Novice on Film: A Joker’s Progress

Joker, 2019 and The Dark Knight, 2008

A good comic book villain is more of a representative avatar than human depiction. None evinces this better than DC Comics’ Joker.

His original origin story (he falls into a vat of acid and is disfigured), provides for a madman’s revenge angle, but that familiar human motivation has proven forgettable, at least in the movies. His indifference seems to be the point. Behind the joyless grin and humor, Joker appears like a malicious and random force of nature. Or did. In this disillusioned century we have no choice but to cast him as an avenging angel.

The Western elite gives fanciful, crazy reasons–like those coming from a comic book lunatic–for the wars they wage abroad and the war they wage on the common man at home. Offended by the predictable populist responses of such as Trump and Brexit, they’ve lost all previous restraint. The mask hasn’t slipped as much as it’s been tossed away in defiance. Contempt they did not know they had surges in response to the challenge. Our elite has become like a comic book villain, taunting us as impotent and impertinent. Honesty doesn’t become them.

And there’s been Joker the whole time, his mask-grin a perfect riposte to that unmasked elite, his garish chaos a fun-house mirroring of the frenetic kitsch that is our culture. It took a while for Hollywood to appreciate the symbolic resource he is, after the dull camp of the first films ran aground.
Whatever his creators were thinking Joker was made for our age of endless amusements and vanishing humanity. In drawing their inspiration from engaging images of the near past (which are inspired by images from their near past, and on and on into historical obscurity) artists are continually searching out timeless evocative symbols.

Joker and similarly striking icons are discovered as much as created. Those that stick are those that strike the same sense in enough people, the same gut response of fascination, repulsion and mystery. Sharing this ineffable but profound reaction is probably what they mean by a collective consciousness, I don’t know; but there is a sort of collective dialogue that goes on, that has to, beneath the level of language, and these timeless images are the established tropes and truths of that dialogue

Landing in the economic crisis of 2008, Heath Ledger’s version in The Dark Knight appeared as an out-of-control nemesis coming to collect for elite hubris, but unloading his vengeance on the hapless whole–a very apt metaphor for either the Great Recession or the 2003 Iraq War.

Ledger took the film version of Joker from comic book camp to graphic novel noir. The avatar function of the character, where he once stood in for malice without purpose, was transcended, made specific and timely. It wasn’t in the story (which I don’t recall) but in Ledger’s characterization that the transformation was made. The broad camp gave way to realism; Joker was brought into the real world. But he was still less a human character than a personification of something.

Notably, 2008 was also the year of Obama’s election. The ensuing eight years would be defined by betrayal, first of elite accountability for the economic crisis and then of his promises of racial healing by engaging in racial demagogy. Police are still being shot at by those under that demagogy’s influence. Black militants are like a comic book villain’s minions; with Obama at the center, The Weasel (his physiognomy will lend itself well to the adaptation), putting the City in a trance with his bullshit while they loot and pillage.

But I don’t mean to pick on Obama, who had to happen, in one person or another (perhaps it would have been better for all if he’d come sooner); hindsight reveals an inexorable logic to the civil rights narrative–it had to happen that it would become a betrayal. Looking back we see its transformation by countless little lies, starting from a moral argument for legal equality and ending in an atavistic demand for our collective head. That same magnanimous White America that acquiesced to what was presented as reason is now–by virtue of their acquiescence–a shameful thing that must be destroyed. This is the betrayal that defines America now.

Betrayal is the mark of the age. Personal betrayal exploded in the sexual revolution. Our atomized existence is largely about avoiding the risk and pain of personal betrayal. As betrayal becomes easier and more common, we retreat further into isolation, itself ever easier and more common.

But there are other grand betrayals. Through identity politics minorities betray whites, gays betray straights, women betray men, Jew betrays Gentile. Each of these movements were sold as equality and now operate as supremacy movements, gleefully appropriating, looting, condemning and promising no end until–they enthuse–they have eliminated the same straight white America that originally acquiesced to their moral arguments for fairness and equality. Not only was old America rewarded for her liberality by being slated for demolition, the demolition of old America is now the heroic foundational myth of the new, diverse America!

