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Robert Appelbaum
On Not Eating in David Gordon
Green’s
Joe

(Spoiler alert: if you read this essay without having seen the movie first, it will completely ruin the movie
for you.)

  If Jon Favreau’s
Chef is a feel-good movie, David Gordon Green’s Joe is a feel-bad piece of work. In Chef,
all an alienated chef needs to do in order to overcome alienation is cook from the heart. In
Joe, an
alienated boss needs to get violent. The title character, played by Nicholas Cage, is the head of a timber
crew; he needs to get in ghastly bar fights, get ambushed and shot in the shoulder, start fights with police
officers, kill a dog he doesn’t like, drink whisky from a bottle from morning to night, and finally kill two
men in a gunfight, watch a third man jump from a bridge to his death, and then die of his own gunshot
wounds, in order to overcome his alienation. Of course in getting himself killed, and fulfilling what one of
the other characters in the film recognises to be a death wish, Joe also saves a teenage girl from being
raped and a teenage boy from despair. So bravo. But in this redemption of others through self-sacrifice Joe
simply replays a violent grisly version of the same myth that
Chef replays: the American boss (Jon
Favreau's character runs a food truck called
El Jefe) as superhero, located in the spectrum of film
superheroes somewhere between the marshal in
High Noon and the Jesus of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of
the Christ
.

I have nothing against heroes, or heroes sacrificing themselves for others. My own favourite is
Hamlet.
High Noon isn’t bad either. But I do get perturbed by the power of myth to obscure the realities of human
relations. And like
Chef, Joe has plenty of myth, plenty of obscurantism, plenty of unexplained conflict, or
conflict whose explanation is facile, derived from easy stereotypes rather than from an observation of the
world, or an analysis of what upsets the world. (One villain of the story is a scary psychopath with a scar
across his face and a demeanour something like the Joker in the Batman movie
The Dark Knight; the other
villain is a psychopathic drunk who never combs his hair and whose beard is always three days old. There
is absolutely no explanation as to how they got to be what they are, and no indication that there is
anything underneath their violent and destructive behaviour but more violent and destructive behaviour.
Meanwhile, the film features two different prostitutes with hearts of gold.)

 And this brings me to food. In my essay on
Chef I showed how the authenticity of ethnic food experience
is used, inauthentically, to redeem a Los Angeles chef from, on the one hand, creative exhaustion and, on
the other, unemployment. In
Joe there is very little food. But there is a lot of orality, a lot of drinking,  a lot
of smoking and coughing and, in case we haven’t got the point yet, a bit of cocksucking, which ends with
more coughing, both by the sucker and the sucked. In
Joe there is also a lot of hunger, literal and
spiritual, and also a lot of disgust.  

The metaphorical associations are signposted throughout. A moccasin snake threatens to bite one of Joe’
s timber workers; Joe grabs the snake, forces its mouth opens, and makes a demonstration of the power of
its fangs. A visit to family has Joe encounter a dead deer, hanging from a hook, and the pathetic attempts
of a relative to cut into it. The family found the deer stuck on a fence; instead of trying to help the deer
they shoot it, and now have to figure out what to do with their quarry. Joe demonstrates how to skin it,
and, blood everywhere, how to strip out the tenderloin and cut it into steaks. (He doesn’t stay to eat.) The
climactic visit to the local bordello (where Joe is a well-loved regular customer) shows Joe bringing his
bulldog in to fight with the bordello’s dog. While Joe gets his dick sucked, Joe’s dog massacres the
bordello dog, and lunches on the dead dog’s flesh.

  Yes, it’s a dog eat dog world in
Joe, as also a snake eat man world, a man eat venison world, and a man
eat man world. But it is also a world where appetites usually go unsatisfied, and people resort to drinking,
smoking, gagging and fighting in order to compensate for the loss.  There is a scene where the alcoholic
psychopath, the father of the teenagers who Joe comes to the rescue of, spots an another poor alcoholic, in
worse physical shape even then he, stumbling down the street with a bottle of wine in his hand. The
psychopath follows him to the camp in the bushes where the wino sleeps, and when the latter fails to offer
him a drink bludgeons him to death. This same psychopath goes on a rampage when he discovers that
there is actually food in his house. The money for the food came from his son, Joe’s protégé, who has
worked for it, but the father doesn’t want food in his house if he doesn’t also have money to buy drink for
himself.

Ironically (but also, of course, on purpose) the meeting point for Joe and his band of workers is a
convenience market, a crowded, messy shop where the men buy bread, lunch meats, soft drinks and
coffee. In one or two shots, a few seconds long each, the workers sit together and eat, in the middle of the
forest they are clearing; but I don’t recall ever seeing Joe eating in the film, only drinking and smoking
and watching his men relax. Joe can never relax.  

