August 01, 2004

Joe versus the semi-conversation

Neal Whitman emailed with a memory evoked by my post about the woman who asked her cell phone over and over about the weather. This reminded him of the Tom Hanks cult film Joe Versus the Volcano.

When we first see Tom Hanks's workplace, his boss is on the phone, and during the whole scene, he's in the background saying various combinations of:

   I'm not arguing that with you!

   I know he can GET the job. But can he DO the job?

   [one more that I've forgotten, I think]

I think we even see him in a later scene, and he's still conducting the same conversation.

I've never seen the movie, but I filled in the details from the script available here. Tom Hanks works in the International Advertising Department at American Panascope Corporation. His boss is Mr. Waturi. The opening scene shows Joe arriving for work:

     Behind Dede, at a bigger
	  desk, is MR. WATURI.  He's leaning back in an executive
	  chair, talking on the phone. [...]

				Yeah, Harry, but can he do the
				job?  I know he can get the
				job, but can he do the job?
				I'm not arguing that with you.
				I'm not arguing that with you.
				I'm not arguing that with you

	  Mr. Waturi waves absently at Joe and goes on talking into
	  the phone.

				Who told you that?  No.  I
				told you that.  Me.  What?
				Maybe. Maybe.  Maybe.

	  Joe hangs up his coat on the coat rack and goes to the
	  coffee set-up at the rear of the office. 

Depressed and hypochondriacal, Joe goes to the doctor and learns that he has a fatal "brain cloud" (don't ask). When he returns to work, Waturi is on the phone again:

					  (on phone)
				No.  No.  You were wrong.  He
				was wrong.  Who said that?  I
				didn't say that.  If I had
				said that, I would've been
				wrong.  I would've been wrong,
				Harry, isn't that right?

Since Waturi spent some time bullying Joe in the first scene, this can't actually be the same conversation, at least if the film follows the cited script. However, I don't think it's an accident that Neal seized on Waturi's semi-conversations as one of the characteristic torments of the modern damned. The script specifies lots of other unpleasant details at American Panascope -- bad weather, brain-damaged workflow, fluorescent lights, a co-worker who "[eats] pink Hostess snowballs ... in a slow, dismal way, as if they were giant sleeping pills." But it seems to be Waturi on the phone that made the biggest impression, and not only on Neal:

(link) This film has become a Fontaine Family Favorite and we’ve seen it at least ten times.  ...   Babs and the Babettes still use lines from the movie such as: "It's always something with you, isn't it, Joe?" and "I didn't say that. If I said that, I was wrong." and “You can do the job but can you get the job?” 

(link) Joe vs. the Volcano is not completely devoid of charms. ... The movie's best bit ... is at the beginning with Dan Hedaya. Hedaya is a pro who can steal any scene, even when it's nailed down in a good movie. His interaction with the phone, and to a lesser degree with Hanks, is excellent, recalling his great work in Blood Simple.

Given open-plan offices and cell phone plans with unlimited minutes, semi-conversations are an increasingly inescapable social toxin. You can console yourself by thinking of them as a historical step up from chamber pots emptied out windows, body odor and the breath of crowds for whom raw onions were a staple snack. You can make the overheard conversations into poems, or maybe fragments of movie scripts. You can meditate on the associated psycholingistics and social psychology. Somewhere, someone has probably revalued semi-conversations as a sexual fetish -- no doubt there's already a network of web sites devoted to this specific type of masochism. But the most practical option seems to be to screw your earbuds in tighter and turn up the volume on your personal sound track. When you're not talking on your own cell, that is.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 1, 2004 09:30 AM