Joker, 2019 — Not Funny, Not As Scary As Legend Suggests
Controversy has surrounded Tod Philips “Joker” since it’s first screening at the Venice Film Festival. Immediate reaction from critics suggested a film that was extremely well crafted and even with it’s 1980’s period setting, possibly too timely for this character and story. A number of early critics drew parallels to groups and individuals responsible for right wing violence we’ve seen escalate over the last decade. There have been questions about whether or not this film would inspire more. “Joker” they seemed to believe, is an incel idol waiting to happen.
Being that I’ve taken such an interest in the organizing and recruiting by far right extremists, this description caught my attention. In part because of this description, I wanted to see “Joker” to know whether or not to expect a rash of new right wing propaganda surrounding it. I also happen to think Joaquin Phoenix is a phenomenal actor, and was interested in his take on the iconic character.
Phoenix is absolutely amazing in the roll. He’s a ball of anxious, frustrated, agonized energy. Everything else that has been written about his performance is true. His laughter, a kind of nervous tick which happens at any point he feels uncomfortable or anxious in any way, seems painful and physically wrenching. Physically, Phoenix looks like he is one too severe a laughing fit from snapping himself in half. He looks wasted away and withered. And those eyes… There are a few moments in the film, before he’s really started to make the full transformation from Arthur Fleck to Joker, where just his eyes go from having this haunted, lost quality to crystal clear intensity, as if he’s unlocked some secret within himself. It’s the equivalent of edgelord cinema criticism to say Phoenix isn’t fantastic in the film. Whatever other misgivings anyone has about the film, if you’re a cinephile, this is worth seeing for his performance alone. Is it my favorite portrayal of the character? It’s hard to say. I’m still a fan of the manic foolishness of Caesar Romero’s portrayal, and Heath Ledger’s portrayal as a kind of slithering, conniving agent of chaos was more philosophically frightening. Mark Hamill also did a stellar job in the animated series.
I have to mention Bryan Tyree Henry, who has a very small role as a records clerk. He has one scene. There is a moment in the scene, between the lines of dialogue which proves he should be acting opposite todays best actors all the time. It’s a moment where a realization crosses his face, and it is heartbreakingly humanizing for his character and for Fleck. We can see it all in the expression on his face and body language. His realization, his decision to do the right thing, his discomfort with knowing how to do the right thing, all without saying a word, in seconds. It was one of the most emotional substantive moments in the film, and it works because it’s these two extremely talented actors saying their lines and acting between the lines. It’s a moment which could just go by as a check mark on the information the script has to give the audience, but he imbues it with weight and depth that makes it memorable.
The film, as a whole, is very good. It’s not great, and not quite the cinematic achievement some critics are building it up to be and certainly not what Warner Brothers wants to sell it as. It’s not a groundbreaking masterpiece. It is very good, and it’s best moments don’t belong to Joker, they belong to Arthur Fleck. The pieces of the story which get to the character moments of Fleck feeling like a person trapped in a world that only cares about his existence when it can get a few minutes of enjoyment from abusing or demeaning him work well.
It’s also part of why criticisms treating the film as if it’s some kind of far right propaganda piece end up lacking substance. Joker, as a character, isn’t interested in politics, which he states directly (it’s a line that is a little “on the nose”), but where the far right’s ability to subsume symbolism is concerned, it doesn’t really matter that he states it outright. What matters more is that Todd Philips as a writer and a director and/or Warner Brothers, are very interested in producing a film whose politics aren’t necessarily apolitical, but that are so vague and opaque, the audience or viewer can map whatever politics they want onto it.
There is a substantive argument to the idea that we should expect our mass media and our commercial entertainment to be specifically and pointedly anti-fascist, which right now, is de facto anti-far right, as basically the entirety of the American far right has developed an obsession with fascism. Different groups or organizations may prioritize which kind of fascism they are fighting for, but they are all fascist at their core. The stories we tell help to shape how we view ourselves as a society, and how we think about what is acceptable and what isn’t.
And there is the thing about “Joker” as a film which does undercut the significant part of the criticism which suggests it’s going to be some kind of spark for further far right violence or even taken as a symbol for the far right. Nothing about the film gets anywhere near challenging anything about culture, politics or anything at all really, in a way which goes beyond the socially acceptable. It does have some things to say, and it has some questions to ask, but it never does so in a way that would be so shocking or provocative to be unacceptable or inaccessible. To the far right and it’s adherents, the film is going to suffer from the same problem the kind of conservative decision making that makes them the “far right” and not traditional conservatives, being “cucked” or not being willing to go the extra mile to insures it’s not just provocative, but insulting and demeaning. It flirts with being genuinely provocative, but it never crosses any line that isn’t already socially acceptable to cross.
