Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Joke's On You... We Are All Clowns: Some Days, It Just Seems to Rain Crazy

The door to Ryebone's apartment was slightly ajar when I arrived, and immediately the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end. I didn't know what this omen boded, but I knew better than to let my guard down whenever he was involved. Carefully, I pushed open the door and closed it behind me as I entered the apartment into near total darkness. Almost immediately, I nearly tripped over a pile of empty beer bottles and the body of a semi-naked woman. After checking her pulse to make sure she was still alive (I'd learned my lesson the last time I found a body in Ryebone's apartment), I made my way further into what can only be described as a den of debauchery.

I flicked on the nearest light switch to find the place littered with an array of empty bottles and cans, pizza boxes, and bongs of such multitudinous shape and variety that it would put most head shops to shame. As I made my way into the living room, I found the heart of what was surely one of the last Great Banquets. Even more refuse cluttering nearly every available surface was all that remained of an extravagant feast of apparently nearly every type of alcohol and fast food imaginable. The only obviously clear path on the floor was between Rybone's couch and the bathroom.

Interspersed among the debris were more semi-conscious women in various states of undress, some lounging lazily like lionesses after a major kill, some still with a hose from an unholy, eight-armed hookah still hanging from their mouths. In the middle of this maelstrom, wearing nothing but a bathrobe and sitting spread eagle on the couch, was Ryebone himself. Or, at least, what was left of him.

I cleared my throat to try get... somebody's attention. But to no avail. As casually as possible, I raised my hand out in front of me to block the line of sight to Ryebone's exposed genitals. His bathrobe was tied at the waist. But to no avail.

"Good morning," I said, a little louder than would strictly have been necessary during normal discourse. It was two in the afternoon. "Some crazy weather we've been having."

At this, Ryebone and his harem began to stir from their slumber. My voice was a harsh reminder of the reality from which they had all so eagerly retreated with the help of a cocktail that undoubtedly would have spelled certain doom for those with less ice in their veins. How long had they been like this? Hours? Days? Weeks? Judging by the smell in the place, I was inclined to guess it had been some time since anybody in this room besides me had taken a breath that wasn't laced with a concoction of chemical compounds, organic or otherwise.

"Hey, man." Ryebone was still in a daze, and though our eyes met, I could tell that the spark of recognition had not yet ignited his face.

"It's me. It's Cale. You, uh, doing alright there?"

"Oh yeah, man. Money's on the counter. You can just leave the za."

Still not getting through. This called for drastic measures. I drew in a deep breath and braced myself.

"POLICE! THIS IS A RAID!" I shouted at the top of my lungs.

Almost immediately, Ryebone's guests were on their feet, scrambling for the door of the apartment, the only viable exit on the thirteenth floor. I saw no less that three switchblades emerge from somewhere in the remnants of clothing these women were wearing. It was perhaps only through sheer luck that none of them had thought to bring a firearm. Most rushed passed me barely noticing my presence, but one took the time to knee me quite effectively in the groin.

"Fucking pig!" that black-maned lioness spat back at me as I collapsed to the floor in a fit of gut-busting pain, curled nearly into the full fetal position. Again, luck had spared me, this time from landing on any broken glass or used needles that surely would have been the end of me. From the look of things, Rybone's apartment was a veritable Petri dish of infectious diseases, and any open wound would surely have meant my untimely, disease-ridden demise.

"Hey, when did you get here, guy? I've been waiting for you."

Ryebone was standing over me know, swaying a little, his bathrobe still doing little to hide much of anything from view.

"Nyuh huh," was all I could muster at the time as I was still trying to overcome the pain in my balls while staring straight up at Ryebone's.

"We should check out a movie. I'm going to take a quick shower. Grab some pizza; you just missed the delivery guy."

Four hours later, we were on our way to the movie theatre. I had my doubts about Ryebone's relative sobriety, but after spending several hours digging out the spare bed from a mountain of empty liquor bottles and tidying up his place to the point where it was in a usable state for civilized people,  I myself had gotten a contact high from the haze that hung in the apartment and refused to dissipate, and was in no place to claim a head any clearer than his.

"You're going to fucking love this, man," Ryebone told me. "Joker is the breath of fresh air the comic book movie genre needed to really shake things up."

"Sounds good." I was trying not to panic as the lights of passing cars swept by us and our conversation was almost drowned out by a cacophony of honking horns. My head may not have been particularly clear, but I knew for an (almost certain) fact that, had I been driving, I would not have ended up travelling west in the eastbound lane of the 401 for any length of time.

