I’m still thinking about Joker, almost a week after I saw it. It’s an interesting movie, with clear homages to Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, and other moody, gloomy New York pieces from the late 70s and early 80s. It also seems to owe a vague debt to True Detective, especially the first season, which intertwined a done-to-death genre (buddy cop murder mystery) with deep philosophical issues (why live? what’s the meaning of life? why are we conscious?). I’m not sure if it’s a great movie, but it’s far more memorable and thought-provoking than any Marvel movie I’ve ever seen. I would like to see it again, preferably in the theater; it feels like the kind of movie that was made to be watched in a movie theater, instead of on a laptop or a home entertainment center. When you can’t pause, rewind, or fast-forward through the movie, it increases the dread of seeing this man transform in front of your eyes.
I have a few scattered thoughts about the movie, which I’d like to write down here. If I get to see the movie again (always difficult with small kids at home) then I’ll either update this post or add more as an addendum. This post makes reference to a number of events in the movie, so if you haven’t seen it, you might not understand or spoil a plot point for yourself. Be careful.
Much has been said, and will be said, about Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck transforming into the Joker. Phoenix does a tremendous job of portraying a deeply disturbed man without making fun of him or putting on a formulaic crazy act. You can see why Arthur Fleck’s acting the way he is, even when it’s deeply disturbing or disagreeable. The movie shows Arthur getting kicked around (literally, in the first minutes), and it shows him doing dangerous or off-putting things–dropping a handgun while entertaining at a children’s hospital, bringing a notebook full of porno pictures with him onstage, following a woman, shooting a man in the back. You understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, even when it’s wrong.
Some people have criticized the movie for being “too sympathetic” to Arthur. I can see where they’re coming from, though I disagree. I would have to watch it again to be certain, but the movie did a decent job of toggling between Arthur’s perspective (everyone’s against me!) to a broader perspective (this weirdo brought a gun to a children’s cancer ward!). Perhaps the director could have done a better job of showing how people saw Fleck–or how they didn’t see him.
This gets to a philosophical issue that comes up a lot in cosmic horror. Is the universe benevolent, indifferent, or actively malicious? Some writers, such as H.P. Lovecraft, portray a universe that’s indifferent to humanity and its fate; the real horror is that we do not matter. Other writers, like Thomas Ligotti, maintain that the universe is malicious and hostile to humanity, perhaps even to itself. Some writers see the universe as the site of a divine struggle between light and darkness, with one or the other destined to win in the end. Others see it as benevolent, with indifference or malice as uniquely human traits. You can also include multiple different characters in a book with different variations on these views.
Is the universe of Joker malicious, or indifferent, to Arthur’s plight? I’m not sure the movie ever quite resolves this question or presents a coherent answer. Arthur’s the recipient of a lot of casual cruelty, so I would err on the side of a malicious diegetic world. At least the world is malicious anytime Arthur tries to get anything from it, be it attention, support, love, or a smile. The only way he can get what he needs is to become evil himself, to join in the chaos. He must turn his tragedy into a comedy.
What’s the nature of Arthur’s mental illness? It’s not well-defined. He laughs uncontrollably, but there’s clearly something else going on. He has trouble socializing. He’s profoundly unhappy (“All I have are negative thoughts”). He’s on some medication that gets canceled, along with his therapy appointments, when his program’s funding gets cut. Arthur hallucinates a relationship with the single mother living down the hall, probably as a way to escape his profound loneliness. If he has other hallucinations, we don’t see them. No voices. Arthur doesn’t have anyone in his life, except for his mother and his therapist. A midget at the clown company doesn’t make fun of him, but they’re not exactly friends, either. I wondered, watching it, if Arthur would just be another eccentric out in the country, or just in a smaller, less atomized city, one with lower population density and higher trust. Was he molded by Gotham just as Bane was molded by the pit?
Nobody’s laughing now
The film’s director drew a parallel between Arthur’s situation and the state of comedy in “cancel culture,” where any offensive statement gets parsed and amplified on social media. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right?” he said in Vanity Fair. It’s easy to see Arthur as an embodiment of this dilemma: Arthur wants to make people laugh, but he just manages to upset and alienate people at every turn–even when he gets to live out his dream of appearing on the Murray Franklin show. The only way he can “win” is by inspiring a riot and making people even crazier.
Arthur’s “joke book”–a notebook full of crude, sharpied-out porno pictures and off-color jokes–seems like a visual embodiment of this dilemma. How can you be funny when all the dark stuff is off-limits? Comedy often has a tragic or disturbing element just under the surface. Even a guy getting hit in the balls relies on intense agony to be funny. Arthur alternates between lame, lamely-told jokes and really dark stuff whenever he’s onstage.
