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2013/05/26

Joe Versus The Volcano

by John Bloner, Jr.

Tom Hanks (Joe Banks) and Meg Ryan (Patricia Graynamore) star in the film, Joe Versus The Volcano.
"If you don't hurry up and let life know what you want, life will damned soon show you what you'll get." Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

On March 9, 1990, playwright turned film director, John Patrick Shanley, brought his first feature, Joe Versus The Volcano, to the screen. Only a few years earlier, Shanley had scored an Oscar for his first screenplay, Moonstruck, and expectations were high for a picture that paired Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for the first time (they would go on to make Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail together) and listed Steven Spielberg as its Executive Director.

The film flopped at the box office. NY Times' Vincent Canby wrote, "Many gifted people contributed to it, but there's no disbelieving the grim evidence on the screen".  Even when some critics praised the movie, they seemed to have watched a different film.  TV Guide called it "a thoroughly captivating romantic adventure in the grand tradition of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s".

While Joe Versus The Volcano wears some of the conventions of old-fashioned romantic comedy, the film, at its core, invokes another man named Joe.

Bill Moyers interviews author, editor and teacher Joseph Campbell on the PBS series, The Power of Myth.
"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us."  Joseph Campbell

Two years prior to the premiere of  Joe Versus The Volcano, PBS aired a six-part series in which host Bill Moyers interviewed world mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell. They discussed ancient tales, legends, and holy stories, and their impact on our lives. Campbell shared his insights on the hero's adventure. He said, "The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there's something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society. This person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir."

Joe Versus The Volcano adopts the mythic structure of the hero's adventure to spin what seems on the surface to be a comic fable, but reveals, over time, like all good stories, its depth.

Joe Banks dreams of a better world.
"As depression makes us lose interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, our range of activities constricts. We stop taking chances, we avoid stimulation, we play it safe."  Richard O'Connor, PhD, "Undoing Depression"  

When Joe Versus The Volcano opens, the character of Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is a hapless guy who has lost his mojo, his life energy. He sits in a badly-lit office, accepting the abuses of his ill-tempered boss, and feeling downcast and ill. He is a suicide-waiting-to-happen.

Meg Ryan as Dede, on of three roles she plays in the film.
 Eight years earlier, Joe was a firefighter--he once saved three kids from a burning building--but the experience left him constantly afraid. Rather than face his fears, Joe has shrunk into a state of depression. He left the fire department to take a lousy job where little was expected of him. He  moved into a lousy apartment and led a lousy, lonesome life.

In a Walter Mitty-esque existence, he is only able to fantasize adventure by reading books--Robinson Crusoe, Romeo & Juliet, and The Odyssey--playing his ukulele, and gazing into a South Seas scene in his desk lamp (see image above).

While he's pined for the office's pretty secretary, Dede, (played by Meg Ryan, above), he's never acted on his desire. The screenplay describes the fire that is simmering below the surface when Dede and Joe are together.

"She looks at him. She's frustrated with this guy. This is somebody who she could go for, but he's just lying there like a dog waiting to be kicked. He looks at her. If he had the strength, if he were feeling a little better, he'd make a play for this woman. But he's helpless."

Joe has cowed to the dragon within, a dragon that weakens him, causes him to accept the abuses of his boss and make him feel that he is nothing but a broken coat rack for his cheap suit and gray fedora.

Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers, "Psychologically, the dragon is one's own binding of oneself to one's ego. We're captured in our own dragon cage. The ultimate dragon is within you. It is your ego clamping you down".

Joe Banks assaults his boss, Mr. Waturi (played by Dan Hedaya), just before quitting his job.
"The monster masks in Star Wars represent the real monster force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man. He's a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of the imposed system." Joseph Campbell

Joe Versus The Volcano invokes another story of adventure, Star Wars. While Joe's boss, Mr. Waturi, doesn't look like Darth Vader, he embodies the fear, anger, hate and suffering that took over Anakin Skywalker on his path to the dark side.

Mr. Waturi berates his staff while they cower in his presence. He is a poster child of the Peter Principle: a man who's risen through the company ranks to reach his own level of incompetence.

Darth Vader, unmasked

Like Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Mr. Waturi can be seen as someone to pity rather than to fear. When Joe Banks muscles up the courage to stand up to his boss, Waturi shrinks into a corner.

If Joe had spent another eight years in his job, he
may have become just like his boss, lost to himself and of little good to mankind.

In one special scene--in a film filled with many special scenes--Joe faces his fear. He tells Mr. Waturi,  "I ask myself, why have I put up with you? I can't imagine but I know. Fear. Yellow freakin' fear. I've been too chicken shit afraid to live my life so I sold it to you for three hundred freakin' dollars a week!"

"There's a black fog of tissue running right down the center of your brain. It's very rare. It's will spread at a regular rate. It's very destructive."  Dr. Ellison (played by Robert Stack) delivers his diagnosis to Joe Banks.

Joe Bank's adventure is set into motion by a doctor's diagnosis. He learns he is dying and has only months to live.  The diagnosis: a "brain cloud". *  "You have some time left, Mr. Banks," he instructs him. "You have some life left. My advice to you is: live it well".

