For all my beautiful friends, known and unknown to me:
Writing at the darkest time of year, when we string lights and let candles flicker as we await the rebirth of the Sun, I want you to remember that it truly is a wonderful, glorious, miraculous life.
And while other holiday films may delight us with nostalgia, or portraits of crazy families still managing to enjoy their particular life, I love It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1947).
A dark film, for a dark season, that eventually turns its face again to the light. It’s a Wonderful Life presents us with a portrait of a family man who sees his life as a failure, is deeply in debt, and attempts suicide on Christmas Eve. But it’s not that George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) actually wants to die. He specifically wishes to have never been born. And his wish is granted.
Having never been born, George Bailey is free to see how life would have proceeded without him. The thousands of little links in the chain of his existence are broken. He was not alive to save his brother’s life, to keep a grieving pharmacist from accidentally poisoning someone, to marry his wife, to fix his dream home as well as build the dream homes of the people of his hometown of Bedford Falls.
Beyond seeing how connected and important his life was to so many, he also realizes that he has no memories, no experience of life, no friends, no family, no connections, no love. And this is when he chooses to live again.
I want you to think about what George Bailey knows when he makes his decision to return to his life. Nothing has changed. There are Zuzu’s petals in his pocket, he is still broken by debt, and yet he chose to have back his experiences, his connections, his friends, family and love.
And though the town pulls together to help erase his debt that night, George did not know that would happen when he chose life. He wanted to kiss his wife and children, run through the streets shouting “Merry Christmas” to all, even old man Potter.
None of us know our future. Whether trouble, pain, or loss will hit us on any particular day, but we go on anyway because the alternative is nothingness.
Imagine never experiencing life. Not simply seeing the stars, or falling in love, or sunsets after a fine day, but never knowing loss, the pain of unrequited love. Life is all of these things, the painful, the glorious, the unjust, the small triumphs, the love and loss. And living with the constant uncertainty of it all.
And yet we choose this everyday. In a dark, cold, and lonely Universe, somehow you were born. A naked ape made from the elements of the Earth, kin to all you see in a very real way. The only difference is that, having life, you get to reflect on the immense miracle of it all. And it is never too late to choose to live in love and awe.
This season, count your riches in the amount of love you give, the joy you bring, and be open to this glorious, uncertain, and wonderful life. May peace and love fill all of your days, and may you safely rest in the arms of love, no matter what this life brings.
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🎶
I finally realized who Kylo Ren reminded me of: Omar Sharif as Sharif Ali Ibn el Kharish in Lawrence of Arabia. Then I noticed some other similarities as well…and not just sand, but that too. There’s an unique dynamic between Ali and Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) that seems echoed between Kylo Ren and Rey in The Force Awakens. And, yes, I’d say part of that echo involves romance.
The roles of dark and light are reversed in Lawrence. Yes, O’Toole as Lawrence is the fair, naive and unwilling hero who is initiated into a new world by Sharif Ali. However, Ali, in that fantastic black robe and headdress that had to be inspiration for Kylo’s dress and mask , remains the moral center and light in Lawrence’s increasingly darkened and conflicted mind. While Lawrence descends into a nightmare of blood and egoism, Ali sends him back to the “light.” He screams at him to “go back to England. English blasphemer!” He literally just sends him back to the white folks, who are the bad guys. The imperialist users and abusers of the Arabs. Because ultimately that’s what Lawrence is.
In Force Awakens, we may not get that nifty switch-up. But Ren’s character does initiate Rey’s character — forcibly — to a new world as well. He basically dumps her into the deep end of the pool of The Force. And she just has to learn to swim or die.
The characters’ backgrounds and attitudes echo each other as well. Lawrence and Rey are bastards and orphans. Ali and Ren are princes of important families they esteem (at least to Granddads). Their beliefs inform their lives, so you get the cries of “Blasphemer!” and “Traitor!” Different words for ideological apostates. And while Lawrence’s claim that “nothing is written” turns out to be a lie. Rey, the “nobody’s,” lack of initiation in the crazy world of Light and Dark allows her to intuit her way to the right path.
