Late February in the Northeast: The snow hasn’t time to thaw before the next storm. I’m not even trying to clear it off. I have stacks of forms to fill out, and tax records to organize. There they sit. My yoga and meditation practice were interrupted by rebellions in my sinuses and lungs. My routine is reorganizing around three separate forms of weekly Zoom therapy (Trauma, speech pathology, and vision) and PT. It’s the longest month of the year, despite what the lame-stream calendars say.
So, how not to go full Nicholson? How/where/what to do to dig out? If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or the effects of (C)PTSD dysregulation — or are simply feeling overwhelmed — I’m here to say “Do the Easiest Thing.”
When I’m literally and mentally snowed under a growing mountain of stuff I have to do, stuff that keeps me able to do those things, and the stuff I enjoy doing — it may as well be Everest. Yet it always comes back to me doing The Easiest Thing.
Let me explain. Amongst the blizzard of crap I’ve read over the course of the Pandemic regarding mental and physical health, one suggestion has stuck. Do the Easiest Thing that helps. Look around. Where are you? What can you do with the least effort and/or the least time to lift yourself up? Sounds easy, but it’s taken many a rock bottom fall for me to begin adopting this practice.
Let’s talk about the sorts of Easiest Things I do and don’t mean. Absolute #1 thing not to do? Don’t doom scroll social media. Do not read the comments on an innocuous-looking post about local vaccination sites. Don’t get into a pitched internet or personal argument. That’s not helping. Don’t do it.
That doesn’t mean your phone is off limits. But unless you open that demon device with a clear intention, best to steer clear.
Which leads me to My Easiest Thing. Music. Specifically — 🥁🥁🥁 eye rolls ready? — I listen to Morrissey/The Smiths. There’s something about his unfailing pop instincts, mixed with with that voice, and his witty/intelligent/alt-culture outsider lyrics that picks me up. He would never insist I be happy, and he shares his everyday struggles and loves and losses in a voice that always croons, floats, yodels, and growls to me afresh.
Before long, my mind gets caught up, and my body follows. I may start to sing, get up and dance, until I feel well enough to do the next easiest thing: like the dishes! All while bopping about and singing “lalalalala interesting drug!” Heck, I may wipe down the counters. I may even make or at least prep for dinner! Or sweep the disgusting floor!
Suddenly, I find myself singing in the shower. And — while hours may have passed, and I didn’t necessarily get to anything particularly pressing — I wasn’t staring at the wall or a screen. What I did was simply give myself a completely healthy mood boost that made slightly more difficult tasks seem within reach.
To be honest, sometimes that mood boost may only lead to teeth brushing or playing with doggo. But heaven knows I’m not miserable now. And that’s my bigger point about The Easiest Thing.
And that one thing, that playlist, is simply a way to bring me to present, back to at least the steady kick of Sister I’m a Poet. From foot tapping, to standing and moving isn’t too far to go. It’s just a foundation of feeling better that allows me to build up to tasks that require more effort, concentration, or presence.
You can take your own progression at any pace you please. Your easiest thing may be a shower. Or a phone call. Or having a coffee or tea break. I choose music because it only takes opening Spotify and pressing play. It also lasts, and gives my mind and body a little something to groove on.
Of course, I’m writing this because I hit another bottom, and resorted to My Easiest Thing. Hopefully, in a week or so, I may be back to my yoga, cleaning schedule, or that mountain of paperwork, or that Everest of snow (w/an assist from the sun🤞🏽). Maybe eek(!) out another blog.
Then I’ll stumble and fall, because that’s what I do! But I can fall right back into the arms of my favorite music.
What’s your Easiest Thing? How do you keep picking yourself up when you’re snowed under? Leave a comment, let me know. And ya know, maybe pour something out for Spring to hurry along.
I don’t know when all these words were first used, but I know they need to go.
1) Wheelhouse: Is this like a mill? Saw mill? Grain mill? Was some miller like “Yo. I’m Mr. Wheelhouse now. And whole grains are not in my house that has a wheel.” ?
2) Inflection Point: As far as I know, inflection is saying “This is my house,” versus “This is MY house.” But now everything has an inflection point. Relationships, social movements, Covid. This is MY Covid. This IS my Covid. THIS is my Covid. This is my COVID. Kill ME.
3) Problematic: It’s not difficult. It’s not complex. Complicated. Hard. Thorny. Controversial. A bad idea. An annoyance. Troublesome. A Pandora’s Box. A fault in our stars. An asshole. A jerk. Buttholery. Nope. Problematic. And it’s just the first cringe-worthy, stabby step in becoming…
4) Cancelled: Cancel/cancelled. Apparently this is a thing that people on Twitter do that makes other people on Twitter mad. Until Twitter cancels their account. And then you can’t read JK Rowling, I lose a favorite character on The Mandalorian, and folks can’t eat certain sammiches. “Cancelled” should solely be used for awesome TV shows corporate couldn’t handle. Notably Firefly, Futurama, and Hannibal. *
5) #Blessed: The religious humble-brag. “God loves me so much more than you that he’s given me a heated swimming pool.” If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the world and the Universe don’t give a shit about us. Assholes get Covid. Good people get Covid. Hell, why we’re at it, the fact that Covid exists at all should be proof enough that there is nothing looking out for us except each other.
Friends, we’ve reached an inflection point in the English language. And as social movements are problematic, and not in my wheelhouse, I’d consider myself #Blessed if we could all help cancel these linguistic abominations of 2020.
– JL ✌🏼💚🖖🏼
*Furthermore, it unites Chads. And we can’t have Maher and Tucker agreeing.
It’s never a great day when you have to tell someone you’ve been sodomized. I feel bad saying it in this forum because it may get somebody down. But that’s why I need trauma therapy.
Rarely do we ever become so intimate with anyone that we can say “I was drugged and raped…er, sodomized.” And it’s rarer that the recipient of that info knows what to do with it. Today I met someone I hope knows what to say. It was my first day of trauma therapy.
This entire delve into better treatment for my trauma related injuries and illnesses began with a talk with my PCP. I was frustrated, and considered untreatable by two clinics in a row. Now, mind you, this is in bumblebuck, methtown, USA. I had good treatment at Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia. But twenty years of mindfulness and talk and CBT? Sure, I learned a lot, but I needed more.
So, a neurology referral from my PCP for a doctor who deals specifically with domestic and sexual violence seemed ideal. And it did open up new avenues of treatment of both my physical and mental self. Now I have my PT I do at home daily, weekly speech pathology and vision therapy to deal with those pieces. But ideally, my goal was to get in with a trauma therapist.
I finally had my first Zoom session with her today. It was exhausting. Left me tired, shaky, and shaken. Because the sodomy is part of my extended history of trauma, I need to share it. Along with reporting the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of X, etc.
Even I don’t want to talk about these things. But for the first time I’m approaching therapy honestly. I love to please and charm, but — while it might let me temporarily deal with social situations — it’s not any way to deal with therapy or complicated and difficult subjects.