By some miracle, or cruel twist of fate, we arrived at the theatre unscathed, and made our way to our seats. Normally, we would have stocked up on supplies of popcorn and carbonated beverages for such a mission, but we had already gorged ourselves on a veritable smorgasbord of wings in a cache that we'd found in the fridge left over from the bender I'd interrupted Ryebone and his harem in the middle of. Whether the meal itself was hygienic by conventional standards, I don't have the expertise to comment on intelligently; whatever wasn't killed by the radiation in the microwave had earned the right to do battle with my intestinal tract.

As the lights dimmed, I braced myself for one of the most controversial movies of the season. When I'd first heard of Joker, I thought it was an... interesting concept, but the thought of a Batman movie without Batman and directed by the same guy who directed the Hangover movies didn't make me particularly excited. Sure, it starred Joaquin Phoenix in titular role as Batman's most iconic villain, and indeed one of the most iconic villains in modern pop culture, but I wasn't entirely convinced that his talent would be enough to keep the whole enterprise from driving straight off the cliff.

I need not have worried.

Joker turned out to be a fascinating character study, a compelling take on a character that seemed to have been re-imagined and re-invented nearly to death, and a refreshing change of pace from the standard Marvel or DC comic book movie. I was more than happy to be proven wrong both about the effectiveness of a Batman-less Batman film and about director Todd Phillips' creative range as a director.

Are you talkin' to me?
The movie is set in a comic book world, but like the best movies in the genre, deal with themes that relate to our world. Joker takes a harrowing look at a slew of intersecting themes, including mental health, disenfranchisement caused by an increasingly widening wealth gap, a political system that seems increasingly out of touch with the very voters it's meant to represent and serve, a social system that prioritizes cost-efficiency over the well-being of the people it's servicing, and general social unrest. It's a bleak world that Phillips crafts, to be sure, but it accurately and effectively captures, reflects, and amplifies some current (and, really, timeless) social anxieties that have played themselves out to varying degrees of intensity here in our world.

Phoenix's Joker is a surprisingly compelling cipher for these ideas, and it presents the most empathetic look yet at the character. The Joker has always been an enigmatic character, and part of his broader appeal is that his origins are steeped in mystery (much like the ingredients of a Dominoes pizza), which makes him a sort of blank canvass on which to project whatever sort of evil or social anxieties that's currently relevant. As the character himself put it in Alan Moore's Seminal Batman: The Killing Joke, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

In the case of Joker, Phillips uses the character to explore how the convergence of mental health issues with a lack of effective social support can lead to horrific results. Considering the epidemic of mass shootings plaguing the United States in recent decades, and especially coming to a head these last few years, this version of the character seems particularly timely. The parallels between Phoenix's Joker and mass shooters are as reflective of modern social anxieties surrounding these sort of lone wolf, radicalized individuals lashing out at their perceived enemies as the parallels between Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight and more "conventional" terrorists were reflective of the anxieties the Western world faced in a post-9/11 reality.

The key difference is that Ledger's Joker embodies an unknowable "other," an external chaos that must be confronted or endured, while Phoenix's Joker could be our next door neighbour. This 2019 version of the character is an expression of an enemy that is a lot closer to home, a lot more insidious, and though less mysterious, no less of a threat.

Joker splits the difference between comic book convention and narrative necessity, and gives the titular character a background of sorts (though through the revelation of the character's adoption later in the film, still stays true to the mythology). Arthur Fleck is a clown-for-hire by day and a struggling stand-up comedian by night (and I do mean struggling). He's also living at home in relative poverty taking care of his elderly mother. On top of that, he's clearly wrestling with severe mental health issues; he's on a variety of medications and desperately trying to get the help he needs from a social worker who is clearly overworked to the point that she can't possibly give him the attention or treatment he needs.

And perhaps this is where some of the controversy surrounding Joker sprang from. Having a villain as a protagonist already muddies the waters, but portraying him in such a sympathetic light makes the whole endeavour even more ambiguous. Some feel that the Joker as portrayed in the film would be seen as a justification by some for the very behaviours it was trying to shine a light on and explore. People often point to marginalized and isolated individuals or communities, particularly online communities, as at risk of misinterpreting Joker's eventual transformation into a vicious killer and inspiration for a violent social movement as as a vindication of their own misplaced anger an hatred. Specifically, some are worried that other would-be mass shooters/murderers--including those from the incel community--may even be inspired or encouraged to go out and commit atrocities of their own.

I won't venture too far into the ongoing debate about the influence that media has on individuals and society. Two points to consider, however, are that 1) although media undoubtedly has a psychological and societal influence, it is by no means a simple, one-to-one cause and effect relationship and that 2) disturbed or antisocial individuals can, like the rest of us, be inspired by a variety of sources and are at the same risk of misinterpreting (or interpreting in a way that is favourable to their own preconceived conclusions) media content as anybody else.

