That’s (a Clown’s) Life

Flipboard: Joker is no joke — Joaquin Phoenix is superb ...

In case anyone has not heard, there is this film that has recently been released and is based upon a relatively infamous comic book villain. The film has garnered some media attention; perhaps the tireless reader may be able to find an article online after a fair amount of searching, only after, of course, having had to wade through the media sludge of Trump impeachment news.

After having seen Joker four times (I had a mini-vacation–that was how I chose to spend it), I want discuss a few of my observations. Spoilers to follow, for those who still think that a movie can be discussed (and condemned) before it has been viewed (e.g., The Guardian). That being said, a few admissions:

  • I am not a comic book fanboy. In fact, I stopped reading comics back in the early 80s, though I still have a few issues of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, my two favorite childhood heroes, stashed away in my closet. (I suppose that even as a young boy I had a sense of the human body’s frailty and fantasized about being able to augment its powers.)
  • I am not a fan of comic book movies. However, I did immensely enjoy Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman franchise, and I have seen a few of the earlier Marvel films (the first two Spiderman films and the first Iron Man), but, overall, I find such films lacking most elements that compel me to watch a film in the first place.
  • I do not intend to draw parallels to Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, or The King of Comedy, whether in content, style, or press-release sensationalism.
  • I am going to assume anyone who reads this has either seen the film or does not really care one way or the other, thus relieving me of having to summarize the plot or give background to characters or to scenes.
  • I intend to refer to just one review of Joker, largely because I think that it is unbelievably vapid and awash in hyper-critical self-righteousness that can come only from someone who could never make it as a screenwriter and, thus, must write for The New Yorker.  (As an aside: When is that smug, self-canonizing mag going to stop hyphenating “teenager”?)
  • I typed too early the above point. I will make use of a few reviews of Joker–but I still stand by what I typed regarding The New Yorker.
  • I refuse to essay any attempt at reconciliation with the larger comic-book mythology.

To begin, I was skeptical when I first read that the bro-humorist Todd Phillips was going to direct the film. However, when I saw a few teaser clips late last year and this year’s April’s stunning teaser trailer, all doubts evaporated. Even before I saw the film, reading the following two items about him only increased my faith in him: 1). he directed a documentary about the notorious punk rocker GG Allin (I remember seeing that documentary for sale in record store I used to haunt while in grad school. A graduate chum at the time dared to purchase a copy, but could not stomach finishing it.) and 2). he has publically confessed to the (near) impossibility of thriving in the humor genre in today’s woke/incessantly outraged/cancel culture. Of course, when I first read that Joaquin Phoenix (an actor whom I have been pimping out for a while) was slated to play the Joker, I was already planning to buy tickets for the first day’s first showing. He is, in my ‘umble opinion, the best actor of my generation (X!). Though I realize that he plays a vastly different type of Joker than that of Ledger’s, still, I think that Phoenix’s performance surpasses Ledger’s in that he is able to showcase a greater range of emotional intensity through one highly nuanced executed scene after another. However, in all fairness, Ledger’s role does not call for the emotional range that Phoenix’s does, for Ledger’s role demands a villain fully formed, one already committed to his nihilism, not one emering from the slough of despondency as we witness with Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck.

According to Robert Frost, “If we couldn’t laugh[,] we would all go insane.” Reportedly, Phillips played for Phoenix clips of people who suffered from the medical condition known as pseudobulbar affect (PBA): uncontrollable bouts of laughter. Anyone who has consumed even only a trailer has seen–and heard–the chilling but soulless laugh (more than one, actually) that Phoenix flawlessly captures for his character. Most of the time when Arthur laughs, it bears no relation to how he feels; rather, it is the result of a neurological condition that stems, we discover, from severe childhood trauma and functions as a release whenever he feels stressed or upset. He does, however, laugh genuinely a few times: after watching an interview with Bruce Wayne on television, upon first seeing his Pogo Comedy Club performance clip introduced on The Murray Franklin Show, and while being interviewed by a worker at Arkham State Hospital at the end of the film. One of the most poignant laughs comes while he is at the Pogo Comedy Club taking notes on a comedian. Arthur laughs wildly at the mention of the word “prestigious,” as if he were trying to predict when everyone else would laugh, but jumps the gun by laughing at a throw-away adjective, not the punchline. Also, when the comedian, who reveals that he is Jewish in his performance (Do Jewish comedians even do that in real life?), makes a joke about having to lie his Jewish name, Arthur looks around uncomfortably while everyone else laughs–and then rushes to include his laugh before everyone has finished laughing. (This may be one of my favorite scenes in the film, given Phoenix’s impeccable timing.)  Returning to the Frost quotation, I cannot help but think what becomes of those people who are not able truly to laugh–does such repressed laughter accumulate until it festers and boils in madness? Though Arthur is presented as one who struggles to see the signs of his own agency, could it also be that, suffering from a reverse form of pride, he expects the narrative of his life to produce a grand, architectonic design that most of us, regardless of class, race, or ability, will never have revealed to us? A lingering corollary question: What about those people who are told, in no uncertain terms, *not* to laugh at whatever has been enshrined as beyond comedic reevaluation by the then-functioning magisterium of mirth? A minor reflection of this: In my multiple viewings, I was surprised how many people did not laugh at what were truly funny scenes such as his dropping the gun while dancing in the children’s hospital.