So I began hard work today. Deal with every abuse, every injury mental or physical, so that maybe I can heal. I cannot survive anymore with my emotions a raw, raging nerve. And boy, believe me I try. I’ve become a yoga addict, I meditate, I keep a journal, I eat healthy. I generally shower. Do my hair. And that takes hours: just to feel normalish and OK.
So, this trauma therapy is a new thing. I’m still not quite recovered from my experience of my session today. And it will occur every week. Along with the speech and vision. And the check-ins with my neurologist’s assistant. As a beautiful heart I know through social media told me, she prays for strength. Wish the Force be with me, friends. This ain’t easy.
Anger dominated 2020. Yes, there is sadness, fear, anxiety, and loneliness, but rage ruled the US this year. Rage over Coronavirus, rage over the deaths of black Americans. Under a leader consumed in the fire of rage, we only speak in anger. But whose anger matters? Depends on how much you matter.
Sometimes described as “anger turned in on oneself,” Depression is the sense that you are the problem. You don’t have the rightbe angry. My abuse taught me that I didn’t deserve to be angry. That I was so worthless, I had no right to feel what I felt. Or to even think as I thought. As a consequence, that anger has built to Vesuvian proportions. And then I blow. Only recently, have I even begun to address this issue. Only recently have I realized I have a right to be angry at all.
2020 was also a year of skyrocketing suicide and overdose deaths — Deaths of Despair. The only way to prevent those deaths involves breaking down the barriers in social status that keeps the voices of the desperate and despairing from ever being heard.
The only forum I have to express my anger is this blog. I am literally nothing in the grand scope of human value based solely on money. What status my earlier work has gained is losing its lustre over the years. And I can barely speak what is in my mind and my heart. But I HAVE to write now.
I hope 2020 is the low point in American life that brings attention to those of us slipping through the gaping holes in our social safety net. We live with the end results of 40 years of “Trickle On Economics.” And the attitudes that accompany it. The poor are poor because they want to be. The government should have no role in mental health, or any healthcare. The ruinous war on drugs. The “tough love” of the 90s — a time that fully endorsed the shaming a 22 yr old woman who was seduced by a President, while those with mental health and drug and alcohol issues were locked out from their families. And now, Poverty and Food Insecurity has reached the lower rungs of what remains of our Middle Class. The Sheriff is knocking on the door to evict. The Repo man. The mortgage companies. While our government does NOTHING to help.
If you still think that you are beyond the “trivial” fears for food or shelter, you are holding onto the greatest American lie. That with hard work, and persistence, things will work out. The world is random, and you’re as subject to the whims of fortune as much as anyone. I hope you’ll never know how much.
I have persisted in trying to help myself. I’ve encountered sexism, and the stigma of poverty and mental illness in every area of my life. And meet a general attitude of “I’m alright Jack. Screw you,” at the best of times. At the worst, silence. And I know I’m not the only one who is barely keeping it together. But that doesn’t help anyone.
I practice the self care. I practice meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. I eat healthy. I get outside when I can. I find ways to make do. And, yes, I am grateful for what I do have. I’m not some Main Line lady keeping a Gratitude Journal whilst holding a vase and wondering if it brings me joy. I’m thankful I have 194$ in food stamps for the month, and somewhere to live. How small and meager must that which I’m grateful for become? “I’m grateful I found rubber glue to fix my shoes.”
I have had enough of those who pretend to be there to help. Especially in mental health care. As an experiment, I joined a Facebook group of psychiatrists and psychologists. One man suggested that I had “sand in my vagina” and that I might be pregnant. Another woman accused me of not wanting to work. Ya know, because having $1.11 to your name is SO MUCH FUN! Constantly begging reluctant providers to sign forms to allow me to keep Medical Assistance and SNAP, filling out paperwork to prove I’m poor and need help. This is such a joy I should put it in a gratitude journal!
In the end, I was kicked out of that forum when I mentioned how easy it would be to include those providers’ statements in Google reviews of their businesses. Silly me.
I know my voice means nothing. I know I mean nothing. I know I’ve been taught that. And, literally had it banged into my head. To the extent that I have traumatic brain damage, and crowns for front teeth. I know that everything I say is construed as an attack by those I love. I know I’m annoying and getting in everyone’s way. That no one knows how to handle me. And even my interests are considered beneath contempt. I mean, you know your thoughts are worthless when an interest in history is tantamount to criminal behavior.
Yes, I’m angry. And very sad. And problematic. But I know, simply as a human being, that I am worthy of better treatment. I’m simply not important enough to be cared about. And I’m not alone. So be truely grateful you can become infuriated by a state wide restaurant restriction. Be thankful that a late Amazon delivery is your main cause of distress. Or maybe look deeper, and see what’s really upsetting you.
All this time I cling because I have no one else to go to. I have no where else to go. Submit or literally be left in the cold. That’s what’s enraging me. Too bad I’m not important enough for it to matter.
I belong to a high risk group. Not for Coronavirus, the other Pandemic. The Pandemic Nicholas Kristof wrote about in WhoKilled the Knapp Family? This killer Pandemic has lowered the life expectancy of Americans by a full year. The best name I’ve found to describe this American holocaust is “Deaths of Despair.”
Deaths of Despair include suicides, and deaths from drug or alcohol related causes. They were at record highs before the first case of Covid-19. And, as moratoriums on evictions end, states struggle to provide extra Unemployment Benefits, and millions of Americans stare down a bleak and uncertain future, you’d think mental health professionals would be in high gear to help. And you’d be wrong.
We are not humane. We are barely a society. But don’t tell your therapist. The United States is none of your business. In the face of the articles, the facts, the statistics, mental health professionals stare into the face of human misery, and tell you to keep a gratitude journal. You must give up your personal convictions and accept that you are both responsible for your own happiness, but you have no control over the world.
I do take the time to be grateful. It is useful to think about pleasant moments to break the interminable limbo of loneliness and suffering, to mark time during the Pandemic. And my eyes cannot stop searching for beauty amidst the squalor, the violence, the pain. But humanity has limits.
Eli Weisel, author of Night, recounts his first experience of the Auschwitz death camp as a young teen. The babies disappearing into wreaths of smoke. The disinterested SS guards indicating “Left” to slave labor until death, and “Right” to women and children condemned to the infernos. He and his father were ordered “left.” His mother and sisters, “right.” He speaks of the death of the boy he once was, yet still inhabiting his body. And he marks the death of God in his heart. His eventual resentment for the father he must work harder to keep alive. And his feeling of liberation upon his father’s death.
Weisel’s story represents the second chapter of Anne Frank’s diary. The two were about the same age when they were sent to the camps. And while everyone loves to quote a 15 yr old girl’s belief that all people are essentially good. Nobody seems keen to acknowledge that she and her family died a pointless death of unimaginable, dehumanizing suffering. That all young people want to believe in goodness, to imagine their future as beautiful, full of love and the standard of happiness due to all human beings, and their own power to cause change. That’s simply what young people believe.
If Anne Frank had continued her diary, it may well have read much more like Weisel’s tale. Or the tales of North Korean camps where human beings fight over a piece of corn in human feces. Or of the Chinese who were reduced to hoarding dead babies for food during the Japanese occupation and civil war.
