In Joker, we see a reversal of Tarantino’s aesthetic, where a patently comic character, a joker with a clown face, is, by degrees, rendered tragic, or as near tragic as any contemporary character might hope to be. Joker details with painstaking granularity how to strip joviality out of a joker, how to remove laughter away from the audience when looking into the face of a joker. Joker also reminds us, as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, of the relative proximity of comedy and tragedy. There is plenty of laugher in Phillips’ film, but none of it elicits social laughter. The laughter deliberately distances the audience from the film.
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Two of the most prominent 2020 Oscar nominees/winners partake of the comedic spirit: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Todd Phillips’ Joker. The “once upon a time . . .” story-telling stock phrase engages us immediately as a fairy tale might; we expect a show in which there might be murder and mayhem, but which is categorically comedic in its final execution. In a fairy tale, as in a comedy, things end happily for the protagonists.
The common noun “joker,” a cognate of the word “joke,” is an agentive noun: a joker is one who makes jokes. While jokes can be aggressive, the main joke mechanism is meant to elicit laughter – in particular, a kind of social laughter, as in comedies. If you are laughing and nobody else is laughing with you, then that is not funny. Indeed there are jokes that are not funny. Freud, for instance, isolated a category of jokes he called “tendentious” jokes, from the German “tendenzios,” or jokes with a purpose. Freud noted that tendentious jokes repress certain types of hostile, sexual, and aggressive emotions. Sexist, racist, ethnic jokes, or jokes targeting the mentally ill or the disabled that provoke or elicit conflict are tendentious jokes.
When we tell tendentious jokes or hear them or laugh at them, it makes us uncomfortable, whether we acknowledge the discomfort openly or not. Our glee is intermixed with malice. Freud identified this mode of joke-telling and joke appreciation, and the social laughter it produced, as being aligned with a form of self-deception, a kind of neurotic repression, which eventually leads to full-blown neuroses. Both Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Joker, in partaking of the comedic genre, explore this world of tendentious laughter: what do we consider funny? Are we all laughing at the same thing at the same time both inside and outside the film? What is the intent of our laughter? Is laughter always indicative of amusement?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, despite its fairy-tale title, is an oblique reference to a darkly tragic chapter in Tinseltown’s history: the Tate-LaBianca murders. On August 8, 1969, four of Charles Manson’s “family members” broke into the house of actress Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski on 10,050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles and murdered Tate and four other visitors to the house. Tate, who was 8-1/2 months pregnant, was stabbed to death with her unborn child in utero. Polanski, who was filming in Europe, escaped the carnage.
From the first time we see Rick Dalton, the has-been actor of cowboy westerns (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt body double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) sitting in a car on Cielo Drive and Polanski and Tate pull up next to them at the stop sign and Dalton tells Booth that they are neighbors, we know that we are looking at a tendentiously marked neighborhood in Hollywood geography and history. The remainder of the film is a scenic drive through the rest of Hollywood to get to the house and the murders.
Tarantino’s film edges toward this real-life tragedy in the film, but he deftly collapses the tragic features of the murder into a comic gag. The gag has two components: first, right house, wrong people: the Manson family was looking to kill the previous owner of the house, Terry Melcher, who had dismissed Manson’s overtures for a music recording contract. However, they get Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth, and Booth’s dog when they show up at the house at night to commit the murders. Dalton, Booth, and the dog finish off the home invaders.
Second, the home invasion by the Manson family members is set up like a comic gag; the home invaders get killed, one after the other, in more or less the same manner. They attack with weapons; Booth and his dog tear them apart. There is physical comedy in the frantic escapades of the murderers inside the house and a certain predictable rhythm to their literal downfall.
The home invasion sequence is immediately reminiscent of the very funny sequence in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) where Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) comes to rescue Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) at the pawn shop where the shop owner and a security guard sodomize Wallace. Hearing Wallace’s cries from the basement, Coolidge, who had broken away from the “gimp” watching him, looks around the pawn shop for a suitable weapon to help free Wallace. First, he finds a hammer. He checks out its weight in his hand. Then he sees a baseball bat and switches to that. While checking out the grip of the baseball bat, he sees a chainsaw. He wields the chainsaw appreciatively. Then his looks travel upwards, and high on the wall of the pawn shop he spies a Japanese katana sword resting in its stand. He takes that sword down, goes to the basement, and cuts down the shop owner with it and frees Wallace.
This sequence gains in comic momentum as we watch Coolidge going from one weapon to the next, each more macabre than the previous one, with the samurai sword leading the pack. The literary critic Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957) makes a pointed observation about the hazards of incremental and unvarying repetition. Commenting on J. M. Synge’s one-act play Riders to the Sea, about an island-dwelling mother who loses her husband and six sons to the sea, Frye notes that had Synge written a full-length tragedy showing the death of the seven men one after the other on stage, instead of the tight one-act play where we only see one death – the other six deaths are recalled – the play might have turned into a comedy instead of a tragedy.
Frye’s point was about the comic potential of incremental and unvaried repetition as a source of comedy. If you show an incremental sequence of events with unvarying repetition – seven people dying one after the other, for instance – it is not tragic anymore, but comic. (Maybe this explains why we are so emotionally immune these days to news of mass killings on mainstream media.) Tarantino’s sequencing of the pawn shop scene with Coolidge moving from one weapon to another, admiring and assessing its kill potential, and settling on the sword, with exactly the same time interval in between each weapon assessment, has a repetitive rhythm that produces a kind of gleeful laughter in the audience.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the home invasion scene is structured in a similar manner. The Manson family members are tackled one after the other, the stand-off styled between a weapon and a dog in exactly the same way, only to lead to the final iconic scene of Dalton using a flame-thrower to burn the remaining attacker to a cinder. The things we are seeing on screen should ideally turn our stomachs, but they don’t. They are structured as a comic gag. The sequence carefully directs our emotions away from the murders to the mode of the murders, a mode made ridiculous through carefully crafted incremental repetition. Tarantino often employs tight incremental repetitions with a hyperbolic arc in his script with great effect for comic purposes.
We may legitimately ask ourselves after seeing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood whether it is okay to laugh at the gruesome Tate-LaBianca murders, which is the repressed content, or the known public back story of this film. Tarantino does not hide the fact that this film is about the Tate-LaBianca murders. Tate (Margot Robbie) is a character with significant screen time, interiority, and subjectivity in the film. Tarantino gives Tate a rounded characterization without any extra scaffolding by way of script or action, but rather organically in tune with the ensemble ethos of the film. In a long, poignant, and sustained lyrical sequence, Tate goes to a Hollywood theater to watch herself starring in The Wrecking Crew (1968), enjoying herself as a performer each time the live audience in the theater laughs at the bumbling and comic Freya Carlson. Following the conflagration at the end, Dalton discusses the home invasion with Tate; Tate invites Dalton to join her for a drink.
So what do we do when Sharon Tate’s murder has become a story? What do we do with the stuff of myth in modern times, the homicidal sacrifice of a young mother-to-be by a violent narcissist fed by the Hollywood machinery? How do we show the banality of the crime? How do we show its horror? How do we resurrect the actress who was murdered by a violent sociopath? Is there a non-exploitative way to tell the Hollywood murder story of Sharon Tate? Tarantino says yes, there is.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (or indeed any of Tarantino’s films) is a definitive example of how we cannot present pure tragedy – like Tate’s murder – with any kind of representational authenticity any more in our times. But Tarantino is one of the most conscious storytellers in Hollywood as far as the craft of filmmaking dramaturgy is concerned. As with the Frye axiom about repetition discussed above, Tarantino’s stories reveal a conscious awareness in the director of how close tragedy and comedy are to each other, how one can easily slip into the other, a point that will be further elucidated in the discussion about Joker below. Standing on this fine line that separates tragedy from comedy, Tarantino has a stated preference for comedy, which has simultaneously helped his growth as a filmmaker, as well as serve as a critique of our times. If pure tragedy is not possible for our times anymore, how do we access all those lofty Aristotelian goals of tragedy – the pity, the horror, the catharsis – through the film medium?
