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Lack of ideas, not violence, pulls the Joker down

Faline Bobier

October 10, 2019

Todd Phillip’s new film Joker is about the birth of the iconic Batman villain whom we have seen in several iterations by this point: Jack Nicholson’s dancing villain who played him largely for laughs or Heather Ledger’s hauntingly disturbing version in Dark Knight, to name but two of the more noteworthy performances.

Jokerwon top prize at the Venice Film Festival where it debuted. American activist and filmmaker Michael Moore obviously agrees with this estimation of the film: 

“On Wednesday night I attended the New York Film Festival and witnessed a cinematic masterpiece […] the story it tells and the issues it raises are so profound, so necessary, that if you look away from the genius of this work of art, you will miss the gift of the mirror it is offering us. Yes, there’s a disturbed clown in that mirror, but he’s not alone — we’re standing right there beside him.”

Moore tries to argue that Joker is a political film, that it’s about Trump’s America and a tale of the dispossessed rising against the 1%. Would it were so, Michael Moore!

I think Joker is much more accurately represented in Shakespeare’s reckoning: “A tale of sound and fury…signifying nothing.” I’m not arguing, as have some on the right, that the problem with Joker is that it’s a dangerous film because it may incite ‘unstable’ people to commit acts of violence. 

Whenever the right talks about ‘violence’ in film they do it selectively, while ignoring the real violence that happens every day and is often perpetrated by the state and the institutions of power. Moore rightfully skewers this moralistic world view: “We’ve been told it’s violent and sick and morally corrupt — an incitement and celebration of murder. We’ve been told that police will be at every screening this weekend in case of “trouble.” Our country is in deep despair, our constitution is in shreds, a rogue maniac from Queens has access to the nuclear codes — but for some reason, it’s a movie we should be afraid of.”

This is similar to the furore around the opening of Quentin Tarantino’s film The Hateful Eight a couple of years ago, where police associations across the US vowed to boycott his film because of the violence in it. It was clear at the time that they were targeting Tarantino because he had spoken at a rally in New York City, organized by Black family members & their supporters, against the murders of Black youth perpetrated by members of the NYPD.

Tarantino’s movie actually had an anti-racist perspective and it’s laughable, if not disgusting, that police, who perpetrate real and deadly violence against people of colour and the poor on a daily basis, tried to use their muscle to attack a filmmaker on such a bogus charge, of which they themselves are daily guilty.

No, the problem with Joker is not the violence in the film, nor with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which is stellar. He creates in Arthur Fleck a wounded, emaciated and troubled character who moves through the mean streets of Gotham like a broken swan. The choreographed scenes with Phoenix are astonishingly poetic and almost ballet-like in their precision and grace.

The pity is that his performance is in the service of a movie which has no real ideas and which is in some instances profoundly reactionary. Phillips seems to want to be all things to all people and in the end manages to say very little.

The film is set sometime in the late 70s-early 80s. New York City stands in for Gotham with its garbage-strewn streets and crumbling infrastructure. Joker wants to show its radical edge by excoriating Thomas Wayne, the millionaire who claims to want to ‘save’ the city by getting involved in politics but who is as vicious and cut-throat as they come.

We are supposed to believe that Arthur Fleck, who makes his living as a party clown for hire, comes to spearhead a movement of people who are equally disenfranchised and want revenge. 

On the subway Arthur is confronted by three young white men, clearly meant to represent the privilege of the wealthy (they are referred to as Wall Street types). He has had a particularly bad day, losing his job and one of his remaining anchors to real life.

The young men mock his uncontrollable laughter, which is a symptom of his mental illness. When they begin beating and kicking him, he snaps, taking out a gun he acquired mostly by accident and thereby creating headlines the next day.

 A headline in the newspaper, “Kill the Rich”, would seem to link Arthur’s act to the inequality in the larger society but in the context of the rest of director Todd Phillip’s movie it’s just another throw-away that he piles on, pretending to be saying something when he really isn’t.

It’s not surprising Phillips would comment that he stopped making comedies (The Hangover franchise, for example) because it was too hard in such a ‘woke’ culture. This sounds like nothing more than the lament of someone who wants to be able to continue to make jokes at the expense of those people who have been the targets for so long: people of colour, women, anyone who is not part of the dominant culture.

There are strains of this small-mindedness in Joker. There are several minor characters who are played by people of colour. The kids who viciously attack Arthur near the beginning of the movie are Latino and Black. 

Arthur also has interactions with a Black female social worker who is the one who okays his prescriptions to help him cope with his condition. The movie is obviously mostly concerned with Arthur’s tragic circumstances but there is little sympathy for other victims of a society in disarray. The social worker is portrayed as someone who doesn’t really listen to what Arthur is saying and has no empathy for what he’s going through.

When cuts come down from Social Services the social worker has to let Arthur know this means that she will no longer be able to see him on a weekly basis and that there is no funding to pay for his meds. She is also losing her job and, as she says to Arthur, “They don’t give a shit about you, Arthur. They don’t give a shit about me either.”

This could be an opportunity for real solidarity, but Phillips isn’t interested in showing us the larger picture. The scenes near the end of the film where Arthur becomes a hero to the clown mask-wearing thousands who see him as their symbol veer very close to the notion of the mindless mob.

Joker is a profoundly cynical piece of movie-making, since it both plays to the notion that people have reasons to rebel and displays their rebellion as nothing but the mindless adulation of a clown who has become a celebrity essentially through his act of violence.

This, in the context of US society where in real life millions of people have been protesting and striking against inequality and racism, not being led by hucksters like Trump et al, but trying to create those networks that can bring down the society of the 1%.

See Jokerif you must but don’t give it credit as any kind of revolutionary piece of film-making; it is anything but.


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