But not here. Never here. Not in America, the nation that helped to liberate both Europe and Asia from those two brutal regimes. The country to which the poor, repressed, war weary and hungry have turned for 300 yrs. Here we are responsible for our own success. Here we are the guardians of our own happiness. Here, to fail in any respect, is your fault.
I think of upper-middle class ladies “decluttering” their homes by holding objects in their hands to see whether they still “bring joy.” While most of us make do with duct taped appliances, buckets to catch leaks, wood glue, broken screens, and only throw a thing out when it’s ticked you off enough.
If you are fortunate to have a place to put your things: an apartment, a home. If you can afford food from the grocery store, or use the discounted canned goods store, or a small garden, or a food bank.
I saw a phrase recently that captured the dilemma many Americans find themselves in now. “The rent eats first.” It describes to what extent people will go without enough or any food to avoid homelessness. What objects bring you joy in your group shelter? Your street corner?
Placing responsibility for happiness on the individual in crisis mirrors the American insistence that access to good schools, child care, healthcare, decent pay for one’s labor bear nothing on an individual’s ability to achieve in life. It’s all on you.
This insistence lives beside the common therapeutic response I have heard for the last four years. And has endured throughout the Pandemic, the mass economic ruin, the constant march of new names — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery — the anger, the violence, the hurricanes. The man at the top who blames his failures on a former President, a would-be President, and a woman who ran for President. He takes no responsibility. So those of us in crisis? We must bear the responsibility.
And worse: we are told we must accept that we have no control. I thought “We the People” were this nation’s true governors. That the folks in the halls of power were “public servants.” And I don’t even see an exclusion of the mentally ill among our Constitution’s rankings of whose lives matter. Three-fifths a white life if you’re black, no vote for most citizens, but nothing about PTSD.
The conventional wisdom of not placing one’s happiness in the hands of another was written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Yet he took on the happiness of others as his duty. He was the Emperor. He spent decades fighting a virulent contagion in the Empire. His wisdom is acknowledging that, yes, we should not tie our happiness to the approval of others, and that even he had limits to controlling life. But he also recognized his responsibility as a leader to protect, to ease suffering, and foster the happiness of the millions of Roman citizens that lived as far as England, North Africa, and all the way to Iraq. The dinarii stopped at his traveling writing desk.
Instead, America’s mental health system has fully embraced Trumpism. If you are struggling, if you are sick, if you are in crisis, it’s your fault. Following the “lead” of President “Blame Obama,” I have endured “therapy” that has asked me to empathize with racists. To understand their fears. I asked for another therapist immediately, and was soon ejected from the program under threat of being physically restrained and committed.
That’s modern therapy. It’s the male doctor who told me that who was President should be the least of my concerns. That instead I should work on my “anger issues.” I don’t know if he realized how much he challenged my commitment to nonviolence in that moment. My friend calls that feeling “stabby.”
I often think of the episode of The Walking Dead in which Rick is forced to behave like the”Walkers” (zombies) in the show. He and his son have been kidnapped, and one man is attempting to rape his boy. So he uses the only weapon he has left, and tears the throat out of his son’s would be rapist with his teeth. He was reduced to the tactics of the non-human to fight the human.
It’s not a far step from Eli Weisel’s feeling of freedom upon the death of his father by SS batons. The journey from human being to beast is not far. The crushing powerlessness that poverty and violence mixed with mental illness causes cannot be alleviated by “just following orders.” The casual indication of “Left” and “Right” to the gas chambers echoes the “it is what it is” policy of the US government. And reminds me of the grey, back-stabbing, fluorescent lit hell described by C.S. Lewis.
Government policies are harming my mental health and sentencing myself, with millions of others, to a life of powerlessness, loneliness, and eventually to crisis and despair. I have every right to be concerned over how public policy affects my life. I didn’t give up my rights when I entered therapy, or fell into poverty, or needed government assistance.
The step from “gratitude” journals, being told to accept you have zero control, while being tasked with responsibility for a spiral into crisis, to fighting other human beings for a piece of corn stuck in human shit is not that far. And it’s no wonder so many Americans are opting out of that false choice by taking their own lives. It’s the one act of personal freedom left to far too many.
The mental health community is on the hook for its embrace of Trumpian notions of dehumanization, fear, and lack of empathy. It reflects his dog-eat-dog worldview, and lack of concern. It belies more about the death of society and values more than any evangelical Christian’s concerns. It’s a betrayal of the social compact that demands our rights end where another’s begin. And violates the one rule above all others, to love and treat others as you would thyself, no exceptions.
A society is a living thing. But we can only access the benefits of living together, if we also accept our responsibility for one another — for the whole. American society is dying. And it is a death of despair.
“This Woman Went to Jail After Walking Dog Without Leash”
“He who acts as his own lawyer, represents a fool.” It’s an adage as old as the Pyramids: never be your own lawyer. Our Founders agreed, and they were mainly lawyers. James Madison enshrined the right to legal representation in the US Bill of Rights as the Sixth Amendment to our Constitution. But, I’m finding that is not necessarily the case across the US. And — surprise — it’s mainly the poor who suffer as a result.
The body-cam video above shows a 34 yr old woman with mental health issues, being restrained in a chair, tied, hooded, and repeatedly tased by police officers for having her service dog off leash.
When I first saw this video, I saw myself being tased in that chair. One look at me is enough to confirm that I’m poor. I try my best, but home haircuts, cheap tees, and the worn out knees in my thrift store jeans tell the tale. I am also disabled due to mental health issues.
I have learned to fear nothing more than the human race. After living with abuse, experiences of sexual violence, and more than twenty years of sustained loss, my personal safety causes me constant anxiety. And then came Covid.
What do you do when you can’t go out in public but need some form of recreation and chill? Me? I fish. I’m not concerned about “catching.” It’s called “fishing,” and by sticking a pole in the water you can sit in nature, enjoy the the day, still social distance, and feel good. In fact, my governor made a point of leaving fishing and hunting among our allowed activities during our lockdown.
But, as it seems with every single thing or place I enjoy, there’s always that person. You know the one. Maybe it’s the person at the grocery store who raves about masking while you wait to check out. Maybe it’s the jerk who throws something during your peaceful protest. One thing that person is, often as not, is an officer of the law.
Quick rewind: I left therapy late last year after a traumatic experience at my mental health clinic. I determined to take a short break and find a new therapist after the winter. Like in March. Ha. Ha. Recently, however, my benefits were expanded to include tele-medicine, including psych and therapy.
So, I was already destabilized when Covid hit the Northeast. My friends’ suggestion: socially distanced fishing! One member of my four person party brought 4 cans of Sierra Nevada. One for each member. He was caught by a Park Ranger, and issued a ticket for consumption on county property. His fine, an educational $398. And the officer made off with the unopened beer.
Taking responsibility for bringing the beers, the beer-bringer paid his fine. Then, three weeks later, I recieved my citation certified mail. This wasn’t my first encounter with a shake down artist in that park either. The previous year a woman claimed my dog bit her son, and asked for cash to take him to urgent care. She didn’t want to call the cops or make a report. So I left.
