herr Krausberg if his Hitlerite homeboys are responsible for funding a Mexican fascist group called the Sinarquistas (National Synarchist Union). Rather unfortunately, Geoffrey will eventually bump into members of the Sinarquistas at a remote rural bar-cum-brothel on an insanely ill-fated night when he is especially erratic and emotional in his self-annihilating inebriation, henceforth leading to catastrophic consequences for both him and his beloved. 

 As can be expected from a seemingly forsaken boozer that is still grieving over the fact that his more youthful and positive half-brother defiled his wife, Geoffrey only gets all the more unpredictably unhinged in his drunkenness when brother Hugh randomly shows up at his home no long after Yvonne arrives. In one rather bizarre scene that is just about as uncomfortable as it is comical, especially considering the circumstances, both Yvonne and Hugh strip Geoffrey naked and try to get him to snap out of his drunkenness by forcing him into a shower and shaving him, but they of course have next to nil luck in their active attempt to get the protagonist to figuratively crawl out of his whisky bottle. Still, Geoffrey seems initially excited about roaming around town during the Day of the Dead with his half-bro and high-class whore of a wife, even though he does somewhat cruel things to embarrass them like sarcastically yelling, “Hugh. Where are you? Where can the young pup be? Hugh! An emissary calls. The Consul of Cuckold’s Haven. Come and give thou wife a ‘welcome back’ kiss.” Needless to say, Hugh and Yvonne try their best to ignore these obscene drunken outbursts, even if they are no match for the cuckolded (ex)consul’s scathingly sardonic wit. Every so often, Geoffrey reveals the sensitive loving man that is hidden behind his mask of deranged dipsomania by randomly stating things like, “No si puede vivir sin amar.” When Yvonne asks her (ex)husband to translate what he said, Geoffrey replies in a similarly tender yet nonchalant fashion, “One cannot live without love,” but nothing else is said about the matter, as if the characters are shocked by the perturbed protagonist’s fleeting moment of pure humanity. Of course, the viewer certainly suspects that Geoffrey means what he says and is not just being a pretentious would-be-poetic conman like his pompous brother, as his current sad state of internal purgatory is a direct result of the fact that his romantic relationship with a woman he still deeply loves has been irreparably despoiled, hence the tragedy of both the character and the story as a whole. 

 While Hugh is being carried around and practically worshiped by a large crowd of Mexicans after he randomly jumps into a bullfighting pit and proves that, despite being a fairly effete gringo, he has immaculate matador skills, Yvonne seizes the opportunity to attempt to talk Geoffrey into starting over again with her, stating in an extremely impassioned fashion, “Listen, Geoffrey. There’s nothing holding us here any longer. We can start again.” While Geoffrey initially seems excited about the idea and discusses moving to a rural area in the north where they can socialize with Eskimos and “escape into the wilderness like good old William Blackstone,” things eventually get ugly and the protagonist states with a certain stereotypically upper-class British refined seething hatred while his brother is also in their company, “when Brother Hugh comes on a visit…fresh from his heroics in, uh, Spain or wherever…I’ll show proper Eskimo hospitality and give him my wife…to bed down with during the cold northern night.” At this point, Yvonne breaks down and states while shaking and on the verge of sobbing terribly, “Geoffrey. Geoffrey, I’ve come…cr–crawling back. What m-more can I do? Let me be your wife,” but of course the compulsively cynical protagonist is unimpressed with his lady’s fresh tears. When Hugh gets the nerve to ask him, “Geoff, what possesses you?,” the protagonist stoically replies, “Sobriety, I’m afraid. Too much moderation. I need drink desperately. Get my balance back.” Undoubtedly, this rather revealing scene gets most disturbing when Geoffrey proceeds to ignore both Hugh and Yvonne and has a very irritable conversation with himself while they are both still in his company and attempting to get his attention, thus revealing his hopeless case of internal torment.  Indeed, while Yvonne and Hugh watch on with great horror, Geoffrey states to himself, “When has she ever been a wife to me? Where are the children I might have had…that drowned to the rattling – of a thousand douche bags? Hugh, on the threshold of paradise…puffing over her gills like a codfish, veins like a racehorse…prime as a goat, hot as a monkey, salt as a wolf in pride. Let them wallow here in their bliss with my blessing. Hell’s…my preference. I choose hell [chuckles] Hell is my natural habitat.” After deciding that he will submit to eternal metaphysical misery, Geoffrey leaves his bastard brother and treacherous spouse and heads to a nearby jungle to make his way to an inordinately seedy bar near a volcano where he will fully embrace a sort of backwoods third world hell and ultimately succeed in a manner that he probably never felt was possible before. 

