Friday, August 24, 2012

I Forgot...How BIG...


I never knew Joe Versus the Volcano (playing tomorrow at midnight at Los Angeles' New Beverly Cinema) as a flop, though that is the unfortunate reputation with which it has long been saddled. It was introduced to me by the man who co-ran my high school's drama department (and whose class on playwriting was more valuable and formative than any writing class I took in college), simply as a movie everyone should see, and more pressingly due to the fact that our relationship largely revolved around talking about movies, as a litmus test. If someone he knew didn't like Joe Versus the Volcano, he simply didn't discuss movies with them. And knowing him, and knowing Joe Versus the Volcano, I could kind of see his point.

I've introduced the film to various people over the years, mostly met with some polite "it was cute" or "that was fun" responses. The occasional person totally got it. But it has remained near and dear to my own heart, and when I compiled my personal Top 100 list recently, I put it at #8 with little hesitation. At this point, it looms almost too large to discuss with any serious objectivity, so I won't bother. I simply treasure every second of this still-totally-unique piece of cinema. Elaborately designed and simply plotted, it celebrates life even as it respectfully acknowledges death. It bemoans the circumstances we so casually embrace, choosing instead abject bravery in an action as simple as asking a girl out to dinner, as monumental as making a one-time leap into a volcano.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley came from the theatre, having seen eight of his plays produced by the time Joe Versus the Volcano was released. His film is unapologetically a marriage of the stage and screen, with some scenes feeling as though they'd be right at home in an off-Broadway production (Joe's office, and boss, are ready-made with their repeated, rhythmic dialogue and exaggerated set design), and others being impossible in any other medium. It'd be easy to point to anything on the boat for this (particularly its eventual fate), but I recall best a much simpler scene. From the outside of the building, we see Joe descend the interior stairs of his doctor's office, walk out the door, and hug a passing dog, all while the camera slowly pans back to incrementally reveal the scene. It's quietly operatic, underscoring the news with which Joe has just been saddled, and giving him an instant outlet to openly express it, all the while pointing out that there's a whole life surrounding Joe to which he is not yet attuned. It does what so many great shots do - encapsulates the entire film.

I could go on and on about the joys abundant in this film (it is still a comedy, after all, and a very funny one), but I'll leave those for you to discover. For those in the Los Angeles area, there is a can't-miss screening of the film tomorrow night (August 25th) at midnight at the New Beverly Cinema. Warner Brothers is leading the charge towards digital projection, so I had long since assumed I'd never get the opportunity to see Joe on honest-to-God 35mm, but here we are. I'll be in the front row, gazing towards the heavens.

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