Part One Volcano
Showing at the All Saints UMC Ministry Center, 7 PM, Friday, February 27

As we enter into the season of Lent we are called to reflection, repentance, and [renunciation]. Lent is a time of preparation when we look beyond human frailty and the brokenness of the world to resurrection, hope, and new life. We are reminded that our faith does not rise and fall with the financial markets but resides in the enduring love of God who is present with us as we struggle and strive to love God and our neighbors. This Lent can be a time when we recommit to practice every day the Wesleyan values to do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.

-Council of Bishops, UMC

Reflect – pay attention and think
Repent – turn around (from Jerusalem – the city – back into the wilderness)
Renounce – compulsions, empty pleasures, and addictions; renunciation demonstrates that you are free

[All quotes and images are employed under Title 17, Fair Use law, and no portion of this study is for profit.]

REQUEST FOR PARTICIPANTS – You decide whether you want to watch the movie first, then review one, some, or all of the Notes; or whether you want to review Notes then watch the movie afterward. Then share a bit about whether and how the order of viewing and reading might differ.

Notes on Volcano

Note (1)

The idea for viewing Volcano, which is neither the worst nor best of the genre, came about because it placed such emphasis on Los Angeles as its setting. Several years ago, I picked up a copy of Mike Davis superlative book Ecology of Fear Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. This book comes with a strong endorsement for both content and style. Peculiar at first, the book is a mesmerizing page-turner of revelation about the reality and the myths of the effects of urbanization (an ecology) on culture and personhood.

Note within a note: Though Davis and others (like Matthew Lassiter, who wrote about Southern suburbanization, another facilitator-recommended book, The Silent Majority), would call themselves radical urban theorists (RUT), their actual research and publications place them in a more prophetic role in society today.

(A must-read for anyone who lives in the suburbs and wants to know how we got here.)

Reviewer Walter Kern wrote of Davis book,

Davis sixth chapter The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles, explores LAs destruction in novels and film by hordes, nukes, quakes, cults, monsters, bombs, pollution, gangs, terrorism, floods, plagues, riots, aliens, volcanoes, sandstorms, mudslides, freeways, distopias, and more (pp. 280-281). I took the significance of Davis account this way: the fiction is an obsessive exploration of unconfronted dangers in fantastic terms, and it perhaps reflects a desire to break through the denial locking LA in a system of doom.

Here is a key point about many extremity stories; they are a public imagination of breaking out of inertia inertia experienced as a system of doom.


Note (2)

From: A Dictionary of Sociology |
Date: 1998 |
© A Dictionary of Sociology 1998,

originally published by Oxford University Press 1998.

heuristic device Any procedure which involves the use of an artificial construct to assist in the exploration of social phenomena. It usually involves assumptions derived from extant empirical research. For example, ideal types have been used as a way of setting out the defining characteristics of a social phenomenon, so that its salient features might be stated as clearly and explicitly as possible. A heuristic device is, then, a form of preliminary analysis. Such devices have proved especially useful in studies of social change, by defining bench-marks, around which variation and differences can then be situated. In this context, a heuristic device is usually employed for analytical clarity, although it can also have explanatory value as a model.

Using films, readings, and cultural criticism to study social phenomena is employing them as heuristic devices.


Note (3)

Volcano is a Hollywood production. It follows Hollywood formulas. Its story contains a handful of pretty standard film conventions. It idealizes many aspects of reality, and it reproduces idealized archetypes, characters polished and idealized to give us some recognizable essence as viewers and participants in the film.


Note (4)

Hollywood produces films that are generalized cultural commodities. Cultural because they are expressions of our social life, generalized because they are now almost universally available in American society, and commodities because the primary motive for making them is to accumulate monetary wealth.

(This does not mean that these films are reducible to any one of these characteristics, or that there are not elements of the films that have to be described independently of these three categories this is a heuristic breakdown.)

The scale of the industry which makes these cultural commodities has made it into an effective transmission belt of social values. Not necessarily an originator of values, but certainly a transmission belt. (There is, however, a value-degradation inhering in the production of film-as-commodity. Like the competition to produce junk food for kids, the competition at the heart of market relations creates an arms race of over-stimulation and sensationalism that makes jaded emotional junkies of us consumers.)

What differentiates the disaster or apocalyptic genre(s) of film from other films is the condition of extremity that is the setting and background.

So in addition to, and often mixed with, the transmission of social values which may be diverse and situational, there is a circumstance that forces greater moral questions to the forefront of the story, often presented as ethical dilemmas confronting the protagonist(s).