 At the beginning of the film, Geoffrey states to his friend Dr. Vigil, “No Mescal. I’d go thirsty before drinking Mescal,” yet by the end of the film he cannot get enough of the “tequila of the poor.” In fact, the protagonist’s progressive deterioration is symbolically reflected by the fact that he goes from drinking whisky to tequila to mescal. Of course, as can expected from an erratic drunkard that is used to drinking more refined alcoholic beverages, the less than merry mestizo favorite of mescal gets Geoffrey into serious trouble that no amount of British charm can get him out of, especially when talking to murderous Mexican thugs that are far from literate in their own indigenous language. Indeed, when the protagonist arrives at a supremely sleazy rural bar named ‘El Farolito’ where an intense cockfight is going on right outside not far from the entrance door, he is almost immediately bombarded by a supremely slimy scheming dwarf pimp (José René Ruiz aka Rene Ruiz ‘Tun-Tun’), who immediately advertises his rather unhealthy and seemingly highly diseased human meat menu, which includes a morbidly obsess mestizo beastess, grotesque overweight tranny that makes John Waters' muse Divine seem like Debbie Harry by comparison in terms of sex appeal and overall daintiness, and even a little beaner boy. While Geoffrey initially turns down the humorously sinister dwarf’s offer to be a satisfied carnal customer, his mind somewhat changes when he guzzles down a couple shots of mescal and proceeds to read letters from Yvonne that were wrongly delivered to the backwards bar. Indeed, while lurking in the darkness by himself like a mad scientist on the brink of a insidious discovery and readings Yvonne’s carefully chosen words, “Geoffrey, why don’t you answer me? If you no longer love me and do not want me to come back to you…will you not write and tell me so? It is your silence that frightens me. What has happened to our hearts? Don’t we owe it to ourselves…to that self we created apart from us…to try again. I am sorry. I am so sorry,” the protagonist eventually becomes bitterly enraged and shouts out loud while in a state of almost demonically possessed contempt, “Not enough. Not enough. It’s not possible. Not… in this world.” At this point, Geoffrey is vulnerable enough to embrace the dwarf’s best looking whore (who is certainly no prize, but she does have nice tits) to a backroom where they have what seems to be fairly lackluster and equally dejecting sex. 

After exiting the mescal-marinated Latina's (anti)love chamber, Geoffrey looks like a defeated man and refuses to pay the mischievous dwarf more money when he dubiously asks him for extra payment, even though the protagonist has already paid both the girl and the midget for what is probably the worst and most distinctly dissatisfying sex of his entire pathetic life. After Geoffrey refuses to pay the extra money, the dwarf seems satisfied enough and then more or less reveals to the protagonist that he has just probably contracted an STD by stating, “Okay, my England Man. No worry for you. Maria, she very clean. If you need doctor, I send all my amigos to this man. Good man doctor. Here. Come on.”  Indeed, the midget shocks the protagonist by handing him a business card for a local doctor that specializes in STDs.  Unbeknownst to Geoffrey, while he was busy getting laid by a sub-lumpenprole Latina whose vag is probably less sanitary than a gay bathhouse in San Francisco during the early 1980s, Yvonne was standing outside the door crying after the dick-headed dwarf revealed to her in a rather grotesque way that her hubby was being sexually serviced by a supremely skanky spick chick. When Geoffrey dares to insult the degenerate dwarf after he incessantly berates an American bar patron that claims Mozart was responsible for writing the bible, he soon finds himself being by bullied by the little man’s Sinarquista comrades. Aside from one of them accusing him of attempting to steal his horses (even though said horse was actually stolen from an Indian that the Sinarquistas killed earlier that day), the clearly racially mongrelized mestizo fascists falsely accuse him of being a spy, Al Capone, Leon Trotsky, and Russian Jew, among other things. Indeed, in broken English, one of the men hilariously asks Geoffrey, “You Bolshevik prick? Anticristo Jew?” Of course, there is only so much one man can take and Geoffrey eventually goes ballistic and begins waving a machete at his murderously malicious Mexican tormentors, thereupon committing the unpardonable act of threatening their much valued machismo prowess in the process. Needless to say, one of the Sinarquista banditos eventually shoots Geoffrey and the others subsequently join. Rather unfortunately, Yvonne becomes fearful when she hears the gunshots while walking through the woods and begins running back to the bar in the rain, only to be instantly killed when she is trampled by her hubby’s killer’s horse. Naturally, when Hugh soon finds Yvonne’s lifeless body, he completely breaks down, thus hinting that he did indeed love his brother's wife. Meanwhile, Geoffrey humorously states while covered in mud and succumbing to his wounds as rain drops from the sky, “What a…dingy way to die,” thereupon demonstrating that, even in his last dying moments, the protagonist never shed his razor sharp wit. 

