‘Joker’ Is Empty Provocation for Culturally Bankrupt Times
Joaquin Phoenix in a still from <i>Joker</i>.
Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Joker.(Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros)

‘Joker’ Is Empty Provocation for Culturally Bankrupt Times

Pardon the hyperbole, but for this film lover a Serious Clown Movie from the director of the Hangover trilogy winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival is right up there with Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States. A development so absurd, so ridiculous that it can only signal an untethering; reality coming off its axis and spinning uncontrollably into the void.

It would be fair to say I’m still in denial. Not just about that Golden Lion, oh no. But about this film existing. A “prestige” Joker movie! A film that raises the “dangerous” question: what if we had a gun every time we got angry? A film where Joaquin Phoenix, one of the greatest actors of our generation, delivers a performance so ghastly that one would demand his Oscars be taken away, if only he’d received some.*

*For this reason alone, I will be recommending that you watch better films with better Joaquin performances (most of which Joker mimics heavily) throughout this piece.

I shouldn’t be blamed for finding this all a bit... twisted, because the perceived audience for this film is young men who took a meme too seriously. How did this happen?

Let’s back up a little. It all starts with Heath Ledger's portrayal of the clown in The Dark Knight becoming instantly iconic, and I don’t just mean the t-shirts. Somewhere between the Joker’s anarchist rhetoric on-screen and Ledger’s way-too-soon death off-screen, fans formed their own backstory for the actor, the character and it all became a bit muddled.

Cue the memes. First, there were the sincere ones. Which, yikes.

The original Joker meme.
The original Joker meme.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Then everything keeps passing through multiple layers of irony and you get ‘Gang Weed’, ‘We Live in a Society’ etc etc and we’re all having a bit of a laugh. Some people, however, never graduate beyond that first level, and Ledger’s Joker becomes co-opted for every political philosophy one can think of. Kind of like a dark version of Minions.

So while most of us have been having fun with overused Joker imagery and setting new standards of shitposting, there are people who are very serious about this clown with a few things to say. Guess whom this new comic book movie is for.

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Todd Phillips’ Joker is about Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a particularly sad clown who works at a clown factory and dreams of one day becoming an even bigger clown i.e. a stand-up comedian. Arthur is constantly being beaten down, either figuratively by the system or literally by some no-good teens. Until, and I shit-you-not this is the inciting incident of the plot, his co-worker just hands him a gun. Now Arthur has all that pent up rage and also a gun, which he selectively uses on the people who have wronged him.

*Watch The Master, where Joaquin plays a loner with violent tendencies who drifts from cause to cause.

Much has been said about about how the film generously, nakedly borrows from 80s Martin Scorsese films, particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Phillips sets Joker in the 1980s and gives the film every veneer of arthouse respectability he can. However, the digital cinematography lacks any texture or depth characteristic of the era it is aping and comes across as a bad filter. The overbearing score is also very modern, spoon-feeding the audience that sad things are in fact happening.

I guess I have to atone for my sins, because I am one of those people who has often criticised Marvel films for being too disposable. Comic book movies are way too light, way too fluffy and way too safe! Needless to say, I have been punished for what I asked for. While trying to create a thinking man’s stupid movie, Phillips has made the ultimate stupid man’s thinking movie.

*Watch Two Lovers, where Joaquin plays a lost, awkward young man who is forever unlucky in love.

Pay no heed to the smart marketing, Joker is a hollow vessel of a statement. It wants to give the downtrodden a voice but Phillips’s contempt for the unwashed masses still comes through. The poor of Gotham are a spark away from killing everyone else, if not each other. Any ‘concern’ this film raises is one of privilege, the cynical “tsk tsk” of those in glass houses looking down at the streets. I can’t tell if the moment when Joker claims he doesn’t “believe in anything” is a studio note designed to distance the film from any real-world politics or Phillips’ own feelings. The filmmaker comes across as a true nihilist.

Joker pays lip-service to mental health issues: the government cuts Arthur’s healthcare and his access to medication just before he takes a turn for the criminal. It’s a hilariously superficial take on the subject. I don’t even want to get into the real world implications, where mental health issues are almost always incorrectly blamed for gun violence. I guess I should be thankful that neurotypicals are learning something?

*Watch You Were Never Really Here, where Joaquin plays a battered contract killer suffering from PTSD and taking care of his ill mother.

Listen, I get it. I’ve faced rejection, I’ve used humour as a coping mechanism. I used to think the Pagliacci joke was the deepest thing ever.

A page from <i>Watchmen</i>, which recounts the Pagliacci joke.
A page from Watchmen, which recounts the Pagliacci joke.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. I’ve been having a tough time for the past couple of months. I have said some version of “Why is everyone so rude to each other?!” or “Why can’t we all be civil?!” or “Is it just me or are things getting crazier out there?”

Films that deal with mental illness are like a comfortable blanket of relatability. Someone out there feels just like I do! Joker, with *its* treatment of mental illness, may have just cured me. It made me feel embarrassed to have ever felt sad or angry at the world. This film has ruined any enjoyment I got from violent fantasies. Phillips has said that Joker is meant to be a reflection; well I see a clown.

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