What makes a great movie?
On Tuesdays in San Diego, some movies cost $6.00- all first run.
Because I had had heard somewhat hazy talk because I hadn’t focused in on the hoopla reviews, some criticism about Joker being a negative portrayal of mentally ill people, and gratuitous violence, I wasn’t really considering seeing it. But due to the cheap cost and Howard was interested, along with a friend of ours, off we went.
From the first moment, I was riveted by Joachim Phoenix and his performance. In line with perhaps TaxiDriver, the old De Nero film, and all the creepy under heroes, antiprotagonists who inhabit and portray the unlucky, hapless, unattractive shmliels we pass on downtown streets. Our first encounter of Joachim Phoenix is of a guy employed as a clown on the overloaded bustling rat- infested streets of Gotham, but he is also an aspiring comic, even working a crowd in his off hours. So he’s a fellow with dreams, aspirations. He’s no roving vagrant seeking out trouble as he submissively lives with his mother and he interacts with fellow employees.
When his sign promoting a going out of business sale is snatched by insouciant teenagers, he gives sturdy chase but falls victim to their attacks. We learn quickly he has mental issues and takes seven different kinds of meds, but he’s seeing a therapist or social worker and he is wrestling with a kind of low level survival within societal bounds: as a devoted son, working at a job, attending counselling, he even attempts to entertain a kid on the bus with funny faces.It’s hard to watch Joker and not empathize with him considering what he’s experiencing. “Is it just me?” Arthur/Joker ponders. “Or is it getting crazier out there?” Unplugged in their review writes, “The movie shines a sad light on the desperate plight of those coping with the intertwined pathologies of mental illness and poverty.”
But as more challenges due to societal breakdowns accrue, Arthur/Joker’s tenuous grip loosens and a sick individual with scary tendencies starts to more strongly emerge as he is able to take advantage of a crumbling world and opportunities : such as the gun given him for protection by a fellow clown. The comments of the billionaire Thomas Wayne, running for mayor broadcast on TV, who refers to the poor as “clowns” provide the personal attack on the guy who ekes out his living dressed as one.
Todd Phillips, the director of Joker underlines the darkness of Arthur’s life through ponderous almost palpable music and backdrops of alleys, elevators, rooms with almost no light. Amidst this, shines Arthur with insight into his own being and a creepy self awareness of how he would like to be: as he collects his rambling messy strange thoughts in a journal. The film merges reality with illusion so we, like Arthur, are confused with what might be truth or fiction. In deed, we question why Sophie, the pretty lady down the hall, wants to hang out with Arthur even after a pleasant encounter on the lift. When he is invited to appear on a popular television variety show, we wonder if he is imagining the invitation to perform his routine. The role of television is a haunting contributory voice as it reinforces Joker’s loneliness, hopes, taunts, that permeate into his inside spaces and even motivates him to action.
Throughout Arthur much resembles the guy on the bus, the one you might intuit is troubled, feel for him, but prefer not to sit next to. There is much angst in Arthur because of his upbringing, his victimization and his inability to be able to rise above his challenges. In rat infested Gotham, he is one of many, suggestive even of Trumpian followers who are angry at a system that cuts benefits and keeps them down, jeering at them, deriding them as clowns and losers, Arthur is one of those guys. The De Niro, Murray Franklin here, host further derides Arthur by showcasing his very unfunny act in which only Arthur is laughing- ridiculously -albeit because of his condition. But maybe not. As the props fall away from Arthur’s life and his tiny grasp on dignity, he continues to lose his balance, ready to take revenge on the inclement jeering world of bullies, teasers and loud mouths. And ironically his off balance behaviour has catapulted him to the attention and state of a hero of sorts by those who would emulate him, wearing the Joker mask, overrunning the subways and streets in protest of their subjected lives.
In itself, Joker is a movie with great acting, good script, action, etc, however what impresses me is that the production extends way beyond the screen: connecting to other stories of failures, abused and sick individuals in a crumbling unkind world. From classic books and plays, we can now situate Phillips’ joker– in this particular piece- as a fascinating character worthy of examination extending him beyond the flimsy comic book, so much more than a trashy black- white scribble of good and evil. He is a person, someone with hamartia, hubris, an essential flaw motivating him, pushing him on. He’s Shakespeare’s bumbling fool who speaks truths, he’s Everyman on the bus, he’s Oliver Twist without a happy ending…
We leave the theatre, not lumping him with superheroes Batman and Robin and Captain America, sated by the technical extravaganzas that morph Robert Downey Junior into a steely machine that propels him head on into his avenging foes, but rather, we extend our faces to nod to the homeless shuffling on the street as we pass. Joker has like Pinocchio been transformed into a real boy.
My friend admonishes me, lumping Joker with TV killer Dexter, suggesting I have a penchant for witnessing the awful, the terrible in entertainment, but it is not true. Instead I see the possible humanity, the rational behind some hideous and pathetic behaviours. And yes. I turn my head away when Joker does violence, blood splashing onto his leering face. But yes, too, I cannot look away as Joker’s ravaged emaciated body twirls by himself, a metaphor for his twisted self, a misfit out of sync with societal music or a human dance that should but cannot celebrate smooth, well placed steps of grace or even contentment. He is a freak and because of the direction and script, we want to peer deeper, peeling away the layers of the onion. What comes to mind is this quotation from T.S. Elliott’s Murder in the Cathedral:
We do not wish anything to happen…. we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.
There have been oppression and luxury,
There have been poverty and licence,
There has been minor injustice.
Yet we have gone on living,
Living and partly living. . .
But now a great fear is upon us . . .
. . .We are afraid in a fear which we cannot know, which we cannot face, which none understands,
And our hearts are torn from us, our brains unskinned like the layers of an onion, our selves are lost
In a final fear which none understands…
Joker engages us to think- beyond creepy character, beyond violence, and consider the societies we inhabit, weighing, assessing, pondering the whys of us and them.
Truly scary stuff. Happy post-Halloween.