Yeah, OK, now romance. Now, there are no women in Lawrence of Arabia, just a few wide shots of shrouded figures. But there is romance between Ali and Lawrence, as there is between Ren and Rey. And while I adore the gender flip of Rey the Conquering Hero, I kinda have to give the prize to Lawrence of Arabia again because the romance and gender roles are played out by males at a time when this subtext had to be extremely subtle. Ultimately, Ali and Lawrence cannot inhabit the same world. And The Force Awakens leaves Ren and Rey with a giant chasm opening between them, but obviously that relationship isn’t over. But, their dynamic can’t play out like Vader and Luke’s (Father and Son). It’s going to play out through male and female through the darkened lens of the violence used against Rey and then turned back onto Kylo. Because that’s how Star Wars works.
Hey, who knows? Perhaps we’ll get the Dark and Light reversal like Ali and Lawrence in Ren and Rey. We shall see. I’m just super tickled to find new ways of seeing Lawrence of Arabia — one of my favorite films of all time — and The Force Awakens — quickly becoming a new favorite through the lenses of one another.
I have to give credit for the many wonderful cinematic references in The Force Awakens, not simply within the Star Wars saga, but to the rest of the cinematic galaxy. As M. Grand’s imaginary publisher proclaimed after reading his grand ouvre “Gentlemen, hats off!”
“Could you leave everything behind and start life all over again? Choose one thing and be faithful to it? Make it the reason for your existence?” The character of Guido Anselmi asks of Claudia Cardinale. The glowingly young and beautiful Claudia answers by asking him if he could. He has no answer.
8 1/2 AKA Otto e Mezzo, dir. Federico Fellini, 1963 is a film about a filmmaker without a film and without answers. Guido spends most of the film at a spa under the pretense of working on a new film, as he attempts to make sense of his life, while besieged by the questions and demands his producer, crew, actresses, critics, his mistress and his wife. Haunted by memories and dreams of his childhood, blending his fantasy and escapism with reality, Guido must confront the fact that he has, in fact, no answers at all, while discovering that he still has something to give.
I recently watched the wonderful Criterion Collection Blu-ray of this old, personal favorite. Certainly I had never seen such a beautiful copy in my life, which was a revelation in itself. But more importantly, somehow, this man’s tale resonated with me more now than it ever has.
8 1/2 is a film that anticipates every criticism you may have of it. Through Guido’s own expressions of self-doubt, the words of the ensemble cast, but most especially through the character of The Critic that Guido has hired to help him with his new film — 8 1/2 knows it is a selfish film, a sentimental, romanticized version of a man’s life. The film, and Guido himself, are well aware that Guido objectifies human beings — especially women — that he expects to be able to hide behind fantastic imagery, a beautiful soundtrack (by Nino Rota, also of The Godfather), and a cool suit and pair of shades. Guido lies, cheats and literally dances his way through the throngs of his troubles and the very real human beings that his selfishness and self-doubt affects. But in the end, as Guido comes to face the truth of his situation and own up to his lies and deceits (his affairs, his lack of a film, his inner-doubts and demons) we as the viewer find pity for him and our own imperfect selves.
The film is full of images of cleanliness, new beginnings and escape, personified by Guido’s fantasies of the young Claudia. While set at a spa (from Latin sanum per aqua – health through water) Guido pursues his dreams of escaping the messy reality of his life. Meanwhile, his crew and producer fret over the cost of the gigantic space-ship they are constructing for the non-existent film, in which Guido imagines the human race will escape a post-atomic Earth in search of a new Eden.
When Guido’s producer forces him to attend a press-conference to announce the film before the hulking and unfinished rocket-ship, he must confront the truth. His panic causes him to seek refuge under a table and fantasize, or not, that he’s put a bullet through his head. But as he gets in his car afterwards, it is clear that he has come clean last. The film is cancelled. And finally — having accepted his role in the human drama and as director again — the entire film’s cast gathers as he directs them in a dance, holding hands, in a circle.
He confesses to his lovely, yet embittered wife (Anouk Amiee), “Luisa, I feel I’ve been freed…Everything is confused again, as it was before. But this confusion is me.” And he is able to join with her and the rest in the dance again. There may be no answers, but he’s begun again in honesty.
“If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.” -Werner Herzog
I use the phrase “Conqueror of the Useless” in my bios and descriptions. If you’ve never heard of Werner Herzog, I’m terribly sorry. But please, do yourself a favor and listen to the German filmmaker’s musings on the harmony of nature’s “overwhelming and collective murder.” Then we’ll have a starting point.