Much has already been written about the possibility that the descent-cum-rebirth of Arthur Fleck may transform disenfranchised and disaffected white males into killers through maleficent cinematic alchemy. Unfortunately, in the current cultural climate, any film that features a disgruntled white male will find only one reading on the outrage thermometer: incel-baiting propaganda. Richard Lawson’s review in Vanity Fair captures this:

For so many tragic reasons, the American imagination has of late been preoccupied with the motivations of disaffected white men who’ve turned violent—a nation (or part of one) trying to diagnose and explain them, one mass killing after another. Whether that violence is born of mental illness, isolation, the culminated rage of masculine identity, or all those bound together in some hideous knot, we seem certain that there is some salvable cause.

Lawson continues:

That’s a complexity of causality that many Americans don’t extend to non-white men who commit heinous crimes; there, the thinking seems to be, the evil is far more easily identifiable. But those angry loners—the ones who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world—there’s almost a woebegone mythos placed on them in the search for answers.

While he may be correct in saying that many Americans do not extend this courtesy of causality to non-white men, many do. Hell, many people do not like cats; many do. His point? If Mr. Lawson wants to promote this way of empathetic thinking, then he should promote Joker as a paradigm from which we can learn and then apply to disaffected men (and women, I presume) of all races, and if this strategic evaluation must come into the greater discourse through a movie starring a white man, then so be it.

Responding to Lawson’s Vanity Fair piece, Samuel Forster writing for Quillette.com  offers the following:

At the risk of sounding like the sort of critical theorist who would spout such sentiments, “there’s a lot to unpack here.” Most importantly, it is unclear why any of us should not endeavour to understand the motivations of disaffected white men (or any kind of men—for it’s not clear why Fleck’s character could not, with some small plot changes, be of any ethnic background imaginable) who end up committing acts of violence. The key to reducing violence amongst any demographic is in ascertaining the specific attributes of violent individuals. Skin colour is a crude and categorically ineffective indicator in this respect. Indeed, generations of progressives have properly argued this truth, typically in the face of racists who have alleged some particularly malign criminogenic trait at play in the minds of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, “Orientals,” Muslims or Jews.

In other words, if we are truly concerned with not only responding to violence but with preventing it, then we must better understand the warning signs of individuals who may be at risk. To dismiss this approach based upon a person’s race (or gender), as the Left now all but demands we do if it involves white males, betrays this ostensible desire to understand the roots of crime as, ultimately, one still dictated by political correctness.

Forster continues:

Lawson has no interest in understanding mental illness, isolation or “the culminated rage of masculine identity” (whatever that is), and that he would prefer to imagine all of these as simply being ingredients in some disgusting stew of human malignancy that is more properly called “evil.” His real complaint about the film is that, by prompting curiosity in regard to why people do bad things, it might distract audience members from the simple, morally urgent task of denouncing men such as Arthur Fleck in a purely normative manner, as a priest denounces sin.

This is a very perceptive reading of Lawson by Forster. Arthur Fleck, as an angry white male, must be immediately castigated and denounced. Yes, there is no denying the hideous nature of his crimes–and they are hideous. However, Forster contends that woke critics of this film want us to categorize (profile!) Arthur before we watch the film and then immediately to cast him away upon leaving the theater as an inherently and obviously wicked individual who deserves no further consideration and one whose crimes warrant no further investigation.

