Top 25 of 2019: #6 Joker
People thought there were going to be mass shootings in Joker screenings. That was the initial line of derision. Then, came the talk of the film being Baby’s First Taxi Driver. Past that, it was C-list celebrities singing about White Male Rage and trying to attack the film on its identity politics. All the while, people watching the movie were dumbstruck.
Why were the politically minded slamming a film about a poor guy rising up against societal collapse? Especially when it’s a mentally ill man that inspires the poor to demand better treatment from cops and high society? I’ve delayed this Year-End piece for a few reasons. COVID-19 destroyed our review slate and then the police lost their damn minds around the country.
There never seemed to be a good time to go ahead with the Joker piece. I did a softer piece that I gave over to my critic guild. It was the fastest piece I could slam out on my thoughts, but honestly…my thoughts weren’t complete yet. The nature of film review online means rushing and slamming through to meet deadlines for people that don’t matter. It only gets worse if you’re writing for a legit press site.
If you hear a whistle, then you’re the dog
One of the few things that irritates me in modern online society is the constant drawing of lines. What started as forcing people to declare beliefs upon meeting has now lead to what amounts to PsyOps. Whether it’s watching edited video clips or tweets to meet an agenda or seeing friends turn on friends over simple disagreements, it’s sick.
But, people will keep doing it because humanity needs a sense of tribe. Communities as we know them online and in the real world are defined by a series of basic, but loaded rules. In fact, tribalism is defined by the individual giving up their goals to become part of something greater as the collected unit.
Where that once made something great like monuments, national parks or countries…it’s now used to form movements. Not even good movements typically, but socio-aggressive collectives of people raging against societal inconvenience while real strife happens next door. Even now with nationwide riots in our major cities, the angry can’t even pinpoint what to be angry at anymore.
In that instance, it becomes a collective of blind mouths screaming at a world indifferent to them. Yet, somehow…those people still think they are above Joker.
The future of grimy clown cinema
Twelve years ago, I was part of a crowd in another city getting to see The Dark Knight early. Everyone loved the visuals and the Nolan fanboys weren’t quite at fever pitch. But, everyone enjoyed seeing a new version of The Joker. Different groups of people came together and talked about Batman. Nobody dived deeper than the whole two boat setup being a really cool idea.
It’s 2020 and I’m thinking about all the weird shit tied to Batman and these movies. A sports writer I chatted with a few times was now shot to death after wanting to see Dark Knight Rises at a midnight showing. She was killed in a Cinemark theater with a seating configuration that I had installed elsewhere for the company as a teenager. That god awful purple and the speckled off-coloring being the last thing someone sees in a dim auditorium.
Most of those chairs were long gone by the time I sat in the off-brand La-Z-Boy style recliners to see Joker. But, things have changed. Casual Karens and the over concerned Woke were on the lookout for any kid in a trenchcoat or green hair. They weren’t about to get dropped by a Joker for wanting to see a movie on opening weekend.
Especially after having weeks of 24 hour news media, blogs and word-of-mouth spreading what amounts to lies about potential threats. Grimy clowns like real danger don’t announce themselves. They just take advantage of a moment and ruin lives.
Todd Phillips still deserves a Criterion entry
When you tired of attacking a film, you go after the people that created the movie. Joker director Todd Phillips was no exception. His recent work for Warner Brothers was attacked. Then, people went after his looks and pervy cameos in movies like Old School. What they didn’t do was deep dive into the guy’s work.
Phillips spent most of the 90s directing punk and underground documentaries. I respect the living hell out of anyone that could hang with G.G. Allin and make a movie like Hated.
The Hollywood Elite gave you Parasite, now let the Internet scum have a shitty Halloween costume.
Class warfare is understood in terms that Hollywood provides and the faux intellectual understands. If it trends on Twitter or plays to their interests on TV, they understand and attack. Nothing is coordinated or defined, it’s just a problem to robotically attack. Call it cancel culture, mob mentality or a coordinated campaign. It keeps happening and it works to a point.
The fact that Joker’s final actions center around a media elite playing an amateur video for ridicule is so on-the-nose. When a select few tastemakers get to decide what matters and what doesn’t, then they can collect a mob to support them…might is right. Sometimes that happens and they go after a just cause.