Needless to say, I will NEVER return to that park. I began having panic attacks just thinking of leaving the house for anywhere or anything. I felt marked and terrified. I have CPTSD. That’s how the traumatized brain works. But, as the anti-shutdown protests began to include assault weapons, and scary stories and videos of anti-maskers circulated, I grew more terrified.
I feel robbed. I was robbed of any sense of security in that park. Eventually, I went to a privately owned pond by permission. And then again to a spot belonging to family.
But the saga of the ticket is ongoing. I have no transportation due to my disability. Eventually I was able to arrange to plead not guilty, without paying a bond, and have a Zoom trial (per the ADA). But I can’t find legal representation.
And that’s what’s tearing me apart now. I have no income. It is possible that I may face contempt of court and imprisonment if the judge finds me guilty. That would mean I’d lose every benefit I do have, including the insurance that pays for my medication that keeps me stable and Zoom therapy, which I recently began.
I’ve appeared before municipal courts before, and I had a public defender. Easy peasy. No problem. Ticket tossed. I’ve appeared in Camden County New Jersey’s traffic court to challenge tickets. I was represented by a public defender. Mind you, Camden, NJ has a high poverty rate, and used to be the leader in murders in US cities. I got off without a point on my license. But I can’t get anything here in my semi-rural area.
Catch-22 true: I can get a lawyer if I do end up in jail for my inability to pay a fine. But, as we all confront Covid, the Black Lives Matter movement, and economic devastation, Americans are all suffering. And it’s all about the $$$.
Mental health issues, including substance abuse, have spiked from the beginning of the year. Leading to even more deaths of despair in a nation that lost an entire year of life-expectancy to mental health/addiction before Covid touched our shores.
And, of course, there’s the police. Whatever your opinion of the protests, let’s be real. Most folks don’t like cops or law enforcement.
My greatest fear is that I will end up like the woman in this video. Because folks with mental illness BEHAVE like they have a mental illness. If you push the right buttons, anyone can “go crazy.” But if you start at “crazy,” it’s a short step, not a drive, to out of control.
I appreciate that the Americans with Disabilities Act compels all government agencies to make accommodations for the disabled. In my case, it’s a Zoom trial. And I appreciate the kindness of the officer who came to check on me when I was reaching crisis levels.
I’m still clinging on by my finger tips, but without legal representation, and in light of all that is convulsing this nation at this moment, I guess I’m OK. I have shelter, and SNAP, unless a criminal charge or prison stay ends that. But I have been living in a state of quasi-crisis for months.
I want this over. I want a lawyer. I want to not feel afraid for my person everywhere I go. I want the world to see in the woman in that video the truth about the treatment of the mentally ill in America. I don’t want for one instant to co-opt the significance of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor’s, or the countless other black Americans’ lives lost.
But in a nation where the President doesn’t have to respond to a Congressional subpoena. Where the wealthy throw money at problems, and blame poverty on the poor. Who see our suffering as our just punishment. I’ll simply quote a statement made in complete sincerity to me today by an attorney, “All individuals are treated equally under the US legal system.” I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. And I don’t believe the American people are either. We all know the score. The legal system is rigged, and not for We the People.
I’ve been aware of Kanye West since the early 2000’s. I love his music. He ranges all over the spectrum: jazzy here, thoughtful there, big and slickly produced, to spare and minimalist. He’s that rare musical artist who is talented, prolific, and generally knocks it out of the park.
But I never paid attention to the gossip. He wants to be called Yeesus or Yeezy? So? Prince changed his name to a symbol. Old Dirty Bastard changed his name to Big Baby Jesus. There’s even a Madonna. He was “eccentric.” But now he’s the punchline to a joke.
When I first started hearing the name Kardashian, I wondered if everyone had gotten into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Cardassians were the often charming, but authoritarian and genocidal race that played the bad guys in the series.
My knowledge of celebrities is fairly slim. I don’t care who Brad Pitt married. But as time wore on, it became clear that Kanye was a troublesome celeb. One of those artists whose fans love and defend, haters hate, and everyone else stands back, stares, and judges.
And then he revealed that he had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder (manic-depression). And he went from “eccentric” to “crazy.” His long and winding talk. Microphone grabbing. His image of himself as a Christ-like figure. His recent forays into MAGAdom, and now his Presidential bid. This is what the “manic” part of “manic-depression” means. This sort of behavior.
It strained on his marriage. His wife, Kim staunchly standing by him. Insisting he get help. I never thought much of her before. But as a wife and mother, living with someone with a mental illness became part of her identity. And she’s done as well as could be hoped. She’s an awesome wife.
Of course they are both massively wealthy and enormously privileged, but they write large the very real, and largely hidden world of living with mental illness. Whether you’re the “Kim” or “Kanye” in your own situation, you know how it goes.
Of course, when I get upset — deleting social media posts, and apologizing to my loved ones — no one is snapping my picture. My family doesn’t need to issue public statements, or fear a bad makeup day photo will go viral. But our suffering is as real as the Wests’. And I can’t help but thank them for their frankness regarding both their insistence on privacy and their life in public.
The fact that folks are waking up to the reality and pain of the lives of the Wests has changed the conversation. Kim called for “compassion” in recent Instagram posts regarding her husband. And she’s absolutely right.
Kanye harms Kanye, and his loved ones suffer for and with him. He’s not affecting you. It’s not as though he were the President of the United States. That would be a matter of concern. But Kanye is hurting himself. And his family is hurting with him.
Does a heart attack victim need to apologize for having a heart attack? Would you bother their family because a member had heart disease? Would you stand back and say: “That’s what he gets for drinking whole milk?”
Mental Illness is as funny as a heart attack. You could sit in judgement on a heart attack victim’s way of life, diet, smoking. But then you’re a jerk.
So, don’t make fun. Don’t call Kanye “cray-cray” or “nuts” or “batshit crazy” or say “he had it coming.” Kanye West has had a series of heart attacks. Just like any other human being who suffers from mental illness, and the effect on their loved ones is the same.
So, enough about Kim & Kanye. They’re not hurting you. Just remember that when your family with a drug/alcohol problem, Bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, or anxiety has an episode, treat it like a heart attack. There is a lot of support out there for grieving families, and those who live with mental illness. Take advantage of it.
And please, remember to give those of us who share Kanye’s diagnosis or live with mental illness the room and compassion just to be without expectations. No one wants to be crazy.
We only miss something when it’s gone. But now the end is near for my three-part series on Joker. We’ve viewed this film through many lenses. What else lurks in the crushing, taut, shocking, and riotous abandon of this film?
By the end of Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), the entire city is on fire, and anyone with a credit card is fair game for a mob of clowns. With a little help from an angry white man. Can you think of a better metaphor for our current dumpster-fire “society?”
Shootings by white males is a part of our society now. And Joker had to address that. We all remember the Aurora theater shooting during a showing of Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger as Joker. Ledger had recently committed suicide, and there were rumors that the shooter was dressed as the Joker.
Christopher Reeves will always be Superman. But Joker changes with the times. He can be Jack Nicholson or Mark Hamill. The Joker has to stand in relation to the culture he inhabits.
