Monday, June 13, 2011

JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO - FILM REVIEW (1990 - Directed by John Patrick Shanley)

(Film review originally written on December 18, 2008)

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
- Psalm 19:1-4, RSV

There are only a few rare films in the world that intentionally explore the human desire for joy with the depth of a film like Joe Versus The Volcano . Call it whatever you want - quirky, whimsical, corny, trivial - but this is a special little story that asks questions and inquires into values inherent in exactly what Christianity teaches about life. I'm not a fan of most romantic comedies, but there's something different about this one. Think of it this way - if G.K. Chesterton had to write a script for a film, this could be something like what he would write. It's hard to describe, but every once in a while there's a story that's about what it means to wake up to living and enjoying the life that you've so mysteriously been given - Joe Versus the Volcano is this kind of tale.

Just look at the dialogue - who writes dialogue like this for Hollywood anymore?
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Joe: I couldn't have imagined any of this. (he looks at the stars) Are you used to this?

Patricia: What?

Joe: The ocean, the stars.

Patricia: You never get used to it. Why do you think I want this boat? All I want to do is sail away.

Joe: Where would you go?

Patricia: Away from the things of man ...

Joe: Do you believe in God?


Patricia: I believe in myself.

Joe: What's that mean?

Patricia: I have confidence in myself.

Joe: I've done a lot of soul searching lately. I've been asking myself some tough questions. You know what I've found out?

Patricia: What?

Joe: I have no interest in myself. I think about myself, I get bored out of my mind.

Patricia: What does interest you?

Joe: I don't know ... Courage ... Courage interests me.

Patricia: And you're going to spend the rest of your life on a tiny island in the South Pacific?

Joe: Well, up till now I've lived on a tiny island called Staten Island, and I've commuted to a job in a shut up room with pumped in air, no sunshine, despicable people, and now that I've got some distance from that situation, that seems pretty unbelievable. Your life seems unbelievable to me. All this like life, seems unbelievable to me. Somewhat. At this moment.

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

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Call it a Chestertonian fairy tale. A man named Joe has a lousy job, he feels sick all the time, and his doctor tells him he has a medical condition that is going to kill him in six months. A mysterious friend of the doctor discovers this, and hires Joe to go to a tiny tropical island to kill himself by jumping inside a volcano. Apparently, doing so will appease the local tribe's god and save the island. Along the way Joe meets a girl and it turns out that she is the one hired to take him out to the island on a yacht.

It doesn't sound very serious, does it?  But that is the art of creating a story that is both light-hearted and intensely interested in the big questions at the same time.  Roger Ebert admitted to being enraptured by this movie -

"Gradually through during the opening scenes of 'Joe Versus the Volcano,' my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not 'Joe Versus the Volcano.' It is not an entirely successful movie, but it is new and fresh and not shy of taking chances. And the dialogue in it is actually worth listening to, because it is written with wit and romance ... The characters in this movie speak as if they would like to say things that had not been said before, in words that had never been used in quite the same way."
- rogerebert.com - Joe Versus The Volcano

The main character, like anyone else who is aware of either themselves or the outside world, is looking for something. He knows that there is something about his life that isn't right. In fact, it is noticeably missing. And, he feels sick inside because of it. When he tries to tell his boss, his boss just brushes it aside -

"So what! Do you think I feel good? Nobody feels good. After childhood, it's a fact of life. I feel rotten. So what? I don't let it bother me. I don't let it interfere with my job!"

That is precisely the philosophy of possibly the majority of people on the planet. Life is rotten. Life sucks. Life isn't fair. The only thing to do is to accept that reality and work hard at your job until you die. The song lyrics in the music at the beginning of the film confirm this - "You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store." (from Sixteen Tons) - "I gets weary, and sick of tryin', I'm tired of livin' but scared of dyin'" (from Ol' Man River). Isn't that how it seems for everyone? There are truths in this story about how you are living right now. So Joe is a character we identify with.

It may be overly simple for the storyteller to confront Joe with his own death sentence.  How many other films have used this same trope to try to appeal to the sentimentality of the viewer?  But this is part of what makes this a special film.  What would be clichés in another film seem innocent in this one.  The makers of this film are not just trying to appeal to our sentimentality, they are genuinely delighted with the story they are telling us.


So, with nothing left to live for, Joe decides to take up the offer of the mysterious stranger and sets out on an adventure. He accepts that he only has six months left to his life and then, as a result, starts waking up to the world around him. I still can't get over how cliched this sounds written down.  But really, most Hollywood films about smelling the roses leave me cold.  This one is different.  For all intents and purposes, Joe has lived his life alone but now he starts meeting people as if for the very first time. The idea here is that we are capable of forgetting even the most elementary of social skills.  Do we realize what it means to meet a human being that we don't know anything about?  Could such a meeting be an adventure, the prelude to something life-changing, the beginning of a newly discovered life-long love?  For the first time in his life, Joe looks into their eyes and treats them as if they actually have souls. By the way, listen for talk about people's souls during the film. They reference and question the subject more than once.

