Sunday, March 26, 2017

John Huston | Under the Volcano

no way back
by Douglas Messerli

Guy Gallo (writer, based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry), John Huston (director) Under the Volcano / 1984

I last read Malcolm Lowry’s great novel, Under the Volcano, many years ago, I believe while I was still in college. And all I remembered about it—until yesterday, when I saw the 1984 John Huston film based on the novel—was the central figure’s boozy tour of Mexican cantinas. At  the time I did not drink heavily, and I guess I was a bit amused by a man, obviously witty and, at times, quite able, purposely putting himself into that hazy blur of a world that would eventually lead him into danger and death, where he is tossed down the side of a hill like a dog.

Huston, himself a heavy drinker, certainly knew how to depict a credible alcoholic, and in actor Albert Finney, as former British Consul Geoffrey Firman, stationed in Quauhnahuac (read Cuernavaca), the director found a near perfect actor. Finney has always been a brilliant performer, but here he convincingly portrays the man so outraged with the things going on about him—particularly the affair that apparently occurred between his half-brother, Hugh (Anthony Andrews) and the Consul’s former wife, Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset)—that he has escalated his drinking habit into one endless journey through the bars, restaurants, and parties where he can find a good (or even bad) drink. 
      I guess I recalled from my reading that on this particular day, the Mexican Day of the Dead, that Firman’s now-divorced wife had suddenly returned to him—or, at least, returned to Hugh, since we all know that Geoffrey is now beyond redemption. And I do recall that, although she had written Geoffrey of the fact, that he has lost the pack of unopened letters he has long carried around in his coat pocket.    

     Watching it now, so many years later, all of the work’s talk of how to negotiate an alcoholic’s day, the attempt to find that balance between getting rid of the shakes without falling into a complete stupor, affected me; finally, I knew what he was saying. At least I was drinking wine during my viewing of this film, and not the mix of whiskey, tequila, mezscal, and, at one point, even shaving lotion that Geoffrey used to drown his sorrows. And most of the sorrows in my world were more of a political than a personal nature. 
      Yet what I had truly forgotten or ignored in Lowry’s original novel, is just how much political events also had an effect on the characters, particularly Geoffrey and his brother, as they both perceive just how successful the Nazi’s have been in infiltrating the local Mexican police and governing agents. Hugh has even been writing articles about it. Hugh, moreover, has returned from the Spanish Civil War, having witnessed the deaths of many of his friends, and, finally has been faced by his own disenchantment with the abilities of the Republicans to win against Franco.

      If Huston’s colorful and quite beautiful rendering of Fermin’s final day, at times, is heavy-handed film—his son, Danny Houston’s quite charming credits, featuring the traditional dolls of Día de Muertos also help to overstate the rather obvious symbolism of Lowry’s original—seems at moments to be almost a kind of retelling of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (Houston’s filmmaking has always seemed to me to represent a kind of literary literalness) the  director gradually negotiates it, with the help of the wonderful cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa and the composer Alex North, into darker territory. This, after all, is no buddy movie and Yvonne is no Lady Brett Ashley—although, at one point, Hugh does attempt to take it down that road, as he grabs up a red tablecloth to enter the bull ring, convincingly playing the brave matador, Romero. 
      Eventually, Fermin’s desires—both for alcohol and sex—sends him directly into the rings of hell, as he ends up in a bar which even the other seedy bar-keepers cannot imagine him as entering. Here, payment to the prostitute is not enough, nor even the payment of a bribe to the terrifying procurer, the Dwarf (José René Ruiz). Fermin’s simple observation of a mule that he had seen earlier that day, a dead peasant upon its back, gets him into serious trouble with the local Nazi-paid “chiefs.
      Here, despite Yvonne’s and Hugh’s attempts, reclamation is meaningless; Fermin’s political outbursts, finally catch up with him, as he is brutally shot by the local officials and his body rolled down the mountain into a gorge below. 
      Some, I am sure, given Fermin’s complete lack of control, might find it difficult to sympathize with the former, self-mocking British man. But, given the political context of his assignation, along with the personal betrayal of his wife and brother, we can better explain his desperation for something to put him, even temporarily, out of his mind. 
      Finney plays Firmin as a kind of clown, but a very serious clown the way we might perceive the horrific puppets who fight off evil, early in this film, or even those terrifying puppets of The Day of the Dead of the credits. If nothing else, Firmin is a reminder—and always will be—of the truth, even, if like so many young Mexicans these days who suddenly are “disappeared” they remind us of the horror of corrupt elements of that culture. At last now, as we ourselves attempt to wall ourselves off, none of us can ever block out the fact that we (whoever “we” are) are just as guilty in our collaborations with evil.
     I now perceive that Lowry’s work is not for the young. It is an old man’s novel, with washed-up figures floating against an ancient backset, that need the wisdom or even ignorance of old age to make sense of. 

Los Angeles, March 26, 2017

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