By Christopher Sharrett.
In what follows I am conscious that Todd Phillips’ Joker is another addition by a corporation to its “DC universe,” although it is spoken of as a “stand alone” film (with no relevance to comic book mythology?). I am also aware that many aren’t interested in this type of narrative, and the industry represented. But I wonder if the superabundance of comic book movies is what caused reviewers to gang up on this film? I have read all sorts of complaints aimed at the bizarre gesticulations of star Joaquin Phoenix, or the gory violence, especially inappropriate for an age of gun massacres. About the latter I can only say: Hypocrites! I call to mind all the dross that passes with little comment, even applauded if the violence is moderated (no blood), or is so over-the-top a film reaches a new level of self-referentiality, is “extreme,”or whatnot.
Much has been made of the film’s allusions to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy; true enough, but does anyone examine such allusions? We also have snatches of The French Connection, The Exorcist, M, Psycho, The Taking of Pelham 123, the Purge cycle, Se7en, and, to me Blade Runner, for a sudden motion made by Arthur Fleck/Joker. A more proximate association is 2017’s Where is Kyra?, one of the more visionary films about poverty and isolation in New York. But what do we make of such connections? There is an assumption that Phillips, who made The Hangover, simply isn’t to be taken seriously, or that whatever talent manifest in the film is incidental. So the film must be some meretricious pastiche. Don’t reviewers know that writers often write stories for each other (for centuries), or allude to friends’ works out of congenial spirit, if allusion serves a more personal point? Allusion can be meretricious (Tarantino). Yes, fans can go over Joker looking for “Easter eggs” that may or may not have been deliberately placed, if they have a mind to avoid the drama entirely. I would say that Joker has ambitions not aided by such exercises.
Certainly the Scorsese moments, and the film’s design, locate us in the New York/Gotham City (I wish we could have done away with the DC “Gotham” conceit; we know where we are) of the late 70s-early 80s, the era after Gerald Ford, as a tabloid reported said “drop dead” to New York as it faced bankruptcy after the heavy costs of the Vietnam incursion and the collapse of public services. The streets are littered with trash, the old 42nd St. still lives, and social breakdown threatens. This image of New York is persistent, nearly official, and bothersome to me, but it appeals to popular historians who don’t think very well nor recall much, and image-makers (the popularity of The Deuce TV series) who make the trash-dump notion of the city endure. For me, New York in the 70s was a cultural cornucopia, with all of its bookstores (including the famous ones) thriving, major events at galleries and museums, with music stores, repertory cinemas, many news agencies, all making the place vital. All this is gone, a victim to technology and the demands of finance capital. Of course my memories don’t mean much to those trying to make a living in those days, but the new, corporatized, post-Giuliani city, sanitized and somewhat dumbed-down, where the police have been allowed to torture and murder, the poor driven underground and criminalized, is an apocalyptic vision far more powerful than what we get from sanctioned pundits. It is a vision of hell appropriate enough for this film. But we deal with the work in front of us.
The film has angered some who resent the use of violence of recent yesteryear, like the 1984 Bernhard Goetz subway shooting, and the 1989 Central Park jogger case. Both events are deracialized (although the kids who assault Arthur Fleck [Joaquin Phoenix] seem dark-skinned), to establish simply the violent urban milieu that sends an already-unstable man over the edge, and Arthur by no means is an emblem of white rule. Turning the kids shot down by Arthur into white, upwardly-mobile brats doesn’t seem to ask us to erase racial politics, since the entire film is a rethinking of standard social assumptions, if in the confines of a supervillain’s origin story.
