Friday, October 18, 2019

The Joker Awoke

Joker is the most important comic book film of the decade. Striking the right mixture of fantasy and realism, it achieves a provoking reflection of modern social issues of economy, society, and violence. A brilliant performance by Joaquin Phoenix is perfectly served by razor sharp filmmaking.

One of the ways you can tell the movie's so good is by how much difficulty critics are having in writing about it. "Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital," as Oscar Wilde once wrote. "When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself." I'm not sure I believe this applies as universally as Wilde implied but it's certainly true in the case of Joker. When the film received a standing ovation at Venice, certainly there didn't seem to be much disagreement, but when director Todd Phillips said he didn't like Woke culture, the tide of backpedalling reviews betrayed a panic that indicated the fault-line on which the film is perched. Is the film anti-Woke? If so, how could no-one have known until Phillips said so?

One of the negative reviews came from a critic who's normally one of my favourites, Michael Phillips, who offered this opinion I find to be a bit disturbing: "Except for one murder committed off-screen in the epilogue, everybody this proto-Joker kills in 'Joker' has it coming. His killings are emotionally and even morally justified in the filmmaker’s eyes." To say this isn't at all the impression I had would be to put it mildly. Despite abuse the Joker, Arthur, suffered at the hands of one particular victim, I hate to think most people thought Arthur was morally justified in smothering her to death with a pillow. Why would anyone think this is presented as okay unless they're predisposed to interpret the filmmakers' intentions a certain way? Todd Phillips' comments on Woke culture were published a day before Michael Phillips' review.

Joker isn't the movie I expected. From the way people talked about it, I expected Arthur Fleck to be sort of like an Incel but he doesn't seem to be particularly horny. He has a delusional fixation on his neighbour played by Zazie Beetz but that seems much more about a need for emotional support than sexual satisfaction. None of the crimes he perpetrates seem to be borne of sexual frustration, either. But broadly speaking, sure, he's a lonely guy taking out his anger on a world in ways it doesn't deserve. Many of the reviews and reactions I've seen have either expressed disappointment over not being able to identify with the Joker or criticism that the Joker is too sympathetic or, most of all, condemnation of the film for vacillating between the two. But anyone who's paying attention, particularly to Joaquin Phoenix's performance, would know that it's terribly appropriate for Arthur, like Travis Bickle, to be man filled with contradictions; a man compulsively concerned for his mother or a woman on the subway also perpetrates terribly selfish acts.

Simply put, Joker is about a mentally ill man who has an extreme reaction to social problems. For this reason, my feeling was that Arthur is much closer to a leftwing extremist than a rightwing one, particularly a group like Antifa. Certainly the people who follow him at the end of the film have a very Antifa vibe about them.

In the film's climax, Arthur claims not to be a political person before launching into a diatribe about the disconnect between rich and poor. Of course, to him, this wouldn't seem like a political issue. For him it's personal. It's personal that he's lost his already inadequate mental healthcare due to a loss of funding. He feels the effects of this again and again in the loss of his job and the humiliation he regularly suffers from rich and poor. I've seen leftwing memes that say you should regard all billionaires as villains, that there's no moral justification for being wealthy when people are suffering from poverty. It's not a big step to the claim the Joker more or less makes in the climax that it's okay to murder such people.

Michael Moore has praised the film, saying that it's a danger to society not to see the movie. It's worth remembering that Moore predicted Donald Trump's election when no-one else did because Moore, who seems to stay close to his working class roots in Michigan, understood the anger of working class voters who felt abandoned by the left. At the time, Moore suggested this support for Trump is not about having a coherent policy alternative but about saying "Fuck you" to the entities that had neglected them. In the same way, Arthur Fleck is of course not presenting a viable alternative means of government; and neither is Antifa or the compulsive deconstructionism of radical left commentators. As he says in his climactic speech, he has nothing to lose. So he may as well get what satisfaction he can from mindless destruction.

In his book on 17th century England, The Stuart Age, historian Barry Coward talks about the variety of perspectives on the volatile political, religious, and social situation in the 1630s and 40s before the Civil War.

. . . because [King Charles I] and his court became increasingly isolated from the mainstream of contemporary religious, intellectual, and social life, the policies pursued by Charles and his ministers went unexplained and were consequently often misunderstood. As often in history, what people believed to be true was more important than the truth itself in influencing the course of events.

Arthur may be wrong about any responsibility the television host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) or Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) bear for his unhappy life. But it's how he sees it. And Thomas' misunderstanding of the situation in Arthur's social stratum would seem particularly cruel when Wayne lives a comfortable life; Murray's misunderstanding seems cruel because of Arthur's identification with Murray through his television show. Both older men are presented as potential father figures for Arthur, underlining Arthur's impression of injustice in his exclusion.

But he never articulates any of this in a particularly political way until the end. He's no philosopher, he's more like a test subject. I listened to some YouTube critics this morning talking about the film--Russell Brand describes the culmination of Arthur's story as "self-actualisation". Which, in a way, I agree with. But one of the things I liked about Phoenix's performance is that he makes it clear that Arthur's compulsive laughter really is a mental condition that doesn't accurately reflect his internal emotional state. His transformation into the Joker gains steam when he declares that it does. His "self-actualisation", his "werewolf", as he puts it, is to give himself up to the physical urges and mechanisms he can't control, abandoning the higher function of things like the social contract or civilisation. The thin leftist philosophy he spouts briefly is only a convenient pretext.

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