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!
– JL 👉🏼🤡
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