Saturday, September 19, 2009

Huston's Under the Volcano - Incompatibility on a Grand Scale

John Huston [1906-1987] belongs among the top 10 American movie directors of all time. Aside from his cinematic instincts--which often seemed infallible--he had a deep interest in literary narrative, and sought to adapt a number of what he regarded as classic texts to the screen, especially towards the end of his career, when he had the authority and cred to pull them off.  

One of his late successes was the adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's masterpiece, Under the Volcano [1947]. Set in Mexico, it's a profoundly autobiographical account of a severe alcoholic Englishman. Lowry makes him a minor British diplomat, but that's simply a convenience: His real interest is the graphic contrast he gets by placing Geoffrey Firmin (played by Albert Finney) in a "primitive" culture in which suffering and death are celebrated and embraced, rather than avoided and ignored. In a verbal narrative, Firmin's mental torments can be described from the inside out, in the usual way. In cinema, these psychological aspects have either to be fantasized or obliquely dramatized. Firmin's alcoholic delusions and acting-out serve as an ironic vehicle for Lowry's metaphysical ruminations, which then sets up melodramatic and comic asides. 

The central issue is whether Firmin's wife Yvonne (played by Jacqueline Bisset), with whom he has a steadily deteriorating relationship, can seduce him back to a rational, and sober, life. Complicating this is the presence of Firmin's half-brother, Hugh (played by Anthony Andrews), who has had a brief affair with Yvonne at some point in the past. Hugh is recently returned from serving as a journalist (and Royalist supporter) covering the Spanish Civil War.   

Firmin's alcoholic dependence is typically driven by self-pity and depression, his increasing awareness of his mortality, and his existence consists of a series of quixotic confrontations, eventually leading to his death--and Yvonne's--by a handful of hoodlums in a semi-rural whorehouse-tavern. The symbolic framework of the film--the "volcano" smoldering in the background, the death masks and rattles during the Mexican Day of the Dead, the white horse which rears, killing Yvonne--function on another metaphorical level, somewhat obscured, of necessity, in the movie. Firmin's struggles with the demon drink are ultimately tragic, but the means by which that unfolds is a belittling and pointless descent into primitivistic forces, at odds with his dignified and intellectual bearing. His fatalistic determination to wrestle with alcohol is simultaneously "heroic" and absurd: Toying with death in a degraded, corrupt world is no less risky than engaging in real conflict.

The central "incompatibility" which exists between Firmin's papier mache world of chimeras and masks, and the actual Dante-esque Hell of Mexico, is replicated in the incompatibility between the prose narrative and the cinematic representation of it as staged by Huston. Can dream-narratives, like The Naked Lunch, or Ulysses, be represented graphically, without mangling their central purpose and potential as literary-psychological tracts? Huston may have been just a little too optimistic about his own literary loves. On the one hand, we admire any moviemaker (or scriptwriter's) tendency to want to make movies more "literary" than they may seem to "want" to be. On the other hand, it is useful to remember than movies--two-dimensional visual sequences based on the mimicry of moving deliberately through perceived space and time, have severe limitations when it comes to describing complex psychological data, which words can probably evoke more effectively. The most successful "adaptations" are from straight drama, to the screen; but such "theatricality" doesn't necessarily make good cinema. Imagine trying to make literature out of Charlie Chaplin, or John Wayne. The qualities which animate our attention in a movie house rarely are translatable "backwards" to a text. 

Larry McMurtry, notably, has said that attempts to "literize" screenplays are doomed--or should be forbidden--because they can't qualify as separate documents. He argues--convincingly, since he is experienced in both straight writing as well as screenwriting--that a screenplay isn't a fixed document, but merely a scaffolding, an outline which any director can alter in any one of a number of ways. Hence, no "shooting" script is really a fixed literary draft, only an intermediary means to an end (the shot and edited movie). One wants to argue, however, that there are great movies, out of which a faithful rendering can be made, and which can stand, by themselves, the same way any successful dramatic writing can (visual and aural fireworks aside). And there were directors--Hitchcock comes immediately to mind--who insisted on rigidly precise shooting scripts, complete with mock-ups of visual relationships followed to the letter

What is "dramatic literature"? Is a poem read aloud a dramatic event? Of course. Or at least it can be, in the right hands. Can a great novel, a great psychological study, in which the outward events of the "action" are the mere pretexts for the philosophical or metaphysical explorations of the main character or characters, be faithfully rendered on screen? That is probably the main question this movie attempts to answer. I wish Huston were still around to answer it.               



