The Buddha said life is suffering. Once you understand this fundamental truth, you stop yearning for ways to take it away – drugs, money, sex, food. You can’t do anything about the constant state of the human condition. It just is.
In America, we are meant to live by three truths – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When you are born white and male you are all but guaranteed that entitlement. After all, this country was founded on it. We came, we saw, we did whatever the hell we wanted.
Todd Phillips’ Joker is a film that has struck a chord, running the gamut from conservatives using it to criticize progressivism, to those on the left saying it risks encouraging “incels” to exact violence because of what they were promised that they don’t have. It has been called boring, and a masterpiece, and everything in between. The truth is that the film is all of these things and none of these things – pitiful and powerful, threatening and harmless, great and terrible all at once. The film has given us a hero and an anti-hero spun into one. It is a mighty call, a barbaric yawp and hankering for the days when this was a country ruled by the men who founded it. Not kings, but scrappy revolutionaries, with their pony tails and pale white skin seeing a land of opportunity and seizing the day.
And now here we land at last, on Arthur Fleck, a piece of trash that got dropped off a garbage truck jam packed with American waste. He is a product of our culture as much as he is a reject from it. In a country full of winners and losers he is also both. Joaquin Phoenix is great in the part of the Joker. He does give among the best performances of the year, though to nominate him voters will have to digest what happens in the film’s last 15 minutes. For Phoenix to win, the film would likely need to be nominated for Best Picture. And Todd Phillips for Best Director, even. These things are possible if the film is seen as it should be seen. But that’s a tricky prospect.
Here is my take on the film overall, if you’re interested.
As a super-villain origin story, Joker is as close to a masterpiece as any of these are ever going to get. Freed from the shackles of high tech, with no Batman hurling his heroic body through space to preserve goodness and fight for the victims of evil, we are given the chance to see the world through the eyes of someone who will one day shuck it all in sociopathic hedonism. Of course he will hate Batman because Batman had what he will never have: parents who loved him, money, and if he looks like Christian Bale — or George Clooney or Michael Keaton — well, he’s a man no woman would pass up, or disregard. Poor Arthur Fleck has nothing. Is no one. He’s laughed at because he can’t stop laughing. He can’t get the girl, he can’t hold down a job. He not only lives with his mother but he bathes her, and lies in bed with her — a formula sure to fuck up any man. If only society would give him a break he might not grow up to be the super-villain who drives Batman crazy with his nihilistic tendencies to destroy the world, but society has neither breaks nor fucks to give to a man like Fleck
As that kind of movie, Joker is, I dare say, as good as it will ever get. It’s so good, in fact, you might wish for Todd Phillips to give us a Catwoman origin story, or even a Penguin origin story. Let us see what else he can do with his camera and his imagination. We’re so desperate to break free from the genre that traps the story — and the characters — on repeat, ad nauseam, year after year. That’s the reason fans often turn to Fan Fiction for relief. Let us take our beloved characters into a different story, turn expectations upside down, and what the hell, see how it all turns out.
With a haunting well-paced score, and a miserable trash ridden city, Todd Haynes’ Gotham and his Joker are too good, in fact, for the genre.
But the film does not exist in a vacuum. Sooner or later there will be a desire to see it not as a super-villain origin story, not a way to understand what becomes of Joker eventually, but instead as a real movie with an iconic character elevated to represent something symbolic, meant to tell us something about the world. In so doing, that’s supposedly why Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy are invoked. But the thing about those movies is that you never really rooted for Travis or for Rupert Pupkin. You felt badly for them but you understood they were dangerous, and not to be celebrated. Even though Travis Bickle gets the bad guys there is no deliciousness in that bloody scene. Scorsese doesn’t fetishize violence. Ever. It is always heart-stopping, ugly, as gruesome as intended. Here, the violence is like scratching an itch because we’ve watched a character beaten down, laughed at, bullied, ignored. He breaks our hearts because all he wants to do is make children laugh and take care of his mother. So when he pulls out the gun — fuck yeah. That feels good, doesn’t it? Is that supposed to be part of the point? God help us if it is.