Joe had stopped living his life years ago. He doesn't know how to get it started again without receiving a little help.

* Note: While medical text doesn't turn up any mention of a brain cloud, there exists a condition known as brain fog. According to Lawrence Wilson, MD, "brain fog may be described as feelings of mental confusion or lack of mental clarity. It can cause a person to become forgetful, detached and often discouraged and depressed."

I'm trying to see the hero in there," Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) tells Joe Banks.
"Tricksters serve several important psychological functions. They bring about healthy change and transformation, often by drawing attention to the imbalance or absurdity of a stagnant psychological situation." Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey

Joe isn't aware of what is about to happen after he quits his job. Left to his own devices, he might putter about his crappy apartment, pluck his ukulele and fantasize from time to time about Dede until the day his brain cloud (read "depression") closes over him.

A knock on his door changes his life. With his carved duck-handled cane and maidenhead pipe, Samuel Harvey Graynamore (played with wide-eyed aplomb by Lloyd Bridges), bursts into Joe's apartment to propose a business deal.  Graynamore will finance a trip-of-a-lifetime for Joe to sail to a South Seas island if Joe will agree to commit ritual suicide once he reaches that place by jumping into the island's volcano.

Graynamore is an industrialist who is in need of a mineral that is in abundance on the island. The island's tribe are willing to provide this precious commodity to him if he can furnish a volunteer who will appease their volcano's angry fire god.


"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won."  Joseph Campbell


Who is Samuel Graynamore?  Some suggest he's the devil incarnate. He could otherwise be a magical helper on Joe's heroic journey (see diagram above).  Joe has already crossed the first threshold by quitting his job and tossing out his fedora, a symbol of his so-called life in the wasteland.

Graynamore could also be a trickster, that is, a deity in human form who meddles in the affairs of man. Typically, a trickster's plans turn against him. He is tricked by his own devious deeds. Meanwhile, in spite of his intentions, the trickster often brings about something good.

Without pause, Joe accepts Graynamore's deal. He has nothing to lose . . .but his own life.


"There is a magnificent essay by Schopenhauer in which he asks, how is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another that without the thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices his own life to the other?"  Joseph Campbell

Joe's adventure begins as a journey toward a ritual suicide. He wants to die on his own terms rather than to allow the Grim Reaper to take it from him at some unexpected hour. Unbeknownst to him, he is placing himself in accord with ancient traditions. Joseph Campbell comments, "The New Testament teaches dying to one's self, literally suffering the pain of death to the world and its values. You die to your current world in order to come to another of some kind".

Joe Versus The Volcano charts Joe Bank's life from a time when he is obsessed with every ache or sniffle of his body. He's constantly running to doctors for a diagnosis. As he heads out across the Pacific Ocean toward a tiny island where he'll jump to his death, something of interest happens to him. His ego begins to die. "I have no interest in myself," he says while sailing across the sea. "I think about myself, I get bored out of my mind."

Joe Banks meets Samuel Graynamore's depressed daughter, Angelica.
"Listen to me. If you have a choice between killing yourself and doing something you're scared of doing, why not take the leap and do the thing you're scared of doing?"  Joe Banks to Angelica Graynamore

Joe meets several people on his passage toward the South Seas island. He encounters one of Samuel Graynamore's daughters, Angelica, a bored, depressed redhead (played again by Meg Ryan), who lives in the shadow of her rich father. She's a self-proclaimed flibbertigibbet flitting from one thing to the next, like the myth of the bird of paradise, which Europeans once thought were legless fowl, remaining forever in flight.

Angelica has not learned how to stand on her own two feet. "Did you ever think of killing yourself?", she asks Joe, and the film audience can fill in the answer. The nearness of death has been Joe's only hope for years.

A funny thing happens to Joe in Los Angeles, however. Rather than be dragged down into Angelica's morose world, Joe attempts to pull her out of it. "Why would you do that?", he asks her. "Some things take care of themselves. Maybe they're not even your business. If you have a choice between killing yourself and doing something you're scared of doing, why not take the leap and do the thing you're scared of doing?"

One reason why Joe Versus The Volcano may have failed to attract a large audience is that a mass audience did not want existentialism with their popcorn. Instead of a meet-cute romantic comedy, they were treated to characters who spoke of suicide, of the existence of God, of their own insecurities and being cut off from humanity and not knowing if they want to be included in it anyway.

Captain Willard and his crew arrive at Colonel Kurtz' outpost in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
"The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Joe Versus The Volcano resembles Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novel, and the film Apocalypse Now, in the way these works depict one man's long journey, fought against many obstacles, to a mysterious destination and the lessons learned along the way. While Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are harrowing descents into the marrow of madness, Shanley's film is instead an ascent from madness toward wholeness and love.

Shanley's world is often filled with music, including Georges Delerue's romantic score, a rendition of Ol' Man River by Ray Charles, Blue Moon by Elvis Presley, and a mariachi band performance of Lerner and Loewe's classic, On The Street Where You Live. Shanley's characters speak like no other in modern film. They are over-the-top about everything: love, death and the meaning of life.

