11 May 2010

A Huston Sampler, Pt 2

The second half of my John Huston experience consisted of three films (again all literary adaptations) that range from mediocre to great, at least in my initial encounters with each. Though I often like to, I did not watch these films in chronological order, but in an order that coincidentally went from least good to best, which is the order I will approach these reviews.

Wise Blood is perhaps the only book I have read before watching Huston's adaptation (I read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre after seeing the film), written by Flannery O'Connor. I received some pleasure from the novel -- in the collection of absurdities that coalesce into the character of Hazel Motes -- though it's larger significance was largely lost on me and I found the drilled repetition of shrill hysteria from mostly all the characters to be a bit tiresome at times. I was thus quite interested to see how Huston would interpret O'Connor's work, especially in handling what is often a very ambiguous tone. I received, however, no such insight from Mr. Huston's film.

The novel is focused on a very serious son of a preacher named Hazel Motes who denounces his religious upbringing and purposefully sets out to sin and prove to himself that he is not afraid of God. He goes to a town nearby where he has never been and sleeps with a prostitute, but during his stay he encounters a blind preacher with whom he becomes obsessed. He sets out to undo the preacher by preaching against him and forming the Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified, meanwhile becoming entangled with the preacher's strangely amorous daughter and a local weirdo that works at the zoo. Eventually Motes uses extremist methods to prove his lack of faith, including self-flagellation and self-denial -- which are, of course, Christian methods of extreme faith. Whether Motes eventually becomes saved and at peace or pathetically doomed by the novel's end is somewhat lost on me, though I am sure it is a mixture of the two.

And perhaps the original text was lost on Huston, too, for the film was incredibly literal. There is a consistent use of religious imagery to playfully comment on the way that Motes cannot escape Jesus and religion despite himself, but the deeper meaning behind the rather simple ideas that religion is a hoax and Motes is delusional and doomed is absent. In O'Connor's novel the characters are so ridiculous that they go beyond realism to become absurdist symbols. Huston's film, however, is so literal and takes so much stock in treating the very unrealistic characters as real that it tends to fall flat. Which is a shame, though, I admit that my lack of understanding of the source text doesn't give much reliability to my criticism in comparing the two works.
Unlike Wise Blood, much of the action of Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano occurs within the head of the drunken protagonist -- or at least that's what I understand, as I have not read the book. But it is apparent in the film, which, if nothing else, is a showcase of Albert Finney's incredible talent. Not only does he have to grapple with a character that is severely drunk most of the film, but he has to make that character interesting, human, and likable enough for his death to be a tragedy. It is probably difficult to play a drunk without hamming it up a great deal, but Finney never overdoes it, and his performance in itself makes the film worth watching.

Finney plays Geoffrey Firmin, a British ex-Consul living in Mexico, drunkenly passing one day after another until his wife, Yvonne, shows up one day with the intention of saving their marriage. Geoffrey's inability to quit drinking and what seems to be layers upon layers of past hurt make Yvonne's attempt seem hopeless. The appearance of Geoffrey's half-brother, Hugh, with whom Yvonne had an affair, makes things even more difficult. The film starts in the morning and ends at night on the Day of the Dead.

As far as plot goes, there isn't much of one. The characters are also slim -- mainly three. Even the time of the film is limited to one day. All of these restrictions make Under the Volcano a difficult film to make, but Huston manages to keep us interested enough in Geoffrey's tragedy to keep watching. We are drawn to see what brought this man, who may have once been great, to the miserable state he is in in which he can say without irony that "Hell is my natural habitat." There are other issues in the background of the film -- such as the Spanish Civil War, Hugh's feeling of emasculation, etc. -- but they are not given enough time or space to be drawn out. We wait to see if Geoffrey can overcome enough of his resentment of Yvonne in order to love her, as we know he does, or if he will self-destruct, as we know he will. As Huston films it, Geoffrey is a very troubled but sympathetic character, and it is no wonder that Huston would choose to direct such a character as he reached the last years of his life.

The earliest of the three films here, Fat City (1972), is one of my favorite Huston films. It offers a precursor of sorts to the down-and-out alcoholic Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano with Tully, played by Stacey Keach, a boxer way past his prime with a drinking problem and an inability to commit to anything. Upon meeting a young, promising boxer played by Jeff Bridges, Tully decides to give boxing another go, rejoining with his old manager, who he blames for his fall from grace. After a cut in pay for winning a big match, Tully ends up where he started, broke and having problems with his barfly girlfriend Oma, who is an even worse wreck.

Beautifully filmed by Conrad Hall, in that '70s haze that distinguishes the decade in American film, Fat City is really distinguished in its look. The weather-beaten buildings and faces of northern California give the film an authentic feeling of locale -- the sun is out but it doesn't make things shine; it dries things and makes them fade. Huston pays special attention to wrinkles in a face or the stains on the wall, establishing not only a type of realism in the film, but a visceral feeling of texture in person and place. It's hard to forget the opening scene of Tully in his trashy motel room, disheveled in his underwear with an empty bottle of whiskey on the bureau.

While this is appears to be a boxing film, it's more of a character study of the self-destructive sort. (You could even qualify it as a noir, as Film Noir of the Week does.) Tully is contrasted heavily to Ernie (Bridges), who takes everything -- a boxing loss, an unexpected pregnancy, poverty -- with a shrug and a willingness to keep trying. They have more or less the same circumstances, though decades apart, but Tully ends up unable to accept what he's been given. His resentment of his manager is briefly mentioned in the beginning, but ends up being a big deal for Tully towards the end of the film and it becomes clear that he cannot let go of being wronged, he can't accept the fact that he gets shit upon when he thinks he deserves better. This harboring of resentment and sense of entitlement guarantees he will keep floating on and on with no great change.

Here is a lovely video featuring scenes from the film set to the music of Lucinda Williams: