Phoenix’s body is mostly skin and bones, which is ironic since the film attempts to flesh out the Joker. In fact, this Joker’s ribs and shoulder blades seem to be on the verge of breaking out of the skin, and they suggest a continued metamorphosis. Unsurprisingly, then, during one of the exchanges with the late-night show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the Joker explains that the establishment does not take into consideration the possibility “that we won’t werewolf and go wild.” This is a clever line, as the noun “werewolf,” a creature defined by transformation, is used as a verb – a linguistic transformation! As Arthur-the-person slowly disappears, Joker-the-animal or the werewolf takes clearer and clearer shape. In essence, Arthur can no longer contain himself.
* * *
Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) opens in a dingy changing room, far behind the central character. The camera begins to move slowly toward him, as he sits in front of a mirror and applies makeup. Faint voices from around the room accompany the advancing camera. In contrast, a conversation on the radio about garbage “piling up” in the city distinctively takes over the soundscape of the room. This aural cue sets off an important motif: “garbage” dominates the film both literally (Gotham is dirty and home to “super rats”) and metaphorically (ostensibly, people that society ignores or has left behind). Incidentally, the original introduction of the Joker in the first issue of Batman (April 1940) comes via the radio, as he warns the public of an impending murder and theft. However, in spite of these aural distractions, the steady visual focus on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) cuts through the noise, and does not allow the spectator’s attention to shift away from his actions. Like a tractor beam, the uninterrupted shot draws the audience into Arthur’s life and dwarfs the surrounding noises to give us access to his silent rage.
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s camera soon shifts to a series of close-ups, which make the silent tragedy brewing behind the clown makeup even more obvious. The close-ups – brush applying rouge, hand holding the brush, facial profile – and the camera shaking ever so slightly invite the audience to consider Arthur’s precarious state of mind. Sher has explained in interviews that the visual mood of the film (the hazy, lifeless color scheme reminiscent of films from the ’70s) is meant to match Arthur’s troubled psyche. What he does not say is that such overlap between execution and narrative augments the film’s level of control over the emotional response of the audience. By the time the camera rests on a close-up of Arthur’s painted face, the cinematic apparatus has fully taken over the emotions of the spectator, who identifies and perhaps even empathizes with the character. Arthur places the index fingers inside his mouth and forces it down, then up into a laughing grimace. A single tear falls from his left eye, rolling through blue and white paint. The mechanism of classical Hollywood cinema has successfully manipulated us once again, but what we feel for and with this character is as fake as the blue tear. And therein lies the main contradiction that makes this film fall flat: it presents itself and is consequently perceived as subversive while being almost entirely conventional in its execution.
Part of the subversiveness comes from the fact that the narrative of the film seeks to go up against almost eighty years of Batman tradition. However, telling an origin story for the Joker as a wannabe comic struggling with mental illness strips the character of his powerful mystique. In this version, there is no Batman (at least not as an adult), which means that there is no hero with whom to identify and who could offer the audience guiding morals and laws. Instead, we get an anti-hero who is not yet fully wrapped in darkness, but whose “fleck” of light (perhaps an ingenious contrast with the Bat-signal?) is flickering alarmingly. The original comic books deliberately say very little about the Joker’s background. In contrast with this version, Heath Ledger’s memorable Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) offers several contradicting stories about his past and thus maintains a degree of uncertainty around his persona. This makes him more elusive, dangerous, and even frightening. By giving the character weight and emotional baggage, Phillips attempts to construct a myth in reverse, which unsurprisingly fails. Per Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (originally published in 1957), myths are created by eliminating the contextual details that fully make up an original “sign” in order to shift the focus to something that is perhaps more in line with a dominant ideology. In the case of people (a common example is Che Guevara as a revolutionary figure/sign1), this practice conveniently ignores the associated atrocities and mayhem. The one repackaged quality (i.e., being anti-establishment) can then be monetized (i.e., put Che’s face on t-shirts), which in turn paradoxically ends up supporting the very system it claims to bring down (i.e., capitalism).2 The previous Jokers are close approximations of Barthes’s myth. Given its long history as such a myth, the newest version of the Joker resists being put together as a full-fledged person; instead, he remains fragmented and incomplete. He still rails against the system, and yet without the system of classical Hollywood cinema, which relies on spectator identification, his acts of extreme violence would not be forgiven and forgotten. In short, he needs the system.
Like its main character, the film projects a sense of fragmentation, which comes from several intertextual references – Modern Times (1936), Taxi Driver (1976), The King of Comedy (1982) – that Phillips, often maladroitly, stuffs into the narrative. Moreover, the film features multiple echoes of the Batman lore: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), in which the Joker kills the entire audience of a late-night show; Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), which portrays the Joker as a struggling comic; Batman (1989), aka the Jack Nicholson Joker, which shows a young Joker killing Bruce Wayne’s parents and thus setting young Bruce on the path to become the Dark Knight. Phillips’s film only hints at this possibility – could the masked man who kills the Waynes be in fact the actual Joker, while “our” Arthur is simply the spark that ignites the infinitely more able mastermind that the Joker is meant to be? This hodgepodge of elements, from both outside the world of Batman and within the universe of the comics, makes the film narratively incohesive. Nevertheless, Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant acting almost overcomes this flaw.
