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 declaring “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 freedom of anonymity. 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 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, his 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.
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