In telling the Joker’s origins, DC, typically, loots its assets, borrowing heavily from the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland graphic novel The Killing Joke (1988), where Joker is a failed nightclub comedian. Moore, by far the most intelligent writer in comics, cut ties with DC long ago and for obvious reasons: the film adaptations of his work have been atrocities; he is never credited onscreen – Brian Bolland’s name appears on this film. Amazingly, Moore is one-upped by this screenplay, which drops the required story of the Joker, once a member of the Red Hood Gang, who falls into a chemical vat, turning his face white, his hair green, and his lips cherry-red, his mouth in a permanent rictus as he morphs into a criminal genius and cackles incessantly. Moore shows us how the pre-Jokerised comedian has a “bad day,” as his wife and child die in a fire; The Killing Joke is unsatisfactory, never explaining how a meek little man goes terribly bonkers overnight because of a tragedy and poor life circumstances. Tim Burton follows some of Moore in Batman (1989), with a very overweight Jack Nicholson, in too-obvious prosthetics, taking the requisite chemical dive. In The Dark Knight (2008), Heath Ledger’s mutilated Joker invites a little speculation about family history, but the film, like all the Batman franchises, finally adopts camp, assuming such is the appropriate mode for any material coming from comic books – although they are now called graphic novels and treated with a small tip of the hat in book review sections of the daily paper – there is a lingering feeling that they are only for idiots and children.
Joker tries, if falteringly, to explain to us the origins of criminal insanity (and we have to note that a tiny percentage of mentally ill people are violent criminals) and to answer questions left over from watching The Silence of the Lambs and similar fare, with criminals so disturbed they would seem to be non-functional, yet they are Ming the Merciless/Dr. Mabuse masterminds, with omniscience and omnipotence. And yet we have the Ted Bundys, who, while not Hannibal Lecters, can kill dozens of women while moving about as all-American boys – probably because they can act out what appeals to a white, conservative nation.
In Joker, Arthur Fleck already suffers from mental illness – a combination of Pseudobulbar Affect and, perhaps, a form of Tourette’s Syndrome afflict him, making him laugh inappropriately, and break into unmotivated physical action. He lives in a grubby apartment with his mother, helping her with her toilette. This causes some reviewers to make the predictable associations with Norman Bates and “mother issues,”overlooking the more common – and more frightening – image of the male child who cannot leave home in this era, not because he is a “slacker,” but due to the impossible cost of living, the failure to find a “career,” and, indeed, an unhealthy relationship with a dependent parent.
Arthur is a reasonable rendering, done at least as seriously as Travis Bickle, of the Underground Man, although not as vocal nor as manifestly angry as Dostoevsky’s.
Arthur’s torments are awful: as a sign-waver dressed as a clown, he is knocked down by a group of young toughs; he is tormented by prep school punks on the subway – and – spoiler alert – shoots them down with a gun given him irresponsibly by a stupid fellow worker who seems not to notice that the man is mentally ill. Guns solve all problems.
Many of Arthur’s torments are prosaic, yet more horrible than the violent urban encounters we often trained to summon up. He hands someone a medical ID card that isn’t given back; his attempt at conversation is ignored; he is rebuked for trying to amuse a child; above all, he is very often alone. Solitude in a big city would seem impossible, even after we see its representation countless times. The urban world is about (that dated word again) alienation. The city of Joker is uncongenial, so pleasantries are avoided, as are attempts at assistance of other humans. Arthur’s world is one of austerity and neoliberal policy, where medications are totally unaffordable, and medical assistance goes away for all but the deep-pocketed. There are human failings as well; like the sardonic daydream in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Arthur’s psychotherapist is probably thinking up her grocery list rather than paying attention to her client.
Joker rethinks the superhero at least as radically as Watchmen, one of the finest novels of the 1980s. Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce/Batman, is a pig (and the probable father of Arthur, raping his mom when she was in an asylum; later, predictably, she abuses the son who is the product of that intercourse, the common instance of the mother turning the son into a husband, creating a target for her just rage), a synthesis of Trump and Bill de Blasio. He towers over people and scoffs. His answer to the poor is to punch them in the face. When the much-told confrontation comes, with Thomas and his wife shot down by a robber, making Bruce an orphan, we smile, while dreading the stupid Batman stories to come. I thought of one of the greatest superhero revisions, Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, which asks us why we are enamored of billionaire vigilantes like Batman and Iron Man, who in fact exist in other forms, as strong arms of the state.
Arthur is too far gone by the time he gains dubious public recognition to enjoy much, until fate assists him. After small victories, he goes into balletic gestures, bending his spine sharply backward, a perverse Plier for no one, performed in an empty men’s room. Or Arthur’s might be the dissociated movements of the mentally ill, so common on urban sidewalks, as the deranged person loses contact with his/her body. The comic book Joker dances during his crimes, so all this fits the DC legend while opening our eyes to the commonplace.
