I. Beyond Ironic
In 2019, it is beyond ironic that the last gasp for method, setting-focused ensemble work on a cape-and-CG dominated cinematic stage is within the superhero tentpole. “Beyond” because irony barely has a pulse when the insidious meme has mulched thesis and antithesis into ADHD-riddled snark.*
As a musician (and come to think of it, writer) who carefully assembles improvised riffs and elements, I identify more than a little with the way that Joker, as a movie — as a character — creates narrative. Riff, rift, repeat.
“The last day of shooting we did a scene with seven wildly different takes. That was the last thing we shot. So [up until the end] we were still thinking of ideas, what could we do differently.”
2. Lean, Mean, and Non-CG
With many bloated exceptions, comedy is a form of entertainment that thrives within non-CG parameters — two ferns and a baby is stretching it. A lone microphone, the phantom smoke of unlit cigarette, proves ample stand-in for an apartment room, an airport waiting lounge, a food truck, a flute-haunted beach.
While not exactly low budget, the Joker is that rare film (I’m also thinking of another Joaquin Phoenix vehicle, the Master) in which the director spent the money on the types of things that matter. Props, actors with real lines, scenes with individuality and vernacular. No erasure of age through CG, whether for purposes of plot line, novelty, or stupid vanity.
In its assured narrative form, Joker hearkens back to what the Raging Bull renegades let loose in the old studio china shop, striking blows against artificiality through sheer purpose and stagecraft, at a time when there was a coherently informed audience (read: stoned?) to impress.
What strikes me is that — unlike many contemporary movies set in the pre-digital past, Joker is not afraid of its shadow, the specter of device and beat — the looming, unalterable presence of technology in the wings. Maybe this is because the director and actor have assumed responsibility, flame or fail — there is no burden of the “crossover” to nail it to a superhero cross.** The film’s makers, if not its funders, are not losing sleep over whether it will sell tickets in Bangor, Rio, Moscow, or Beijing.
And if it bombs? Cancel culture says it never happened. No crossover, no proba, brada.
“The reason why I choose movies is the filmmaker. I thought that Todd had a really unique understanding of this world and the character, and great sensibilities. I knew that he liked to work in a loose way at times, and there was also this really solid script.”
3. Joaquin “Charlie” Phoenix
It helps that Joaquin Phoenix is the closest we get to a modern Chaplin, a kinetic actor whose commitment to becoming a meta/physical embodiment of the character, down to the smallest tics and yeah, brain patterns, transcends the superhero trap. The New York Times’ Gia Kourlas penned a whole article on Phoenix’ dance moves, and yes, that hemming and hawing, in apartment and up and down Insta-ready steps is kinetic. Moreover, it’s human.
Body armor as superhero suit speaks volumes to the era we live in. I don’t know about the average John Q, but I lost interest in the contemporary portrayal of Batman when he started wearing an armor body suit and speaking through a voice modulator.***
I’m pretty sure Batman represents corporate America at this point, if not the modern police state (see the oppressive uniforms on display in Hong Kong). Maybe more realistic than a caped vigilante in tights, but a lot less fun and, one suspects (like Ironman, who at least has the smirk going) on the wrong side of the critical dividing line of our times — the global warming “debate.” At the very least, Batman’s aped-up lambomobile cannot get more than 10 miles per gallon. And what about about the drone-propelled flamethrower and titanium ninja stars with soul trackers?
“You just start going down this road. I started applying the makeup on my own… (in the film, the great makeup artist Nicki Lederman did the makeup). I took pictures at different stages, there’s one that’s just the white paint. And there’s something vey haunting about that look. It seemed almost more scary than the full Joker makeup. And I sent that to Todd and we decided to use that look for a scene in the movie.”
4. The Madness of Great Comedy
There is a madness angle to all great comedy, from Sophocles to Monty Python. When you take off the mask of the comedian you find the psycho within. This is not a bad thing. Lines may be crossed, feelings hurt, but the ability to vent is a vital safeguard against the ready-made safe spaces of incipient fascism.
If comedy is a mirror that social media has shunned and flamed — as the Hangover director found, when his honorable tradition of the gross-out fizzed among a woke crowd — there is only one place to go. The padded room.
