The goal of Without A Screen is to create hypothetical programming in response to local film events. To reflect upon International House’s January 14th screening of John Huston’s Under The Volcano (1984), Cinedelphia contributor Aaron Mannino has curated a shortlist around that film’s qualities, character types and themes.
“Only in Mexico is death an occasion for laughter.”
Under the Volcano depicts fallen British consul Geoffrey Firmin’s (Albert Finney) last day. Most descriptions of the film unabashedly admit to that finality because the trajectory is more important than the destination. The year is 1938, on the eve of World War II, and the Day of the Dead fiesta is in full swing. Geoffrey stumbles through a Mexican village within which he has exiled himself, unwilling to become involved in the oncoming storm. Hugh (Anthony Andrews), his idealistic brother, is entwined in the humanistic struggle of the Spanish revolution and is tuned into the world verging on war. He is at an utter loss with how to help Geoffrey out of the alcoholic trenches. Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) returns from NY in an attempt to reconnect during his grand soliloquy of alienation and self-destruction. Though it takes place almost entirely in the light of day, the tones and movement of Volcano are dark. Huston evokes a surprising negotiation between David Lynch’s romps into seedy underbellies, Antonioni’s (having more than a few touches of L’avventura) wandering bourgeois malaise, and Hunter S. Thompson’s alcohol soaked mania. Volcano’s insanity is inhabited primarily by Geoffrey, through his constantly exteriorized thoughts, and spasmodic flamboyancy. Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa’s eerily floating camera and Alex North’s unsettlingly playful percussive score merge to assist Firmin’s paranoid projections. These qualities are countered by the sheer earthiness of Hugh and Yvonne. Volcano presents the familiar pretext of a man who has chosen to alienate himself in another country, not to partake of its cultural riches, but to be effectively lost. When used properly, such a scenario enables the viewer to make inferences about the individual’s past by ensconcing in the obscurity of their present. Huston makes us wonder about Geoffrey’s past as vehemently as the man himself tries to forget.
To celebrate Under the Volcano, Without A Screen put together Fatal Trajectories; a shortlist of films that likewise depict individuals hurtling towards their own undoing, whether or not that means death. Because of the textural and somatic essences of these works, and their keen awareness of time, films of this subset are acutely existential. In considering titles for Fatal Trajectories, aspects of atmosphere and metaphor were taken into account as much as premise and character archetype.
The Fire Within (1963) – Louis Malle’s most brooding and fixated work shares the decline of alcoholic Alain Leroy, a self-destructive writer who has resolved to kill himself. You’ll recall Wes Anderson borrowing the line “Im going to kill myself tomorrow.” Alain spends the next day waywardly reconnecting with friends in hopes of reconnecting with himself, but the stasis of his life seems more persistent than his will. Actor Maurice Ronet perfects a fatalistic and oppressed incarnation.
Le Samourai (1967) – Jean-Pierre Mellville’s masterwork of detached coolness follows contract killer Jef Costello through Paris as he averts both the police to whom he is a murder suspect, and the hitmen to whom he is now a target. A black-and-white film in color, Le Samourai is breathlessly spare and hinges on a tension manifest of silence and physical routines played out in full. Like Huston’s Volcano, the devil is in the details, and Jef’s fate is drawn by a constellation of well-placed moments.
The Passenger (1975) – A journalist (Jack Nicholson) researching war in the Sahara Desert finds little more than sand. In his frustrated stint at an unkempt hotel, he makes passing acquaintance with a gunrunner, whom he somewhat resembles. The man dies suddenly, and the journalist assumes his identity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Imitation is suicide,” and the consequences of this particular imitation are increasingly dire. Antonioni brings his typical wanderlust and accesses the potential of landscapes to alienate yet emphasize an individual. One of the best final shots ever.
Carmen (1983) – Renowned dancer and choreographer Antonio Gades plays a role not too far from his own. Director Carlos Saura pits Gades as Antonio; a choreographer who gets involved with Carmen, the tenderfoot lead dancer he has selected for a production of Bizet’s Carmen. Saura depicts a role reversal of Black Swan where Gades’ decline stems from a poisonous Othello-like jealousy, and Carmen embodies a firey sexual agency in her rise to perfection from relative obscurity. The film alternates between rehearsals for Gades’s ballet, and the interstitial moments of the affair. Saura’s taut and lean production celebrates the distilled passion of Flamenco movement, and blurs the distinction between life and theater as a man is undone by the desire to possess.
Falling Down (1994) – William Foster is an unemployed defense worker on the way home to his daughter’s birthday party, stuck in traffic. On this particular day, riddled with the frustrating inconsistencies and disappointments that are the milieu of daily life and society, Foster suffers a psychotic break and decides to act out violently against all the human injustices he encounters…like a fast food restaurant that stops making breakfast the moment he wants a sandwich. “I’ve passed the point of no return. Do you know what that is, Beth? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning.” Michael Douglas at his best, and Joel Shumacher at his most redeemable.
Mulholland Drive (2002) – Interpret at will.
A Bittersweet Life (2005)– A vengeance film as only the genre perfectionist Ji-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) can create. Gangland boss Kang hires Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun), his fiercely loyal number-one, to escort the hisa much younger girlfriend Hee-su, whom he suspects is being unfaithful. Sun-woo does in fact catch Hee-soo with her lover, but, enchanted by her and swept up in a gesture of sympathy, is unable to follow Kang’s order to execute. Suddenly, Sun-woo finds himself on the wrong end of a violent campaign against his life, led by the man he respected the most and entwined in complicated inter-gang politics. With style to spare, Bittersweet charts a lone and desperate bid for revenge and understanding where Sun-woo’s regard for his own life is only for the sake of final confrontation. As South Korean filmmakers’ know best, vengeance is a sloppy trade. Lee Byung-hun states his character subtly, and imbues a human essence into an otherwise brutal path.
Last Days (2005) – An installment of his “death trilogy,” (Elephant, Gerry) Gus Van Sant extracts the character Blake (Michael) from the life of Kurt Cobain. He is an alternative musician buckling under the weight of fame and the expectation of a creative soul. Blake spends his time in a neglected woodland mansion with the circulating company of concerned bandmates, managers, and a private detective. Van Sant chooses a brilliant environment for Blake to inhabit in his decline, as he avoids all pursuers and looses his grip on reality.
Time To Leave (2005) – Gay fashion photographer Romain is diagnosed with terminal cancer after collapsing at a shoot. Foregoing treatment, he gradually comes to terms with his situation, but takes a route of alienation and cruelty to the people closest to him. Through the prism of the present, it becomes clear that Romain’s actions are merely an extension of his pre-diagnosis persona. Despite the coarseness of his behavior, director Francois Ozon penetrates Romain’s exterior and renders him through interactions with family, strangers, and self. A beautiful and unsentimentally humanistic film.