There’s also Derek Turner’s infamous metaphor, that “political correctness is a clown with a knife”–laughable, but deadly if you laugh. Is the director saying that certain types of jokes are inherently dangerous to society, or to the people in power, regardless of what they believe in? Is he saying that the “I don’t want to offend you” attitude leaves the culture open for more sinister actors–Jokers, basically–to capitalize on that void? I’m probably overthinking it, but the parallel struck me when I read Phillips’ comments.
The soundtrack has plenty of clown/smile/fool songs; the trailer features a masterful use of Jimmy Durante’s “Smile,” which I don’t think appears in the actual movie. The original score, by Hildur Guðnadóttir, is gorgeous and lends a sinister grandeur to many of the scenes–including the disturbing “ballet” scene midway through the film.
My favorite musical choice is “My Name is Carnival” by Jackson C. Frank, which appears right after Arthur leaves his job for the last time. Frank was a real-life loner who died in homeless obscurity after releasing one album. Frank’s life story, and the song’s eerie, funhouse lyrics, are a perfect fit for the movie and the scene. It’s also interesting that Arthur mentions the song within the movie–that his clown name is Carnival, too.
Joker has come under fire for using a song by Gary Glitter, a notorious pedophile. Putting aside this issue for a moment, the song doesn’t really work in the scene. Something about the plodding tempo doesn’t work with Joker’s free-spirited, slow-motion dancing. “Smile” by Jimmy Durante might work better. Maybe an orchestral version of “Smile”? Something with a bit of swing and a crescendo, which “Rock and Roll, Part 2” lacks.
This song, and the inclusion of a few others like “White Room,” took me out of the movie a bit. I’m not a fan of the “jukebox” style of movie soundtracks, where a film includes many highly recognizable songs (or covers of these songs) from the last fifty-odd years. These songs often serve as emotional shorthand for very similar scenes from other films. Bunch of guys shooting from a helicopter? Gunfight in the jungle? Here comes “Fortunate Son!” Hyped up? “Don’t Stop Me Now!” Want something jazzy but light, maybe a bit sexy? Say, it’s a marvelous night for a “Moondance,” isn’t it? Story set in 1987? Pick out one of the “Best of the Eighties” tracks so people know that we’re in The Eighties™, in case the costumes leave any room for doubt. The Deadpool movies send this up a bit with their over-the-top musical choices, but I’ve definitely seen other films where the fame of the song distracted me from what was going on in the film.
Not to say that soundtracks shouldn’t have any big songs, or that it’s wrong to use a tune that the audience will recognize. Joker’s creative team was generally judicious about its use of songs, with just a couple missteps. But the tendency in other movies makes me overly sensitive.
Now back to the pedo issue. It’s a poor choice to use a convicted rapist’s song, especially one who’s still alive and stands to profit from its use. Contrast this to, say, an Oscar Wilde play or a Lewis Carroll novel. Oscar Wilde groomed and molested several boys, some as young as fourteen. Lewis Carroll’s interest in little girls was not exactly pure, even if it wasn’t consummated. Wilde, Carroll, and their victims are long dead, and their works are in the public domain; for these reasons, I don’t feel so conflicted about reading “A Canterville Ghost” or Alice in Wonderland, even though I don’t enjoy them on the same level that I did before I knew.
H.P. Lovecraft was racist even by the standards of his own day, but plenty of liberals and progressives still love and read his work; after all, he’s dead, and won’t use the funds to start a political movement. His work was also hugely influential on the cosmic horror genre, and the Cthulhu Mythos owes a lot to other writers that developed Lovecraft’s ideas. Even if you never read a word of Lovecraft’s writing, he’s part of pop culture, and his legacy lives on in horror, science fiction, and fantasy.
When I found out that Freddie Mercury allegedly hid multiple positive HIV tests from his partner, and may have knowingly or half-knowingly exposed others as well, it ruined Queen’s music for me. The man is dead, though, as are most (possibly all) of his victims, so it feels a little melodramatic to be so devastated. I don’t feel upset when I hear his music in public, just a little uncomfortable. If I found out that the other members of Queen, or Mary Austin (the woman who inherited his estate), were somehow complicit in hiding his HIV status from his sex partners, I might feel differently. I don’t know that for sure, though. You never know how you’ll feel until something actually happens.
