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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Under The Volcano

DVD special features almost always err on the side of excessive reverence toward their subjects. So it's a small, perverse miracle that the Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary Volcano: An Inquiry Into The Life And Death of Malcolm Lowry, the centerpiece of the second disc of Criterion's Under The Volcano double-disc DVD, acknowledges that in his student days, Lowry "was a figure of fun during bath nights because of his tiny penis." Elsewhere, the documentary dryly notes that Lowry was a "repulsive drunk," sometimes impotent, haunted by homosexual urges, and "chronically constipated." Then again, since Lowry specialized in brutal, unflinching literary self-laceration, these revelations don't seem like such a big deal. As Lowry's novel Under The Volcano makes abundantly clear, his greatest triumph was more autobiography than fiction. The film changes the story—Albert Finney plays an ex-diplomat rather than a writer like Lowry—but the unrelenting descent into the depths of human misery remains the same.

The opening sequence of John Huston's 1984 adaptation of Volcano sends the camera moving around ghoulish paper-mache skeletons as they seem to play an incongruously upbeat melody. The sequence immediately establishes Volcano as a place where comedy and tragedy intermingle freely and death takes on an almost physical presence. In an Oscar-nominated turn, Finney plays a self-destructive lush rotting away under the unforgiving Mexican sun, trying to find a balance between "the shakes of too little and the abyss of too much." Then his estranged wife Jacqueline Bisset unexpectedly arrives, delivering Finney's last, best shot at redemption.

Lowry's masterpiece was long thought unfilmable, due to the internal nature of its central conflict and its skeletal plot. So it falls upon Finney to dramatize the inner workings of a man gradually, unmistakably succumbing to oblivion. Finney is up to the task: The pungent poetry of Lowry's prose comes through in his pitch-perfect performance, with its exquisite turns of phrase, boozy bravado, and theatrical panache. Finney's dialogue is shot through with pitch-black, rakish good humor even as salvation increasingly slides out of his drunken grasp. A dark night of the soul set during the Day Of The Dead, Volcano boasts the pathos and heartbreak of a booze-sodden sinner's unanswered prayer for grace.


Key features: A details-oriented hourlong behind-the-scenes documentary, a semi-interesting producer commentary, and mini-commentaries from Danny Huston and screenwriter Guy Gallo.

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