Herzog referred to himself, and the protagonist of his film Fitzcarraldo, as a “conquistador of the useless” in the documentary film Burden of Dreams (1982, Les Blank) that records the excruciating making-off process of the film. If you have ever wanted to watch a filmmaker dragging a steamship over mountains in the Amazon to make a film about a ne’er do well Irishman and opera-lover (played with manic genius by Klaus Kinksi) who must drag a steamship over a mountain to harvest the rubber he intends to use to finance an opera house in the jungle, here’s your shot.
Over the course of the shooting of the film, Herzog dealt with some unfriendly indigenous people, and some who offered to murder his infamously insane star Kinski for him. He was forced to recast the film after both DiNero and Mick Jagger had to abandon the project due to delays in production and funding difficulties. And, of course, Herzog faced the very real challenge of actually dragging the steamship over a mountain in the Amazon in a fashion that he could film to look as though it were being done with native labor in the 19th century.
Both the movie and the documentary explore the muddy, dirty, up-hill battle facing the brave human soul who searches for beauty and art in a jungle of murderous intention towards human aspiration. That is “conquering the useless.” Beauty and art may not feed the belly or pay the bills, but I wouldn’t call this living without those things.
At the very least, he had Claudia Cardinale co-starring. That’s beauty I’m certain lightened his load. And both films do end happily. Herzog pulled off an “unfilmable” film, and well, I’ll let you see how Fitzcarraldo fares for yourself. But you’ll smile.
What mud will you crawl through to find one thing of beauty to hold to in your life? What burdens do your dreams bring? How do you face the daily, up-hill slog? Good luck. It’s a jungle out there, and it wants you dead. Vae victus!
Instead of only binge-watching TV series this winter, I have been watching a ton of movies. Which is great. That’s one of the things winter is for right? I got a whole new living room simply in preparation for this winter. I wanted to get snowed in and watch some movies. Score!
Actually, I wondered when BF and I went shopping for TVs if his choice weren’t a bit in the gauche, over-sized way. I’m glad I decided to trust him on that. If you love movies, get a big frickin TV! Duh me.
Anyhow, every time I get a bigger TV, I have to rewatch everything ever again. Well the big ones: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, Star Wars, Citizen Kane, you get the, uh, picture. And WOW! It’s like seeing the film again for the first time, but better.
You can see all of these wonderful things going on that you maybe never noticed or forgot. I spent a lot of The Shining finding continuity errors in Shelley Duvall’s cigarette, while simultaneously registering the full shock of that vision of horror unfold in all its steadi-cam glory. Watching Kane, I really felt how large and looming a presence the character of Charles Kane truly is. Orson Welles is always shot from below. Or in giant extreme close-ups of his face. The end when he’s looming over Joseph Cotton felt so intimidating in the newspaper room. Xanadu felt vast and empty. And I could just cry over being able to really appreciate the depth of field thing…
Movies are just meant to be on a big screen. That sounds like a tautology, but when I was a kid I was watching pan and scan VHS copies of Star Wars! So this is a big deal. Yes, I did have the opportunity of seeing several re-releases and smaller venue showings of some amazing movies, and of course I remember the agony of the wait between Lord of the Rings movies. But, for most of my life, I’ve experienced some of the best films ever all wrong. Finally I can appreciate the films they were meant to be.
The sound helped too. I finally got to feel that shock-wave of Sauron’s destruction in the prologue of Fellowship of the Ring again. Yeeesss. I was giggling at how cool the Star Wars sound effects truly are. And 2001 has awesome sound design! I never knew this! Blew my mind to hear it properly . . . for the first time! It’s sad that I didn’t know this. But now I got to experience it. I’m just grateful. It’s like touching god for a film geek.
Personally, I think TV ruined film for a long time. Visually and technically marvelous films gave way to smaller, less imaginative films due to the technological limitations of home entertainment. But now that just about anyone can appreciate the true intention of films with stunning audio/visual at home, that has effected new movies. Since Interstellar, The Martian, Inside Out, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mad Max: Fury Road can be appreciated just as well, if not in some manner better, on a TV screen, I’d imagine that has an effect on what movies are getting made. Can’t hurt Star Wars. Heck, they could just re-release the Original Trilogy WITHOUT the later “special” effects added over the years. I’d buy that along with just about everyone.
But it’s not only spectacle films that benefit, necessarily. Although, that’s definitely happening. Movies with careful cinematography and craft will benefit as well. I’d rather see Woody Allen’s Manhattan in all that glorious black and white on a large screen. Not to mention that score! Birdman, Ex Machina give me this vibe.