In parallel with Joker’s well-documented psychological maladies, director Todd Phillips undoubtedly channeled some of his own pent up comedic angst into the narrative — the inability to get yayas out. Blame the flatness of the feed, in which the terribly cute vies with the garish, the violent, the grouchy, and the debased. Quality is placed side by side with the fake plastic trees, and the algorithm doesn’t know the difference.**** How can you elicit laughs when the non-hacks are not only no longer paid, but forced to cohabit with the insane clown posse?
Then there’s the idea that those who seek to make others laugh are often the most sensitive and empathetic. They defuse the bomb in situations where laughter is a therapeutic alternative to scorn and misery, if not World War Three. The most eviscerating comedy thrives in an environment of free speech and thoughtful acceptance of various perspectives.
Within the context of Joker, hell hath no fury like a comedian scorned. Laughter (at, or with) is Arthur Fleck’s last line of defense. A joke that elicits jeers is at least as good as a joke that falls flat —and if you can’t get the audience to listen, shoot the talk show host.*****
Speaking of which, taxi drivers and comedians have more than a little in common. A “beyond ironic” twist is the way in which Robert DeNiro––whom most now associate with some crotchety uncle in some lame comedy–– embodies in Phillips’ vision the antitheses of Travis Bickle (Arthur Fleck’s spirit animal). Take home: an entire generation has become a parody of itself. A laying on of hands, a slathering of remix devotion, in a world where fame is an analog concept and 15 minutes of feed time is considered 14:45 too long. My take? Ok boomer/ok hipster (Generation X smirk).
Easy to say I know, but a shift has occurred, a hollowing out. Those who emerged in systems where reward was given for hard work, originality, skill, creativity, and other arbiters of worth, find being marginalized by bot n’ troll armies hard to swallow.
When the freedom to spread fake news takes the place of freedom of speech, there is no outlet and bitterness runs to its logical conclusion — fascism that wears new colors, empaths who empathetically turn their fears and phobias into dastardly deeds writ large on the streets. Whether dressed in clown masks or in Guy Fawkes garb, powder-keg vendetta meets the extreme leverage of the flash mob and the world grows more polarized by the nanosecond.******
“In terms of how the audience reacts, everybody, including my family… the people I’ve talked with all have a different reaction to the character, whether they sympathize or not. That’s what I like about the movie, it’s not telling you precisely what you should feel or when, and I think that’s rare in movies. Probably the reason I ultimately said yes to the movie was because I wasn’t sure what I felt about him.”
5. Happiness as the Art of Fending off Reality
At its heart, Joker is about the psychological underpinnings of the bastard, the mistake, the free lunch ticket that never came home. As mother Penny, heavily in denial, describes it, he was always such a happy boy. With a smile signifying, not a state of happiness, but an overcoming of fear through stoicism. But even the most stoic must let it out.
The Joker is a survivor of something that could easily have ended in death, whether in the fetus, or in the moment of abuse as a three-year-old — or later, in one of those moments of intense hopelessness felt by the adult-child who has suffered horrific abuse.
His mother’s story is a particular tragedy of the shell game system. In a traditional society, every member of society would simply consider hard work part and parcel of life, however brutish and short it might be. But when lavish extraneous luxury is not only a possibility but a sought-after goal, the ability to make do with less, to find inner strength in things other than money, is abandoned by all but the very wise and determined.
The schism between rich and poor — those who receive everything through relatively little effort and those who receive very little, though they struggle mightily every day, is at the core of the Joker origin.
Arthur’s mother I imagine, from her accent and deportment, was depression-hardened into a social striver, launched by destitute parents to latch onto wealth, gain some of that which the family felt it could never make through honest work alone. Hence the elocution lessons, the months and years of training in correct deportment that none of her dockyard brothers received, for that one shot at largesse afforded to the very rich. She took a job as maid in a time well before the “me too” era, when the debased rules of the money system were accepted because people actually had no choice.*******
The type of schizophrenia she experienced was forged through living between two social groupings, classes that no longer see eye to eye. Trying to bridge that which is in essence unbridgeable, the work of spies.
And there in the maelstrom a sensitive boy, unprotected by his mother against the predators who emerged when she was expelled from the gates of Eden — neither welcome at a home with already too many mouths to feed or at the Wayne manor.
And yet young Arthur Fleck was not completely helpless. Joker has the ruthless, driven Wayne genes — he was born to, if not rule, at least survive. He expended much of his life force trying to protect his mother, in a world that was stacked way way against. A world which he instinctively sensed he should have owned, instead of it constantly owning him.