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino reveals this world, our world, to be one of artifice through and through. This is nothing new; artifice is a synonym for Hollywood. Cinema is artifice, but dividing the hero into himself and his stunt double headlines the artifice – both of cinema and of our world – as no other attack can do. We are willing to live in a continuous state of suspended disbelief and accept that our heroes – Indiana Jones, Ethan Hunt, Jack Ryan; put any of your favorite action heroes and heroines here – can execute the hundreds of death-defying stunts that they do. To divide and split the hero into two – star and his body double – Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth – confronts us with our own complicity in the myths we construct and believe in. The hero is just one of these myths, and not the most important one at that. But the world that the hero inhabits, the one he triumphs over, is a reflection of our world.
However we slice it, this world is a chaotic, shapeless, formless world, without memory, compassion, or truth, controlled by ruthless and corrupt visible and invisible players. This is the world of Joker as well. Our world is as senseless as the pure invention of a human mind; it is an invented world as the Swiss dramatist and writer of comedies Friedrich Durrenmatt would describe it. And for good reason. When everyone knows everything about everyone and everything, when the most tragic events of our century lose their material gravity and significance and are reduced to banal reproductions of reproductions of reproductions, over and over again, on the big screen and small screen, how does an artist resuscitate this poor horse beaten to death? Parody, Durrenmatt says, in his 1964 essay “Theater Problems,” is what makes dead characters live again. The artist takes the dead and deflated characters and “parodies them, that is, he consciously puts them in contrast with what they have become.”
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sharon Tate, for the moment, is removed from the public image of her as a stabbed and mutilated pregnant corpse. In a matter of pure and carefree invention, Tarantino revives this young actress not historically, not as a biopic might, not as a documentary might – all of which lack artfulness because they stick to the facts – but as only sheer storytelling, pure inventiveness, can do. It is a story, and the story triumphs. The madness of the place, the Hollywood geography, and the home invasion preserve the parodic dimension of the original event: her gruesome murder. Thus Tarantino succeeds in producing a form of tragic empathy within a jaded audience who laugh at the parody, while remembering the murder of the undead Tate in the film. We will always remember Tarantino’s Sharon Tate, like we remember the Mona Lisa.
In Joker, we see a reversal of Tarantino’s aesthetic, where a patently comic character, a joker with a clown face, is, by degrees, rendered tragic, or as near tragic as any contemporary character might hope to be. Joker details with painstaking granularity how to strip joviality out of a joker, how to remove laughter away from the audience when looking into the face of a joker. Joker also reminds us, as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, of the relative proximity of comedy and tragedy. There is plenty of laugher in Phillips’ film, but none of it elicits social laughter. The laughter deliberately distances the audience from the film. Joker brings in a community of audience familiar with the Joker character from the Batman series, but then it strips the Batman Joker character of all of his ridiculous menace, leaving the audience with a cinematic experience that is completely singular. Joker, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or perhaps to a higher degree, focuses concretely on the type of the world in which tragedy and comedy are made, the world that engenders jokers. What type of world needs jokers? Why do we need a group of people whose job is to make us laugh? The worlds of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Joker are identical in their ordinary unresisted banality and corruption.
Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, the creators of the Batman superhero franchise, based their villain the Joker on a cinematic image of the actor Conrad Veidt, who played Gwynplaine, a character from Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs. Veidt played this character in the 1928 film version of Hugo’s novel. Hugo’s Gwynplaine had a disfigured face with a contorted grin. Finger, Kane, and Robinson worked on the grin and made it more pronounced, like a rictus grin, an abnormal muscle spasm of the face that resembles a permanent, fixed grin. A permanent grin is a scary accessory to the human face. In Phillips’ film, this rictus grin is expanded to include a diseased and audible spasmodic laugh, which the Joker himself explains as his illness and a condition beyond his control, which makes him an object of ridicule.