The power of Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning toure de force deserves a lot of credit. But he doesn’t bear all the load. How does this film with an angry, white male lead make a Joker that works for our current culture?
First, down play his whiteness: give him zero sense of privilege to show his feelings and use the white clown-face as an anonymous symbol. Make him completely alone, poor, mentally ill, beat up, abused, betrayed, and a bit too old: everything no one wants to be. You can also surround him with black women who at least tolerate him. Make him apolitical. And then question his masculinity. Bam! 👊🏼
Look around at the faces in this movie. Who is his therapist? His psychiatrist? Who decides he’s not a threat to her kid after reading Art’s card when he breaks into laughter on the train? Who is his imaginary girlfriend? Who does he dream laughs at his jokes when he does open mic? In whose eyes does he search for recognition? A black woman’s, in the form of his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz). Ah. The elusive black female vote.
Now let’s look at the white males in this film. There is his co-worker Randall (Glenn Fleschler channeling Pete Boyle), who’s fond of making fun of Gary (Leigh Gill), the little person they work with. Randall had pushed a hot gun on Art as a “favor.” Midst owning “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in a hit performance to a children’s cancer ward, Arthur drops the gun. Randall tells their boss that Art had asked him about buying a gun. Betrayed, Art lies that the gun was a part of his act. There goes Art’s job.
On the train home in full clown, Art’s laughter boils up over three finance bros rapey treatment of a young woman. She leaves. But, unable to find his card, he becomes the immediate target of these blue-balled, drunken jerks’ ruffled sense of privilege. They rush him. He tries to fight back, but one punch and he’s down. Then a bullet hole explodes through one of the bros’ chest, and we see Arthur, gun in his left hand. He shoots the second of group down. Then wounds the last whom he pursues on the train and onto the platform where Art is at home, and his fleet feet soon bring him into range of his victim.
After this first burst of violence, Art runs to a public restroom. Echoing Buffalo Bill’s famous dungeon dance in Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme), his arms begin moving as on invisible strings, his dancer’s feet begin a graceful step. He curls into his body then pushes out in a ballet that ends with him standing, arms wide, head high, viewing himself in the mirror, at last, as Joker.
The only white woman in the film is his dreadful Mom, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). She tells him, “I thought you had to be funny be a comedian,” when he discusses his dreams. And persists in calling a grown man “Happy.” When he finally learns that she writes to Thomas Wayne constantly for help for “their son” who is a “sad boy,” he searches deeper. Did Wayne force her to sign fake adoption papers? Is Wayne really his Dad? He finally discovers she had been a patient at Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, a record search reveals that he was neglected by his mother, who let her boyfriend abuse him to the point of brain damage and left him tied to a radiator. He decides she needs to learn about the thin and twisted line between “mother” and “smother.” With a pillow over her face.
And what about Dad/Thomas Wayne (puffed up with rich, male outrage by Brett Cullen)? Wayne appears on TV, reveals that the train bros worked for him, calling them “family.” But the report of a clown shooting down Beavis, Butthead, and Eric on the subway has already captured the minds of the mad as hell citizens of Gotham.
Wayne pours oil on the fire by declaring, as only rich white men can, “What kind of coward would do something that cold blooded? Someone who hides behind a mask. [Like Bruce Wayne/Batman?] Someone who is envious of those more fortunate than themselves, yet they’re too scared to show their own face. And until those kinds of people change for the better, those of us who made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t as nothing but clowns.”
Soon everyone but Arthur is wearing a clown mask, and protesters hold signs like “WE ARE ALL CLOWNS!” “WAYNE IS NOT GOTHAM!” and, my fave, “KILL THE RICH!” Arthur walks through the crowds, beaming. Amazed at what he has caused. He ducks into an exclusive, black tie, screening of Charlie Chaplin dancing on roller skates in Modern Times (1936) because these people are unselfaware and awful.
Disguised as an usher, Art smiles at the screen in joy for a moment. Then, spotting Thomas Wayne, he follows him to the men’s room. Arthur introduces himself to Wayne, addressing him as “Dad.” But Wayne pulls no punches, calling Penny Fleck an “insane woman,” and then punches Art in the face. So much for paternalism.
Now completely alone, but still tuning into Murray Franklin’s (Robert DiNero) late-night show. “Check out this joker,” Murray quips in his monologue. He plays a painful clip of Arthur’s open mic performance. The light seems sucked from Art’s eyes. His dream came true. Murray acknowledged him, but played him for a clown and a joker. More betrayal! Like Smeagol and Gollum. Art is gone, only Joker remains.
Art’s also got some negative attention from a detective duo now. After climbing into his refrigerator doesn’t work out, Art picks up the phone. This time it’s a booker for the Murray Franklin show. So he books for Thursday, and prepares. And the gun will be part of his act.
On the big day, while a mass clown protest is taking place downtown, our boy puts on the flourishing touches. Stabs Randall, who came by to get their “stories straight” about the gun. But Art opens the door for Gary, who can’t reach the latch, to escape. Kissing his head he whispers “You were always nice to me.”
Cue the Gary Glitter! Yeah, he was a pedo, but there’s a reason why every stadium used to play “Rock and Roll Part 2.” After tracking his swaggering catwalk to the elevator, Art turns to camera, green slicked hair, full makeup. Dressed in the dark reds, sickly yellows and teals of his world. And Joker is cool! And kinda sexy. Now out and rocking, he thrusts, jumps, twists, turns and shakes his way down that damn staircase. Until the detectives spot him.
After a mini French Connection chase, with his speed, Art’s reaches the train. Where everyone is dressed like a clown. Finally, his essential anonymity, ability to navigate tight spaces, and years spent on that train become superpowers. He disappears in the crowded car, pulls a classic fight starting fake out. And a cop shoots the man Art set up.
Pure rage spills out of the train. A crowd of clowns pile on the cops, kicking and punching. Joker dances a happy little Vaudeville jig as he passes with a light-hearted wave.
Now, all that remains for Arthur is Murray. Art didn’t conjure the increasingly violent mob outside. They projected what they wanted on him. The man with nothing to lose, this nobody, symbolizes everybody, and the anonymity, freedom. For Art, this is his chance to be seen, and to set the record straight at last. As he told his therapist, “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”
But I promised we’d talk about gender and masculinity. There is a man not in the film but is magically everywhere. Frank Sinatra. Several of his famous, Capitol and Nelson Riddle recordings, and the later Stephen Sondheim hit “Send in the Clowns,” play a big league role in Joker.
Frank Sinatra said he founded his singing style on the tragic black female jazz icon Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday was a torch singer. Perhaps the first to become famous to white audiences. She sang about heart ache, loving someone who doesn’t love you, loneliness, being left by your lover. And so does Frank.
When Sinatra began, he was young and pretty. Big hair, big blue eyes. He was the first Beatle or Presley. I have from first hand that the guys back in the day all called him what? Gay. But as he grew physically, through his film work, learning his developing voice, taking charge of who he worked with, while encouraging the idea that he was mobbed up, Sinatra earned a manhood pass for singing torch songs and playing a tap dancing sailor.