Do you see what they did there? They changed our origin story.

Needless to say Todd Phillips, the Jewish director of 2019’s Joker, probably doesn’t share the views expressed above, yet he does seem to sense the role betrayal, or at least its perception, plays in modern life.

Authorial intent is not final authority. A work is more like a bird an artist sets loose than a drone he manipulates. To the extent the work is obscure, or leaves itself open to interpretation, the less control the artist has. Obscurity is its own dilemma. He can go public with demands his work be treated a certain way, but if the reception keeps resisting him what does that say?

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy rescued Batman from camp and placed him in a more engaging noir setting. The whole sequence started in the positively optimistic (from this vantage) setting of the late eighties, with Tim Burton’s trifling and boring Batman, spent the distracted and mildly (from this vantage) degenerate nineties with Shumacher (perfect fit) and woke up, with the rest of us, to the horror of the oughts: 9/11, the Iraq War and the greed-triggered Great Recession. Rubber nipples would be barbaric after such revelations of evil, to paraphrase someone else. Poetry is needed.

Thankfully as well the franchise has not yet been hollowed-out by mandated diversity.

The Dark Knight may have invited all manner of interpretation about the big crimes of war and corruption, and its scenes provide a wealth of striking analogies to them, but it has nothing to say about the existential terror and loneliness of the common man (which wasn’t as far gone in 2008, of course) that is inseparable from those crimes. It is safely detached and, despite its admirable qualities, irrelevant.

The thing is, these grand betrayals are profoundly personal. They determine the way we live and suffer.

Todd Phillips somehow got the studio to agree to a radical genre-shift unprecedented for a studio franchise for his 2019 take, Joker.

Nolan’s heavy noir was, somehow, relief from the shallow frivolity that preceded it, but as a stylized genre it operates at one more remove from realism. That remove is a cushion of detachment. There is no risk to the author or the viewer. Likewise there’s no place for catharsis.

Phillips eliminates the cushion of detachment by adopting realism. Now it’s dangerously personal–one might recognize himself in the characterization, not in broad outlines but in painful relief. Railing against our corrupt elite is necessary but safe. Turning the camera around upon us, even in sympathy, is dangerous: one might experience the shock of self-recognition.

Phillips takes Joker from comic book character to character study. He’s now fully human and quite recognizable. His problems are common. All of a sudden it’s very personal.

Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill loner in Gotham City in 1981–standing in for seventies New York–and the film is given the look of a seventies-era psychological thriller, but the social alienation, decaying civility and celebrity worship described look a lot like today.

The name is an ironic reference to another bastard, King Arthur: Fleck too will emerge from obscurity to assume a mantle.

Arthur lives with his dependent mother and works as a party clown. Working as a sign-spinner on the street, he suffers the first humiliation we witness, a recreational beat-down at the hands of some Puerto Rican punks. The film opens with Arthur at a mirror practicing his smile while in voiceover a news broadcast relates the progress of decline. Obvious but effective.

Arthur’s mother has created for him a sort of origin story: he’s the bastard son of Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce Wayne/Batman); she promises as soon as Wayne, who she reveres, responds to her letters things are going to be okay.

There are three older figures propelling Arthur’s story: his mother, a talk show host named Murray Franklin, played by Robert DeNiro and Thomas Wayne.

 It will be Arthur’s perception of betrayal by this symbolic triad–by Wayne, who can be interpreted as standing in for the elite, by DeNiro, standing for the culture, and by his mother, representing women–prompting his act of transformational violence and subsequent resurrection as degenerate demigod–returning the character to his role as avatar.

It’s a reversal of the nameless (to me at least) but common trope wherein a character becomes fully human by behaving humanely–the Pinocchio trope in fairy tales. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but Phillips has turned that on its head: Arthur’s arc is bound for resolution in his loss of humanity.

He stands in for us, a people whose humanity is under peril.

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