In many leftist circles where the idea of civil disobedience is held as a potent political tool, having a protest march which is permitted by the county, state or city it takes place eliminates the purpose of having a march or a protest. It’s a question of what exactly is being accomplished by cooperating with the exact entities responsible for the hierarchy of power that makes the protest necessary in the first place. “Joker” is the cinematic equivalent of a permitted protest march which is organized in order to “bring awareness” to the non-controversial fact that erasing people from existence and denying them recognition as human beings is a bad idea. It has nothing subversive to say. In point of fact, it seems the far right are the only ones arguing they would prefer seeing people erased from existence and deny them recognition as human beings.
Let’s be extremely clear about this as well, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is not an “everyman”. The comparison’s to “Taxi Driver” are correct in the visual presentation and in the atmospheric tone of the film, but Arthur Fleck doesn’t start the film as a kind of Travis Bickle “everyman”. Arthur Fleck is a profoundly broken individual. Travis Bickle was a more whole person in on an exponentially broader scale. Arthur is not profoundly isolated or profoundly anti-social, but profoundly unmoored from any sense of central identity. He’s not even capable of being anti-social. He’s not some kind of obsessively conservative blue collar guy, wandering around musing about the horror of the world. Arthur Fleck doesn’t even have the sense of self to get to that state of mind.
Arthur Fleck is barely holding onto existence, materially and psychologically. Gaining Travis Bickle’s sense of self righteousness would be a step up for this character, and he doesn’t become Joker by gaining it either. He doesn’t have anything like a sense of self which would have to be the foundation for that kind of righteous indignation. He becomes Joker through the idea that attention alone gives him as much identity as he needs. He doesn’t make any particular judgment about positive or negative attention, because again, the character would have to be less broken to get there. He starts out trying to meet the social norms of positive and negative, but as the arbitrary nature of good and bad cut what few strands of identity he does have, he has no ability to even hold on to even basic moral judgment.
It’s the attention which gives Joker existence. Through no distinct choice of his own, he learns that being party to the death of high profile and high status people gets a lot of attention. It’s also important to note that without the moral weight, killing people is relatively easy. Free from a sense of identity which anchors him into society and it’s moral judgments, he can seek attention without any care given to it’s effects on other people. Killing people, especially killing the kinds of people who aren’t supposed to get killed in society’s skewed view, gets a whole lot of attention, quickly.
If there’s any central idea to the film, it’s that Arthur Fleck is a nihilistic void inside a human being, and having an arbitrary social morality without giving people like Arthur Fleck enough of a foothold to give them a sense of identity connected to the well being of society or at least their loved ones, they are going to revert to just being that void. Whether or not they become dangerous or they are positive contributors to society is a roll of the dice, and for people on fringes of society, the dice are loaded against them.
This also reflects on the criticism about the film being easily co-opted as a right wing polemic. One of the most misguided aspects of our current political climate is the narrative that people who are becoming radicalized are just dumb hicks or are just entitled white guys. Entitlement absolutely plays a part, and it has to be addressed. I’ll make no argument against that idea, ever. Addressing entitlement is the key to preventing more political violence. It’s the key to preventing more terrorist attacks. It’s the key to creating some sense of solidarity among the people who are most adversely affected by our destructive norms, systems and ideas.
The truth of the existence of entitlement, especially among white men, doesn’t erase the fact that every variety of person, including white men, faces marginalization and dehumanization because of our destructive norms, ideas and systems. Being white may give us racial privilege, but it doesn’t mean able-ism, homophobia, transphobia, and every other form of discrimination and marginalization don’t effect us. Because we’re all inundated with a patriarchal white supremacist societal bias, essentially making fun of people who don’t have other forms of privilege is just pushing them out there for far right extremists to recruit. The far right specifically targets these people for recruitment, as well as privileged, entitled white men. There’s a whole lot of lazy political and social commentary that seems unwilling to reckon with this, and it’s too often regurgitated.
The people who should be seeing “Joker” are exactly those people who have these other forms of privilege (the overwhelming majority of them white, but not all of them) and whose only engagement on behalf of or with people with less privilege than themselves is to attempt to police the disaffection they express or to belittle them. It’s a movie that should be seen by people who value the stability they have, specifically because the thing it most effectively outlines is the destabilizing effect of not addressing issues of inequality and how much of a game of chance is involved with waiting for it to hit a breaking point before we do.
If the character piece is going to be a new way for films based on comic properties to be made, I’m in favor of it. The Marvel films have overall been fun. The DC films have overall been bad, though “Aquaman” was bad in the most fun of ways. This is something different, and if it’s success enables other creators to take more chances with these well known characters, I’m all for it.