Joker, Who's the Last to Laugh?
The success of Joker is in no way surprising in my opinion. However, what interests me is what the film says about "Us" as a culture and society, and how the film expresses those descriptors. I saw the film about a week ago in New Orleans in an independent theater. I am an American, born here and identify as an American amongst many other things (male and Jewish being a few others for example), but my definition of being patriotic isn't a simple one to define. There are many ways to be patriotic, whether it expresses itself via military service, public and/or community service or being a good neighbor to name a few. However, one of the least agreeable and often controversial, but most important in some ways, would define patriotism as someone (myself included in this category) who openly critiques their country and cultures found within it, someone who pushes back against certain ideas that we collectively have baked into the figurative apple pie, so to speak. A voice that raises questions and concerns with the existing powers that be and as a result, shouldn't be condemned societally, but rather nurtured and pondered as a country. Our existing cultures are fluid and constantly re-configuring themselves. Joker is firmly rooted in a lot of these ideas of America and what it is and whom it represents, many of which can often take form as simplistic, cynical and brazen versions of these ideas of both America and patriotism. What I would like to pose to you, is whether or not those are increasingly beneficial or detrimental in the long run to our country. In that unstoppable fundamental human drive to become a better nation over time, (and in my hope) for all its citizens. So, is the Joker laughing at us or with us?
This is not the easiest question to answer, and there are many details, interpretations and complexities that might be construed. However, I will give you my take and hope to hear from you all (thank you, whomever you are) on this.
First a brief summary of Joker. It is a comic-book character-based film, which follows the slow transformation of someone into the maniacal, murderous super villain that Batman has to contend with more than any other enemy over time in defending the citizens of Gotham City. He is truly an arch-nemesis, the ying to Batman's yang. Despite it's roots in the comic book world, the film decides to portray the character/s and world of its inhabitants through the opposite of a make-believe clearly fictionalized comical world and rather through a gritty, realistic lens. It reminds me of the world we find in movies of past that display a hyper-realism of an urban environment. I'm certainly not the first to make this comparison or insight, but it reminded me a lot of New York City (which Gotham City is really trying to emulate) circa the mid-to-late 1970s into the early 1980s, but only through very specific, hope-depriving aspects and interpretations of the city at that time. Namely the gritty, urban yet wild-west aspects often associated with those times and place. A place where crime was at its near-historical highest while jointly, services for said crime were at some of the cities lowest levels in history. Not a recipe for a healthy environment. As a result of these opposing truths, people just trying to thrive and survive, become victims of the world in which they had no role in creating. Film such as Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, American Gangster, or the Death Wish film series all come to mind as exemplary of New York at that time and specifically told through that lens. Joker, set around that time, follows in that same vein.
One of my biggest concerns with the film was how it represented the main protagonist/antagonist (the same character in the film by the way) and eventual beneficiary of the film's title. Perhaps, not necessarily the main character himself, (played quite intensely and eccentrically as the famed fictional character, by actor Joaquin Phoenix) but rather the way his actions are displayed, justified and represented and increasingly so as the film progresses. Important to make note of here, before I continue this line of concern, is the character's (SPOILER ALERT) history of extreme mental illness, which in part, is deeply rooted in his abusive, and unfortunately in many different ways, childhood. His mother (played by Francis Conroy) has a history of mental illness herself and that comes out in the form of troubling abuse shown towards herself and more importantly towards her son, either directly or indirectly, some of which the soon-to-be-Joker has repressed over the course of time. Also, it is importantly worth noting here as well, that the character gradually descends further into despair and mental instability as a result of his environment and lack of social and structural support systems and services. Both of these main drivers, effectively lead the Joker into his full manifestation of mayhem and murderous mendacity.
The film's main creative forces (director/co-writer, Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver), paint this bleak picture gradually over the course of the film, but as the violence continues to escalate, the empathy towards the audience seems to go in the opposite direction. Violence becomes the antidote to the film's viral problems. Filmed just a beautifully as any of the other scenes in the film, we get a vision of someone deeply disturbed but somehow justified in making these bloody, deeply violent decisions. The theater in which I saw the film was at its collective loudest (roughly 30 people were in the theater at the time) at a scene (SPOILER ALERT) in which the Joker, in his apartment at the time and descending further into isolation and mental health depravation, is visited by two former colleagues, before one of them is brutally murdered by the Joker, but then for some inexplicable reason (my opinion as to why provided a bit further below), lets the other colleague (a little person) go without inflicting any damage upon him. As a result of the disturbingly violent interactions of this scene, the majority of the audience laughed out loud at what was the most intensely violent scene in the whole film. Now I do believe that the laughter was partly an uncomfortable, biological human reaction to seeing such brutality, but I also believe the larger and far more disturbing part of it, was a direct result of the staging of the scene (I believe the little person was a very conscious choice on the creator's creative decisions here for attempted comical relief, and that's unfortunate) as well as America's larger level of comfort and de-sensitivity towards utter violence in their daily diet of entertainment.
I believe the Joker is a direct result of violence being upheld, glamorized and on daily display all over America and therefore being deemed a safer way of expressing our collective national anxieties (whether they stem from mental illness, abuse of many kinds, lack of state services, state-sponsored violence, etc). We have decided to generally move away from the opposing end of that spectrum, which could be represented by love...or empathy...or a truly representational and demonstrable social safety nets. Violence should rarely be more represented culturally than love and empathy, but I fear that's what we have done. A broad sweeping under the rug if you will. So, is the Joke on us?
When the scene I describe above unfolded on the big screen, I reacted in a horrified silence, only to be bewildered by my fellow moviegoer's general reaction to it, which in turn inspired me to consider in more depth, the question of why they did? I'd say the answer to that can be found all around us. As referenced above through fictional displays of violence, America does not like to deal with our anxieties, rather we prefer to suppress them or act on them in destructive ways, usually through physical means, rather than trying to interpret and understand them. Just like the Joker abused in childhood, America was as well, through Slavery, Inequality, Racism, Misogyny, War, Greed & Poverty, being our collective, national childhood.
We are uncomfortable as a species in facing hard truths about ourselves, and unfortunately those whom are fostered, nurtured and therefore grown accustomed to violence in any and all its various forms, can become real-life Jokers. They can become INCELS (involuntary celibates) or White Supremacist supporters or Slaughterhouse employees or Prison Guards or Drug Dealers or Mass Murderers, just to name a few. (Although not all those who work in certain positions WILL become violent, importantly to note)
I believe this to be a main reason media critics and audience members of all different stripes have had such an emotive, didactical, conflicting and controversial response to this film. Its why Police were stationed outside theaters in many parts of this country on opening weekend, warning people to be cautious and aware as they went to see it in theaters.
This is also, to say nothing of Comic Books, and Superheroes and Villains and what this might say about us as a society, as that is for another time and place.
So, are we the butt of the Joke or is the Joker?