Quarantine Double Feature is a series in which we pick two films available for streaming and discussion while we wait out this crisis at home. This week: When The Brain Clouds Roll In.
Since all this started, I’ve been trying to take a walk every day. I used to listen to podcasts or catch up on phone calls while doing so, but lately, I’ve just been focusing on the stillness all around, learning to get comfortable with the quiet. I spend every waking minute keenly aware of how lucky I am to able to do this. Unlike millions of others, I’m working, healthy and my family is fine. Yet there’s still that creeping torpor Molly Colvin wrote about in a commentary for Cognoscenti, the “brain fog” I’m currently blaming for why the laundry I did two days ago still isn’t put away. Like most of you, I’m sleeping less and drinking more, staring at stuff for no real reason while finding it takes three times as long as it used to for me to get anything done.
Such fogs are the subject of this week’s Quarantine Double Feature, in which drastic diagnoses alter the way we see the world. Animator Don Hertzfeldt’s stunning 2012 masterpiece “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” follows a regular fellow named Bill suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder, with the film’s experimental, prismatic textures replicating his disintegrating mental state in a collection of absurdist comic vignettes. 1990’s “Joe Versus the Volcano” stars Tom Hanks — our self-described “celebrity canary in the coal mine for the coronavirus” — as a mopey cubicle drone who embarks on an insane adventure after being told he has a “brain cloud” that will kill him in six months. These are two deeply strange, very funny movies imploring audiences to appreciate what we’ve got, because you never know how long you’ll have it.
Hertzfeldt is a stubbornly original one-man-band who writes, directs, draws, voices, produces, edits, mixes and self-distributes his films, to which he alone owns the rights. (He’s made “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” available for free on Vimeo during the lockdown, just enter the coupon code IAMSTUCKINSIDE.) His simple stick figure drawings navigate shifting irises of space imposed upon collages of flickering, colorful backdrops and psychedelic light shows. His movies look handmade because they are, with a droll, distinctive personality in every pencil scribble.
Bill’s journey is a jumble of banal, day-to-day details alternating with enormous philosophical questions, skipping back and forth between — sometimes mid-sentence — in a formal replication of his fragmented thought patterns. Broken up into three chapters, the 62-minute movie finds time collapsing in upon itself, with Bill’s past and present blurring together in a mordantly funny middle segment detailing just how swiftly death arrives without warning in this world. (“One afternoon while walking home eating an onion he was run over and killed by a train,” is a sample anecdote. An awful lot of people in Bill’s family seem to get hit by trains.)
The magic of Hertzfeldt’s movie is that it finds the cosmic in the quotidian, with Bill lingering on the simple beauty of dust mites floating in a sunbeam, or a neighbor and his leafblower scored to the heroic strings of Strauss’ “Im Abendrot.” Deep or shallow, large and small, life is all one big strange, wondrous continuity, or in Bill’s words “the world is clumsy and wonderful and new.” By the film’s transcendent finale he’s even marveling at brick walls and his bathmats, which are indeed quite beautiful.
1990 found Tom Hanks floundering in a career-low slump stuck between “Turner and Hooch” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” but it was that spring’s “Joe Versus the Volcano” that Time Magazine said “might be the worst big-budget movie of modern times.” The eagerly anticipated directorial debut of playwright John Patrick Shanley — who’d recently won an Oscar for writing “Moonstruck” — opened to dismal business and toxic reviews. A few weeks later, I rode my bike to go see it at a $2 second-run theater that’s now a Target, and I fell madly in love with the movie.
As any reasonable person might ascertain from its title, “Joe Versus the Volcano” is not a film to be taken literally. From the deliberately fake-looking sets to the broad, goofball performances, it’s a kitschy allegory about sleepwalking through life. Hanks’ miserable hypochondriac works in a dismal fluorescent dungeon selling medical supplies (“Home of the Rectal Probe,” a sign helpfully informs us) but snaps out of his stupor when his worst fears are finally confirmed.
That’s when some color starts creeping into the movie, and after signing on to sacrifice himself by jumping into a tropical island volcano to appease some restless natives being exploited by a shady billionaire — long story — our Joe finally starts standing up for himself and rediscovering his lust for life now that it’s almost over. Shanley’s sensibility was probably too kooky and idiosyncratic for a mainstream studio comedy, with Meg Ryan doing some of her wildest work playing all three of the very different women Joe meets on his adventures. (Her affected LA poetess is by far the funniest thing Ryan’s ever done, really making you resent the Kewpie doll typecasting she got trapped in soon thereafter.)
There’s nobody better than Hanks at being affable in the face of absurdity, and he manages to keep the movie grounded in emotional truth when other actors would be overwhelmed by the wackiness. The wonders of nature here take the form of a flagrantly artificial moonrise out of a tacky soundstage musical, but Hanks’ reaction is sincere and heartfelt. Shanley’s night sky needs to appear larger than life to us because Joe’s seeing it as if for the very first time, the same way Bill looks at those dust mites or his bathmats. These are things I try to remember while I’m out taking my walks and trying to beat back my own brain clouds, especially on a beautiful day.