I think it is important, though, to point out for the sake of media literacy that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is the ability to share another person's emotional perspective, essentially to be able to imagine what it would be like to be another person (real or fictional) in another situation and what that person would likely be feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, is a feeling care or concern for the plight of another person (real or fictional) coupled with
the desire for that person's situation to improve.

Yes, my girlfriend does live in Canada! How did you guess?
Joker most definitely evokes empathy for its protagonist, as do most well-made films. That's kind of storytelling 101, though; if the audience can't empathize with your characters, especially your protagonist, then there's something fundamentally wrong with either the story you're trying to tell, or more likely, the way you're trying to tell it. It's quite clear that Arthur Fleck is in desperate need of some kind of positive validation in his life and some kind of support, be it financial, emotional, or psychological. Fleck has aspirations of improving his lot in life, whether it be through advancing his career as a stand-up comedian, making sure his aging mother is well-cared for, getting the support he needs for his mental health issues, or dating Zazie Beetz. We understand his perspective and his motivations (especially the part where he's trying--and failing--to score with Beetz).

I would say that the movie even goes so far as to elicit sympathy for Fleck. Some scenes are genuinely heartbreaking to watch, especially as this man makes attempts at human connection, as terribly awkward as they might be. You can't help but feel bad for the guy. But as his behaviour escalates and he starts killing people, you don't sympathize with his actions.

This is one of the key tensions of the film, and one it maintains incredibly well:

It elicits sympathy for the protagonist's situation but not for his behaviour.

This is an even finer line to walk than the boundary between empathy and sympathy, and the nuanced distinction also probably didn't do Joker any favours in the the controversy department. On the other hand, it made for a hell of a unique comic book movie. I still do wonder about those who seemed concerned about the film inspiring any sort of real-world violence. It definitely earned its R rating, but I get the sense that there are a lot of heads out there that would be at sever risk of exploding if they ever watched the work of Sam Peckinah, Paul Verhoeven, or even Martin Scorsese (from whose films Joker clearly and explicitly takes inspiration).

Joker makes it very clear why Fleck is doing the things he's doing, but it in no way justifies his actions. The horror of Joker killing other people--or inspiring other people to kill--is made quite clear. In fact, in a way, seeing the actual consequences of the violence he's perpetrating, as opposed to the typical Loony Tunes-esque, bloodless violence of most comic book movies, makes it all the more abhorrent.

You put your left foot in...
There's a duality at play throughout the film, embodied by this idea that the difference between tragedy and comedy is a matter of perspective. This comes to a head when Arthur Fleck ultimately makes the decision to murder his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). After being led to believe that he was the secret lovechild of the always ill-fated Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), which would also have made him the half-brother of one Bruce Wayne (AKA Batman), Arthur discovers that the whole relationship was a figment of his mother's deranged imagination (much like his own imagined relationship with his neighbour Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz)), and that she had been institutionalized for severe mental health issues after allowing one of her boyfriends to physically abuse Arthur as a young (adopted) child. Just before he suffocates her with a pillow, he reflects somewhat sardonically on his state of being:

"I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it's a fucking comedy."

It's a clever metaphor, as the foundation of both genres is subversion; comedy is about subversion of expectations and tragedy is about subversion of fate. Protagonists of both genres are typically portrayed as having some fatal flaw that prevents them from achieving their goals; in a comedy, the protagonist will eventually come to a realization about themselves and change in order to achieve their goals, while in a tragedy they tend to die.

Even the Joker's laugh is tied in to this theme. Arthur Fleck is portrayed as suffering from pathological laughter, which causes him to laugh at inappropriate times during instances of highly stressful situations. It turns out that this condition was a result of trauma endured as a child at the hands of his mother's nameless boyfriend, a situation made all the more tragic when it's revealed that Penny didn't think her son was suffering because he seemed so happy. This pathological laughter subverts meaning and blurs the line between tragedy and comedy; a universal signal of joy is instead linked to incredible suffering.

You want to know how I got these emotional scars?
Arthur Fleck finds himself at a crossroads with the murder of his mother. On the one hand, he can succumb to the meager circumstances of his life, having no friends, no success, and no validation as a failed comedian and ex-clown who lives alone with his mother in a rundown apartment with bullet holes in the walls. On the other, he can embrace his act of violence involving the murder of three young businessmen that is the spark lighting the fuse under an entire social movement, claiming the success, followers, and validation from his well-known ill deeds. He can die as a broken man, or live as a well-renowned monster. He can decide whether to live his life as a tragedy or a comedy.

This duality plays out in the climax of the film, where Fleck is invited to appear on his favourite late-night talk show, Live! With Murray Franklin, hosted by one Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro, obviously evoking his role as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy). A clip of Fleck bombing at a comedy open mic night went viral (before going viral was a thing), and Murray invites him to appear on his show ostensibly to talk about his sudden fame, but really to mock him and cash in on this a walking meme (before people had invented memes).

