We’re living through a kind of late-wave puritanism on the left. The same way American culture could not shake off the echo of the Camelot that JFK and Jackie promised, which left us ill-prepared for the eventual descent into the fog of Vietnam, Nixon, and eventually Reagan, we are now living in the echo of Barack and Michelle Obama and the Utopian dream they promised. How can we forget? We can never forget.
In our desire to achieve that dream to its completion many Americans have become almost fascist in their mandate that “the message” should always be: a strident commitment to that Utopian dream, no matter the cost. Because we can’t face the truth about who we really are in America, we turn for solace to all of the entities that lie to us about who we are – whether it be Facebook, Twitter, wholly partisan news outlets, or even some major news outlets. We have become so accustomed to controlling our own experience in how we receive, spread, and fight for messages we stand for, we have forgotten about the importance of freedom of expression. And a person’s right to think for themselves.
“Think this way, talk this way, believe what I want you should to believe” is how it’s all coming across lately – and even we see that the intentions are good when we drill down into them, they are all too often spit back out as a directive at best, as an angry mob out for vengeance at worst. It feels an awful lot like we’re advocating for sanitized, censored, tailor made content that lies to us to comfort us about the reality we want versus depicting the reality we have.
We’ve easily slipped right into mob rule. Deciding whose movies can play here and whose can’t, based on who we’ve decided the filmmakers are, whether they are worthy or not. Based either on something they did or something they said, or the film they made that might send the wrong message, that might not be “on the same page” as our directive. Doesn’t anyone think this is all more than a little bizarre? A little Lord of the Flies?
The thing is, good art – powerful art – provocative and memorable art does not tell you what you want – or need – to hear. How useless would that be? The difference between art and porn is exactly that: you count on the artist to tell you something that matters, even if it bothers you, not just get you off when you’re in the mood. It is the difference between a corporation pandering to your particulars about what is correct politics and what isn’t so you’ll buy more coke or burgers or lipstick or razors. See what’s happening? They think they can play us because they make us think we’re being righteous by buying their product or watching their TV show or their film. That means the flip side has to also be true: if it doesn’t speak the language of the righteous it is therefore not something you should buy or watch.
And sure, at the base of it all is the need to be good and to prevent bad things from being broadcast and people being offended – I get it. But sooner or later we all have to understand that we’re going to be offended in life. It is a part of life. And it isn’t the end of the world. We’re stronger than we think. We have critical minds that can decide for ourselves what a movie is or isn’t about. We aren’t drones so easily influenced. Are we?
Now we get to Todd Phillips, whose latest interview got dissected and combed over for maximum clickbait and they pulled out of it the headline — blah blah blah “far left” blah blah blah. It is designed for someone whose fingers are burning to RT it, along with a commentary on Phillips. How dare he? How dare he criticize us! We’re just happily trying to keep our Utopian dream and in that Utopian dream there is no room for those who live on the fringes of society and do terrible things. In our world, or the world we pretend to live in, these things don’t exist. So why should there be a movie about things we wish weren’t so? It messes with the message! Our directive!
Says the Washington Post:
Although reviews have been largely positive, with a 75 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes to date, some critics have raised concerns that the movie could inspire violence from radicalized men clamoring for a moment of recognition — a description not unlike how many reviewers have characterized Arthur Fleck, the failing comic and for-hire clown who eventually becomes the Joker.
Um, you mean because if the film didn’t exist radicalized men wouldn’t be clamoring for a moment of recognition. And the studio responded:
“Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind,” the studio said. “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
Is it all really so black and white as that? We have a long history of villains as anti-heroes – Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for playing Hannibal Lecter who, at the end of the film, chases down his rival Dr. Chilton and has him for lunch. Eats him, literally. Dude won an Oscar. I guess because we can get away with anything if justice is served at the end (along with a friend for lunch). We can have it both ways because the film’s diabolical hero gets the bad guy. Anti-heroes are a tricky business. They require a sharp audience accustomed to critical thinking, able to balance two different concepts at once. Far from the Age of Literal Interpretation for everything. Someone accuses it of saying something – that means it is that thing suddenly because enough people hop on board. Well, really?
I am pretty sure that when JD Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye he didn’t think he was going to reach all manner of people, those who felt like they belonged, and those who felt isolated. He surely didn’t think a dog-eared copy of his brilliant book would be found stuffed into the pocket of an assassin. Is that the book’s fault? Should we think-piece the shit out of it? Does the film marinate in Holden’s isolation where everyone else, except innocents, are big old phonies? Or does it tell the truth about the structure of our society that exiles so many? That’s a harder question, isn’t it. We can address the guns but we can’t address the underlying cause of gun violence, because if we do we are not on Team Gun Control anymore.
There have been 41,000 incidents involving guns in this country in 2019 and 11,058 deaths and 312 of those have been mass shootings. How much harder it is to look at that truth. How much easier it is to blame a filmmaker. Why, because a filmmaker we can destroy online in a day. Then we can walk away feeling like we accomplished something.
We can’t really get to gun control until we get to how many fucked-up individuals there are in this world. If you want a list of all of the violent things humans have done to animals and to each other since they migrated out of Africa as Homo sapiens, I can do that. We basically wiped out all of the major land mammals before we even invented the wheel. Before we even get to imperialism and manifest destiny and the genocide of Native Americans and slavery and Jim Crow.
