Wednesday, April 7, 1976VOLCANO: AN INQUIRY INTO THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MALCOLM LOWRY. Co-written by John Kramer. Music by Alain Clavier. Produced, co-written and directed by Donald Brittain. Running time: 100 minutes.
MYSTICISM SURROUNDS THE word and the creation of words. "In the beginning was the Word," St. John the Evangelist wrote in his Gospel, "and the Word was with God; and the Word was God."
Author Malcolm Lowry was a man plagued by personal demons. "Guilt helped to appease the demons," says documentarist Donald Brittain, "but he sensed there was only one way to exorcise them. He could write them to death."
Throughout his life, Lowry both feared and depended upon the power of words. Born in 1909, this son of a wealthy English cotton merchant ultimately was hailed as a genius. His second novel, Under the Volcano, has been called the greatest book since James Joyce's Ulysses and one of the major works of 20th century English literature.
It was the product of tenacity and torment. Lowry laboured mightily on it for nearly a decade, more than half of it shut away in a squatter's shack near Dollarton, on the north shore of Vancouver's Burrard Inlet.
In all, Lowry would spend 14 years in B.C., the happiest years of a generally unhappy life. Once he was a certified success in the eyes of British and American intellectuals, Canada's cultural elite was quick to claim him as one of their own.
Last year, the National Film Board decided to produce a feature-length look at this "Canadian" genius, a man who spent himself so completely in creative exorcism. The result is Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, premiering tonight [April 7, 1976] at 9:30 on CBC-TV (Ch. 2 and 6).
Co-written and directed by Donald Brittain, Volcano is a critical biography. It attempts to mirror in its visual imagery the conclusions that the film-makers have come to on Lowry the artist and his relationship to Lowry the man. It seeks clues in the text of Lowry's novel. Like Joyce's Ulysses, Under the Volcano confines its action to a single day — November 2, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Lowry's protagonist is an Englishman in self-exile in Quauhnahuac, a town in the shadow of twin volcanoes. He is "a defrocked British diplomat in the final stages of alcoholic disintegration." He is, according to Brittain, Lowry's alter-ego.
Brittain's inquiry opens with a Mexican sunset and a quote from Lowry: "My secrets are of the grave and must be kept." We quickly learn that Lowry died as he had lived much of his life — drunk.
"Drowned in his own vomit," an old friend of the author's reports. There was some suggestion of suicide, since Lowry apparently added two bottles (50 tablets) of sleeping pills to a half bottle of gin one night in 1957.
In developing the story of Lowry's life and inspiration, the NFB filmed 44 interviews, and shot sequences in four countries: England, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Brlttain calls it "a movie about hell," and he takes great pains to reproduce the close. nightmare atmosphere of Lowry's alcoholic world.
Lowry knew the power of the word. Words could amuse, something he discovered while writing Noel Coward-like songs in college. Words could also kill.
While at Cambridge, Lowry rebuffed a fellow student's homosexual advances. The other student threatened to kill himself.
Lowry flippantly suggested that that was a fine idea. The young man's subsequent suicide left deep scars on Lowry's soul.
He found it difficult to build on early success. His first novel, Ultramarine (1932), was published shortly after his graduation. It would take more than a decade for him to deliver a second.
When he did, it was 1947's Under the Volcano, the book that both confirmed his genius and made it virtually impossible for him to write another. The title of a collection of short stories reflected his frustrations: Hear Us, O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961).
Brittain's interview subjects, among them the author's brother and widow, remember him at different stages and in different ways. Some sound like Beyond the Fringe parodies of broadcast documentaries. Recalls one old college colleague: "I was sitting up reading Plato and Spengler when . . ."
The film benefits from the resonant tones of Richard Burton reading from Lowry. Asked what her husband sounded like, Margerie Bonner Lowry said "like Richard Burton, only deeper."
Asked to record the Lowry passages, Burton revealed that Under the Volcano was one of his favourite novels. He'd agree to do the readings "if the film was worthy of the book." Apparently it was.
As with most NFB films, Volcano will find its primary audience in schools. It has been designed for people who have at least a nodding acquaintance with Lowry's novel.
In offering this guided tour of Lowry's private hell to the television audience, the NFB and CBC may encourage many new readers to sample Under The Volcano. They may also convince a lot of others to swear off drinking.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1976. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: An inquiry into the life of Ottawa-born Donald Brittain shows us a man almost too colourful to be Canadian. According to one biographical sketch (by Ron Blumer in the 1991 tribute book Donald Brittain: Never the Ordinary Way): "He attended Queen's University, Kingston, and was a police reporter at the Ottawa Journal from 1951 to 1954. He then drifted in Mexico, Europe and Africa. After a brief stint as a foreign correspondent in Tangier, and an interpreter in a small brothel on the Cote d'Azur, he ended up broke in the Russian sector of occupied Vienna and shipped back to Canada to begin a film career." Brittain signed on with the National Film Board in 1955 and, though he worked freelance after 1968, the Board remained his principal market. He specialized in subjects as colourful as himself, producing documentaries on such larger-than-life figures as Norman Bethune, Buster Keaton, Leonard Cohen, Saul Alinsky, Henry Ford and Hal Banks. For Brittain, the word "Vancouver" was synonymous with "Oscar nomination." He wrote Whistling Smith, the portrait of Downtown East Side beat cop Bernie Smith, nominated best documentary short subject in 1975; he earned a documentary feature nomination in 1977 for Volcano. He died in 1989 at the age of 61.
See also: Director John Huston's 1984 feature adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.