The film tells its story well until you realize there isn’t going to be any more of it. This is it. Portrait of a serial killer whose brought you into his point of view and taught you that yes, this is what they all deserve. Now you see, now you understand. This is Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris putting on black trench coats and walking into the library at Columbine with smiles on their faces at long last — their tormentors will get what they deserve, all who laughed at them will pay a price. And how cool it will feel to be that guy, even if it leads to a bullet in the head at the end of it. A lifelong sense of being a victim at the hands of a cold and indifferent society, one that never gave them that American dream THEY and THEY ALONE as white men were promised. No girls, no attention, no power. But guns — ah, now we have the great equalizer.
When we see Joker emerge at last in full makeup with a stride and a swagger and the kind of confidence men need to be attractive to women — the music changes as the man changes. Why? Because now he is POWER. He is everything he always wanted to be and all he had to do was have nothing to lose. Kill or be killed, or both. Oh primates, we never change. This is what silverbacks do to show power in the clan. Murder the alpha males and you can rise. And the scary part is, you are sitting there in the dark saying yeah, Joker, go fuck them up. They DESERVE it. They shit on you so now you’ll shit on them.
And who doesn’t watch that and feel a little twinge of desire? A little bit of — oh if only I had the nerve to just do away with anyone we regard as a threat. I often spend my days beating back despair about humanity overall. No, not because I am ignored or invisible — but because I know the pain we humans have caused, the hell we as a species have created. What we do to animals and to each other, what we’ve done to this planet — hell, even what we do on Twitter. I have to fight every day for a reason to say, “Hey, we’re worth fighting for.”
The part of Joker that gets me (which again is a great film within the confines of its genre) is that if you simply cast a black man in the lead you would have a whole different movie. I’m pretty sure you all can figure out for yourselves why that would be such a different movie and to much of America, considered more dangerous. But no, it’s mostly white male rage we’re talking about here. It’s the same rage that is driving Trump’s popularity in some places. The same rage that stokes icky threads on Reddit or 4chan. Millions of disaffected white men are feeling that they’re in a crisis in this country, without a doubt, and there is no sympathy for them, no compassion, no understanding — because anyone who’s not in the same dire straits can simply say, “Fuck them. Who cares.”
Joker is a rallying cry, despite its obvious efforts to steer the ship in the Michael Moore direction, to make it more of a lament about society’s ills, namely corrupt politicians and income inequality. All of that is there. The truth is that we all have to work together to be more compassionate towards each other. We can’t, as a culture, make white men the enemy by default, not because they’ll start killing people, but because we’re all on the same life raft, abandoning the sinking ship.
Joker’s hidden message, once you wade through the horrible and the miserable, is just that. In its own way, it is trying to say — love they neighbor. That theme — along with forgiveness, which Joker wouldn’t touch even a little bit — is threaded through so many of the best films this year. The problem, though, is that Joker gets tangled up in the part of revenge porn that’s sexy to so many of us — the violence gets us off. We love the Joker. We want to be on his side, to follow him wherever he goes. He isn’t here to show us the way forward, or the way out. We might be inclined to follow him — a loser societal outcast who says nothing matters. That was Charles Manson’s message about the piggies and the establishment and the rich. Look at how many girls followed him too. Didn’t they love it how he was going to stick it to the man. That anti-establishment message from the 1960s that seemed so glorious in its peace, love and anti-Vietnam slogans quickly fermented into something rotten in the hills of Chatsworth. Be careful of the heroes you make. Be careful of the villains you admire.
So keep Joker in the terrarium where it belongs. In the universe of imaginative superhero and super-villains. Wait, as always, for our caped crusader to fly in and teach our laughing monster a thing or two about good overcoming evil.