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We are the children of children, and we live as we are shown.

Movie

Joe Versus the Volcano
(1990)

 

One of those movies where enduring cult status leads you to the conclusion those venerating it must have first seen it an impressionable young age (another prime example being The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension). John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay isn’t especially witty, and his direction isn’t especially nimble. Its Amblin status ensures some decent production values, but Joe Versus the Volcano lacks the visual style – or at least, consistency of style – to go with them. And while the Meg Ryan/Guantanamo Hanks pairing may subsequently have gone on to capture the hearts of romance-seeking audiences, here it’s presented as a rather anodyne fait accompli.

Joe: Who am I? That’s the real question, isn’t it? Who, who am I? Who are you! What other questions are there? What other questions are there, really?! You want to understand the universe? Embrace the universe. The door to the universe is you.

Shanley’s principle success comes as a playwright, most clearly evidenced in his second, belated directorial effort eighteen years later, the “paedo-or-isn’t-he?” priest drama Doubt (since it was, after all, adapted from his stage play). Otherwise, he’s mostly restricted himself to a curiously eclectic mixture of screenwriting efforts: his first, Moonstruck, is where he struck romcomdram gold (his most recent Wild Mountain Thyme, another from his play, also fits that genre mould); Five Corners gave us obsessive sociopaths; The January Man serial killers; Joe Versus the Volcano offered up human sacrifice; Alive cannibalism; We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story found him back, consorting with Spielberg once more and fuelling the dinosaur hoax; Congo has him adapting Crichton with evolved apes. So he’s found guilty, in a rather innocuous way, of covering a lot of the mass manipulation bases there.

Joe: I have a brain cloud.

Of course, Shanley will tell you Joe’s volcano is simply a metaphor, and the film is an allegory. It’s about facing your fears and having the courage to live your life, mapping out your own (crooked) road/being hit by a lightning bolt, rather than following a path written out for you. You know, the usual trite guff. Alternatively, there’s heaven, hell and guardian angels, the loss of the soul and the regaining thereof.

Angelica: Long ago, the delicate tangles of his hair… covered the emptiness of my hand… would you like to hear it again?

Actually, dismissing Shanley’s themes is unfair. It isn’t that there’s no value to his allegory; it’s that it fails to come together in an affecting or resonant way. And that isn’t simply down to Hanks (I was never a big fan, even pre-Guantanamo, The ’Burbs aside). It’s possibly mostly because, as a director, he manages just to dump it all there, presenting his fantasy tinge rather literally, such that the movie as a whole never sparks; it never takes flight.

Which, I guess, makes the devotion it engenders all the more valid, in a way. That some are clearly finding the very intended aspect I’m missing; just check out the MovieChat boards. But you can only spend so long wondering mulling why you’re unable to join the club before you have to move on. Any movie where its proponents proclaim as one “If you don’t like it, you don’t understand it” is usually on dodgy ground from the off, particularly when Shanley’s doing everything he possibly can to foreshadow its applauded themes to the point of redundancy.

Devotees have pointed out how Joe’s beloved solace of a lamp details his prospective journey (showing a yacht, volcano and moon), as does the literature he hasn’t read (Romeo and Juliet, Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey). Then there’s the poster for Fire in Paradise and the lightning bolts everywhere. If I tend to churlishness here, it’s that as alluded above, the movie isn’t exactly subtle anyway, so any further threading tends to suggest self-consciousness designed to mask its essential thinness.

Joe: You look like a bag of shit stuffed in a cheap suit.

That said, Shankey’s essential points about the soullessness of modern life are on point and can’t be construed as allegorical for anything. While I’m lukewarm on the movie, I’ll unequivocally give the first half hour a thumbs up, showing as it does bite and ambition the rest of the picture lacks. Shanley’s invoking Metropolis and Brazil as he depicts Joe arriving at work in a dystopian Staten Island hell, mud caked, grey and grim. The only lights in the office are from fluorescent tubes; he may be a hypochondriac, but when he announces “I can feel them sucking the juice out of my eyeballs”, he isn’t wrong. The coffee tastes like arsenic, and he opines to his boss that he “sold my life to you for 300 dollars a week”. Sold his soul, basically.

Mr Waturi: Nobody feels good! After childhood, it’s a fact of life.

This is materialism’s dream at its most unembellished. You accept your lot because that is what you do. American Panascope is tutored in the ways of the Rockefeller-medicine, allopathic-scam business (“A New Generation of Surgical Tools” – it’s “Home of the Rectal Probe” and can boast “50 Years of Petroleum Jelly” and an “artificial testicles prototype”). Subsumed by such thinking, Joe is obviously going to feel ill all the time (as clearly does everyone else working there). Misery is a foregone conclusion, so be happy about it. It’s entirely consistent that the doctor who diagnoses Joe is a fake (because the profession in general lies about disease, its causes and its remedies).

Waponis Chief: We are the children of children, and we live as we are shown.

This loss/stagnation of the soul is seen to pervade all aspects of life and culture, even having afflicted the island tribe caught up in the mysticism of their pagan god. They’re addicted to orange soda, while their culture is a mish-mash of foreign influences (dating from “Roman” times). As the chief implies (above), it’s very easy to indoctrinate (brainwash), since we receive and replicate the beliefs and modes of existence of those who have received and replicated the same – lies (or truths) – of those before them.

