On the Film "The Joker"
So, reviewing "Joker".
I just thought about making a thread, what luck! I wished to capture this impression that I had since leaving movie theater tonight, even though it seems to be an irrational and embarrassing one: "Joker" is a masterpiece. And also one of the few true metamodernist works of art; if anything can redeem this label at all, it's Joker. It's smart and subtle and at the same time disturbing in-your-face raw hit of emotions. It's the "Ha ha only serious" statement that may become the watershed in the suffocatingly ironic American entertainment culture. I'm told that National Review's Jim Geraghty is worried that some delorables will watch it and say 'finally, somebody understands me' – and that's exactly what happened with me. I'm grateful. 4channers say it's their Black Panther moment – and if nothing else, you need to watch the movie to understand exactly how true this is. Now that I'm all out of vague accolades, let's try to substantiate them.
First we should drop the idea that this movie is about Joker or can be reasonably evaluated in context of comic book culture. Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies are 'not cinema' – and I agree; but DC movies are scarcely better on average, so let's give the word to director Todd Philips:
I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film’…. It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f–ing Joker’.
Okay? This is not "Joker vs. Batman: now grittier than Nolan's one". This is a movie about the painful sound of laughter, about isolation, unfairness and yearning for catharsis that destruction brings; accidentally it wears the skin of a DC franchise, much like a Soviet genetics textbook whose preface is stuffed with obligatory Marxist-Leninist platitudes, or an ostensibly Social Realist movie with Aesopean critique of the regime. Really makes you think, huh.
Joker's main character is one sad mentally ill clown-wannabe-standup-comic named Arthur Fleck. You can read any of the other billion rave reviews about this guy.
No, wait, that's wrong. It's laughter. There are surprisingly few jokes in the film (and fewer good ones), yet people laugh a lot, in many different ways. It's realistic too: people generally laugh not because they perceive something as funny, but to strengten their social bonds; to reaffirm their standing. And they laugh at someone for the same reason. The career jump Arthur dreams of is at first sight not an implausible progression, but in truth it's the most insane of his delusions, a symbolic perversion of natural order. Stand-up comic, or a talk show host, is commanding people's laughter. He's powerful – maybe as powerful as a billionaire politician, only in other ways. He satirizes, mocks, eviscerates; goads, incites, condones. He's the prey species for awkward have-not clowns like Arthur, his targets of ridicule.
Going on a tangent, I notice some big misunderstanding about this topic. There's a popular anti-bullying advice: if you're being made fun of, just laugh with the others! And some people swear by it, while others get defensive, if not completely enraged. I believe the first group just hasn't the faintest idea what it means to be bullied (sorry). At most, they seem to imagine that children subject each other to stress tests, and befriend the resilient ("humorous") ones. Not true! There's light-hearted banter among friends, when you tussle a little in jest and then go play Nintendo Switch together (an ad before the movie shows me so), and then there's "ha ha only serious" kind of laughter, the real deal. When you're being laughed at, mocked, bullied, – you have no friends, because everyone is already friendly against you. Your in-group totals zero ("not sure if I even exist" – says Arthur). You're everyone's fair game – a non-person, a target with no moral weight in the world where other forms of violence are frowned upon and this is one which is frequently not recognized as violence. You can't trick these people using self-deprecation. You can only accept being the clown.
In any case, does this unfunny clown, Arthur Fleck, even want to make people laugh? No, not really: he desperately, to the point of daydreams and hallucinations, wants to connect. To be shown kindness, compassion, acceptance, friendship, love. To be seen as a human being. He receives cheap, slapdash surrogates: disinterested therapist, back-stabbing "pal", superficially amicable, actually cruel boss. He's battered with violent humor: stomped by cackling kids, ridiculed by Wayne and Murray Franklin (his father figures) in broadcasts; his colleagues laugh at his expense; Alfred pooh-poohs in his face to dismiss his claim of lineage; Wayne's thuggish employees in the subway guffaw like hyenas, with cold eyes, surrounding their new victim. And his own involuntary laughter is the most disturbing part of the movie's soundscape: shrill, resonating, poorly timed, uncomfortably misaligned with the cozy chuckles of others, it takes the fun out of their enjoyment. And when he laughs alone, everyone says: "that's not funny". What everyone means is: "That was not a legitimate target, you nasty creep. You're one".
There's a small issue with the movie, this bizarre disconnect between Arthur's journey into insanity and the public unrest in the background, rabid mob in clown's masks wishing to "kill the rich". Arthur plainly says he's not "political"; moreover, he doesn't think about financial riches – even though he's barely scraping a living. And it's telling that out of six people he killed throughout the story, the only one he brutally slaughtered with genuine, exhausting fit of rage was another lower-class clown – the one who betrayed his trust. But he too was "richer"– in the only way Arthur cared about. He could laugh with others and they found it funny. He was part of something.
He laughed at someone, of course. First at the timid dwarf Gary, then at Arthur. And it's telling, too, that the only time the protagonist shows some heartfelt remorse is for making fun of Gary as well. The dwarf is having it even worse, his malformed body making him even more of a "fair game"; and Arthur couldn't help but join in on the fun, to be part of the troupe (and then, once again, seemingly to assert his dominance, though it's hard to tell his trigger-happy insanity apart from deeply motivated acts). But Gary was the only one who showed him kindness, so he apologizes. Pointless, though – he's too broken to keep what little he's been given in life. Little bit of friendship, his cheerful neighbor, not-awful mother (the co-dependent relationship with whom he ended in the worst possible way), occasional smiles of children, delusions of acceptance by his idol, – he loses it and becomes terrifyingly free.
There's no definite peak to the movie. Arthur's breakdown on Murray's show is almost too realistic, and thus underwhelming – not a speech, hardly even a rant, just one final pleading for human embrace, an infantile complaint (after the near-identical Wayne one). It, too, goes unanswered. Then he up and shoots the man who (he dreamed) would act like his father (later a copycat murders the real father). It's a little Freudian or maybe Jungian at this point – patricide as a ritual of initiation. So Arthur molts into his inhuman adult form, the Joker. He no longer has anything to say to others: he's the symbol, the message personified. What message?