Not to make this too one-sided, there are complaints (or at least one) to be found on the opposite end of the racially aggrieved spectrum.  Joker, perhaps, was doomed politically from inception. The eponymous character was either going to be too white or, ahem, not white-acting enough. Trevor Lynch writing for Unz.com implies (or maybe I merely have inferred) that one sign of Fleck’s degeneracy is that his (imaginary, as we find out) romantic interest is….a black woman. Never fear, though, for at least the thugs who beat him at the beginning of the film are a collection of mystery meats, and he does find himself, quite naturally as an unassuming white male, on the receiving end of an uppity black woman. Given that race is presently the currency for all our transactions of meaning, it may now be impossible to experience any artistic production with taking into consideration questions of race and structures of power. All this being said, I cannot help but appreciate that this film is ruffling the feathers of folks both on the far left and on the far right. (Lynch, for whatever else he may say, does make a very interesting allusion, interpreting the scene in which Joker’s followers lay his body on the hood of a police car and wait for him to rise in light of Andrea Mantegna’s The Dead Christ and Three Mourners.) 

Speaking of experiencing art, writing for Vanity Fair, Richard Brody comments that Joker is “a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Why? He argues that the film is “a drama awash in racial iconography that is so prevalent in the film, so provocative, and so unexamined as to be bewildering.” In other words, racial themes pervade the film, yet no significant interrogation regarding racial concerns ever occurs. Historical allusions, insists Brody, are made to the Central Park Five rape/murder and the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting, two racially volatile events, yet Joker persists in focusing on the mental illness of Arthur whose thought processes are “utterly devoid of any racial or social specificity.” If I understand the phrase “racial and social specificity” correctly, then Brody must be justifying why he finds it disappointing that Arthur, in the midst of his suffering, does not stop to consider whether his afflictions have arisen because of his race and how, one must presume, his white privilege has shielded him from deeper degrees of suffering that may be lacking in his life but not in the daily experiences of his black neighbors. What Brody does not suggest is how Fleck, without breaking character or leading viewers into an exasperating classroom-like experience, could do such? Would he have worked it into his comedy routine? Should he have scribbled something about race and priviledge in his journal? For example, when speaking with his black social worker, should he have concluded each response with something along the lines of “As a black woman working a shit job in a white man’s world, you probably have felt something similar…”? A more important question, however, from an artistic standpoint anyway, is why focusing on the illness of an individual and society’s “cancelling” of that individual proves to be an empty or a less satisfying experience than unearthing any underlying racial or political elements. This prompts me further to ask: Have we really come to terms with the privileged position that racial and political interpretations maintain when it comes to viewing movies? (We have not.)

Several reviews have stated how Arthur, as a (here we go again…) disaffected white male, assumes a much more chilling poignancy in the Trump administration. Such analysis bores me. Rather, one observation that I have not seen anywhere else–and I do not make much of it, but I do find it interesting–is that the Wall Street subway bro who starts singing and is the first to be shot bears no small resemblance to Eric Trump.

Another aspect of this film, and perhaps the central one, that has not been heavily explored (or, more likely, has been intentionally avoided) is the undeniable fact that Arthur Fleck is a product of a single-mom home. Only two male figures loom in Arthur’s life, and both are untouchable but through violence: Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne. We discover that Arthur has repressed the memories of his own childhood abuse–abuse that has led to the development of his self-placating nervous laughter, his “condition.” In order to offset his own unhappiness (despite the sobriquet given to him by his mother: “Happy”), Arthur lives in a world of fantasy, one in which he is highlighted on The Murray Franklin Show not to be famous, but to connect with a man who he feels could function as a proxy father. His drive to confront Thomas Wayne, which, by the way, is when we see Arthur beginning to move from a reactive sponge to a proactive agent, is not to lay claim to wealth or political power; rather, he wants only a hug and a little human warmth. (In an alternate universe, one can easily imagine Arthur happily passing the day with Bruce, eagerly showing him his newest magic trick or dance routine, fully content with that life.) Yet, for all the shit that has been flung at him throughout his life, we see him resolve to trod his path of darkness only after he discovers that his mother has betrayed him and that Thomas Wayne has rejected him.

