Joe Versus the Volcano

This is a brief ode to what is, in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated films in history.

JoeVtitleI’ve watched “Joe Versus the Volcano” perhaps twenty to thirty times. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I enjoy it more each time I view it. Most movies can’t hold up to multiple viewings. As we lose interest in the story and characters, our attention wanders to reveal gaps in logic, bad lines, and other assorted flaws.

Not so with “Joe”.

I bribed them to sing a song that would drive us insane and make our hearts swell and burst.

Here’s a movie that somehow presents profound philosophical questions about life and death, God and meaning, yet still manages to be outrageously funny. The scenes between Joe Banks and his boss, Mr. Waturi, could be a movie on their own. (There’s something strangely familiar about that workplace. I think I worked there. In fact, I think most of us have.)

I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?

The performances, by one of the more eclectic casts you’ll ever see, are uniformly wonderful. It marks the first pairing of what could be this generation’s Tracy and Hepburn: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Ms. Ryan gives three of her best performances. Lloyd Bridges, Dan Hedaya, Robert Stack, Abe Vigoda, Ossie Davis. Great, great, great, great, great.

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.

The best performance of all, however, is by a guy named Barry McGovern, whose role is listed simply as “luggage salesman.” I would have given that guy an Oscar.

Very exciting… as a luggage problem!

Even the music is terrific. The Rascals, Del Vikings, and Sergio Mendes all in one movie? So great. Best of all is Eric Burdon’s passionately brilliant version of “16 Tons” that introduces the film.

Nobody knows anything, Joe. We’ll take this leap, and we’ll see. We’ll jump, and we’ll see. That’s life, right?

In closing, I’ll add that the film’s writer/director (a true auteur), John Patrick Shanley, is one of the most gifted artists of our time. As evidence, he also wrote “Moonstruck” and “Doubt” (play and film). That’s good stuff.

Dear God, whose name I do not know – thank you for my life. I forgot how BIG… thank you. Thank you for my life.

I could go on and, if you were here before me, I would. Better, I’d suggest we watch it. It won’t be the last time for me.

I have no response to that.


Patricia: I wonder where we’ll end up?
Joe: Away from the things of man, my love. Away from the things of man.

Spewing chunks

nopicSpeaking of uncomfortable content, which you might recall I was in my last post, what’s the deal with all the puke in movies recently? I thought it was just me. It seemed as if every movie I watched had someone barfing up their innards. Like the F-bomb issue, it was unrelated to genre or (lack of) consumer demand.

Then I saw an online discussion of the phenomenon. Others had noticed it, too. I was relieved. But only a little.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with occasionally spewing a few chunks on screen, especially if it fits. Pregnant women often throw up in early stages of pregnancy. A stomach bug is bound to bring back breakfast and a few snacks.

But every movie?? If anyone is even slightly off-center about something, here come the chunks. Confused? Dizzy? Angry? Depressed? That’s all it takes to lose lunch these days. In the aforementioned discussion, someone made the claim that every movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year had a puke scene. I can’t verify that because I haven’t seen them all, but every one I saw towed the retch line.

This isn’t reality because people don’t puke that often. It isn’t commercially necessary because nobody goes to the movies saying, “Man, I hope someone hurls in this one!” It’s not edgy because it’s mainstream.

So why all the regurgitation? There can be only one reason and it’s the same reason young kids take up smoking, swearing, and stealing: Everybody’s doing it. You’d think artistes would want to rise above the morass of the mundane and stick it to the status quo.

You’d be wrong.

They’re lemmings just like the rest of us. Monkey see, monkey puke.

I can deal with this. I just ignore it, since it doesn’t add anything to the story. What worries me is what’s next. What about when it becomes cool to show people with diarrhea? That episode was in a major movie last year. And the dumper was nominated for an acting award. Could the Hershey Squirts be the next offensive trend? Unlikely because the movie was a flop, but you never know.

Nose-picking is a likely candidate. Starts innocently enough but before you know it, they’re drawing blood as they strip mine for nose gold. Great visual. Hawking loogies, fingernail (and toenail!) biting, squeezing zits. There’s a deep well of unsociable behavior to draw from.