By this point, Arthur has fully embraced his Joker persona, asking to be introduced as Joker (the nickname that Murray himself had given him on an earlier broadcast) and coming out on stage in full costume and clown make-up. The clown imagery takes on special significance as witnesses to Fleck's first murders reported only seeing an individual dressed as a clown, and with increasingly violent protesters adopting clown masks as a form of rebellion after mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne disparagingly referred to those same huddled masses as "clowns" (in a pseudo-subtle nod to Hillary Clinton and her oft-referenced "deplorables" comment).

No sooner does Joker come out on stage than he confesses to the murders of the three young professionals and calls Murray out on his bullshit of bringing him on the show to make fun of him. He also comments about the parallels between comedy and morality, which essentially serves as his core philosophy:

"Comedy is subjective Murray, isn't that what they say? All of you, the system that knows so much: you decide what's right or wrong the same way you decide what's funny or not."

There's an interesting parallel here to Heath Ledger's incarnation of the Joker in The Dark Knight, who also uses comedy as a metaphor for morality:

"Their morals, their code; it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be."

Unlike Ledger's Joker who is out to prove what he sees as the fundamental absurdity of morality as a flimsy social construct, Phoenix's Joker wants to validate the violence that he and others inspired by his actions enact against those in more privileged positions as a sort of reversal of a corrupt social order.

Arthur Fleck goes on Murray's talk show fully intent on committing suicide live on air, his rendition of a comedic subversion of expectations. By this point, he's clued in to the fact that he is being used as the figurehead for the protests going on throughout Gotham City, and he sees an opportunity to become a martyr for a cause bigger than himself. But in his verbal jousting with Murray, something shifts. Instead of killing himself, he becomes enraged, and finally gets to deliver his Big Joke:

"What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I'll tell you what you get! You get what you fuckin' deserve"

This is punctuated by his splattering Murray's brains all over the wall of his set with a a close-range gunshot. It's at this point that Arthur transitions from embracing the Joker persona to becoming the Joker entirely.

Please mention me? Just once? I was the Joker too, you guys.
His Big Joke also hammers home the core message of the movie, which points the finger for this kind of depravity squarely at a failure of social systems to support people who need it. As Joker's televised murder of Murray Franklin inspires full-fledged riots in the streets of Gothom, Joker portrays the consequences when we, as a society, fail to support people who need it most. Joker / Arthur Fleck might otherwise have been helped had the necessary societal safety nets been in place, or at least not so full of holes.

The point isn't to take any culpability away from the Joker or any real-world person who commits such violent acts; but it to recognize that nothing happens in a void. We are all connected (for better or worse), and how we treat each other both on an individual and a societal level, has consequences. Joker / Arthur Fleck couldn't find any sort of positive validation and eventually embraced his role as the inspiration for widespread violence and anarchy. He found meaning in his life in the only conduit that he felt was available to him.

It's also significant that Joker is seemingly not alone in the disenfranchisement he feels. The fact that his madness seems to both infect and reflect society around him shows the power of an interconnected society, and that the social tide can be influenced for good or ill. It's also probably the best explanation so far for why anybody would willingly follow this particular brand of criminal; the Joker as the symbol of a social movement would serve as the sort of inspirational figure that people would actually convince themselves to follow.

Would Arthur have turned to a life of crime had his life turned out better? It's impossible to say, and we can only talk in terms of probabilities and not absolutes (also, this is a fictional character, so it's all pretty abstract anyway). The point is that very few people are born rotten to the core (there are always exceptions among the far end of the psychopathic spectrum that prove the rule), and it usually takes a number of intersecting factors to push someone in a particular direction. The film sets out to show us that mental health is no joke; the unflinching look at Arthur Fleck's decent into madness and his emergence on the other side as the Joker isn't meant to make us sympathize with a madman but empathize with someone who is on the brink.

What do you get when you cross an incredibly talented actor with a role that treats a famous comic book villain as the perfect metaphor for modern social anxieties related to disenfranchisement, mental health, and violence?  I'll tell you what you get. You get the movie you fuckin' deserve.

The Verdict

Joker was a surprisingly innovative spin on the superhero / comic book movie genre, doing what genres need to do in order to stay relevant, which is to constantly reinvent themselves. I'm a fan of Joker and Avengers: End Game, both for wildly different reasons, and I think it's a good sign that the genre is still thriving with films this diverse. I was pleasantly surprised with Joker, and also slightly disturbed (in the best way possible). My rating for the Joker is 8.5/10 = A Well-Dressed Clown Head Dancing Down a Flight of Stairs in Broad Daylight In Front of Two Dumbfounded Cops


Post a Comment