Frank Sinatra: the first of the famous, international playboys of 20th Century Pop. And that includes Pavarotti. But, while both men maintained their compassionate side, in other ways they acted like pigs. Which made it OK for a mobster to cry to “Vesti la Giubba” or “It Was a Very Good Year.”
But, while the film gives Art a case of the not-gays in his delusional relationship with his neighbor, Joker is noticeably more effeminate. He coyly asks Murray to introduce him as “Joker” because that’s how the late-show host introduced his video clip. He twists and grins, batting his white eyelashes.
Thin and lithe, he twirls his way onstage, flicking a cigarette butt, and taking a long time to kiss the Not-Dr. Ruth guest. Settling himself, he stares for a moment before commenting that this was how he always pictured being on Murray’s show.
Going full Blanche DuBois in mannerism and lilt, while maintaining that inscrutable face beneath the makeup, Art works his way round to his point. Joking about a mother losing her son to a car accident. Reprimanding the crowd for deciding what’s right and wrong, funny and not.
He confesses to the subway murders, launching into a manifesto. Claiming that Thomas Wayne’s “crying over” these guys on TV was the only reason anyone cared about them. He insists that if he were dying on the street, people would step over him, though he’s just like them. Like any other person you see everyday in the city. Everybody and nobody.
He shreds the notion that he killed out of any political motive. Announcing, “I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.” Adding, “and they couldn’t carry a tune.”
Turning on Murray, he lashes out, “Have you seen what it’s like out there, Murray? . . . Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. [Facebook?] You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves? They don’t. They think that we’ll just sit there and take it, like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!”
As Murray struggles to regain control, Art plunges forward, insisting Murray is awful because he only invited him on the show “to make fun of me.” Snarling, “You’re just like the rest of them.”
Drawing himself in like a cat, he unloads over Murray’s attempts to shut him down, “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 fucking deserve!”
A gunshot. Murray is slumped back in his seat, bullet through his head. Arthur, still holding the gun, blinks, looks confused, then skips away.
As he rides in the back of a police car, his makeup a mess, Art stares out the window at the looting, fires, and violence with an awed smile.
The car passes a theater where Thomas Wayne, his wife, and son — and future Batman — Bruce hurry from a theater showing Zorro The Gay Blade (1981, Sam Medak). A man in a clown mask corners them, shoots Wayne and his wife, tearing off her pearls, while young Bruce stands in shock, blood splashed on his face.
Headless of what happened to the Wayne family, the cop driving the car shouts to Art, “The whole city’s on fire ’cause of what you did.”
Art smiles, dancing flames reflected in his eyes, “I know. Isn’t it beautiful?” Recognition at last.
But life has one more surprise for Arthur. A hijacked ambulance slams into the cop car. Anonymous clowns gather around the wreck. Seeing Art, they reach down, pull him from the car, and place him on its hood. Bleeding and dazed, Art recovers consciousness. Touching his fingers to the blood, he pauses, then paints himself a wide grin with his own blood. He stands and bows to cheers. Someone did pick him off the street as he was dying after all.
He can now rely upon the kindness of strangers.
Joker sucked the charged out the story of a character that has always represented white, male violence and insanity by making Arthur both everyone and no one. His makeup became a symbol. His anonymity a super power. A nobody becomes a somebody, and gets some kick ass revenge. I can’t imagine a more satisfying story. It worked for Luke Skywalker.
And thanks to the combined insanity, creativity, meticulous craftsmanship, performances, etc of Joker, we get a cautionary tale for our own world. A tale of the failures of run-away capitalism, toxic masculinity, racial and class divides, and the dangers of ignoring the weakest and most desperate among us. Ultimately Joker makes a plea for civility, kindness, understanding, and tolerance.
What did you think? How about the final scenes? How much of the movie, if not all, took place in Arthur Fleck’s damaged mind? And, does it ultimately matter?
Let’s celebrate the end of my tenure in clown town. Come on, grab a Rock ‘n Rye, and sing like it’s 2 am, and you’re the last guy on the karaoke machine at the Triangle Tavern on 9th and Passyunk.
The 14th Earl of Gurney — Peter O’ Toole in Sam Medak’s savage 1974, The Ruling Class — declares “Behaviour which would be considered insanity in a tradesman is looked upon as mild eccentricity in a lord.” If you’re rich, you’re eccentric. If you’re poor, you’re crazy.
And as Joker (2019, dir. Todd Phillips) waltzes its way to the Oscars with three new BAFTAs, the film is getting a second, and deeper, look from everyone from psychoanalysts, to disability rights groups, critics, fans and movie goers. I can’t imagine a better time for it. Because, for better or worse, Joker has captured the imagination and feeling of this moment, the uncertainty, the fear, resentment, and anger all around.
So, Batman doesn’t have super powers. Or so I’ve been told. Batman/Bruce Wayne has the most super power that exists. He’s rich. Not simply rich, he was born ridiculously wealthy. Living off the fortune amassed by his father, the vaunted Thomas Wayne, respected citizen and weapons developer. He simply has an “eccentric” way of using his wealth. And while Joker dances around its comic book origins, the film definitely wants you to think about this. Going so far as to have Thomas Wayne declare on TV that anyone who reacts to the evil in their world similarly is “a coward in a mask.” Or clown makeup.
So, what’s Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) super power? Or, more bluntly, is the only difference between Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck that one was born to be rich and privileged, while the other was not? One is “eccentric?” And the other is “crazy?” One nobody. One somebody. Somebody who has somehow earned some leeway? And a nobody expected to just shut up and tow the line?
Art doesn’t know much about himself. When his therapist asks him if he’s thought more about why he was hospitalized, we see a quick cut to him banging his head against a window in a white padded room. He answers, “Who knows?”
Arthur pursues the truth of his life and who he is because he hopes to be set free, but the truth has consequences. Oedipus was blinded by the truth. Arthur turns on the truth in rage. Oedipus was a king, like Bruce Wayne is the privileged son of a wealthy father. Arthur is a nobody who, he learns to the say as Joker, “If you saw me dying on the streets you’d walk right over me!” Arthur doesn’t know he has a to right to feel upset, or angry, or fooled, fall in love, be loved, even have one positive thought about himself or his life ever. He is the ultimate expression of what it means to be abused. And the different standards applied to different sets of human beings.
So let’s talk about double-standards. Let’s talk about pity, compliance, mental illness, and folks living on the edge of humanity. One of the “sins” those who live with mental illness stand accused of is “self-pity.” The same for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the left behind. Everyone and their mother can go on Facebook or Yelp! or Google and get a waitress fired over putting ice in their drink, and never have to face the woman who lost her job. But try fighting unfair, illegal, or abusive treatment at a mental health clinic, by the Department of Human Services, the police, the “justice” system, your school, your work, your family. You might get some tear drop emojis if you’re lucky. But hell no. No one wants to hear or think about that! Put them off the lunch they just posted a picture of.
“If you quit feeling sorry for yourself, and [get a job, work harder, get two jobs, and some boots with straps] then maybe [your concerns will be legitimate].” This society loves its bootstraps. Off course, the original phrase — “to pull yourself over a fence by pulling up on your bootstraps,” — meant something absurd or ridiculous. If you pulled up on your own hair, would you raise yourself off the ground? No. And you need boots (with straps) to pull on in the first place.