Public recognition happens when Arthur’s terribly sad comedy routine is spotted by greasy talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), but the failure lands Arthur a spot on the program, Franklin finding a nut for convenient mockery – we might recall Joaquin Phoenix’s own embarrassing appearances on TV, which may have been calculated, but their snorting dismissal might say a little about us. And there are other moments in TV history, like a man dying of a heart attack on Dick Cavett, or a Pennsylania state treasurer blowing his brains out with a .44 Magnum on the dinner-time news. Everything passes, the show must go on, as Warhol showed us in his Death and Disaster series.
Fate intercedes too ironically for Arthur, giving him an apocalypse over which he presides, and from which he will no doubt find his army of clown-faced murderers (a sequel has to happen). The scenes of urban doomsday borrow from V for Vendetta and, especially, the Purge films. But Phillips shoots all this to suggest a nightmare at the edge of consciousness; it is an improbable chaos, too vast to be true, yet it’s something that has appeared so often in the public imagination that it is plausible.
Arthur/Joker understands who he is, but he won’t submit to permanent designation as archetypal horse’s ass easily. He finds his suitable clothes – a red suit with orange vest – that evokes the comic book character, but not entirely. His face is standard clown make-up without prosthetics; he seems a Harlequin, ready to open the gates of hell, while also being a sad Pierrot, knowing that all sympathy has passed away. He also evokes the kitsch of the Sinatra album Only the Lonely, with Sinatra, rendered as Pierrot, trying to work through his depression. Should we have sympathy for the little foul-tempered hoodlum? The question is evoked by this film. The murderous Joker reminds us of William S. Burroughs’ admonition, in “Advice for Young People,” “never proffer sympathy for the mentally ill; say: ‘You are a terminal FOOL!,” a very American rebuke.
By the time Arthur dances down a vast concrete staircase, framed by grim tenement fire escapes, we can predict, I think, the denouement, yet this very problematical figure still commands empathy because he remains familiar, even if his dance recalls too much Jack Nicholson’s prancing around to Prince. The difference: Phoenix is a far more talented actor, as is Phillips as director. The Gary Glitter song is fleeting, adding an extra, modulated insanity. Believe it or not, I was momentarily taken back to the stone steps Monica Vitti descends in L’eclisse; Alain Delon is nearby, but both will vanish as both nature (what there is of it) and culture (what passes for it) make them irrelevant.
The film’s final moment, with the Joker ascendant, may be familiar, yet I think it is in the realm of the unheimlich. We are at home, yet very uncomfortable – and perhaps, at one moment, exhilarated.
The film’s composer, Hildur Guonadottir, needs recognition. It strikes me that Shostakovich and Penderecki are the two artists most influential on current movie scores, their hopeless vision of modernity the template for much composition. Guonadottir, who also scored the devastating HBO miniseries Chernobyl, brings an uncompromised vision to Joker. This is a string-based score with a strong bassline, and building-shaking percussion, a series of thuds, as if keeping time; I thought of the procession of flagellants in The Seventh Seal. As Joker descends in triumph the stone steps that were an emblem of his defeat, Guonadottir annotates this film with supreme intelligence.
Frank Miller, author of The Dark Knight Returns (which, with Watchmen, caused the comic renaissance of the 1980s), told me in a 1986 interview that the Joker is the unshackled Id; he does “whatever the hell he wants to anybody at any time in any way.” He noted that Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke was “very humanistic” in its approach to the villain, while his Joker was “more evil than troubled.” The attempt to understand human beings, rather than deal in metaphysical (and rightist) notions of “evil,” makes Joker a landmark in its genre.*
And yet I feel it is too early for me to evaluate this film, to see its place as a work of film art. I tend to want to place it with Where is Kyra?, Wendy and Lucy, Frozen River, We Need to Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here, Night Moves (both), The Mountain, Wildlife, and a few other good films about the misery of life in America, past and present. I am afraid, however, that in future viewings I will wake up to how burdened Joker is by the DC universe, and that it is finally no more than another origin story that looks “dark.” I’ll have to wait a bit.
*Sharrett, Christopher. “Batman and the Twilight of the Idols,” in Roberta E. Pearson and William Urrichio, The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.