Phoenix’s body is mostly skin and bones, which is ironic since the film attempts to flesh out the Joker. In fact, this Joker’s ribs and shoulder blades seem to be on the verge of breaking out of the skin, and they suggest a continued metamorphosis. Unsurprisingly, then, during one of the exchanges with the late-night show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the Joker explains that the establishment does not take into consideration the possibility “that we won’t werewolf and go wild.” This is a clever line, as the noun “werewolf,” a creature defined by transformation, is used as a verb – a linguistic transformation! As Arthur-the-person slowly disappears, Joker-the-animal or the werewolf takes clearer and clearer shape. In essence, Arthur can no longer contain himself. His sporadic, and always inopportune, bouts of laughter that escape his mouth are yet another manifestation of this condition. He is quite literally spilling out of himself.
There have been several interpretations put forth by reviewers about the meaning(s) of Joker. From Michael Moore’s insistence that this is a masterpiece that calls for a much-needed uprising of the proletariat, to theories about gun violence, the incel movement, and the treatment of mental illness, Joker has elicited a massive public response. To me, all this rabid public engagement with the film circles us back to today’s version of classical Hollywood cinema. It is worth repeating that the manipulative power of film is alive and well. This power actually makes Joker seem a masterpiece, when it is not. It is simply a film that flexes all of the classical Hollywood tools with extreme efficiency: character-driven plot, star-power, match continuity, predominant eye-level shots, and empathetic music. The latter, which harmonizes with the visual mood to enhance the perception of realism, heavily relies on the eerie somberness of the cello (played by musician Hildur Guðnadóttir). According to the Vienna Symphonic Library, the cello’s “underlying character has often been compared with the male voice” and it has “something of a split personality”3. Therefore, the cello complements Arthur/Joker and fills the aural void created during the several scenes in which the character is silent. As a result, the audience registers and reacts to a “whole” that is not really there. To put it another way, the classical Hollywood apparatus functions impeccably. Because of its relentless attention to these elements, the film comes across as more or less perfectly executed. This “perfection” ends up blinding us to its true quality, which is also speciously boosted by a long streak of Hollywood mediocrity. I agree with Martin Scorsese, who has recently railed against the onslaught of superhero movies, downgrading them as “not cinema.”4 After ingesting countless hours of mindless superhero (and now, supervillain) entertainment, we may have become starved for and yet incapable of recognizing actual cinema.
Considering the close relationship between cinema, ideology, and society, it would not be a stretch to speculate that the unfortunate and bizarre political times we live in have made an impact on the expectations of the audience. It has become increasingly difficult to sift through what is “real” and what is “fake” in our actual lives, which means that there is less of a bumper zone between screen and the reality surrounding us. The shrinking gap between reality and fiction might be pushing audiences to search for real answers on the screen. This is what happens when reality truly becomes stranger than fiction. When long-standing traditions and institutions are crumbling, one must wonder about what it is that still grounds us. To refer obliquely to a film that Scorsese may consider “cinema,” Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), what(ever) tethers us to reality has turned uncertain and ominous. Joker clearly takes advantage of these confusing times. In spite of the fact that the Joker claims “I don’t believe in anything,” he actually believes, or rather knows, that things are changing. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks rhetorically. It is not just him, though. This is a question meant to reverberate throughout the audience, in the “real” world. From the office of the social worker with whom Arthur converses, the film flashes to a space that looks like a cell. It is unclear if this is a flash-forward, a flashback, or a fantasy. However, the two spaces are connected by the clocks on the wall, which show the exact same time, 11:10, and thus both time and space adhere to classical Hollywood rules of continuity. 11:10 is one minute off from the auspicious 11:11, and yet we never get there. For a brief, perhaps unclassical Hollywood moment, the audience is thrown off-balance, uncertain of what to believe: Is the Joker recounting all of this from a cell? Has he just made everything up? Is it a ruse that he subtly reveals with the only occurrence of a genuine laugh? He won’t explain further, because “you wouldn’t get it,” which is the last line of the film and meant again as a mischievous wink to the audience. The Joker’s expectations of us, unlike ours of him, are rightfully set low.
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All images are screenshots from the film’s trailer.
- For more, see https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/magazine/how-roland-barthes-gave-us-the-tv-recap.html [↩]
- Roland, Barthes. 2013. Mythologies: The Complete Edition. Translated by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang. [↩]
- https://www.vsl.co.at/en/Cello/Sound_Characteristics [↩]
- Francis Ford Coppola has recently concurred with his opinion. For more, see https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/martin-scorsese-says-marvel-movies-are-not-cinema.html and https://variety.com/2019/film/news/martin-scorsese-francis-ford-coppola-right-about-marvel-1203381088/ [↩]