All this talk has made me sick to my stomach. I gotta…

I thought this was a new trend. Sadly, this guy noticed it eight years ago. It must be getting that much worse.

Defusing the bombs

fbombSomeone wiser than me (that’s covers pretty much everyone) once observed that no one ever left a movie theater saying, “Yeah, it was a good movie. I just wish there had been more swearing.” Plenty of audience members yearn for more violence or lurid sexual content, but swearing is not really in that great demand.

I guess the market is saturated.

This topic came to mind recently when I read an online discussion among screenwriters wondering whether the whole F-bomb thing had gotten out of hand. The discussion was initiated by someone who questioned whether movies rely too much on that popular profanity to convince viewers of the film’s edginess.

Funny thing about that. F-bombs have been defused merely by their ubiquity. They aren’t spoken only by nasty thugs in edgy movies or shady characters in bleak noir films. They’re in goofy comedies, historical epics, and science fiction. They’re in everything! We’ve been carpet F-bombed. As a result, the very effect they supposedly serve is gone. It’s just another cliché. A cliché no one questions.

Let’s think about it. If a character in a movie said any other word as often as Robert De Niro or Chris Rock use The Big One in an average movie, no one would take them seriously. The argument is that this is the way people talk. Which people? I don’t know them, and I’ve been in some pretty rough environments. In my experience, the number of times a person uses that word is inversely proportional to the IQ of the speaker.

Besides, film characters aren’t written to speak the way people really speak. The “um”s, “uh”s, and “er”s are generally banished because they’re boring, just as excessive swearing has become boring. Suppose, for example, a character said the word “like” as often as many people do today, say, like this. That dialog would be unlistenable. It would never pass development muster.

So we’re on our way to completely declawing another obscenity. We’ve seen it before. When I was growing up, there were still older people who remembered where the word “screw” came from. If we innocent children referred to something as “screwed up”, we were shushed or, if we were unlucky, went on a soap diet. We had no idea why. Today no one bats an eyelash at screw, which means essentially the same thing as… well, you know.

For better or worse, our culture is in the midst of the dilution of another cuss word: suck. No one said this when I was young. It was a “swear word”. Like the other no-say-ems, it referred to a sexual act. Now it means… well, it means nothing. And everyone says it with impunity, from children to parents to ministers to teachers. It’s just another word.

Crap, heck, darn, shoot, screw. The euphemism backlog is growing as the “real” swears fade into impotence. I’m not sure if all this is good news or bad. Are we lowering the standards of the language or are we gradually removing the words that hurt?

I don’t friggin’ know.

Addendum: OK, just so you know it’s not only narrow-minded bloggers like me who think this way, here’s a quote from a recent newsletter from Richard Walter, chairman of the UCLA screenwriting program:

“The downside to writers having the freedom to write whatever they want is that it allows us also to write as badly as we want. The relentless exploitation of vulgarity is supposed to foster a sense of authenticity. In fact, however, it usually achieves precisely the opposite: heavy-handedness, thudding self consciousness, and a tone that is overbearingly shrill.”

To which I say, “Amen, Professor Walter.”

Frog Pond Skater

This week is all trivia, all the time. Thus, my time for writing is severely constricted. To save time, I’m reposting something that first appeared on my other blog nearly five years ago.

This short story was written several more years before I first posted it.  I’ll give the same disclaimer I did then: If you think it stinks, we can all pretend I’ve become a better writer since.

The story is called “Frog Pond Skater”.


A Childe Hassam sunset descended upon Boston Common, the surrounding towers outlined in a golden haze.  She approached the skating rink – already overflowing with rosy-cheeked children struggling to stay erect while socially-challenged teens fell in each other’s paths – with a poise that was well studied but forced, already wearing thin even at her young age.  She seemed to be chased through the gate, leaving her three dollars with the attendant and barely acknowledging the greeting that came from within the badly weathered booth.

Some of the youngest skaters saw her arrival and chirped with glee in anticipation.  Not a few muffled laughs were also mixed in but if she heard them, she didn’t let on.  Her fingers laced her skates with the deftness and care of a surgeon.  She left her shoes at the rink’s gate.  Though they would be unattended, she never gave another thought to their safety.  There was no tentative step as her left skate hit the ice.  Where others tiptoed to a safe starting place, her first motion was a perfect glide already in synch with the whirlpool of skaters that had begun at ten that morning and would continue unceasing but endlessly changing for several more hours.