The book on which the movie is based, Larry Brown’s
Joe is set in the backwoods of Mississippi. The
scene of the movie has been moved to Texas, a state with which the director is more familiar. However
Larry Brown worked the territory of Mississippi, Green works his own territory as a kind of isolated
nightmare-scape, not far off from the Texas of
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The action seems to take
place in the 1990s – people have cellphones, but not too many; people have television sets, Joe himself
being fond of unwinding on his couch in front of one; but the sets are bulky with small screens,
transmission is poor and the content of the programs is never revealed to the film audience. It seems to be
a matter of indifference to Joe himself. The world of
Joe (or Joe) is situated in a nearly contemporary
America but it is also cut off from it.

Joe’s gang works, possibly illegally, at poisoning trees, so that their owners can skirt environmental law,
cut them down and replace them. So a corporation, greedy, faceless and destructive lies in the
background of the story. But Joe works on his own; he is never shown answering to anyone. And there is
hardly a trace of corporate America in the film. There is no supermarket, apparently – or if there is one, it
doesn’t matter: Joe is a man for the backwoods convenience store. There is hardly anything of note in the
town in which Joe lives. We hardly ever see any of it, the implication being that there is nothing to see.
Yet Joe’s short-term girlfriend says to him in bed one night, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to dress up and go out to
a restaurant one night?’  So there is a world out there beyond Joe’s psychic insularity. There are even
places where people actually eat and enjoy themselves. But Joe is unable to have anything to do with it.

As for the family whose teenagers Joe comes to protect, it inhabits a world where apparently there are no
food stamps, or at least no food stamps for them. Why is that? There are no social workers either. Are there
places in the South really like this?  The answer of course is yes and no: yes because this is the version of
the South that the author of the book and the director of the film want us to see, a version where there is
little hope, little sustenance, and little vision of anything outside itself; but no, because in showing us
this version the author and the director have to occlude so much. They have to occlude the outside: the
world of commerce, politics, and cultural production that has shaped the life of the losers inside the
picture. They also have to occlude time, especially the time of the past. There are no background stories
in
Joe. There is no history, and no causation. Even individual psychology is beyond history and
causation.  In such a world, there is no solution to the problems the characters face but one: violence: not
historical violence, but personal violence, self-destructive violence.

Once, in
a study of Hamlet, I showed how the title character, in the mode of tragedy, was unable to enjoy
life; he was disgusted by life, in fact, and one of the signs of his disgust was his attitude toward food and
to the metaphysics of a universe where everything both eats and gets eaten:  ‘We fat all creatures else to
fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two
dishes, but to one table: that's the end.’ ‘A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and cat of
the fish that hath fed of that worm.’ Hamlet and Joe are the same here. But Hamlet was also a figure in
history, connected to its currents, worried about its future. And Hamlet had reasons, political and
personal, reasons for his disgust, reasons for his doubts, reasons for his hesitations and resolve. Here we
watch a film that says life is sordid, that life is sordid for no particular reason, and that there is nothing to
do about it but kill the villains so that the innocents may live.

Modern Texas is the Wild Wild West, without the barbecue, without even so much a food stamp … but
with plenty of guns (another tool of false orality as Joe depicts them, in a world of false oralities). As I have
suggested,
Joe is the negative image of Chef, even to the point of spinning a lot of its narrative on the tale
of a father figure trying to connect with a son figure, and showing the son how to be a man. That means,
on the one hand, that it can read as a negation of false consciousness of
Chef, a riposte to the celebration
of celebrity-hood and wealth on the backs of the (cheerfully ethnic minority) people; but it also means, on
the other hand, that it can be read as a reassertion of the cultural myth that forms the backbone of a film
like
Chef: the myth of the boss, on whom everyone relies, in a world without history or reason.

As for food, my point is this. Whether the film celebrates food or expresses disgust at it, the meaning of
food remains the same. So long as the characters inhabit worlds without history or reason, food will never
be more than a metaphor for vapidity.  

At the end of
Joe, the teenage boy has gone on in his career from poisoning trees in the forest to growing
trees on a tree farm. A step has been made in the right direction. But it is not because anyone has
decided to make a step in the right direction. It just happens. As in the original
Texas Chain Saw
Massacre
, at least one main character has survived – thanks to the surprising availability of a pick-up
truck. And there is no where for the character to go but … away.     
Robert Appelbaum's new book is a deep and passionate meditation on the
meaning of consumption in contemporary society. Its engagement with
the concept, while primarily auto-biographical, offers a number of
theoretical pointers and extended critical openings that turn this book
into an example of what good, experientially relevant, cultural studies
might read like today. There is a lot here to remind us that capitalism is
as much about systemic expropriation and value accumulation as about
`immaterial' struggle on the terrain of affects and desires. Appelbaum's
incantatory and recurrent motto - `they do not love you' - comes to life in
a series of vignettes, ranging from the warmly frivolous to the painfully
moving, in which the alien seductions of the commodified universe of the
supermarket combine and alternate with the enslaving pressures of
precarious work.

Robert del Valle Alcalà