Most Jokers have pretty simple clown makeup: white facepaint, red lips, black eyeliner and painted-over eyebrows. Heath Ledger’s Joker didn’t have painted eyebrows, and his makeup was runny, but he was following the same template. Joaquin Phoenix is alone in having a more complex look: a red nose, blue triangles above and below his eyes, and painted-on red eyebrows halfway up his forehead. The effect is more unsettling; he looks more unreal, like a doll, a painting, or a figure from a playing card. His makeup contains a lot of sharp corners, which are generally avoided by professional clowns because they frighten kids.
His makeup reminds me of John Wayne Gacy’s clown makeup, especially the blue triangles near the eyes.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Gacy was a reference point–and I’m not the only one who noticed the resemblance. Gacy is the most famous “killer clown” so it wouldn’t be strange for him to be an inspiration for the look.
Sex and Women
The Joker is indifferent to the normal pleasures of life, such as money, prestige, power, and romance. When accompanied by Harley Quinn, he often uses her as a tool to help him get what he wants. And what does he want?
Famously: to watch the world burn. To kill the Batman. To play a game. To have a laugh. The Joker is so scary because he operates outside the normal bounds of human reason, emotion, and desire. Part of that is his disinterest in sex–or at least, anything recognizable as normal sex. His tortures and traps often have disturbingly childlike, festive, or carnivalesque elements, such as funhouse mirrors, uncontrollable laughter, costumes, magic tricks, etc. If sex enters into it at all, it’s as a way to hurt someone, to pull at an attachment, or to push them off-balance.
In Joker, the three significant female characters offer sources of comfort or respite from the world. But in each case it’s a respite with an asterisk. His relationship with his mother, in adulthood, seems oddly close, even covertly incestuous. His mother may also be lying to him about his origins. Sophie, the single mother down the hall, doesn’t have a relationship with Arthur; she’s nice to him in the elevator, and he spins an entire romance out of this small kindness. (More on this later.) His social worker is worn down, and more resigned than angry when the program’s funding gets cut; God knows what other horrors she’s seen as an overburdened, low-paid employee of the government or a nonprofit. She knows that Arthur will fall through the cracks, but he’s not the first and won’t be the last.
Is Arthur Fleck an “incel icon?” Arthur might be “involuntarily celibate,” but he doesn’t go full clown because those “vapid bitches” won’t give him the time of day. Most of his humiliations are non-sexual in nature, such as Murray Franklin making fun of his comedy act on tv. He doesn’t intervene on behalf of the girl being harassed by Wayne Corp. employees, though he does seem to feel some sympathy for her–which might explain his uncontrollable laughter a little later in the scene. I could see an incel type identifying with Arthur Fleck, and he’s an “aggrieved lone white guy goes postal,” like Travis Bickle or William Foster. His interest in Sophie isn’t healthy, but it’s not shown to be.
We only see the real Sophie in two scenes, plus a montage. Her dialogue in some of the fake scenes feels incredibly fake–no woman is going to think it’s “sweet” that a near-stranger followed her and her daughter throughout their morning commute. The invented relationship, and Arthur’s breaking into her apartment, form a counterbalance to the rough treatment that he gets from everyone else. Maybe people have their “bitch shields” up in Gotham because even a small amount of kindness risks getting a terrible reaction, be it a mugging, an obsession like Arthur’s, or just a cussing out. Gotham’s not a nice city, and something of its cruelty touches everyone in different ways.
Why aren’t you laughing?
Joker can be viewed as a commentary on the cycles of violence, abuse, mental illness, and callous treatment of the less fortunate. Arthur Fleck lives in the shadows, forgotten or reviled by those, like Thomas Wayne, who could help him. He was terribly abused as a child, suffering a traumatic brain injury. Circumstances push him off-kilter, and he spins out of control, seeking power the only way he knows how–in violence, madness, and chaos. He ends up indirectly perpetuating the cycle onto a young Bruce Wayne, when one of his followers kills Bruce’s parents in front of the young boy, shattering his formerly “perfect” world.
Is Joker sociological storytelling, like Game of Thrones used to be? The environment has a profound effect on the characters in this story, although we’re only following a few characters in a tightly-focused world. There are no superheroes or supernatural elements in the story–nobody with high-tech gear, magic powers, glowing stones, aliens, etc. This makes it unique among comic book movies, and might explain it smashing records at the box office. Here’s a very human story with fantastical, larger-than-life characters.
The movie’s very gloomy, but I hope it inspires a few people to look after people in their lives, or communities, who need help–not because they’re afraid they might go postal, but because they need it and deserve it. Maybe it will motivate a few people in government to fund mental health programs, or to listen to their constituents on this issue. Better than a riot, right? Let’s keep hope alive.