My favorite scene in the whole film is when Joe is stranded on his makeshift raft (of luggage) in the middle of the ocean. This scene surprises you. Things don't look good. He's running out of water and is going die of thirst because he's giving everything to care for the unconscious girl that he's rescued. He waits it out for days and you'll enjoy how he amuses himself. Then, one night, he sees the moon rise. It's something as simple as that. The moon rises in the night sky.

With tears in his eyes, Joe offers a prayer to God. And here's what surprised me. He's doesn't ask God to send something or someone to rescue them. He doesn't ask for help. He doesn't ask for anything. He offers, instead, a prayer of thankfulness - it's all he can bring himself to do - "Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big ... Thank you for my life." The beauty of creation astonishes him and points him to the Creator. All he can do in return is offer thanks.

This doesn't end his search, and there are a number of other things he and the girl, Patricia, decide to try by faith. But suddenly they find that they have a belief that there is something or someone out there that is worth believing in. Why? Simply because they exist and simply because of the miracle that is Creation around them. Life itself becomes a joy, even though there is still something wrong and something missing. Awakening to the most powerful inner desire that we have - a desire for something more meaningful than the world of men has to offer us - this is not a subject that Hollywood movies usually explore. How did they even get away with this sort of thing? Aren't they just supposed to put in laugh gags instead?

It is quite often that, in reading the very articulate C.S. Lewis, you will read him repeatedly attempting to describe something that he finds very difficult to put into words. He tried to describe it as a “stab of joy." Lewis also used the term “sehnsucht" a German word that could only be defined in English as a haunting longing or desire for joy.

“There arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself. . . . The distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss. . . . And at once I knew that to 'have it again' was the supreme and only important object of desire." - C.S. Lewis, from his autobiography, Surprised by Joy .

This same desire is evident in the characters in Joe Versus the Volcano . Joe is looking for something missing in his life. And the closest he gets to it is when he sees the beauty of creation around him. But he knows it's real - and it becomes a reason to have faith. Patricia describes herself and her sister as “soul sick." She describes it to Joe as being very vulnerable, and says that if he had slept with her sister and taken advantage of her, she would have known something about him. Since he didn't, she also knew something about him - that he also, at least, partly understand what it meant to be soul sick.

Sharing this understanding together is the first indication that Joe and Patricia have something important in common.  It sounds funny to say it, but it is entirely possible to be  “soul sick" without knowing it.  Arguably, all of us are soul sick and most of us don't realize it.  To be conscious of the state of one's soul is to be increasing conscious and aware of the life around you.  Suddenly you become sensitive to influences and aware of atmosphere and environment in new and more critical ways.

And how important is it when you meet another human being who understands this too?

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis says -

“Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year after year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all."

There is a desire that we were born with. It's a desire for something intangible that we are always looking for. There is something missing that we were made for. Searching for and looking for that something is really the goal of our lives. You make your strongest friendships with others who have some understanding of this. You usually fall in love partly because the other person is interested in this. Every so often, we occasionally actually experience a glimpse of the joy itself, even if it's only for a few seconds - and once we realize it, it's gone. Then all we're left with is a piercing desire for that little hint of joy again. The reason I admire Joe Versus the Volcano is that it gets this idea.

“ ... from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is." - Surprised by Joy

So there is a distinction to be made between joy and pleasure. One may come with the other, but the latter doesn't always include the former.

Seeking real joy, or sehnsucht, in earthly pleasure is dangerous.  It is using pleasure to do something that it was never meant to.  We may associate earthly pleasures with our memories of joy, but when it comes down to it, they are not the same.

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside is . . . the truest index of our real situation." - The Weight of Glory

Lewis then goes on to say -

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."

So it's not that the joy is actually in watching this movie. It's just that this movie gets the fact that we are all looking for something better. As silly as the story is, and as illogical as Joe may choose to act at times - his driving desire for something more is a desire that we all share.

The comedy and the gags and the whimsy throughout the film do not detract from this theme.  As a director, Shanley does an excellent job mixing comic moments with meditative ones.  As Joe, Tom Hanks brings the obvious enjoyment that he takes in some of his roles and has great fun.  In a feat of acting that is difficult to distinguish from play, Meg Ryan probably gives the most whimsical performance of her career.  You can't help but sense that they enjoyed making the film.  I, for one, couldn't help but enjoy watching it.

I now suddenly feel like I've done a horrible patchwork job of trying to explain this idea. But I don't think I can quite explain it. Yes, I'm quite sure that I haven't expressed it properly. But some of you who read this will at least partly fathom what I'm getting at. It's something rare to see in a film released out of Hollywood. But it's the best reason I can think of for recommending Joe Versus the Volcano to you. There is something out there that we ought to believe in and this film at least attempts to get at that something. It's not just that you might really hate your job and want to do something else. It's not something you'll find in earthly pleasure (which is still a good thing, in and of itself). No, pleasure, like Lewis says, is what we can often substitute for real joy. It points towards it and hints at it without actually achieving it.

Thus, I'm doomed to the inability of being able to explain this any further without just rambling on and rewording the same idea over and over. The best chance I think you'll have to understanding this a bit more is either to start reading the books of C.S. Lewis or to watch this film.

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