When I was eleven years old, I watched ten minutes of Joe Versus the Volcano on HBO and was dumbstruck. A Saturday morning, I woke early to watch cartoons and, during commercials, flipped around until the image of a sad man in a trench coat arrested me. I watched the man stop, stoop and prop up a daisy someone had stepped into the cracked pavement through which the flower had grown. A moment later, I learned the man was going to die soon of a brain disease. In learning he had a deathly illness, the man had become fearless, sassing his stupid boss, quitting his job and reclaiming what little life he had left. I was riveted. I was eating little chocolate doughnuts. I turned back to cartoons, although I described the man and his flower and his disease later that morning to my mother.
Several years later, I watched the film in full, and in the last twenty years, I have seen the movie more than twenty times, revisiting it at least once a year. I think it one of the most dazzlingly complex films to run since the end of the Hays Code, a film slowly ceding its’ secrets and wisdom with each additional viewing. And yet Joe Versus the Volcano is also a goofy, kitschy film with a terrible title and Godzilla lead actors which has Big Hollywood Garbage written all over it. So how is this movie so good?
In 1987, John Patrick Shanley took home a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for Moonstruck. He followed Moonstruck up with two duds before writing and directing Joe, also a flop. After Joe, Shanley would not direct anything for eighteen years, resuming the helm with Doubt, an existential cauldron of a film aesthetically unlike Joe in nearly every possible way. Along the way, Shanley wrote the script for We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story in 1993, Congo in 1995, and in 2005 won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Shanley was kicked out two Catholic schools as a youngster, spent a little time in the Marines, and several years ago wrote a libretto for an operatic version of Doubt which ran in Minnesota earlier this year. Bizarre career, indeed. A bizarre life.
Joe Versus the Volcano is a bizarre film, as well. Black leader opens the film, and the sound of an orchestra tuning. Then, a single sentence prologue. Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very, very lousy job. The opening credits of the film play over a panoply of tragicomic images of life in the factory. A crowd of slow moving, dismal workers trudge along a senselessly crooked walkway leading from the factory parking lot to a factory which looks a failure of some 30’s futurist imagination. Shanley’s investigation of spiritual pain in Doubt was wrenching, turning on the fragility of human knowledge and the frustration which often skirts any dogmatic confidence. I hesitate to say that Doubt betrays Joe, but earlier in his career, Shanley seemed to view pain as a deeply ironic aspect of reality. Man was not made to suffer; man was made to commune with God, in Whom is eternal peace. In Matthew 25, Christ describes hell as a place “prepared for the devil and his angels,” while the kingdom is “prepared for [men] since the creation of the world.” The dismal, dingy factory where Joe works (as the advertising librarian for American Panoscope, the “Home of the Rectal Probe”) seems contrary to human verve and health, even while AP is apparently concerned with medicine. If ever a tool ought to be produced in dehumanized, Enlightened blinding-cleanliness, might we not all agree such a tool is the rectal probe? No such luck. Before entering the factory, Joe holds out his arms in supplication and lifts a baffled and sad gaze aloft to the heavens, offering intercession on behalf of all those who labor in the Modern City, as though to say, “How long, O Lord?”
The factory is no better inside than out. Joe does not work the assembly line, but in a nearly vacant, concrete office. His boss, Frank Waturi, played by a grimly self-righteous Dan Hedaya (has he ever smiled?), chastises Joe over nothing while telling him how he would like to make him “assistant manager” if only Joe would buck up. When Joe complains he does not feel well, Waturi replies with dogmatic certainty, “Nobody feels good. It’s a fact of life. After childhood, everyone feels rotten.” If we take the world as Shanley has presented it, Waturi seems to be a great half-Romantic, half-Calvinist sage. Nobody in the film feels good. Joe’s pale complexion fits seamlessly into the colorless scheme of the office, and his limp expression echoes the flaccid spirit of the secretary Dede (Meg Ryan) and some other phlegmatic drone who sits behind his desk looking lost.
