Film & TV

The Politics of Joker

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Warner Bros. Entertainment/Trailer image via YouTube)
Todd Phillips’s depressed loner is nothing like a role model.

After John Lennon was shot, the film director Robert Altman’s phone rang.

“I get a call immediately from the Washington Post,” Altman later recalled, “and they said, ‘Do you feel responsible for this?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean responsible?’ ‘Well, I mean you’re the one that predicted there would be a political assassination of a star.’” Five years earlier, Altman’s film Nashville had reached a climax when a country singer was shot at a political rally. Nashville; it turned out, had nothing to do with the warped thinking of Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, who modeled himself after Holden Caulfield and thought Lennon was a phony and a hypocrite.

This week, Joker director Todd Phillips has been pre-blamed for any violence that may be associated with his film, and it seems likely that if any domestic dispute happens to turn violent within 500 yards of any movie theater in America, Phillips will be tied to it. There is a strangely political tone to the discussion about this film: left-wing critics seem to be attacking it for reasons that seem to miss the point of the movie, and some on the right appear to be excited simply because so many on the left are condemning it. Commenters on a recent Deadline.com story about Joker are saying things like, “We’ve got tix for this evening, because anytime a movie gives the finger to the woke brigade, we’re going to support it!” and “a great needed f**k you to PC culture.”

Joaquin Phoenix’s depressed loser, Arthur Fleck, according to left-wing film critics, comes off far too well in the film, which “lionizes and glamorizes Arthur . . . the patron saint of incels . . . a mess, but we’re also supposed to think he’s kind of great” (Time). Joker is “an attempt to elevate nerdy revenge to the plane of myth. That’s scary” (Slate). It’s “dangerous . . . an incel training manual . . . could be validation for violent glory seekers” (Vox). Jacobin ties Joker to Ronald Reagan, who became president in 1981, the year Joker is set (“In portraying a performer whose affable act masks deep resentment and violence, Phillips’s movie reminds us that long before Trump, it was Ronald Reagan who first used television to launch a mass, reactionary social movement.”). That Reagan was shot that same year by a warped loner much like Fleck seems not to register with Jacobin.

In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane calls out Joker as merely “a product” that is bound to stir discussion “with ticket sales to match,” as if all movies don’t hope to sell lots of tickets. Lane calls foul on the use of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” in one scene because “Glitter was convicted, in 1999, of possessing child pornography, and, seven years later, of sexually abusing minors,” which means the song choice is therefore “crafted to offend.” Is any use of a Michael Jackson song in a movie also calculated to give offense? I don’t think Phillips picked the song because of Glitter’s crimes but because it’s disturbingly ironic in situ. The Guardian, to my surprise, comes off level-headed in the discussion, running a review by Christina Newland expressing puzzlement with descriptions of the film as “right-wing.” “With severe cuts to mental health services affecting Arthur’s stability, along with Phillips’s focus on the ominous effects of widespread gun ownership,” she writes, “it seems odd that it’s being hailed as wholly rightwing.”

It doesn’t make sense to argue both that Joker lionizes the title character and that it’s right-wing. He leads a revolution of the greasepaint underclass against the 1 percenters, channeling the eat-the-rich mindset of Bane and Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. If he’s the hero, and we’re cheering for him, then we must take some satisfaction in seeing his clown proletariat rise up. That isn’t right-wing or conservative, that’s positively Jacobinic. To the extent Joker is right-wing, it’s because the title figure is a wicked man who does terrible things, including attacking Wall Street types, and we’re meant to be disgusted.

Which is another way of saying Joker is simply an anti-hero, albeit a complicated one. Complicated characters are more interesting, as critics usually agree. Yet so much terrible media coverage is attached to this film that Warner Bros. felt obligated to put out the following statement: “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.” This ought to be obvious. Arthur Fleck is a creep, a loser, and a psycho. He is meant to freeze your marrow, not inspire you to follow him. Nobody in his right mind looks at this diseased character and thinks, “Role model.” Nor is the movie “empathetic” toward Joker (the New York Times). The audience isn’t meant to feel what he feels. We can marvel at the character study of a twisted soul without having the slightest desire to be like the anti-hero it depicts. The film is “a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film,” as Phillips told The Wrap.

The Left seems to be stirred up about Joker because it thinks that there are armies of alt-right incels out there ready to strike, awaiting a movie to tell them it’s okay. While it’s understandable that people worry about mass public shootings these days, psychotic killers by definition don’t think in linear, logical ways. As Phoenix put it in an interview with IGN, “If you have somebody that has that level of emotional disturbance, they can find fuel anywhere.” Even in the most notorious case of real-life violence being linked to movie murder, the reasoning is cracked. In Taxi Driver, a psycho stalks a presidential candidate with intent to murder him, slinks away because security looks threatening, then decides to murder a pimp and others responsible for the degradation of a child prostitute. In a game of psychotic telephone, this got distorted into a call to shoot President Reagan in order to impress the actress who had played the prostitute in the movie. Should we hold Martin Scorsese liable for this psychotic logic, and if so, where does this end? From Bonnie and Clyde on, portraying killers as fun, sexy, devilishly charming rogues has been a staple of pop culture.

But here are two movies that don’t make their protagonists look good: Taxi Driver and Joker. Travis Bickle and Arthur Fleck are wretched, foul human beings, not someone any non-crazy person would try to emulate. That Phoenix and Phillips tell the Joker’s story from deep within his wretchedness and pain (instead of from Batman’s point of view) doesn’t differ conceptually from Richard III. In both cases, that the audience can grasp the suffering of the anti-hero is a mark of success on the part of the artist. But in both cases that figure is also obviously a monster.

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