Which leads me to “compliance.” Compliance deals with the insistence in mental health treatment, the justice system, and folks who require any sort of assistance, to trust fully in their “betters” and jump through all of their hoops without complaint, simply to keep basic necessities. What if they want you to go “volunteer” to community service 3 times a week? Well, what if you don’t have a car, or bus service, or can’t afford an Uber? Too bad. Guess you’re walking five miles to the bus station. I don’t have bus fare. Well you don’t get your 194$ a month to buy food with. Do you think you’re crazy? Well, then you’re sane enough to fly a plane.
A therapist once told me, “Depression is anger turned at yourself.” When we meet Arthur, he’s so compliant. He has a job. He takes care of his Mom and humors her Thomas Wayne fixation. He makes his appointments. He takes his meds. He walks like “a compliant individual.” Do you know what that looks like? It looks like a person hand-cuffed to the front. Their shoulders pulled forward with no ability to stand erect like a human being. The only sense we have of what Art’s been shoving down all his life is that tortured laugh that erupts from him without his control. And the occasional lights in his eyes, like if a shark had a glint in those black, “doll’s eyes.”
The system lets Art down. In his second visit to his therapist. He finally vents about how bad his life and world truly are. She tells him that social services for his program have been cut. Getting real, she confesses, “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they really don’t give a shit about people like me either.” She’s out a job, he’s out a therapist and his meds, and everyone is shit out of luck. Except the Thomas Waynes, of course.
The two social supports Art is left with are his job, and his Mom, but he does have one thing he didn’t have before.
The gun his co-worker Randall told him he “could owe [him]” for. And like the Wizard of Oz’s “gifts,” the gun allows him to access the angry part of his personality that he always had with him. A sensitive, lonely, vulnerable man, unable to articulate his feelings, now finally has the one thing that our society values. The ability to be an aggressive male. Because real men don’t get sad, or feel lonely, or unloved and unloveable. Real men only express one emotion: anger. And Art is a volcano of anger.
Another repressed emotion now pops into Art’s life, now that he’s packing his new manhood. Art lurches up those weary stairs to his apartment, and is getting on the elevator. A female voice calls to him, “Hold the door. Please!” As the door closes, all we see is one, gracefully extended, shiny, black male dance shoe under short trousers a la Gene Kelly. Wait. Did Art just do something mildly attractive? Oh god, look at his face, no.
Art’s intro to his sexy but so over it, single-mom neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz — who deserves way more recognition for this role), consists solely of her commenting on how “awful” the building is, as her daughter repeats “awful!” tugging at her mom’s coat. Rolling her eyes at Arthur, Sophie puts her fingers to her head, like a gun, and pulls the trigger. Exhaling “pshew.” Arthur tries to look down at his hands, folded in front of him, “compliant,” covering himself like Adam. But before they part, he summons the courage to turn and say “Hey!” He mimes shooting himself in the head. She twitches a smile.
Art is now alone, fidgeting with his gun. His fires his first shot, while pretending to dance with a woman, declaring himself, “a better dancer than him.” He aims at a horrendously racist Fred Astaire movie playing on the TV. The gun goes off, the bullet tears the wallpaper, and Arthur is brought back to real life, as his Mom shouts from her bedroom to keep it down. “Sorry, Mom!” He hollers in a panic.
But where before Arthur was a passive participant in his life, he has taken his first real steps towards self-discovery, and all that means. Now he’s actively taking notes at a comedy club. And while he makes observations like “slick hair???” “eye contact,” and “sexy jokes alwaze funny.” When the comedian makes a joke about not being hired for being a Jew, Arthur looks around at the room before he fakes a laugh. Some part in him knows that Fred Astaire’s white-washing of black culture is awful. That being poor is awful. That not being able to get a job because you’re Jewish is awful. He’s finally realized that all those feelings he stuffed down were correct. Awful.
Arthur looks over his notes at home. “Make funny observations.” He begins a sentence, writing, “The worst part of having a mental illness is,” dropping his pen from his right hand. Picking up a cigarette, he inhales in thought. And, as if pulled like a puppet on strings, his left had drifts to the pen. He takes up the pen with a flourish, and in childish, left-handed writing, scrawls, “people expect you to behave as if you D🙂N’T.”
And Joker is born. A man losing what little he had. Replaced by a persona made of his greatest hopes and fears. A man who has finally found a means of getting attention. And a symbol that others can follow. A man whose life suddenly means something. For better or worse? I don’t know. How many innocent people do you think were killed in Avengers? Or the new Superman films? What about all of those Storm Troopers Finn guns down? Isn’t he a former Storm Trooper? Didn’t he just meet a group of fellow, former Storm Troopers? But violence against nobodies doesn’t count.
What you need to do is shoot three rapey-dudes who tried to beat you up, but also worked for Thomas Wayne. It’s like he shot some other finance bros with high foreheads and slicked back hair. And suddenly, the town is on fire, and soon enough, literally. Everyone knows those guys are awful. And they don’t really care that they were subjected to the sort of thing they face every damn day. As a matter of fact, good. Why can’t bad things happen to bad people once in a while?
That is the main violence committed by Joker in the film. The question on everyone’s mind isn’t if the murders were justified. But how it is interpreted by the media. The important, and the unimportant folks reaction in the city. What does this killing touch off that turns a city against itself in a French/Russian Revolutionary frenzy? And what about Bruce Wayne? Where is he? How does he receive his “super power?” Why’s his daddy complex better than another’s?
Tune in next time to find out! Seriously, I just have too much to say on this film. So, since the film comes in such a neat and trim, perfect 2 hour, 3 Act format, we can all re-watch and learn more together. I’ve brought us to the beginning of the end. We’re well into “the point of no return” for Arthur Fleck and for this wonderful flick, Joker. We’ll wrap it up after the Oscars. And see what the Academy thought.
In the meantime, let’s remember what Sinatra sang on the subject:
That’s life, and as funny as it may seem Some people get their kicks Stompin’ on a dream But I don’t let it, let it get me down ‘Cause this fine old world it keeps spinnin’ around.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate A poet, a pawn and a king I’ve been up and down and over and out And I know one thing Each time I find myself flat on my face I pick myself up and get back in the race!
That’s life, I tell ya, I can’t deny it I thought of quitting, baby But my heart just ain’t gonna buy it And if I didn’t think it was worth one single try I’d jump right on a big bird and then I’d fly!
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) will tell you. “What you fucking deserve!” Joker, 2019, dir. Todd Phillips, is the Joker we deserve.
Which is why this film disturbs and terrifies. There is no combustion in a vacuum. If Howard Beale (Peter Finch, Network, 1976, dir. Sydney Lumet) had yelled “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” into the camera, and his viewers at home weren’t already fed up, no one would have run to their window. No one would have joined in the chorus of their neighbors screaming the slogan. And Howard Beale would have simply lost his job.