 Arguably the first and last great cinematic semi-masterpiece in the spirit of the so-called ‘Lost Generation,’ Under the Volcano certainly provides ample reason as to why director John Huston was once called, “cinema's Ernest Hemingway” by British film magazine editor Ian Freer.  Described by screenwriter Guy Gallo (who, for whatever reason, never worked on another film) as a “Tragedy of Failed Intention,” the film somewhat cleverly interweaves the failure of a man to reconcile with his estranged wife and little brother with the failure of the West to avoid another World War and, in turn, the death of the British Empire and the overall destruction of the Occident as a whole. In that sense, one could argue that whereas Geoffrey is symbolic self-destructive nihilist Lost Generation types like Harry Crosby and Hart Crane who had completely given up on any semblance of a normal life or a bright future and thus had completely embraced their personal inner demons and and succumbed to hedonistic self-obliteration, Hugh is symbolic of the ridiculously naïve and idiotically idealistic leftists like Hemingway, Isadora Duncan, and even Huston himself who somehow absurdly believed that the revamping of the Occident with a communist or far-left systems would result in a sort of immaculate atheist utopia that would save civilization from complete capitulation. Of course, in its depiction of the protagonist being senselessly murdered by Nazi-backed Sinarquista thugs (it should be noted that in real-life, the National Synarchist Union, which still exists today, is a Roman Catholic extreme right group that had little interaction with the Nazis and preached hatred against Anglo-Saxons), Huston’s film, like most mainstream and Hollywood sources, uses the Third Reich as a convenient scapegoat for the death of the West, as if the British, the Soviet Union (and communist movements in general), Pan-Slavism, Zionism, and the culturally and economically cuckolding American occupiers did not play crucial roles in destroying every single European empire and turning Europa into the stinking and rotting multi(cult)tural dystopian anti-imperium that it is today, but I digress. 

 In her less than favorable and even less insightful review of the film, emotionally erratic Jewess Pauline Kael complained regarding Under the Volcano and its male lead, “For the movie to mean anything resembling the novel, we would have to see something of what Firmin—with his psyched-up consciousness—perceives. But all that it does is take a literal approach to the novel, as if it were no more than an account of the final binge of a drunk who becomes suicidally careless and gets himself killed […] Finney can’t help making us aware that he’s giving the role more than his best shot—that he’s pushing too hard (frequently in closeup), and overusing his facial muscles […] the movie has a deep-toned flossy and ‘artistic’ clarity and a peculiarly literary tone—the dialogue doesn’t sound like living people talking.” Aside from Kael's complete failure to sees its references to the Lost Generations and its allusions to the apocalyptic disaster that was the Second World War, she gives the strong impression that she only watched about 15 minutes or so of the film and then had one of her groveling acolytes tell her about what happens during the rest of the movie so that she could write a review and meet a deadline for her column in The New Yorker. Personally, I think filmmaker Rian Johnson, who is certainly no master auteur himself (to his grand discredit, he is the writer and director of the upcoming big budget toy commercial Star Wars: Episode VIII (2017)), demonstrated that he had a much better understanding of the film and Finney’s performance than Kael when he stated in Robert K. Elder’s The Best Film You've Never Seen (2013), “…[UNDER THE VOLCANO] really does draw you into this feeling; it almost feels like you’re sinking into a swamp through the course of watching the film. You really feel yourself sinking deeper and deeper along with Finney into a mire of jealousy and a web of that place where love and loathing intersect.”  Indeed, it is no surprise that the film was far from a commercial success and is only remembered today by a certain breed of cinephile, as it radiates a certain haunting malignant unease as a less than pleasurable cinematic work where the patently perturbed protagonist tries in vain to mask his spiritual sickness and pangs of Sehnsucht and Weltschmerz with his incessant indulgence of hooch.  In other words, Under the Volcano is the closest that Huston ever got to directing something worthy of Ingmar Bergman.