Note (5)

Before the film begins, there is the well-known 20th Century Fox intro, with the skylights and triumphal trumpets. Can we think about these recognizable corporate logos in any way as idols? If yes, then what does that mean for us, as church? How do we define idolatry?


Note (6)

Background music and emotional intelligence.

Linda Kintz wrote a book called Between Jesus and the Market – The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America. Kintz is an alumnus, that is, from a right-wing evangelical (dispensationalist) family of origin; and she is not interested in demonizing the right, but in understanding people with whom she still retains powerful attachments of love.

She speaks of an emotional (or affective) intelligence that is inextricable from other dimensions of intelligence, of an enculturated emotional response what she calls resonance that undergirds an elaborate, emotionally-resonant belief system that might be visualized as a closed set of concentric circles stacked one on top of the other and ascending heavenward: God, property, womb, family, church, free market, nation, global mission, God.

Intelligence recognizes; and emotional intelligence recognizes patterns of thinking because a pattern of thinking is simultaneously associated with a pattern of experiencing, or feeling.

Our affective intelligence operates, even in our most instrumental and impersonal relations, in the same way background music operates in a film. Background music cues us on how we are to participate, as a member of the audience. Background music mobilizes a targeted feeling. It helps us know how to behave (even if it is our psychic behavior as viewer-participants). The emotional resonance of our own beliefs, in a similar way also cues us how to behave.

An experiment: Watch one scene from Volcano, whichever whole scene. When youve finished, switch to English subtitiles and mute the sound. Watch the same scene again. Youre still getting all the information, but the absence of the background music that seems in the background when we watch uncritically is dramatically apparent, and even felt as a minor kind of loss.

Resonance leads us places; so wed be well advised to investigate to whose tuning fork we are responding.


Note (7)

During the opening scenes of Volcano, there is a revealing series of social conflicts represented. [Think again of revealing revelation as a process of unmasking.] In the business, these are called, oddly enough, reveal scenes.

There is protagonist Mike Roarks marital conflict; he is separated from his teenage daughters mother.

There is racial conflict in the confrontation between the young Black man who is seeking assistance for his neighborhood and a white policeman.

There is class conflict depicted in the public transportation demonstration and counter-demonstration, where Norman Calder (played by John Corbett), a wealthy financial speculator, confronts a Latina maid over the proposed route of a commuter train. Further along, Norman abandons his wife, the higher-minded emergency room physician who refuses to submit to Normans directive: I dont want my wife treating gunshot wounds. I want her treating tennis elbow.

There is even gender conflict, though they softballed it more than the other social contradictions by having it played off with stoic humor by female protagonist, Amy Barnes, the government geologist, played by Anne Heche. Tommy Lee Jones Mike takes a very mildly (and therefore easily forgivable) macho tone with Barnes in their second encounter. (More on gender further along)

The almost bulleted precision of these conflicts obviously part of a writers checklist of social contradiction present this list of conflicts as constitutive of a general state of conflict, perceived as impending, like doom. This is an aspect of extremity used in apocalyptic (revelatory) literature and film, extremity to reveal (unmask) the characters true selves and the correct answers to the terrifying moral questions. The other aspect is for the condition of extremity to be understood as necessary to break up the doom of inertia moral sloth atomization oppression sin.

The serial presentation of these conflicts in the set-up phase of the film is foreshadowing the kairos moment that is about to interrupt this condition.

We know that; because weve seen many movies before. Someone with a different history in a different place, untrained as a participant in the movie experience, might not recognize all the ideas that we recognize in common, nor the emotional reactions to those ideas. We have all, as persons, learned in our interaction with culture and our own ecology, to experience the same resonance in reply to the same ideas.


Note (8)

Apocalypse is Greek for revelation.

One of the most memorable and culturally inscribed reveal scenes in film for us is in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothys dog, Toto, sniffs out the pathetic man behind the machine that was The Great Oz.

In Revelation we will see a similar reference to actual idol-machines used by the Romans in the time of John of Patmos.

The process of revealing is the process of unmasking, unveiling. Every society we know uses stories to reveal how we are supposed to be. The stories themselves can be radically different, because stories are part of culture, and culture is determinative of and determined by personhood and our surroundings (ecology). Thats why local stories have such richness of detail; because a de-localized (cosmopolitan) ecology is abstract and so personhood is abstracted, as well as the culture being homogenized.