Craig Ghoulson of Bomb Magazine writes, "Shanley chooses characters stretched to the breaking point between rage and love. His are  characters of obsessive passions who match those passions with hyper-melodic language".

Former U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich once said, "One of my safety valves is an appreciation for life's absurdities . .  .Life isn't a funeral march to the grave. It's a polka".

This sentiment sums up Joe Versus The Volcano. As Joe loses his material goods and his former sense of self disappears, his soul grows lighter, so even when he's marooned at sea without any hope for tomorrow, he can dance the day away.

His gesture of arms-raised-to-heaven is echoed later in the film, when he experiences the full magnitude of being alive during the rising of the moon. (See end of this article)


"Life is divided into two groups -- those who utterly hate Joe Versus The Volcano and those who absolutely, unequivocally love it. And it's about 90-10 against. I'm with the 10%." Robert Elisberg, Huffington Post


"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." Patricia Graynamore (Meg Ryan)


When Joe sails across the Pacific Ocean toward  the tiny island called Waponi Woo, he meets the captain of the boat, Patricia Graynamore (once again, Meg Ryan), a half-sister to Angelica. In terms of temperament, she is the moon to Angelica's sun. Unlike the dormouse Dede or her hollow half-sister, Patricia is pretty much her own woman . . . or so she pretends to be.

The screenplay describes her as "a magnificent, athletic, truly feminine, blonde, blue-eyed woman in her late twenties." What it doesn't reveal right away is that Patricia is searching for meaning, too. "I'm soul sick and you're gonna see that, like my sister," she tells Joe once they have set sail on her vessel. "She's soul sick, too."

Joe Banks' journey becomes much more than a passage from darkness to light. Each person he comes into contact with on his adventure is uplifted by his good spirit and kindness. "We're not on a journey to save the world, but to save ourselves," Joseph Campbell said. "But in doing, you save the world."

Abe Vigoda as the Chief of the Waponis.
"Any movie that puts Abe Vigoda in the dress of a Polynesian chief...is okay by me." Roger Ebert

When Patricia and Joe arrive at the island, they are greeted by a tribe, the Waponis, who live peacefully, drink large amounts of orange soda (aptly named "Jump"), and who are fearful of their island's volcano god.  It's been one hundred years since someone fell into the fire of the volcano, and it's high time that another victim gives up his life.

What's apparent through this film is that Joe has already taken the leap. He's already given up his life, but not in the way he could have ever imagined back in his crappy apartment.

Joe Versus The Volcano is a movie of moments. Its penultimate moment arrives when Joe, nearly dead from dehydration and adrift on the ocean, witnesses the rising of the moon as he has never witnessed it before. The lunar ascent lifts him to his feet in love and celebration of life before he drops again from weakness, but also in humility.



"Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big . . . Thank you for my life." Joe Banks (Tom Hanks)

Some interesting facts: Georges Delerue, who created the score for Joe Versus The Volcano, wrote music for many of the greatest films of the 20th century, including Shoot The Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Hiroshima mon amour, The Conformist, and many more.

After directing his first picture, John Patrick Shanley did not direct another film for eighteen years. In 2008, he created a film adaptation of his play, Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Given the raw emotions of Shanley's characters, it's appropriate that in 2013, Doubt was transformed into an opera, receiving its premiere with the Minnesota Opera.

In 2012, Ebertfest in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois selected Joe Versus The Volcano to open the festival.  At
that time, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "As you will see, John Patrick Shanley's film is so visionary and epic in conception that it really requires a big screen . . . to make its ideal impact."

Explore a Mother Lode of pictures, sounds, facts and speculation about Joe Versus The Volcano by clicking HERE. Visit the movie's page at the Internet Movie Database by clicking HERE.

5 comments:

  1. John, Thanks for writing and publishing this excellent and thorough article! "Joe Versus the Volcano" is one of my favorite movies because of its philosophy. I appreciate your article's depth regarding that. - Jim J.

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  2. Error~!~ This movie does not open with a hapless guy. John Patrick Shanley defines this movie in the opening frame clearly in black and white. "Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe" This movie is a fairy tale, a fantasy and it is full of imagery and moral lessons. All of the characters are a little over-the-top and each one is a key in some lesson or step in Joe's growth through the film. Other than that ... a great article about one of my favorite movies.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Truly great movie!! It deals with reality on several levels, I liked it, I wish more movies could made with these themes in mind!! Instead of fiery explosions times 10, automatic weapons, and stupid car chases!! These idiots are still making movies for stupid teenagers, and mostly boys at that!!

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  5. I used this film in middle school in the States and Asia to illustrate Campbell's Hero's Journey and the concept of symbolism. I would stop frame on the various symbolic elements. The film had such an impact that former students used the "jumping into the volcano" scene in their wedding (I still have the video they sent me). I believe Mr. Shanley would be proud to know that he inspired young people on their journeys...

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