Undoubtedly, while watching Huston's film, I could not help but recall an excerpt from C.G. Jung's imperative text Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933) where he wrote, “I have a Red Indian friend who is the governor of a pueblo. When we were once speaking confidentially about the white man, he said to me: ‘We don't understand the whites; they are always wanting something—always restless—always looking for something. What is it? We don't know. We can't understand them. They have such sharp noses, such thing, cruel lips, such lines in their faces. We think they are all crazy.’” Indeed, Jung's words describe how I assume that the Mexicans felt about the protagonist in Huston's film, as the character more or less exemplifies the restless white man stereotype to an almost transcendental degree, but of course it somewhat makes perfect sense when one considers that he suffers from arguably Faustian man's greatest and most debilitating vice: alcoholism. Notably, Jung believed that chronic dipsomania was largely a spiritual affliction that could only be adequately cured if the addict had a life-changing “vital spiritual experience” that involved the alcoholic replacing the addiction with a strong religious conviction, hence the tendency for ex-addicts to become born-again Christians.  Certainly, if there is anything more disturbing than the film's protagonist's alcoholism, it is his all-consuming sense of defeatism and cynicism, hence why he was doomed to die drunk in the mud like a pig.  Of course, the worst aspect of this tragic conclusion is that, like many drunks, the protagonist never becomes aware of the fact that he unwittingly dooms the person he loves most to a similarly lowly fate.  Surely, I cannot think of another film that is as subtle yet blunt in terms of depicting the decidedly deleterious effects of alcoholism as Under the Volcano, which is thankfully never plagued by any phony preaching or proselytizing.  On the other hand, although the film is quite empathetic toward its accursed alcoholic protagonist, I would probably refraining from recommending it to anyone that attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

 Ultimately, the general emotional essence of Under the Volcano reminds me of the lyrics from the song “Heartworms” by the British experimental industrial/electronic group Coil: “There's too much blood in my alcohol (Can't you get enough to numb me?) […] There's too much blood in my heart…In my heart (It's preventing coagulation)…I'm faithful that this stagnation's feeding my heartworms…Feeding the heartworms…The demons generally enter in through my ears…It all feels off of me…Ghosts vomit over me, over the old me…This knife's gonna make some young woman a fine husband.” In fact, Coil singer John Balance—a clearly troubled individual with a dubious fetish for scatology and Crowley—died at the premature age of 42 in late 2004 in a manner that even rivals the film’s protagonist's senseless demise in terms of being shockingly pathetic, as he perished in a freak accident after getting drunk and falling from a two story balcony at his Weston-super-Mare home that he shared with his longtime lover/band mate Christopherson Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (who himself died in his sleep under dubious circumstances in Bangkok in late 2010 at the age of 55). Undoubtedly, I see ‘Jhonn’ and ‘Sleazy’ as sort of contemporary kindred spirits to the character Geoffrey Firmin (and its creator Malcolm Lowry) as clearly gifted and cultivated artistic individuals of the perennially-seeking-but-never-finding wanderlust oriented sort that wholly embraced their inner demons and would never dare to defer hedonistic personal gratification, even if it would ultimately come at the hefty price of their lives. Of course, as seemingly coprophiliac Crowleyites and self-described “Born Again Pagans” that created truly grotesque and seemingly pederastic music videos with underage brown boys in Bangkok and were friends with such supreme degenerates like lifelong trust-fund junky William S. Burroughs and megalomaniacal meta-tranny Genesis P-orridge, the Coil members make the film’s protagonist seem like Sir Oswald Mosley by comparison in terms of sheer lack of restraint and are surely symbolic of the malignant social decay that is eating at the soul of what is left of Britannia. Incidentally, Coil has a song entitled “How To Destroy Angels,” which I think is an apt what to describe Geoffrey’s ultimate influence of his beauteous wife. Indeed, while one could argue that Under the Volcano somewhat feels like a sort of left-wing quasi-Spenglerian allegory for the seemingly self-destructively intoxicated old wino that is Western European man, the film is also a potent and nicely nuanced reminder about how Oscar Wilde’s famous line “Yet each man kills the thing he loves” is especially true when it comes to devout disciples of bacchanalian buffoonery. 

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

Albert Finney is a load of old rubbish simply because he is British although i`ve always greatly respected his rampaging heterosexuality obviously. BTW, i didn`t like it when you compared the truly legendary Humphrey Bogart to a piece of snot, he was rampantly heterosexual and all-American, two qualitys that represent total perfection.

teddy crescendo said...

I want to bum-off Jacqueline Bisset (as the bird was in 1962 when the bird was 18, not as the dirty old slag is now obviously), such a shame the bird is British garbage though.