And Joker would not have earned over a billion at the box office, been nominated for eleven Academy Awards, nor feared by Tipper Gore moms and theater chains if it didn’t have one fat, clown shoe firmly planted in our world. Our world where mass shootings crowd the news, the gap between the rich and those barely holding on increases, the holes in our social safety net widen, the rampant untreated mental illness of our war veterans, crushing poverty, Incells, opiates, and a rate of “deaths of despair” by over-dose or suicide that has lowered our national life expectancy. This nation spiraling towards chaos. This horrifying world on fire.
This tale of a lonely, damaged man soaks in the visual cues and themes of pre-Star Wars American classics from the 70s. When Time Square was a seedy string of peep shows and pawn shops. The ignominious Nixon presidency and ineffectual Carter administration. The end of the Vietnam war with its alienated veterans. Drugs like cocaine and heroin replaced weed and acid, as the Boomer generation’s Flower Power wave broke, and receded back into the primordial ooze.
Boldly shunning slick CGI destruction, clear good versus evil, and countless bloodless deaths of no consequence, Joker is murky, full of questions and consequences. Beginning with exactly one logo: the Warner Bros. logo from 1981, the movie trips up your first expected step into its world. From there we are thrown onto the graffitied and trash filled streets of Gotham (New York) City in 1981. And into the tortured life of Arthur Fleck. But, make no mistake, this is not Taxi Driver except he’s a clown. The references to that film, Network, The French Connection, etc. root us in a known world, while standing alone as a story firmly rooted in our own time. Even the name, Arthur Fleck, seems like a twisted pun on Art Flick.
I was drawn to see the film, and write about it for its gorgeous use of visual story-telling, music, color, and fabulous actors because I am a film student. But also because the film deals with mental illness, loneliness, poverty, abuse, and a society so broken we’re thinking about electing an 80 year old man who promises us everything for nothing. And that is the world I live in.
We first meet Arthur at the rent-a-clown agency where he works. We learn that he lives with the invalid mother (Frances Conroy) he supports. That he tells people he aspires to be a comedian, like I tell people I’m a writer. He visits a therapist at Arkham State Asylum like the horrible places that pass for mental health clinics in my life, takes seven different pills (I take four to five, but one three times a day), and carries a card to show strangers when his brain trauma causes him to break into torturous, uncontrollable laughter no matter what emotion he may be feeling. He has elaborate fantasies/delusions (I’m working on this!), but more than anything, Arthur hopes his life is more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Mac 5. 5. 24-27)
Or, as he writes in the “joke diary” he coyly produces for his therapist to read, “I just hope my death makes more sccents than my life.” He wants someone to truly see him, and love him for who he truly is. But he may be the loneliest, most over-looked man in the world. The saddest clown ever.
Physically, Arthur is emaciated. His skin looks translucent stretched over his rib cage and bones. His straggly, greasy hair, reaches his shoulders, sometimes looking mousy light brown, others appearing black. His gaunt face is angular, with a long nose, and large, deep set eyes that shift from blue to black that mirror a light within that varies from sparkling, to confused, from enraged betrayal, to murderous fire.
On a personal level, Fleck, painfully shy, awkward, and effeminate (from our Macho Man society’s point of view) likes to dance, visits comedy clubs to take notes, and seems to genuinely enjoy being a clown. His mom calls him “Happy,” and says he was put on earth to make people smile. But we see glimpses of another side of his personality. He slashes at his Mom’s dinner to cut it for her, while patiently engaging in her incessant ramblings and letter writing to Thomas Wayne, the richest man in Gotham. He twinges with resentment when she explains that Wayne, whom she worked for thirty years ago, would be “sickened” if he saw how they were living. He fixates on and stalks his cute, single mom neighbor down the hall (Zazie Beets). And imagines that Murray Franklin (Robert DiNero), his favorite late-night host, picks him out of a crowded audience, and admits that he’d give up his fame and show-biz to have “a son like you.” And there is his ever-present laugh, which he vomits out like there is a wild beast trapped within that slight figure, and it wants out.
In fact, Arthur’s entire life seems to be lived in locked in confined spaces. The camera barely nudges down long rows of lockers at his job, in cramped rooms full of folder files or dusty tchotchkes. The streets he walks are narrowed by ever-growing heaps of trash bags from the city’s garbage crisis. The commuter trains are packed with unhappy humanity. Walls are covered in graffiti. And the long staircase he trudges up nightly on his way home seems longer and steeper each time we see him do it.
When we are close to Arthur, we see him through dirty glass, metal bars, and mesh grates. Or he is shown in close-up, his face taking up only half the screen, as his pained features react to the disembodied voices of characters off-screen. He seems to melt into the sickly green of institutional fluorescents, yellow tinged sunlight through grimy windows, or covered in deep blues and maroon, brick-reds, untidy whites. The colors of his world.
Through this constraining and muddled lens, we watch Arthur’s daily routine. Painting his face, stuffing his hands in his mouth and twisting his face into grotesque grins, crying through his clown makeup while he listens to the bad news on the radio. And all the while that laugh like the howls of a wounded animal. I know that howl. It’s the primal noise you make when you are utterly alone.
Arthur gets beat up a lot. In an early scene, he’s in his clown costume, trying to be seen between the press of people and ever-piling garbage spinning a sign that reads, “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” A group of punks steal his sign, and we learn Arthur can run. Finally following the kids into an alley made narrower by the ever-present black trash bags. He’s jumped. He drops immediately to the ground and assumes the fetal position. No crying out or fighting back as he’s repeatedly kicked, while people pass perpendicularly in the back ground. Just stay still, and wait for it to stop. I recognized this move. This is how I learned to react to abuse. Arthur is a pro.
The colors of his bruises remain with him through the rest of the film slowly turning from blue, to purple, to greenish-yellow. And then a co-worker uses the excuse of Arthur’s beating to push a .38 special and bullets in a brown paper bag on him. He says it’s a “favor,” and Arthur can owe him one. Arthur squeals with nervous laughter at the sight of the thing. And yet, this a turning point for him. One that will both give him the confidence to try to achieve his dreams, yet set him inexorably on the road to the collision of his fantasy world and his reality, and his ultimate transformation.
There is a lot we don’t know about Arthur. We learn that Arthur doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about himself. In fact, we don’t even know if he is The Joker. But this film disturbs because, whatever we have faced in life, most of us can relate to the struggles, loneliness, and fears of Arthur Fleck. That is a rough lens to view anyone through, mainly yourself. And while most of us manage somehow, there are many Arthurs out there, slipping through the cracks. Grasping desperately for something real to hold onto. Hoping against hope that somewhere there is someone who cares.
There is simply too much I want to say about this film for one blog. I hope you’ll stick with me until next time, as we follow Arthur’s journey to Joker.
In the mean time, remember Charlie Chaplin’s injunction:
🎶Smile, though your heart is aching Smile, even though it’s breaking When there are clouds in the sky you’ll get by If you smile through your fear and sorrow Smile and maybe tomorrow You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness Hide every trace of sadness Although a tear may be ever so near That’s the time you must keep on trying Smile what’s the use of crying You’ll find that life is still worthwhile If you’ll just Smile🎶