The tribe is essentially requesting a Wicker Man-esque sacrifice, and per those islanders and their failing crops, nature is indifferent to an overlaid belief. Or, alternatively, the actual God, the one Joe thanks at one point, intervenes and rains down wrathful vengeance. Notably, the ending is the result of reshoots; in the original, we see the tribe escaping the island, and the leader surfacing, announcing “Look! Look, Joe Banks, I still have my soul!”.

Joe: Do you believe in God?
Patricia: I believe in myself.

In this, Joe observes “They said if there wasn’t a sacrifice, their island would sink. And it did”. Except this seems doubtful, as there was a sacrifice; it was just rejected (either because Joe wasn’t a native, or because of the aforementioned actual divine intervention). We have no objective statement regarding the activity of the volcano, though. The tribe believes their tradition, and the sacrifice doesn’t go as planned, but the outcome might have been the same, regardless (rather like Edward Woodward pronouncing Summerisle’s crops would fail, despite his being offered up). Such superstitions and repeated “truths” may be seen as further examples of duping any populace with a paradigm, similarly to Joe’s perceived sickness, or his boss unwaveringly accepting his shitty life and circular existence (below):

Mr Waturi: I know he can get the job, but can he do the job…. Harry, yeah…. Harry, but can he do the job? …. I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? But can he do the job? I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? …. I’m not arguing with you…. I’m not arguing that with you… I’m not arguing that with you, Harry… Harry… Harry… Yeah, but can he do the job? … I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? But can he do the job?… I’m not arguing that with you… Who said that? … I didn’t say that. If I said that, I would have been wrong… Maybe… Maybe… I’m not arguing that with you… Yeah, Harry… I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? ….

Dan Hedeya is very funny as Mr Waturi. He’s just what the movie needs, and this is also the only occasion where Hanks raises himself beyond an affably ineffectual stupor. There isn’t really much to Joe, beyond a super mullet at the outset. Shanley inculcates the sense of an empty journeyman, as Hanks doesn’t even have a character hook (Gump) to see him through Joe’s travels. He’s very nice to Magical Negro Ossie Davis as his wise driver (it’s essentially Driving Miss Daisy redux, the Oscar winner having been released about four months earlier).  He engages in an anodyne romance with Patricia (Ryan) and ultimately marriage.

Angelica: This is a great town. It stinks! But it’s a great town.

Ryan’s contrastingly on good form, awarded a showcase of three different roles. The downside is that her two “cameos” are much more rewarding than her “classic Ryan” romcom turn as main love interest Patricia. She suggested each character represents a different stage in life – selfish child; adolescent; adult self – and the last was most like her. Which is probably why DeDe (at the office) and Angelica (Patricia’s sister) are much more fun. The former’s a sniffing dullard excited by Joe’s change of disposition but scared off by his illness. The latter’s an Amber Heard-esque redhead, happy to take daddy’s spoils and pretend at being an artist and poet (although, both her art and poetry are very funny). Joe’s reaction to LA: “It looks fake. I like it”.

Patricia: My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant, total amazement.

Evidently an Airplane! fan, Shanley wheels out Lloyd Bridges (Graynamore) and Robert Stack (Dr Ellison) as perpetrators of injustice/Joe’s path to enlightenment. Graynamore, one of the super-rich, manipulates Joe into his fate (sacrifice being the name of the Elite game) for his own profit. He gives an Elite’s-eye view via his daughter, of the rule over the masses and the sleep of the many. Of course, Patricia’s father is a deceitful liar and scoundrel, but he’s also in a position to know.

The deleted ending rather lets Graynamore off the hook, graciously accepting his cast-adrift fate (“I like a tight spot. Maybe I have gotten a little greedy). Whereas the released one, in which the rich carry on unchecked, natural habitats are destroyed – and Hanks, like the real Hanks, or at any rate the adrenochrome-addicted-cum-vril’d one, doesn’t care that the islanders all drowned – and pat answers such as love conquering all encourage the even slightly awake to go back to sleep, is more sobering (if most certainly not intended that way).

Joe: I don’t fear you at all. I don’t fear any man. Because every day is a gift, and I’m just glad as hell it looks like I may have a few. And beyond that, to be scared or glad of anything beyond that, why a man’s just got to be a fool!

Indeed, the scripted ending gives a whole explanation for Joe’s journey, rather unnecessarily. Joe, who had to give up putting out fires and is unable to put out a really big one. Joe versus the Volcano’s moon motif is noteworthy, since it’s presented as a source of exultation and insight, whereas the Moon is more commonly associated with illusion and deception (no Sun shining a light here. For more moon-ishness, look no further than the Spielberg Amblin logo, and the one for DreamWorks). It’s also a Shanley motif, by the looks of it. Of course, Joe undergoes a death and rebirth ritual, and then the next time we’ll see Hanks – well, near enough – he’s the critically stamped and approved version, leaving slapstick behind and on an express path to Oscars. Either him or his brother, anyway.

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