Under the Volcano (John Huston, 1984)

I was completely exhausted after watching “Under the Volcano.”  Not nearly as exhausted, though, as I’m sure Albert Finney was after filming “Under the Volcano.”  After all, nearly the entire 112-minute running time is Albert Finney acting like a drunk asshole as ex-British consul Geoffrey Firmin in pre-WWII Mexico.  And what a job he does, acting like a drunk asshole nonstop.  Turns out, this might be the most convincing drunk performance I’ve seen in any film, and it’s because of the little things Finney does.  Sure there are moments where Finney just goes to town and completely dominates the proceedings Oscar-bait style (he did receive a well-deserved Oscar nomination), but I was more interested in those ticks and mannerisms, or trying to hold back a burp or vomit here and there, or the stupefied lethargy / apathy as his wife and half-brother are forced to undress and shower him, or his ramblings (complete with those wonderful drunk-esque vocal intonations that Finney just perfects) that regress from an odd sort of clarity into utter nonsense in the span of a few seconds.

Finney is excellent, but thankfully his performance is supported nicely by John Huston’s direction, and in particular the work of Huston’s cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.  The camera is often a little shaky but certainly not overly so – just enough to give you a tiny glimpse of Geoffrey’s off-kilter world. The camera often gets right in on Finney’s face, like when he rides a carnival ride, booze in hand, so that you might as well take a whiff of his awful breath.  The overall feel, actually, isn’t much different from, say, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:” not overly-stylized in terms of cinematography or editing, but still with that raw, gritty feeling that gets down in the deepest murk of man’s flaws.  The real support for Finney’s presence, though, comes as Huston chooses to draw out shot after shot, refusing to quick-cut here and there.  Shots are extended with a free-moving camera as Geoffrey, donning the hangover sunglasses, explores the grimy town around him, or stumbles drunkenly through a party, or has a run-in with degenerates at a bar/ bordello.  You become uncomfortable as the camera lingers on Geoffrey and his antics for just too long, but not because you must judge him as an outcast clown.  You’re uncomfortable because you’re in his world.  Huston does a fascinating thing by depicting this movie either from Geoffrey’s point of view or from an omnipotent view that’s, amazingly, mainly sympathetic towards Geoffrey.  That’s why the grungy bar in the finale seems so dark and chaotic and menacing, and that’s why Huston and his direction should just about get first billing next to Finney.

It was a wonderful performance by Finney that was funny, poignant, pathetic, tragic, and even triumphant…but it was also why I was exhausted.  I was exhausted because this was essentially all you saw: drunk Geoffrey being drunk Geoffrey.  His estranged but loving wife Yvonne and half-brother Hugh did pretty much nothing for me.  This is Finney’s showcase from beginning to end, and there are moments when you marvel at this portrayal of a blathering lush, and others where you just need to see something different.  In a better-organized film, this would’ve been one of those rare performances where you’d watch with baited breath as he reads the dictionary, but instead you get moments where Geoffrey, at his rambling drunkest, waxes philosophical about subjects both poetic and transcendent in considering whether or not to rebuild his relationship with Yvonne.  It was essentially stream-of-consciousness that had no business being spoken and interrupting a narrative.  I imagine it was some of many stream-of-consciousnesses merely thought by Geoffrey in Malcolm Lowry’s novel.  I made the terrible mistake of watching this movie before reading the novel (which I’ve vowed to fix very soon), regarded as one of the finest of the 20th century, and one that was even more widely regarded as unfilmable.  If I’m right about those moments of rambling poetry that ultimately degenerates into the realm of incomprehensibility, “Under the Volcano” tiptoes that line of unfilmability very precariously. 

The concept of a novel about a day in the life of a ruined drunk and a complete view of his mindset is brilliant and epic on a “Ulysses” level, but to try to condense that into a sub-2 hour film is asking a hell of a lot.  How, unless you drink as I do,” Geoffrey asks Yvonne after they miraculously reunite, “can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominos with a chicken?”  I have a feeling that if I had read the novel and thoroughly ensconced myself in the sad and conflicted head of Geoffrey Firmin, I would understand.  Here, though, instead of a perfectly-made cocktail I’m left with the last remnants of that bottle of tequila that keeps Geoffrey going: a taste of greatness, but ultimately a mere hint of what could have been.



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