Once upon a time, and the movies: Make-believe in Joe Versus the Volcano
For as long as I can remember the movies to me have been about the make-believe; about the unimaginable made possible. Absurdity and impossibility are given the opportunity to become real. Much like the fairy tales and fables of classic literature, cinema has the capacity to use the impossible to entertain and, more importantly, teach lessons. The potential of film to be a visual storyteller has paved the way for “Once Upon a Time” stories to reach extreme levels of surrealism through the absurdist comedy sub-genre. Absurdist fiction can be read as modern fairy tales for adults. Through the use of satire, dark humour and irrationality, they tell unique stories of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life. A strength of the genre is its ability to presume little judgement about its characters, nor present its ‘moral’ explicitly. Instead, most absurdist texts are ambiguous in nature and require the active complicity of the audience’s imagination.
Upon its release, John Patrick Shanley’s directorial debut Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) was widely accepted as below par by what seems like everyone except for Roger Ebert.1 The picture also has the unique honour of being the only movie to star both Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and flop. And yet it is not quite bad enough to fall into that unusual category of cult films that were once terrible but have since been re-evaluated as undervalued gems of the cinema world. Perhaps this is not because too few people have seen the film, but rather too many people have seen it, and seen it wrongly.
Absurdist comedies hold a big place in my heart. I like how you can dumb something down and apply a really simple message to it. That’s what Joe does. Its premise sounds ridiculous, stupid even; after being diagnosed with a “brain cloud,” hypochondriac Joe (played by Hanks) accepts an offer from an eccentric millionaire to “Live like a king, die like a man” and become a human sacrifice by jumping into a volcano on the mystical Polynesian island of Waponi Woo in exchange for a few days of overindulgence. Fictive stories liberate our imaginations. This has only been heightened by the increasing emphasis upon a visual culture, and the developments in cinematic special effects where anything can be made possible.
There is so much to draw from in the film’s opening two minutes. The most important shot in the entire picture, the opening placard, is so often ignored and yet is essential to framing Joe Banks’ story. Across a black screen the words “Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job” appear. Evocative of fairy tales, the four opening words are indicative that everything audiences are about to witness – the characters, places and events – is made up. Fairy tales also often have elements of magic or the supernatural so this simple placard foreshadows the extraordinary events which follow. In concert with this opening is the nursery rhyme music, indicating something child-like. The absurdity of the film is revealed almost immediately by this. Nursery rhymes often used to establish a lovely, happy story, but in this case are instead juxtaposed against the placard’s description of Joe’s job as “lousy” and the dark, grim world that the opening scene’s visuals portray.
We see Joe, along with others in identical clothing, making their way into their workplace, down a pathway that mimics the company's lightening-bolt logo, in a scene reminiscent of Fritz Lang's similarly themed Metropolis. The sounds of nursery rhyme chimes are replaced by the Eric Burdon’s cover of "Sixteen Tons." The song reveals the slightly hidden story within the story – the classic tale of making a deal with the Devil and losing your soul. This theme is overtly displayed moments later when Joe's co-worker Dede (one of the three roles played by the magnificent Meg Ryan) asks Joe what is wrong. His broken shoe in hand, he responds miserably "I'm losing my sole."
As put forward by Karl Krober, “attending to a story enables us to exercise intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual energies.” By engaging with a film’s story, audiences are not merely conscious but, through participating in the process by comprehending the make-believe world in front of them, they become aware of the functioning of their consciousness. Since reflective consciousness is the most distinguishable trait of humanity, we are never more thoroughly human than when we are engaging with a story, or put simply, watching a movie.
By actively absorbing ourselves into the fictitious world where ‘realistic’ attributes are not required, audiences extend their capacity to understand the surrounding environments. They make themselves vulnerable to experiencing unexpected, even unprecedented conceptions and emotions. At the core of so many of the negative reviews for Joe was the failure to recognize the film for what it was: a fable. Without this label its plot becomes nonsensical, ridiculous, unbelievable and over the top. What is missed is the recognition of a whimsical, quirky fairy tale that reveals self-actualisation is achieved not through walking the straight and narrow, but rather by taking the crooked path and bumping into others on the way. The whole movie is essentially the crooked and wide path to redemption that Joe takes.
In spite of its dark and bleak moments, Shanley’s screenplay is witty and self-aware. Whilst so much of the world surrounding Joe is make-believe made real, the observant viewer understands immediately that the “brain cloud” he is diagnosed with later in the film is part of a con and is very, very fake. But, at the same time, it is not. The brain cloud is representative of something that will kill the majority of human beings: old age. As the doctor explains, “It will spread at a regular rate ... It is very destructive ... It’s not painful … Your brain will simply fail, followed abruptly by your body.” Above all, the doctor notes the brain fog is incurable. As is the case with many films that tackle mortality head on, Joe Versus the Volcano is about recognising the potential to appreciate the fragility of life. The film is not shot in the same dull humdrum world of so many other movies. Instead, the dialogue and the performances are on a fantasy level where if you believe strange things can happen, they will.