And what about Vietnam? What about how that war eventually gave birth to such a rich and dark period of American cinema? Did Scorsese worry about offending people when he and Paul Schrader conceived Taxi Driver? No, that wasn’t their goal. They were trying to create a stark portrayal of a person adrift after a terrible war where Americans weren’t the good guys. I guess Travis gets a pass because instead of killing Palentine he kills the drug dealers and pedophile pimp.
In 1969, Charles Manson listened to The White Album over and over again, convinced it was sending him secret codes about a forthcoming revolution. When the Mason family slaughtered innocent people and then wrote “piggies” on the wall it suddenly made the anti-establishment movement that had overtaken American culture seem like a dangerous thing. It, too, was anti-rich people. It, too, spoke to those left behind. But no one blamed the Beatles for that. The masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde makes doomed heroes of its two stars, but we know they get it in the end. Still, we somehow sympathize with them, don’t we? We don’t want justice served and somehow the film feels like a tragedy.
So if Joker had suddenly decided to become a superhero and not a super-villain would he be forgiven? If he was gunned down at the end, could we then have sympathy?
Like it or not, America is a country with a lot of crazy people in it, people that no one sees simmering until their rage boil over. It is not this film’s fault – there is something else driving it. But art is often the salvation for it, not the inspiration. No single piece of art can “turn” anyone into a psycho.
I haven’t seen Joker. I have read the screenplay. But I find all of the conversations around it misguided, though well-intentioned. What I understood from the script is not the literal interpretation that’s fueling the hot takes (oh it might cause a bunch of incels to shoot bad people because they could not get a date) But rather, be careful of the heroes you make. Be careful of mob rule. Pay more sensitive attention to those who fall through the cracks. Be especially wary of the way a damaged society will often turn away from level-headed leadership and elevate the most terrible people to positions of power, attracted to the magnetism of brutal charisma. How is that not a worthy discussion to have?
No, what’s really going on right now is a pattern of what amounts to virtual stoning. Too many keep trying to purge the village of its sinners to keep the village pure and righteous. When Trump was elected it thrust us into a tailspin of fear, which has in turn led to a kind of hysteria.
The danger of this attitude right now is that we’re not really allowed to have actual discussions. We all must obey the party line every single time or else. And that just isn’t healthy, my friends.
So many Hollywood films are now and have always been about violence. They have always put one guy at the center – the generation alive now was raised on animated films and films aimed at kids have typically showed “one special boy” as the protagonist and taught us that everything will turn out alright because they were there to save the day and get the girl. Once the viewers have bought their ticket to two hours of illusion, they are then thrown back out into a cruel and indifferent world that proves to them, no, that was nothing but a lie, kids. This world, this country, these people do not really care all that much about you. It’s the same sort of dynamic of the beautiful lie sold to little girls – once upon a time – that a handsome prince will one day save them. That romantic lie has birthed whole industries devoted to women marinating in it the same way whole industries have been birthed to massage the angst of the forgotten, futile, disposable man.
Why then would everyone be so freaked out now by Joker? By this one character who rises out of the chaos and pain and abuse of his own life to become not just a murderer but an icon? Why would all of the icons prior to this, from presidents, to founding fathers, to serial killers like Charles Manson or the Columbine killers, not somehow be part of this story of us?
The reason is that the idea of an “incel” is the one true enemy of our Utopia all at once. They are the lurking super-villains who hate women, love Trump, and murder innocent people out of self pity. Guess what though? They’re here, and they walk among us. They are part of our culture, like it or not, and the last thing we need is a movie that falsely downplays their threat to make us feel better about the world we participate in every day. No, what we need is a reality check and you don’t get there by lying about the truth, or by smoothing over what is true, but by facing it head on.
It’s hard to parse what is happening now, the way anyone can navigate the best path forward – but I’ll be damned if the first to forgfe ahead are the artists brave enough to still tell stories that can provoke people like this one has. When I was young it was Andres Serrano plunging a crucifix into a jar of piss after getting $20K National Endowment of the Arts. A gallery cancelled Mappelthorpe’s exhibit because it was offensive and so:
Congress passes the NEA’s 1990 Appropriations Bill which contains restrictions on NEA grantmaking procedures. The bill denies funding for projects that ‘produce materials which in the judgment of the NEA may be considered obscene, including but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, individuals engaged in sex acts, and which do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.’ The bill authorizes a budget to create a 12-member commission to review the NEA grantmaking policy. The commission members are appointed by the Speaker of the House, the Senate president, and President Bush.
This draconian overreaction was driven by fear, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, when the decade of sexual liberation took a terrifyingly deadly turn. Eventually things would realign to more reasonable attitudes, but honestly, we seem headed once again down a carefully manicured path that still beckons to those who value bogus reassurance over the risks of the natural wilderness. It’s not actual government censorship this time around, but censorship all the same.
I don’t want to be on the side of the people who protested Mapplethorpe and I don’t want to be on the side of people ready to drag Todd Phillips and shame him for exposing our collective sins. He made a movie. It’s a movie. If it’s not for you, that’s one thing. Lots of movies aren’t for me, in fact almost no superhero movies ever are. But this one? Anything that gets people in this much of an uproar immediately becomes the film I most want to see.