Donald Brittain

film 5 of 6

Volcano: an Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

Here is a complete mastery of the documentarian’s, and the documentary biographer’s art. This is an  expository film (again, cf. Bill Nichols, 1991), so the narration leads. But it leads in a way that always gives precedence to the subject, as well the interviewees’ perspectives thereon. That means that modesty, or maturity, prevails; Brittain devotes all of his considerable resources to the service of the story.

All that is pretty conventional. What sets Volcano… apart is the mastery of what is usually called B-roll, which here is so much more than just illustrative. The picture’s relation to the expository soundtrack is actually a lot like film music, or the complete range of film music’s possibilities. Here it’s parallel, there it’s perpendicular, and eventually it ends up exploring just about every point in between. In fact there are a number of visual cues that are quite brain-busting, having something of the quality of Virgil’s epic similes. We’re seeing something unlike, but elaborated with an intelligence and thoroughness that reaches toward the poetically encyclopedic: when it comes down to it, nothing is unrelated.

Brittain et al. make these connections in a number of ways. They connect by establishing and elaborating the setting, and through the photographic quality of their location shooting. Their Mexico is especially vivid. Another reason for the film’s connectedness is its source, this writer, his work, and especially that book. Richard Burton reads from Lowry’s writings, and from Under the Volcano most particularly. His readings are superbly integrated, and something of their allusiveness, their terrible and terminal penetration informs the entire film. Then, finally, it’s the subject. Volcano… is a portrait of monumental entropy and degradation. It’s a terrible prospect, though it is not in itself degrading. They’ve got sin and self-loathing and despair about right, but it’s all leavened by a clear account of a writer’s process, and by this writer’s uniquely infernal/transcendental genius. What a terrible life. What a book!