She was as different from the rest of the skaters as she was a mystery to them.  What was this statuesque beauty with the perfect form and designer outfit doing amongst the tourists and assorted riffraff of the city?  Her subtly muscular body moved with the grace of light.  Those who were not in awe of her were trying to suppress an envy that was without pity.  In vain, women did their best to distract the attentions of their partners back to themselves.

The girl, oblivious to the stares and glares of the onlookers, made a couple of turns around the rink before, now fully warmed up, she headed for the eye of the skating storm.  Many of the children stopped their revolutions as well; this was the time they had been waiting for.

The girl paused in the center for a moment as if she didn’t wish to continue.  There seemed to be a struggle within her.  With a deep sigh of resignation, she threw her arms out and with a single move began a slow spin that increased in speed as she pulled her arms closer to her body.  A voice in her head screamed at her to go faster.  She must go faster if she was to get it right and faster she went.  Still, the axis of her spin never wavered and it seemed as if she was rooted to a single molecule of the ice.

The children, some of whom witnessed this sight every week, were no less impressed by it, their mouths open in naive adoration.  They were at least as amazed that she didn’t simply fly away like a missile or drill straight through the thin veneer of ice and the concrete slab beneath it, so fast was her turning.

She didn’t slow down as she gracefully raised and lowered her hands in perfect time.  Finally she threw her head back and extended her arms, reducing her speed to the point where her facial expression could once more be seen.  She wore the same joyless countenance that had clouded her face since she had arrived.  Most who observed it discounted it as nothing more than professional smugness, but if any took the time to look beneath the facade, her pain was evident.

The skater returned to the rotating mass of visitors, blending in as best she could.  Some of the children followed her, hoping to glean some of her magic.  They could see the muscles in her legs ripple under her tight leggings belying the ease with which she glided effortlessly over the ice.  Her movements were as smooth as the ice itself had been when it was first laid down, before it had been carved so violently by the hundreds of skaters who left their marks with their blades, hands, knees, and bottoms.  If it had occurred to her, she might have winced at the irony of this, if she considered how her life had once shined but was now also scarred, though much more permanently.

As if the thought itself threatened to invade her mind, she distracted herself by heading back to the rink’s center.  This time she didn’t hesitate before spreading her legs, toes pointing outward, leaning into the large circle she traced in the ice.  She leaned so far that the children thought that surely her defiance of the law of gravity would bring her face down onto the frozen surface.  When she straightened up, leaned back, and reversed the circle, the children sighed with relief.  Although they had seen her perform the maneuver many times, they watched her like they watched a much-loved movie, clinging to the suspense in spite of the fact that they knew the ending was a happy one.

The skater left the center stage as quickly and easily as she had entered it.  She may have been contemplating her next move or she may not have been thinking at all, but she never saw the teenage boy who was flailing his arms trying to keep from stumbling as he cut across the steady flow of skaters in the perpetual circle.

The boy was actually moving backward when he slammed into her broadside with his full weight.  Her legs came out completely from beneath her as she fell to her right.  She never had a chance to put her arms out to stop the fall and the side of her face hit the wooden fence that enclosed the rink.  The circle’s momentum never slowed.  A few of the people saw the girl fall but an hour didn’t pass at the Frog Pond without several such spills and they paid little attention.  The children were stunned.  The girl herself was stunned.  She hadn’t felt the cold of the ice on her skin in many years.  She sat for a long time as the pain began to overcome the initial shock.  She put her finger to her cheekbone and felt her warm blood as it slowly dripped down her face, mingling with the tear that was falling from her eye.  She had nothing to wipe her face with and she was not inclined to do so anyway.  Her body shuddered once and she lifted herself to her feet with great effort.

As she made her way to the exit, one little girl watched her slow progress and noiseless tears fell freely from the eyes that only seconds before were wide with wonder and delight.  The skater unlaced her skates with far less aplomb than she had tied them.  She put her shoes back on and as she walked slowly away, she never gave another thought to the safety of her skates, left unattended at the gate.