Later that afternoon, Joe goes to the doctor and finds out he is going to die in six months of a “brain cloud.” Very briefly, Joe mourns. Outside the doctor’s office, an old woman walks a Great Dane, and Joe stops to pet the dog, then he embraces it warmly, then embraces the old woman. Joe returns to the office as an avenging spirit, though, quitting in dramatic fashion, shouting of the injustice and bestial nature of his work and his boss, packing up copies of Robinson Crusoe, Homer’s Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet from his desk (all of which prefigure the second and third acts of the film) and finally asking Dede to dinner before leaving forever. Having wasted much of his life trying to figure out how to feel better, the impending certainty of his own death seems to have done the trick no medicine or therapy could quite manage. At dinner, Joe is flushed with color, smiling and laughing, sanguinely chatting up Dede over tacos. He talks about how good he feels for the first time in ages. Back at his place, while kissing her in his doorway, Joe asks Dede if she will spend the night, but then suddenly confesses what he learned earlier in the afternoon. “You’re going to die?” asks Dede, pulling away. “Yeah, but so what? Just stay tonight. Tomorrow will take care of itself,” replies Joe.
The sudden awareness of his eminent death does Joe some immediate good, but then quickly prompts him to despair. While freshly aware of his own mortality, Joe reclaims his life on proper terms in the office, delivering his boss the comeuppance he deserved. However, in asking Dede to stay the night, Shanley suggests that Joe has much left to learn. We want the knowledge of his own eminent death to inspire Joe to greatness; when Joe quits his inhumane job, he shows a flash of purity, of genius, properly understanding the role of pleasure in the righteous life. However, when Joe propositions Dede, he seems no less desperate than in the opening scene, having sold himself in slavery to a crooked path. The eminence of death may awaken a pious knowledge in man that “all flesh is grass,” or it might make a man a greater slave to passion than he ever was, trying to squeeze in all the sensual gratification time will allow. In oscillating between these two points, Shanley shows Joe at a crossroads; he can either embrace the courage of spirit shown in his office exit, or the base sensuality shown with a stranger in the doorway of his home.
Joe’s “brain cloud” is perhaps a reference to older, darker literature. In Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the titular Ivan, a vain and preening judge, is hanging some curtains one day when he falls, bumps his side, and in so doing sustains an injury that costs him his life less than a month later— all the while, a vain and preening doctor tells Ivan he has a “floating kidney,” a non-existent disease for a man with a non-existent soul. So, too, Joe has a fake job, a fake life, and it seems fitting he should die of a fake ailment. Ivan Ilyich doesn’t escape Tolstoy’s novella with his life, although he does find repentance in the closing pages. From the first, we don’t suspect Joe would die in a PG rated comedy, and neither does he seem such a terrible sinner as Ivan. He is unhappy, pouring his life out in fruitless work. While the problem of the film is drawn clearly and quickly, no simple solution is laid out for Joe to take hold of.
The morning after his date with Dede, Joe pensively strums a ukulele at the breakfast table when the well-dressed Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) unexpectedly shows up, invites himself in, joyfully knocking holes in Joe’s wall while Joe looks on in a daze. Graynamore knows Joe’s doctor, knows all about his condition, and has shown up to make a strange proposition. “Quit your job?” he asks. “Yeah,” replies Joe. “Sounded like a dumb job,” remarks Graynamore, accurately reflecting the feelings of the audience. What follows is of such dialogical perfection, it would be a shame to not record it here in full:
Graynamore: “What do you know about super conductors?”
Graynamore: “Me neither. But I own a huge company that dominates the world market for super conductors. You got any whiskey?”
Graynamore: “I want to hire you Joe Banks. I want to hire you to jump into a volcano.”
Joe: “I… you know… I do have some whiskey.”