I am not convinced that Arthur intends to kill Murray until the very last moment; I believe that he may have still been holding out for a father who would check his murderous and suicidal impulses. Having dyed his hair green and embraced the make-up, Arthur assumes a campier, more androgynous persona prior to his late night show appearance, complete with the drag queen-esque affected Southern accent (e.g., “My life is nothing but a comedy.”) This particular take on the well-known Joker look deserves consideration in its own right. According to Mary Eberstadt,

Androgyny appears to offer competitive advantages in a world redesigned by the massive, radical, and largely unacknowledged communal dislocations incurred by Homo sapiens since the 1960s. Androgyny, including its instantiations of gender fluidity and gender ambiguity, has emerged in this new world as an adaptive way of augmenting one’s substitute clan. It operates, in effect, as a mechanism for reconstructing the extended family/community in prosthetic form in a time when the actual Western extended family/community is in decline.     

As one who lacks both family and community, Arthur must adapt in a way that augments his “substitute clan,” which is what occurs when the already rambunctious masked mob rallies around his body, waiting for the resurrection of its androgynous avatar. They provide him with the support that has lacked his entire life.

To return to my theory: when Arthur is listening to the news in the dressing room before going on stage, we can see that his eyes begin to water as he hears about the two officers who were nearly killed in the subway station. This leads me to believe that he still bears regret concerning what has happened to them–as well as to the clown protester who was killed on the subway. After Murray and his assistant leave the dressing room, Arthur rehearses pointing the gun toward his chin. (I cannot forget this gun-related detail, but I do not know where else to fit it in this review. What may have been dismissed as a throw-away gesture, but one that only affirms how detail-oriented Phoenix is to every role he assumes, is when he briefly points the gun to his own head after having shot the Wall Street subway bros. That gesture reveals a man who is not yet a committed murderer but one who acts in a frantic panic and who realizes that his life will never again be the same and who is not sure if he wants to continue living.) The turning point, I think, is when Arthur realizes that there is no redeeming Murray; he cannot be a father–he does not want to be a father. In fact, earlier in the film, the only time Murray mentions one of his children is to make fun of him (the garbage-strike joke). When Arthur tells Murray that he is bad (I have forgotten what term he used–“evil”?), he then makes the seething, pouty face of a child who is not afraid to let hatred and disappointment completely contort his expression. That is when Arthur realizes that Arthur, man-child that he is, must kill the man whose crime is that of not fulfilling the expectations that come with fatherhood.

Even as Gotham burns, we still do not see a fully formed Joker. In a scene that will haunt me for a while, after Joker arises from the hood of the police car and dances for mob, we see a man surveying the chaos that he has helped usher in. Once again his eyes water; we cannot tell if he is about to cry from joy or from fear and sadness of what has been unleashed. Given that he has to force himself to smile with his own blood, mimicking a movement that at the beginning of the film produces a tear, I wager on the latter. The film closes with Arthur laughing a genuine laugh as he assures his soon-to-be victim counselor that he is thinking of a joke that she would not get.

Given the unreliable narrator, much has been made regarding how much of the film actually occurs and how much of it may be only the feverish fantasies of a mentally ill man. While I have not come to a firm conclusion, I will point out that the careful viewer may have noticed that clock reads the same time during his first meeting with the social worker as it does during his flashback to Arkham as he bangs his head against the door window; perhaps what we experience as viewers is the unexplained joke that Arthur laughs at toward the end of the film. After all, the murder of Randall does possess a Kabuki-like theatrical feel, considering Arthur’s pasty-white face, the murder involving a sharp instrument, and the splash of blood that explodes upon his face and the wall. Perhaps the entire film was the performance of a psychodrama that Arthur allows us to view in order to relieve himself of the boredom of an asylum. Let us take our cue from the one of the film’s driving songs “That’s Life”: “I said that’s life, and as funny as it may seem / Some people get their kicks stompin’ on a dream.” The dream that we may have–and the one that Arthur stomps on at the end–is that if we investigate deeply and thoroughly enough, we will find the explanation of evil and, thus, through a knowledge of its origin be able to avoid it manifestation and consequences. Unfortunately, this is a facile behaviorist approach that does not take into consideration that every person is essentially an inscrutable being in whom resides the mystery of–and the battle between–good and evil.

 

About Bourbon Apocalypse: A Whiskey Son of Sorrow

"If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." ~ Kingsley Amis
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