TC said...


Seeing this film again when it was rereleased in the DVD set last year I was mesmerized by the seeming verismilitude of Finney's portrait of terminal wreckage--the cantina scene with no socks, etc.

Couldn't keep it out of my mind when coincidentally around the same time viewing Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

Finney Wreckage Part II.

Could it be these two great "actor's directors" were diving from different decks for the same life-tarnished lost doubloons in that heavyweight sunken galleon?

Craig said...

Green Shadows, White Whale is Ray Bradbury's account of writing the screenplay of Moby Dick for Huston while shooting the film on location in Ireland. I read it while living in Tonga and loaned it to an Irishman who was raised in a Dublin orphanage, retired from the Royal Navy and married to a Tongan, the sister of the Tongan who ran the school where I taught stories from a book called The Dubliners. I had to take over the class from another Irishman, a Waugh scholar from Trinity College whose blackouts from drinking made him a danger to himself and others. I drove him to the airport when he was told to leave the country.

Ed Baker said...

that was a good book. hard to read.
not interested in the movie.

actors run the risk of becoming what they
pretend to be!

Stallone lives up the road from me...

one day at the Celebrity Deli

he said "everybody wants to beat the crap out of me.. I ain't Rambo."

he picked up my check a bagel and coffee

then Chuck Rossler the owner of the deli threw away both checks.

next morning

Sugar Ray came in for breakfast. he also lives in Potomac.

what was the question?

gonna meet Carlo Parcelli for lunch tomorrow.

Mike Rothenberg and David Meltzer will be here next week....

y'all come!

Busboys and Poets and
a day or so before that
The Writer's Center in Bethesda...

Rockpile... for those who dig it!

Curtis Faville said...


The movie's not that bad.

I thought it was a decent effort at representing what would in most directors' hands be pure mush.

The symbolic representations in the film may have been "too" obvious, really. Resonance is so hard to set up visually.

The bar scene at the end I thought quite powerful--the drunken hero so plastered that he could only half-heartedly defend his dignity, the cut-throat small-timers moving inexorably to dispose of him. Then Yvonne's death by the rearing horse.

What do you think the horse--and her death--represented?

Ed Baker said...

"What do you think the horse--and her death--represented?"

well not much!

I will go to my first edition of

The Fama Sutra for Idiots

to come up with a definitive answer...

last time I went to a movie theatre I had to crouch down to get under the tape on the ticket window!

going to meet carlo Parcelli for lunch today last time I saw him was in 1971!

Carlo is:

Ed Baker said...

pee est..

how abou:t

the horse signifying a "run for the roses" like... a run to/towards death... the ultimate finish line?

like a galloping omen!?

trite, but effective... especially in Lowry's context

Charles Shere said...

Well, Curtis, you make me want to see the movie. I'd always heard — from people whose thoughts I respected — that it was a failure, largely because Huston was drunk too much of the time while making it. I don't know if Lowry was drunk a lot of the time while writing the novel.

I was brought to the novel by the sculptor Alvin Light — come to think of it, he was the guy put down the movie — who thought it A, if not The, Great American Novel. I couldn't read it for years, but then when I was working on a biographical sketch of Alvin I did finally read it, in one go, and met my father again.

(Alvin also swore by The Lives of the Cell, but that's another story.)

Curtis Faville said...

I suspect Lowry was drunk most all the time--even while writing.

Alcohol doesn't equal incoherence, though that trope is one that is utilized frequently in the story.

There's the story about Huston and Capote sitting up each night in a tent in Italy, writing the next day's dialogue (for Beat the Devil). The result is obvious.

You don't need to be drunk to make bad movies, though.

Huston seems to have a clear grasp on plot and character, even when he's not completely coherent.

It's best (as always) to treat the movie as a separate entity, and forget it was a complex novel first.