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Joker, part 3: Making an Angry White Male Everyone Can Love

For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught To say the things he truly feels And not the words of one who kneels The record shows I took the blows And did it my way
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows
I took the blows
And did it my way.
-Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra

Joker, Part 1

Joker, Part 2

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.

Yes. This was my way.

-JL ✌🏻💚🤡

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For Hate’s Sake I Spit at Thee: Moby Dick

The name Moby Dick is a byword itself. So why am I offering up my experience after reading it five times in a row since winter? It has been rough. A rough time. And I’ve been breaking my mind to come up with a response. But I have none. Except that I feel as though if I don’t find a way to express this growing surge in my chest, well there will be some trouble, is all.

This will be the fourth blog post I’ve written or rewritten since I last posted. I haven’t been able to publish one.

So, I am just going to write through this writer’s block by writing about my recent experiences with Moby Dick.  It reminds me of when I read Homer and think: ooooo! This thing everyone has thought was so awesome that it has lasted 3,000 years is really great! Bravo me? I just caught up to basically literate in 800 B effn C and E. There really need be no award for that. You’re simply punished if you don’t. I dunno. Maybe it’s some kink of Greek thing.

First off, there’s Ishmael. Now this guy is easy to like. For one thing, he is a depressed school teacher, who refers to whaling as “his shot and ball.” So basically, “I don’t want to shoot myself, so I’ll go do this crazy thing that’s sure to kill me!” But then his gentlemanly acceptance of Queequeg as his sleeping companion, stating that it’s better to sleep “with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” makes him seem amiable, worldly and thoughtful. And so he proves.

Then, Ahab. He is great and terrible. This wounded genius and twisted greatness. He uses his skill at leading men to convince a cross-section of the races and religions of the world to madly rush towards death for him. And gentle Starbuck. With neither just enough courage to kill Ahab nor just enough capacity to convince him to stop through love. And, yes, I love Stubb. Who doesn’t love the guy who sees the world coming to an end, and his first thought is to strip buck naked? Ishmael says Stubb would face death as just another order from above his rank to be followed. So, Stubb just follows orders.

Ah. And the way Ishmael explains everything! It’s beautiful. Trying to show off. But I love his meditations from the look outs. I love to follow his mind out ranging over the azure below to where it meets the azure above. It reminds me of being lulled to sleep by the song Breathe before every clock in the world wakes you up for Time. On Dark Side? You get relaxed into a lack of care, before suddenly reality rushes back on you.

Oh, and duh, Jess. But there really are two Ishmaels. One is the younger man in the story, and the narrator says this happened “nevermind how many” years ago. So, finally I realized, Oh! so this is why I can hear Ahab speaking to Starbuck in his quarters.

My other big bangs from my recent reading of Moby Dick are more pop culture. Well, for one, Gregory Peck is Ahab. He just is. I know that’s not a faithful rendition, but it’s John Ford? Houston? I don’t know. Ahab is Ahab is Gregory Peck. In the big stove pipe hat.

And my second pop big bang is Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. I realized that there is a coffin at the end of each. In Moby Dick, it’s QueeQueg’s coffin refitted as the life buoy that saves Ishmael. And in Khan it’s a photon torpedo outfitted as a coffin for Spock shot at the Genesis Planet where life renewed. Apart from Khan quoting Moby Dick the entire film, and having a copy in his bunker.

Oh yeah, and Jaws! Jaws is Moby Dick if Starbuck had lived or won. And the three day chase, the three whale boats, the three barrels. And both are a sequel for one character, so this time it’s personal. I love that movie. It has traumatized me for life though.

Not only am I glad that Ishmael gives us as much whaling information as we need to follow the action, but his  anatomical descriptions, particularly o fthe head. Because the head of this animal is like a monolith. Like THE Monolith from 2001. Unseeing, unfeeling, unstoppable, unknowable, with a jaw full of teeth attached to this monolithic front. It’s terrifying. And it’s white. The whiteness of the whale made a chapter name, why do you think the whale’s head is white?

Ha. I guess sometimes it’s just relaxing and easy to talk about a book because I could go on and on. What have you all been reading?

Comment and Like below! Trim topsails! Up anchor! Ten degrees to leeward laddies! Did I mention this book is both extensively brutal, with homosexual themes?

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Big and Loud

GoneWithTheWind-580x250

Just how I like ’em!

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!

 


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