Hey, movies are what they are because of the format in which they’re meant to be viewed: BIG and LOUD. That’s why MGM made so much money off of Gone with the Wind. It’s huge and colorful with swelling music and dramatic dialogue delivery. There’s a ton to look at and take it. It’s gorgeous and thrilling, big and loud. You know if you don’t dig that sort of thing, you probably don’t like movies.
Heading into February, I still have a long list of films to watch and re-watch. I gotta through my guys Fellini and Kurosawa. I’m actually really looking forward to one of my personal (and I’m not sure why!) films, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Ok, I love it because it’s perfect. Everything is perfect. The casting, the tone, the cadence, the production design, the music… the lighting. And I like what it has to say. It also makes me really root for the French Revolution to hurry up and happen.
Anyhow, what have you guys been watching or planning to watch? Now’s the time!
Posting a rough draft was helpful. Not only did I appreciate the feedback, I also see more of what I need to change/expand upon. We’ll do that again someday. But it is not this day! No, today is a day to be lectured by Russians that I am “pussy” for mild anxiety regarding blizzards. Today is a day to only shave one of one’s legs in the shower. Today is a day to still be wearing the same fleecy leggings I’ve had on for more than a couple of days. A day for losing one’s vape saber repeatedly. For apologizing to my dog for jipping her on her walk. (Are we allowed to say “jipp”? Screw it, I typed “pussy” already.)
Yes indeed folks. But you know, I like snow storms once in a while. Like a nice rainy day. Do some major faffing about. Although it’d be better if Force Awakens were on Blu-ray. (*Talk to Russian friend about that.) I’ve done everything I can to replace the deep hole within me without Force Awakens on tap. The Extended Editions of LOTR AND The Hobbit movies (commentary tracks and special features), Wes Anderson, Kubrick, TNG, new Sherlock, starting re-watching the first part of this season’s Walking Dead, Lawrence of Arabia, started a Civ, colored, started Moby Dick again . . . Yeah, I’m dying over here!
Well, I can still think about Star Wars all the time, mostly. I’ve realized that the magic of movies has tricked me into empathizing with a character that is already a school-shooter in a galaxy that rewards school-shooters with positions of great power by the time we first meet him in Force Awakens. Kylo Ren is the Trenchcoat Mafia love child of a three-way between Dexter, Buffalo Bill and Napoleon Dynamite. Damn it! I still really like that character. But I also was still on Walter White’s side until the very end. And Buffalo Bill is cool, of course. He’s just misunderstood.
I don’t feel bad that I’ve spent all my movie-going allowance (and some gift cards from the day we don’t mention) on seeing Star Wars, when there are a lot of fantastic movies out right now. It’s honestly Tarantino’s fault for scheduling the release of The Hateful Eight on the same weekend as a new Star Wars film. And maybe I’ll wait until spring to watch The Revenant. And again, that’s just on them. There are other movies with Tom Hardy that I can watch right now if I need to (may need to). Obviously I’m just going to keep seeing Star Wars into the cheap theater until it comes out on Blu-ray.
Frankly, I don’t give a damn whether I’m obsessing. That movie made me happy. And (until five seconds ago) Episode VIII comes out on my birthday, so this is apparently all about me anyway. You know what else made me happy? The Beatles on Spotify. I didn’t listen to any music from the day we don’t mention last year! Not when I can do Abbey Road on my surround sound. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…and a hair-tossing “woooooh!” Anyway, I don’t think of it as “obsessing”. I think of it as “focus”. I’m extremely focused.
Yeah so anyway, what are you all planning to do during the storm? I think I’m going to play Civ V for three days. I have a lot of those little soups that come in boxes. I’ll just drink them from a straw. Oh yeah, and should I just stop putting quotes around my Morrissey references? I don’t attribute Star Wars quotes. But then people don’t know Morrissey as well as some focused folks. I think I’ll just leave them alone and either A) people will get it or B) people will think I have a wickedly morbid wit. I’ll take that.
May the Force shovel you sidewalk.
I don’t like the digital skips between tracks on Abbey Road though. It’s the same with Dark Side. It’s a tease when radio stations play just one track off Dark Side. You just want to hear the next song on Dark Side then. It doesn’t matter what they play next. It sucks.