Bottom line: don’t give someone like the Joker meds. Give him therapy, give him unconditional love and support. But if you do give him meds, whatever you do, don’t cut off his supply.
“One of the first things I started to research was the medications [Joker] was on and the side effects of those medications, which made [him] feel isolated from the world. And then on top of that [he] takes these medications and they [cause] these rapid changes in weight. There’s something very tragic about that.
I said we should go with that, we should really have him affected in his weight. I’m lazy, so I suggested we go the heavy route. Because I already was heavy [laughter]…. anyway, once I had lost that weight I was aware of my body in a way that I hadn’t been, I think that allowed me to move in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. [Joker is a] character who never feels satisfied, he’s always in this perpetual state of yearning, of need. And that was built in. I was in a state of hunger.”
6. Superheroes as Shakespearian Substitutes
As one New York Times critic put it, superhero movies are the Shakespearian dramas of the contemporary era, our obsessions writ large. From that perspective, maybe it makes sense that this serious-movie Joker inhabits the Batman tentpole…. To bring method acting to a comic book character is quite a feat. Heath Ledger burned himself out trying to get there and, whatever he was, he was never quite the Joker.
Victim though he may be at times, the Joker does not die through pills or lack of sleep — he finds ways to thrive from his obsessions. He knows all the angles, all the forms of abuse. He punishes those who through micro aggressions remind him of that which has kept him down. And who better to portray that than Joaquin Phoenix, who has clearly had his own experiences adapting to madness––from his family’s early immersion in cult, to his brother’s Viper Room flame out.
If Guy Fawkes is the contemporary archetype, the emblem of all who would rebel, ignite, then give Arthur his place in that firmament. As Joker emerges from the nervous, effeminate, loser into a vision of the shaman carving a smile on his face, he embodies an all-too-common phenomenon in today’s unequal, “winner take all” society. The mass-casualty mirror to our preoccupation with social media smiles and selfie deportment.
My only significant reservation is that Phillips makes the Joker’s transformation into one who “werewolfs in the streets” a little too sexy, the line between diagnosis and prescription becomes a little too blurred. Yet I agree with Joaquin Phoenix that this, if anything subtly introspective, portrayal of a homicidal misanthrope is much less likely to spark copycat actions than those types of mindlessly violent films that leave out the backstory, the consequences, and the regrets.********
“There was a vast increase in these particular types of crimes after 1963. That year was when they started an unprecedented amount of news coverage about these types of crimes. So people who commit these types of crimes, these personality types — they seek personal notoriety, they seek recognition, that is what they thrive on.
I understand the media feels they’re being the responsible ones, but I think that the evidence is to the contrary. So that’s why I’ve remained quiet about the subject (and now you’ve forced me to talk about it). I don’t think that movies influence people in that way, I don’t think they cause homicidal ideation, or thoughts. But the conversation around that can be dangerous.”
*Whose not-so-distant cousin is fascism, because when the same memes, jokes, and feed elements are pounded into our collective psyches, mean sameness follows.
** Sidestepping long digression, this is not coincidentally the talking point of a lot of old directors, Scorcese et al. in recent days. Tying into why Once A Time in Hollywood will not play well in China, regardless of Bruce Lee flaps, while just about any Marvel movie will do nicely.
***Arguably, Joker became the most interesting character in the Batman cinematic pantheon with Heath Ledger, although some would argue this happened when Jack Nicholson briefly took the role. Within the context of the comics, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight was the birth of this vision, placing adult goggles on the kiddish amorality.
**** Re: AI––thank god, some would argue. Or as Neil Young put it: So the subtle face… is the loser… this time. Here we are in the years, where the showman shifts the gears, lives become careers, children cry in fear, let us out of here. (exit, ominous piano).
*****A variant of “kill your television.”
******Better hope your leader is sane, your demands measured, and your cause just. Is it better to act fast, in a state of hunger, than to pick battles?
*******Alternatives were grim: flagpole sitting, shoveling coal, come to mind.
*******We need more introspection, less repression — if it hurts, shocks, and causes revulsion, at least this type of tragicomedy attempts to piece together a narrative forward from the bits left behind by so many men who, alienated and alone, kill to forget.
And now for something completely different.