More times than not, you have 10,000 people running for the single person door of justice. Their attentions are good, but it’s so many single-focused people stomping on each other for the right to say FIRST! That doesn’t make these people bad, but misguided. Heaven help you, if you try to suggest an alternative to their approach. Nobody likes being told their wrong on the Internet…even less so in reality.
Joker wants to be a Paddy Chayefsky movie so bad that it hurts
Network’s fingerprints are all over Joker. So many people went to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy due to Scorsese’s early and slight involvement with the film. Scorsese worked on this one about as long as Aronofsky worked on Watchmen. For those that don’t know inside baseball, that was about a week.
Joker is a Chayefsky love fest, if it’s anything. From the irrational relationship with his mother echoing a dark take on Marty to the obvious Network riffs, Paddy is represented. Arthur Fleck is not a bad person, he’s an inner city schlub that just wants to dream of something bigger.
Watching the pain of a nobody trying to be somebody, then seeing random hordes of Internet nobodies shit on the character is perverse. Is it abnormal? No. Unfocused self-loathing is as American as Apple Pie and Diabetes. The inability for the modern audience to see themselves in anything is stunning.
Robert DeNiro vs. Joker vs. A Captive Audience
That scene where Joker finally makes it to the Murray Franklin stage is amazing. There is a reason why Internet culture is already running it through the meme cycle. Naturally, anything that touches a common point in real audiences will be lost on Film Twitter. But, why?
Stage fright is understood in the colloquial sense, but not in the psychological for most people. Watch how Arthur/Joker responds to finally getting what he wants on camera. Moments before, he was backstage and cocky. Throwing together orders at Marc Maron and Murray Franklin about how he needs to be introduced.
When Joker finally calls out his final joke, the Oscar winning score surges. The percussion follows an accelerate pulse rate, as the camera shifts into tight singles snapping back like a live three camera shoot. These tight cuts are meant to evoke Lumet’s early TV style and it was a wise choice on Phillips’ part. Especially when you start the clip above and see how the wide shot dissolves into Joker’s frantic rage about being ridiculed by his idol.
The way Arthur’s voice breaks as he tries to hide under the Joker persona is all too real. He can’t understand why people don’t get his humor and then the defense returns. Murray Franklin insulted him. The man who was the cornerstone of his family nighttime rituals just made him look like a punk on national TV.
At no point in that scene is Joker/Arthur not scared. He’s angry as hell, but terrified at what he thinks he has to do to make sense of the world.
Never Meet Your Heroes
What hurts Joker for me and keeps it from being a perfect film is that fact that it didn’t end on that bank of TVs following Murray’s death. I don’t need to see the Waynes dying again. Gotham City’s collapse was inevitable and it doesn’t matter if Joker is saved by the mob. He’ll still end up in Arkham.
After Joker kills Murray, he spins back in chair to face Camera 1. His legs are shaking like crazy. He can’t keep his gaze on the right camera, but he keeps the pistol still pointed at the deceased Murray. Joker finally got to meet his hero and take revenge for the humiliation that has been his life.
But, it doesn’t matter. He is but a pebble in a pond inspiring greater change that will dwarf him and leave him to the same mental welfare system that couldn’t treat his mother. Even if Arthur gets out and goes werewolf again, he’ll be back. That’s the curse of being poor and sick.
You play society’s game until you die. The cop car you flip over and burn will be replaced by a newer model in a month. Taxes go up to cover the striking garbage men and new police required to keep Gotham from boiling over. A new talk show replaces Murray Franklin, as Murray’s death becomes YouTube and Wiki fodder for later generations.
To quote another DC offering, Nothing Ever Ends.
While a Marvel Zombie for ages, Joker was yet another feather in the cap for DC in 2019. Between the stellar books, Watchmen and the feature films…DC was turning in a corner in a way that Marvel hasn’t approached yet. Gone were the days of wannabe mature themes and now we had serious character studies overshadowed by Action Figure Endgame Theater.
Joker is what I appreciate about cinema. It’s the kind of film that can split an audience, draw lines, force you to examine your take and then question everything placed in front of you. Some might continue to call it Baby’s First Taxi Driver, while others will emulate it for the wrong reasons.
That being said, Joker is a work of modern art. A possibly cliche look at the 1980s that only existed in bad movies and grimdark comic books. But, a look that allowed audiences to follow background fodder as it dared to think itself great.
Time will flip a lot of opinions on Joker. You can bank on that.