Graynamore wants the trading rights for a mineral (used in making superconductors) found only on the South Pacific island of Waponi Woo. Every hundred years, a man “of his own free will” must jump into volcano to appease a God of the people on the small island. If Graynamore can find such a man, the Waponi will give him trading rights. If Joe agrees to jump into the volcano in three weeks time, Graynamore will make sure those final three weeks of Joe’s life are lived out in high style. He sets out four credit cards, each emblazoned with Joe’s name. Lloyd Bridges has such a devil of a time playing up the scene, a few salient points pass over the viewer the first time around. How Graynamore acquired four credit cards with someone else’s name on them in less than twenty four hours is unexplained, unacknowledged. When Graynamore is finished giving his Faustian bargain, Joe picks up a single credit card, examines it a moment and says blandly, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
The fact that the credit cards all have Joe’s name on them is perhaps more important than it first seems. Graynamore does not put a suitcase of green money in front of Joe to tempt him, but credit cards bearing Joe’s name. Joe doesn’t need to accept Graynamore’s offer to get the credit cards because they are already his. The credit card companies don’t know that Joe is going to die. Joe could sign up for a dozen more credit cards, max out them all, and then die and never pay a dime. That Joe picks up one of the credit cards and examines it before agreeing to Graynamore’s offer suggests that he recognizes all of this before consenting. While Joe attracted almost zero thoughtful criticism when it debuted, the film has since amassed loyal followers online, some of whom have committed helpful arguments in favor of reading Graynamore as Old Scratch himself. There is not space here to fully elucidate these arguments, although Shanley’s presentation of the satanic temptation is lucid. In tempting a man to sin, the Devil never offers a man anything other than that man’s own life. Sin is an abuse of the body, an attempt to render the body a soulless pleasure receptor; of course, the body can experience physical stimulation in sin, but cannot enjoy pleasure in sin because enjoyment is an event which takes place in the spirit, and the spirit is darkened in sin, unable to receive the action of the body. For this reason, sin is often confusing to the sinner. While physical stimulation has taken place, satisfaction has not. Something seems amiss, as though a button has been pushed but no action has resulted. The promise the sinner makes on a second approach to sin is, “This time the sin will be truly pleasurable, satisfying.” People get caught in loops of sin when they cannot recognize that sin is never pleasurable, never satisfying, and that it is not possible to contrive a situation and context in which sin can provide satisfaction, despite endlessly trying.
Why does Joe consent, though? The previous afternoon, Joe learned he would die in six months, and went on to relish the next six hours of his life as though on a weekend pass from seventh circle of hell. After a single disappointment in the evening with Dede, he is ready to trade six months of life for a mere three weeks? How has Joe not merely agreed to murder himself? The second act of the film will transform the way Joe views the act of jumping into the volcano, and ours as well.
Is such sudden dynamic movement of character and resolve believable? On the contrary, I don’t know how anything other than such dynamism is believable. In the prescribed Orthodox Prayer of Thanksgiving after Recovery from Illness, the penitent man prays, “Grant me Thy grace, I pray to Thee, to enable me to keep my resolutions, and correct the errors of my past life, that I may improve in virtue…” When death seems eminent, the tendency to prop the soul upright is immediate. Promises to live right flow easily, repentance comes naturally. Monks and Puritans cultivated the habit of continually setting before themselves the certainty of their own deaths that they might always be heavenly-minded. As death seems to draw closer still, so the promises to live rightly are more highly vaunted. When death beats a surprising retreat, the temptation to forget the good resolutions made during the danger is great. I think also of the latter days of Orual (Till We Have Faces), who suddenly, in old age, realizes she must be good; every morning she resolves to be kind and generous, and all day long she violates the resolutions, losing herself to situation and ignorance. For Orual, the only recourse is a holy one. So, too, Joe will find that only God can save him from his weak tendency towards the banal.
Joe first flies to Los Angeles, from which he will board a small yacht and sail to the South Pacific. Meg Ryan plays three roles in the film; she is the mousy Dede, the flakey Angelica, and the patrician Patricia. Both Angelica and Patricia are daughters of Samuel Graynamore, and neither of them ever speak highly of the man, each suggesting in their own way that their father is a crass opportunist. At LAX, Angelica picks up Joe and shows him the city. Before the night is over, she tells him she sometimes thinks of killing herself, recites a vapid poem she has written, and, while dropping him off at his hotel, asks him if he wants her to stay the night. He declines. When Joe saw something of himself in Dede, he did not like what he saw (wasted life, miserable job) and so he tried to raise himself up; when Joe meets Angelica, he sees something of himself in her (thoughts of suicide, spend the night?) and tries to raise himself up, to ascend. The morning after, Angelica delivers Joe to Patricia, who will pilot the ship to Waponi Woo. While on the dock, a surly Patricia calls Joe “Felix” just to show him she does whatever she wants as the pilot, although he refuses the name. Felix means happy, though, and the moment of their meeting might foreshadow the denouement of the film, in which Joe truly lives up to the name Patricia offers him.