In the economy of laughter, Phillips’ Joker pays explicit homage to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). In that film, it is only the specifications of the genre – satirical comedy – that prevented Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), the calculating and deranged fan, from murdering the talk show host and comedian Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Pupkin kidnaps Langford with the help of another demented fan, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), and coerces the network to let him perform before a live audience in exchange for Langford’s life. In Scorsese’s satire, Pupkin gets stardom as a stand-up comedian, living as he does in a celebrity-obsessed, scandal-obsessed American culture. There is much occasion for laughter in The King of Comedy, in particular, the outlandish and ludicrous bantering between Pupkin and Masha, or Masha’s performance with a bound and gagged Langford. These, however, verge on uncomfortable laughter, because, satire aside, we know that both Pupkin and Masha are deranged and deluded individuals. Pupkin exhibits a particularly manic form of delusion of grandeur; as comic material, it can only go so far.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), Phillips’ Joker, shares the same impoverished and abandoned background as Pupkin does. Indeed, Phillips’ Joker is set in 1981, a year before The King of Comedy was released. They could be screen brothers. While in the satirical comedy, the big corrupt society – our society – absorbs self-deprecating, manic, delusional Pupkin and makes him into another Langford taking his bow every night before the laugh track, in Phillips’ Joker, Phillips/Fleck expose the aggressive master-slave dialectic of comedy; comedy needs victims. The joker makes you laugh because you find him ridiculous. Indeed, Aristotle, who gave the Western world our ideas about tragedy and comedy, postulated that while tragedy imitates superior action, comedy imitates inferior action, and that its proper object is the “ridiculous,” where ridiculous is defined as a kind of “error,” which is neither destructive nor harmful, but a species of the ugly. The physically ugly – the joker with his fixed rictus grin, for instance – thus has a long tradition as victims, or objects of ridicule, in comedies.
If it was hard for us to laugh openly in The King of Comedy, it is not possible at all to laugh at the many instances of laughter in Joker. There are different types of laughter in Joker: the involuntary spasmodic diseased laughter of Fleck; the mocking, condescending laughter of the talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro); the ridiculing laughter of the talk show audience; and the mechanical laughter of the laugh track. Laughter traditionally creates an echo chamber, but in Joker, none of the diegetic occasions of laughter create laughter in us, the audience of the film. Instead, we realize that laughter is weaponized in Joker. Franklin’s mocking talk show laughter ridicules Fleck. The uprising of the clowns, following Fleck’s murder of the white-collar goons on the subway, threatens the rich and the famous.
In Phillips’ film, instead of being absorbed by the world of the masters, as Pupkin was eventually absorbed in Scorsese’s satire, Fleck – who was rejected by his biological father, Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s father, mayoral candidate for Gotham City, kicked about by well-dressed thugs, unemployed, poor, and sick – becomes a poster boy for a violent resistance movement by the dispossessed and the discontented of Gotham City. Not only is comedy precariously perched on the same thin line as tragedy, but a hero and a villain are more closely related than we think. Phillips blurs the line between hero and villain effectively when Fleck commits matricide. Matricide, patricide, fratricide – these are the murders that differentiate a hero from a villain in our moral rule book. Murder is not a liminal act for heroes, and our heroes commit murder all the time with our permission. But Fleck decidedly becomes a villain with the murder of his mother.
One of the most menacing scenes in The King of Comedy is when Pupkin tells the studio audience that “Langford is tied up,” and that “I am the one who tied him up.” The studio audience laughs roaringly as they hear this; they think it is part of his stand-up monologue. They do not think, for a moment, that the comedian in front of them is capable of such an act. Thus, in an inspiring moment of homage to Scorsese, in Joker, Fleck shoots Murray Franklin during his talk show. It is the moment of reversal of fortune for the ridiculous object of comedy; the ridiculed victim gets his power back, and the right to the last laugh.
Durrenmatt had observed in his previously mentioned essay “Theater Problems” that comedy alone is suitable for our civilization. This is a reasonable conclusion. “Tragedy presupposes guilt, adversity, measure, a surveyable world, and responsibility,” Durrenmatt argued. But we live in a messy world where “no one is guilty any longer and no one is responsible . . . guilt exists only as a personal achievement, as a religious act.” White-collar criminals, corrupt politicians, greedy millionaires, extortionists, mass murderers, gun lobbies, heads of states who rape women and mock children, the Jesus ticket to television repentance by toxic city leaders – this is how we work. This is our century. This is our society. Both Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Joker use tendentious laughter without an echo chamber – we cannot laugh with these films at all – in these dark times to shed light on our cruel, unkind, insincere, banal, and immoral civilization.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film’s Blu-ray or DVD.