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Volcanoes  and  Lightning Bolts

-- a brief but interesting observation about Joe versus the Volcano, that probably should have been obvious. 3/17/00

JOE: Joe's crooked road to doom.

In 1990, the Tom Hanks movie Joe versus the Volcano was a big disappointment for its writer-director John Patrick Shanley. The acclaimed playwright and screenwriter of Moonstruck and Five Corners should have been writing his own Hollywood ticket, but the failure of Joe marked a retreat back to screenwriting, on pix like Congo. Shanley hasn't directed a movie since, and that's a shame, because no matter what audiences ten years ago thought, Joe versus the Volcano is a wonderful movie.

If you want the fan perspective, there's a nice Joe versus the Volcano website that's been around a long time, the kind of site Savant keeps tucked away on his SAVANT LINKS page, hint, hint. I avoided Joe in 1990 because I hated stupid Tom Hanks comedies, heard it was a dog that had needed to have its ending reshot and even rolled my eyes at a snippet being shown on a monitor in a department store. Two people standing in front of a fake-as-cardboard sky. Gimme a break. 1

Then I finally saw the film; it immediately became one of my favorites. It's funny. It's witty. It's a shaggy volcano story, a tightrope walk where each step looks like a cinematic pitfall. People hate the ending. Why? For Savant's money, Joe is a clever fairy tale that makes perfect poetic sense. Like Groundhog Day, it's a romantic Capra-like confection, that outdoes Capra by actually having a philosophy anyone could apply to their lives: Have courage, have courage ... If your only choice is between death and daring to do what you dream, why not do what you dream? Instead we create new Taboos to rationalize our petty fears and stay in our ruts. The acid test for Joe was my mother. Sure, my family likes most of what I foist on them (well, some of the time) but my mom doesn't see much use at all in most movies. Joe was the first film I've seen capture her imagination in years. 1990 must have been a bad time for meaningful whimsy. The sincere wisdom in Joe versus the Volcano makes the condescendingly calculated Forrest Gump shrivel in shame.

John Patrick Shanley plays all kinds of cute visual games in Joe, that are nicely introduced on the fan site mentioned above. The duck-as-devil is the cutest. But the one everyone catches at least partially is the repetition of the lightning bolt symbol in the logo of the American Panascope company, where downtrodden Joe Banks wastes his days under those fluorescent lights that, "suck out his brains ...shhhhp, shhhp." There's a big 'hey' that goes through your jead when you realize a fairly sophisticated game of visual echoes is being played ... the same zigzag lightning bolt pattern can be seen in the procession of Waponis climbing to the volcano (top of page), and even in the lighting that sinks Patricia Graynamore's (Meg Ryan) yacht. Look closer, and it is even in the cracked walls of Joe Banks' crummy apartment.

The zigzag crack represents both the fear we humans need to overcome, and the circuitous, detour -- ridden paths our lives become when we don't aim straight for the truth. Like the absurd walkway leading to the hellish Panascope factory (pictured just above), we instead walk Joe's "crooked road" of doubt, cynicism and fear of life itself -- heck, this is sounding like an EST meeting. Joe's philosophy is good stuff. The business about making sure you take care of all the 'luggage problems' sure beats the spiritual bookkeeping approach with its personal inventories or whatever. Here in the whimsical format of light romantic comedy, some real wisdom is offered. The Apartment implores you to be a mensch; Joe versus the Volcano wants you shuck off your zombie rags and stop being a Pod Person.

The logo with the lightning bolt stands out... and more than one reviewer has pointed out its resemblance to the old RKO logo, a similar bolt on a triangular shield. But none I have read make the connection I ran into the other morning on the TCM cable channel.

At about six A.M., up popped Bird of Paradise, the 1932 version with Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea. It's a well-directed early talkie made by King Vidor with great pre-King Kong music by Max Steiner. I'd avoided the movie previously because all that seemed to be available were fuzzy, inaudible public domain dupe prints, usually mangled. The native dramatics are as convincing as One Million Years B.C., so without the visuals or the music, there wasn't much to keep one's interest. Well anyway, Savant watches the end of the film, which climaxes in the beautiful, heartbroken Polynesian maiden played by Del Rio finding the better part of love by walking voluntarily into her island's angry volcano as part of a native ritual! 2

Previously terrified of the volcano, or Wu, to you enlightened readers, Del Rio is shown all dressed up, smiling as she walks, with the fiery mountain superimposed quite effectively over her impassioned face (good going, Mr. Vidor). Then the picture dissolves to the end title card, with the RKO logo and its prominent lightning bolt. Case closed.

Okay, so it isn't the missing reels of Greed. But I had a good laugh at John Patrick Shanley's strange eclecticism, and the sighting gave me this opportunity to tout his film, which has given me so much pleasure. The only other filmic use of the RKO logo Savant remembers is in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which tries to relate 30's monster movies to a studio that didn't make any!


1   Some people say they really hate the ending of this film, like it's really false. This link to a script on the web shows the ending before Shanley changed it, for those who are curious!

2   Another clue? Outside the restaurant visited by Joe Banks and Dee Dee is a sign picturing a volcano, (like on Joe's musical lampshade) and the words 'Fire in Paradise!'

New: a review of Warner's new DVD, 4/2/02!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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