Before the end of their first day together, Patricia asks Joe bluntly if he slept with Angelica, and he says he did not. She softens to him immediately, confessing that she has agreed with her father to deliver Joe to Waponi Woo in exchange for the boat, something of a family heirloom. The deal doesn’t sit right with Patricia because she wants nothing to do with her father, the liar, but has been pulled back into his orbit by the offer of the boat. Like Joe, who sold his life to Frank Waturi “for three hundred bucks a week,” Patricia has also traded her ideals for material gain. Both Joe and Patricia want freedom from the City of Man, but both are easily enticed. The next several days journey on the high seas pass comfortably, fishing. In the evening, over dinner, Joe asks Patricia if she believes in God, and she replies that she believes in herself.
Joe: “What does that mean?”
Patricia: “I have confidence in myself.”
Joe: “I’ve been doing some soul searching lately. Been asking myself some pretty tough questions. You know what I found out? I have no interest in myself. I start thinking about myself and I get bored out of my mind.”
Paradoxically, in becoming bored with himself, Joe has become a truly interesting person. Joe has dinner with Dede, Angelica and Patricia; after the first, Dede rejects Joe, after the second Joe rejects Angelica, and during the third, Joe comes to an impasse. It seems doubtful he is interested in romancing Patricia at this point, given that he is shortly to die, and her response to his question about the life of God likely disappoints him, although their conversation comes at the end of a montage of what looks like an emerging friendship. People get to know one another while eating, though, and although Joe might be unimpressed with Patricia’s beliefs about God, we find later she was quite entranced by his claim to be bored with himself.
In a storm, the ship goes down and Joe and Patricia are saved on a pile of massive steamer trunks Joe purchased in Los Angeles. At the time he purchased the trunks, they were needless. Joe owned very little, but filled the trunks with useless knick-knackery from Hammacher Schlemmer, aimlessly firing his credit cards at anything in site. The bolt of lightning that takes down the ship is the exact shape of the crooked path Joe walked from the parking lot to the factory, the exact shape of a crack in the walls of Joe’s apartment, the exact shape of the path Joe will finally walk when ascending the volcano into which he jumps. Shanley employs a number of such visual rhymes throughout the film. In one scene, Frank Waturi examines a prosthetic testicle between his index finger and thumb while talking on the phone, and in the following scene, Dr. Ellison examines a small glass globe between the same fingers while telling Joe he is going to die. Dede and Angelica and Patricia are all visual references to one another. In truth, the film endlessly appeals forward and backward to itself. Joe lives in an ordered universe, a commanded universe, a universe at harmony with itself even when apparently falling apart.
After the ship goes down, Joe and Patricia spend four or five days adrift on the open water. Joe rummages through his steamer trunks for the junk he bought, entertaining himself while Patricia is unconscious from the shock of the ship sinking. Joe sets up an umbrella to shade her sleeping body, and spares what little fresh water there is on hand for her, thimbling it through her lips in a bottle cap about the size of a communion cup. Joe is happy, though, listening to luau music on a world band radio and dancing whilst nursing Patricia back to health. Time takes its toll, though, and after several days, Joe is dying of hunger and thirst. While Patricia continues to sleep, Joe witnesses the moon rise very suddenly over the horizon, full and brightly luminous. Joe raises his arms, just as he did (in frustration, anger) during the exposition of the film, and prays what has always seemed to me the most beautiful, apophatic prayer in motion picture history. “Dear God, whose name I do not know. Thank you for my life. I forgot how big. Thank you. Thank you for my life,” he confesses, and then passes out. With this, the death which Joe selfishly consented to early in the film is transformed into a kind of martyrdom. He no longer hates his life, but is grateful for it; in gratitude, Joe will no longer cling to his life, but faithfully cede it back into the hands of God.
Joe dies twice, then. He dies briefly after learning he has a brain cloud, but quickly forgets the good resolutions he made and his brave protest of the Gnostic, dispirited office. Much of the remainder of the film is spent helping Joe remember that good resolve. It is telling that when Joe is on the verge of death the second time, starving and dehydrated and adrift, he recalls what he knew when he walked out of Dr. Ellison’s office earlier, although now he knows it into the deeps of his bones and his very soul.
I do not here have space to delve into the last ten minutes of the film, all that follows Joe’s waking from the raft, although suffice to say that I might double the length of this already-overwrought essay unpacking all that happens to Joe after ending up on Waponi Woo. Their whole world ends in a great conflagration and Joe and Patricia sail “away from the things of man,” an eschaton writ small on one of the unlikeliest of Christian stories ever made.