Self Portrait by Patrick Loughlin. Visit his web site.
Joe versus the Volcano and Kierkegaard
By Patrick Loughlin
John Patrick Shanley's film 'Joe Versus the Volcano' has been connected to existential philosophers, like Kierkegaard, by modern thinkers and movie fans. Søren Kierkegaard, a nineteenth century philosopher and the father of Existentialism, introduced a concept he calling 'leveling.' Leveling, Kierkegaard observed, is the effect of Industrialization on society and the individual. Leveling, a form of Nihilism, is a mind set that derives from the fear of committing oneself to something which can be taken away. As a result, the individual becomes very safe. Nothing matters. Nothing bothers you. Nothing can make you sad. However, nothing can make you happy either. The individual exists at a constant leveled state.
John Patrick Shanley illustrates the concept of leveling eloquently in the opening scenes of JvtV. With the start of the movie the audience experiences complete drudgery. The colors are all dreary earth tones leading to the numbing greens emitted by the fluorescent factory lights, setting the tone for misery. Everyone wears the same generic business suit. Individualism and free thinking are crushed beneath industry's bottom line. The weighty labor music accentuates the scene. Joe mentions to Dee Dee in a double meaning, 'I'm losing my soul.' This implies he is becoming more and more like a robot and less human. He suppresses his emotion to achieve a safe leveled state. Mr. Waturi, the semantic representation of industry, tells Joe, 'You're incompetent to put the orders into the printer.' In the typical industrial, not-putting-the-value-on-the-individual's-feelings way, walking zombies inhabit Joe's workplace. Joe complains about '...zombie lights sucking the juice out of my eyeballs.' He later resents the fact that he 'sold his life for three hundred dollars a week' because he was afraid to live.
Dede, a clear case of leveling 'can't handle it' when Joe explains that he is going to die. She is afraid of a relationship with Joe because he is going to die, and in her leveled state she would not be able to handle those kinds of emotions. Patricia's comment later in the movie, ' ...only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement,' sums up Kierkegaard's leveling stage theory.
In Kierkegaardian theory leveling is not an end but only a starting point. Kierkegaard proposed three stages to achieving consciousness; the aesthetic, ethical, and leap of faith; that everyone must go through in order to appreciate the significance of life. In the aesthetic stage one decides to devote his life to a specific activity he finds exciting. It could be something like mountain biking. Whatever contributes to or gives one more time to mountain bike is good. Whatever distracts from one's mountain biking is bad. Mountain biking brings significance to your life. The problem with this stage is that the activity which you have devoted your entire life to can be taken away. Say the individual's leg gets amputated; he can not mountain bike anymore. With his reason for living gone he, in a sense, dies. If the person is lucky enough not to have their activity taken from them or challenged it is theoretically possible to be satisfied in the aesthetic stage. For most, the aesthetic stage teaches that commitment to something concrete is vulnerable.
The change from leveling to the aesthetic stage, for Joe, occurs in the doctor's office. When he learns he only has six months to live, Joe becomes intent on living the rest of his days to the fullest. Joe takes Dr. Elison's words to heart when he tells him ' You have some time left, Mr. Banks. You have some life left. My advice to you is live it well.' The vivacious colors and music from Joe's time in the doctor's office and after reflect the change in Joe's character. Joe comes out of the doctor's office and randomly hugs a strange woman and her dog. At this point Joe is literally embracing life. The scene where he picks up the trampled flower and tries to make it beautiful again is symbolic of how he is going to try to pick up his own trampled life. He suddenly gets up the nerve to do all the things he has always wanted to do, but had suppressed. He stands up to Mr. Waturi, quits his job, opens the 'main drain,' and asks Dee Dee out on a date. His shopping spree in New York is part of his time in the aesthetic stage. He is really enjoying shopping for new clothes and getting his hair cut until Marshall, his driver, has to go home. Joe can not go on enjoying every moment life offers because he realizes he is alone. Joe wants Marshall to have dinner with him, but Marshall returns home to the wife and kids at the end of the day. Joe eats alone in a restaurant. Then he ends up drinking alone in a bar. A group of elderly couples pass him on the sidewalk as they enter the hotel. The elderly couples represent two things Joe thinks he can never be, old and part of a couple, adding to the feeling of loneliness.
Angelica could possibly also be in the aesthetic stage or caught somewhere between leveling and the aesthetic. Angelica and Patricia's father, Samuel Harvey Graynamore, is a character in the aesthetic stage. His singular activity in life is to further his business and make a profit. He does not care who he hurts in order to inflate his bottom line. He is willing to sacrifice Joe's life and uses his daughters, Dr. Elison (who would likely be slapped with a huge malpractice suit), and the Waponi-Woo people. He did not invest his time or effort into being a father at all.
If one loses the ability to pursue one's life defining activity in the aesthetic stage he moves on to the next stage, the ethical. In the ethical stage, after having learned that devotion to something concrete cannot bring fulfillment to ones life, the individual turns to devoting themselves to something abstract, one's ability to choose. However, this does not work in reality, because one can not make totally free decisions. One's decisions are influenced by outside forces, such as deadlines, guilt, and responsibility.
Patricia starts in the ethical stage, but later changes. Her statement, 'I'm calling you Felix because I do what I want,' exemplifies the ethical stage. She desires to be free to do whatever she feels like doing, but she later feels guilty about how she treated Joe and apologizes. She had also made the choice not to work for her father. She admits to Joe, 'I've always kept clear of my father's stuff ever since I got out on my own and now he's pulled me back in. He knew I wanted this boat and he used it and got me working for him which I swore I would never do. I feel ashamed because I had a price, he named it and now I know that about myself.' Patricia comes to the realization that the ethical stage does not work in practical terms so she moves on to the last stage of Kierkegaard's theory along with Joe.
Kierkegaard's, 'leap of faith,' is the final step one must take to avoid leveling. In this step, the individual must take a leap of faith to devote his life and happiness to something he knows is vulnerable. Kierkegaard describes this as devoting oneself to Christ. Other Existentialists secularize this stage to devoting oneself to another person. One must overcome his fears and accept life and its joyful and painful experiences.
Joe and Patricia both change and reach the final stage of consciousness together. On the boat they fall in love. Neither of them has ever been in love before, because they could not make that commitment before. Joe has an interesting scene, while floating on the raft, where he prays to God and thanks him for his life. That scene transports him into the final stage.
Joe totally commits himself to Patricia. He dives into the raging ocean to save her when she gets knocked overboard during the typhoon. He cares for her on the raft and does not drink any water for himself. Patricia in return totally commits herself to Joe. She says, 'We'll take this leap and we'll see,' and she jumps with him into the volcano. Their only hope is a miracle, but that is their only hope to be together. They build a relationship even though they know Joe is going to die. They realize the relationship's vulnerability, yet they are able to devote themselves to it anyway. In traditional fairy-tale style they live happily ever after and float off together 'Away from the things of man.'
There is a symbol, which appears five times, throughout the movie in the shape of a lightening bolt. Joe offers a clue to the semantic nature of this symbol just before taking his leap into the volcano. He tells Patricia, 'It's been a long time coming here to meet you. A long time on a crooked road.' The different turns in the crooked road are for the different stages Joe passes through as he progresses.
Joe Patrick Shanley, Joe Versus the Volcano, (Warner Bros., Amblin Entertainment).
Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, (New York, Harper & Row, 1962).
Tod Abbott, E-mail message, (not published).
Frederick R. Karl, The Existential Imagination, (Fawcett Publications Inc., Greenwich, CT, 1963.)
Wednesday March 9, 2005