1 Hr., 40 Mins.
Fat City / Under the Volcano September 26, 2018
(Nicholas Colasanto), who supported Billy back in the day.
So begins a diptych of a movie that additionally made me think of, as a result of its upwards-downwards narrative, the four iterations of A Star is Born. In Fat City, from 1972, we watch as Billy grapples with alcoholism, his unsuccessful stabs at a comeback, and his parasitic relationship with a trenchant slattern who wouldn’t be out of place in a Charles Bukowski novel (Susan Tyrrell). Concurrent is Ernie’s professional coming up, which coincides with his coming of age. (Just as his career starts looking promising, his girlfriend, whom he only half-likes, casually announces that she’s pregnant.)
Fat City was directed by that wonderful cynic John Huston, and adapted for the screen by the writer Leonard Gardner, who is adjusting his 1969 novel of the same name. The film was, fittingly, considered a return to form for Huston, whose career had been on the downturn for much of the 1960s — something worsened by the much-discussed commercial collapse of 1970’s The Kremlin Letter.
But the movie, while consummately performed all around (Tyrrell, Oscar-nominated, is especially good as the melodramatic, shabby Oma) and credibly uncouth, is stiff and formulaically depressing. The feature plays off worn-out character tropes, as well as the myriad ingredients enforced by even the most antiquated of boxing movies, and doesn't renovate them. Matches, which are rarely exciting or illuminating, will unfortunately always be climax material. Billy is a frayed alcoholic because he has to be. Ernie is a good-looking, optimistic upstart because it’s required. Fortunately, Keach is heartrendingly desiccated, and the then-23-year-old Bridges, provided a scantily written part, is the sort of screen talent so pulsating with enthusiasm that he could convince you that he were anybody or anything. The narrative, and character, inevitabilities reign, though. You can almost see the thin, near-invisible puppet strings.
hen I saw Billy (Stacy Keach) and Ernie (Jeff Bridges) meet for the first time, I thought of an eclipse. The men are acquainted, one afternoon, at a gym at the end of the street in Stockton, California. Billy is a has-been boxer intending to get back into shape and revive his thought-lost career. Ernie, 18 but possessing the body of a full-grown pugilist, is fooling around, thumping a punching bag just because. Billy tells the boy that he has potential; he hooks him up with the area’s most renowned trainer and manager, Ruben
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
Arguably, the darkest of Huston’s alcohol-drenched dramas is Under the Volcano, from 1984. The film, starring a puffy Albert Finney, revolves around a British addict named Geoffrey, and his long-suffering wife Yvonne’s (Jacqueline Bisset) eventually doomed attempts to try to save their rotting marriage.
The feature is something of a walking-and-talking movie. For most of the film, Geoffrey, Yvonne, and the former's concerned half-brother, Hugh (Anthony Andrews), travel around the Mexico in which our tortured hero lives and try to smooth out the curled edges of their respective relationships.
Geoffrey’s alcoholism is debilitating: He cannot function if he isn’t just a little bit intoxicated. Yvonne evidently aims to save her husband from himself, and Hugh is more than willing to help her. But midway through Under the Volcano, it becomes clear that Geoffrey cannot, and perhaps doesn’t want, to be saved. The rest makes for a scary, unflinching descent. All is bookended by a finale so pessimistic that I wondered what the point of the movie exactly was.
The film is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical 1947 novel by Malcolm Lowry, an acclaimed English poet and novelist. Wisely, considering that the book was more or less deemed impossible to dramatize before its cinematic greenlighting, Huston, using a script by Guy Gallo, cares most about finding the essence of this defeated man, and scrutinizing his core all the way to its outer limits.
Like Fat City, Under the Volcano is shellacked by a sense of rather forced inexorability. But because there are fewer side characters, because more time is spent taking in the hazy atmosphere, and because there is less of a tie to a conventional story, we become rapt by Geoffrey’s narrative. This is helped, in part, by Finney’s degreed, sad performance, and Bisset and Andrews’ believable portrayals of love-steeped helplessness.
The movie is compromised by its leaning too heavily into dramaturgic dialogue and staging; tumescent monologues are an intermittent fixture. The score, by Alex North, is too highfalutin and old Hollywood for a movie so leveled. But its uncompromising portrayal of alcoholism is mostly unvarnished. It's a candid, unabashed character study.
Fat City: B-
Under the Volcano: B+
arked in Huston’s long career was a reappearing theme of self-destruction, and whether the characters in his movies, often domineered by their vices, could overcome their ugliest tendencies. Fat City makes for one example, though I suspect Huston’s devotees, myself included, are likelier to think of such sozzled pictures as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) when picturing the thematic recurrence.