Personhood, ecology, culture.

Stories are a universal cultural production, even though there is wide difference between stories. Stories are universal in spite of the fact that some stories are organic and some are commodities. The stories you tell about something that happened within the family, like the stories told at family reunions, funerals, and weddings, are stories told inside the family. These stories are never conceived of as anything except the preservation of the story itself. Thats an organic story. When a story is a means to make money, then that story is being commoditized. A commodity is a thing-for-sale. The objective of the commodity is not what the commodity does thats only an intermediate concern for the producer its that the commodity will produce a return on a monetary investment.

No matter whether some stories are organic, some are commoditized, and many are both or somewhere in between, the central fact remains that stories are part of the formative process (of personhood, culture, and ecology) in every society. Many stories may be wrong; and many may even be stupid; but the story-itself is powerful because it has this proven formative ability.

Volcano is a Hollywood commodity. A car is a commodity, too; but that doesnt mean that I dont use my own car for what it does transport me to places way beyond my walking ability at outrageous speed. This movie is also a story that does what stories do, like a car does what a car does. This story tells us how to be when we participate as a non-critical audience. To the critical viewer, however, the story tells us a good deal about who we think we are.

The story we live into as followers of Jesus is one of selflessness, sacrifice, and forgiveness.

The story in a television ad for womens depilatories is that you are unhappy, but that with the acquisition of this product you can make yourself more valuable and without it, you will continue to be un-valuable.

Each of these stories tells us how to be.


Note (9)

The story presented in Volcano, in a very contradictory way, contains strong elements of a specifically Biblical understanding of the world.

The formative story for the Hebrews was captivity. The unique thing about the story in that place and time was that the captives themselves, and not the conquerers, were the protagonists of the story.

This begins what culminates with the Incarnation the preferential option for the social underdog. With the primitive church, this anti-oppression bias was potently combined with a doctrine of spiritual equality (between master-slave, man-woman, Jew-Gentile).

In Volcano, this essentially Christian message of spiritual equality (though few people understand or acknowledge it) is mixed in with a fair amount of modernism (what Illich calls perverted Christianity) and a lot of patriarchal archetypes. The important thing to understand, however, is that the elements of selflessness, sacrifice, and forgiveness are not completely effaced in Christianitys encounter with modernism.

This core belief in redemption through love however it has been tortured in the service of agendas has shown a remarkable resilience, even though epochs of absolute horror.

In this film, the savior is not the shabby little shaman from Nazareth with the burning empathy for everyone he met. The savior in Volcano is a government man; and his disciples are bureaucrats and technocrats, along with uniformed armed services.

The gospels spell out the exact opposite message that the powers have been supplanted by the Kingdom of God, in cross and resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth was executed precisely because he refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the principalities and powers. His was a political not a religious crime. But solely taking Volcano to task is inadequate. What can we find of the good? There is another grain of Christian sensibility (service) even in the disingenuous language about politics and government, called public service.

One apocalyptic theme in this film is the good of human solidarity. Another well-known theme within that is the theme of money becoming useless or meaningless. The unhesitating plot line crushes cars and explodes superstores in order to save a living humanity.

Remember the scene where the little boy, ash-stained in the opening scene of the films denouement. He looks for his mother among the similarly ash-stained and scrupulously diverse rescue workers. Look, he says, pointing. They all look the same. This highly manipulative scene is the commoditization process tapping into a shared and resonant belief in the good of human solidarity, and in equality before God of every human being spiritual equality

once a violently divisive claim, especially as it had to do with gender. The most emotionally resonant scenes in this film are all without exception about the transformative power of human love and solidarity.

That the film industry in the real world operates on an absolute opposite, Spencerian, dog-eat-dog ethos, is not an embarrassment to the storys representation of solidarity-as-good. It is a contradiction. It is an embarrassment to the industry establishment and dominant classes of people more generally in the face of an un-erasable Judeo-Christian communitarianism the vision of which industry producers must admit into the story to achieve an emotionally resonant participation by the buying audience. The audience is a consumer; but the audience is also still human, still in search of meaning, and that meaning abides in the holy spirit that we believe to be manifest in authentically caring human fellowship.

This little boys scene is a story convention with its origins in antiquity; but alongside these ancient beliefs in good, the films story gives us conventions that are only recent reflections of the human condition. That is, there are conventions that are reproducing beliefs that are distinctly modern.

Man-Conquering-Nature is a huge (MODERNIST) cultural thought-cluster in this film, of course;