The Corner

Film & TV

‘Brazen Honesty’?

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Warner Bros.)

I appreciate Kevin’s thoughtful response to my review of the new Joker movie. Much of his post highlights areas of disagreement that are, I think, a product of my occasional lack of clarity in the piece  — “to write well is to think clearly,” I’m reminded — so I’ll try to explain myself here.

What I found “brazen” about the putative “honesty” in Todd Phillips’s portrayal of mental illness was his willingness to link untreated serious mental illness to violence, in spite of oft-repeated politically correct bromides to the contrary. As I made note of later in the review, many “mental health experts” expressed their breathless concern that the Joker might — egad! — link mental illness with violence. In the words of one representative reviewer in the New York Daily News, “This plot [of the Joker film] plays to the unfortunate and false stereotype that people with mental illness are violent. As a whole, people with mental illness have no increased rate of violence compared to anybody else, and they are more likely to be victims of crimes.” The implication, of course, being that viewers cannot be trusted with a movie that depicts a mentally ill man as violent, because they might “stigmatize” the mentally ill in turn (worth acknowledging the low opinion that these reviewers have of you!)

This lie — that the connection between mental illness and violence is a “false stereotype” propagated by the media with no basis in statistical fact — is a pernicious one that has been repeated by “experts” for the better part of three decades, and has been used as a pretext to close state hospitals and programs for the most seriously mentally ill. Myself and others have tread this ground before, but it is worth repeating the empirical fact that the untreated seriously mentally ill — not speaking here of the child who can’t sit still in class, or the suburban teenager with “test anxiety,” but of serious mental illness as clinically defined — are disproportionately likely to engage in acts of violence. That Phillips does not triangulate on this fact — his refusal to soften this portrayal, or include bits meant to “refute” this politically unpopular reality about mental illness — was brave. Brazen, even.

Kevin also charges that my account of the Joker film as “honest” misses the film’s rather “deficient” and “confused” depictions of mental illness. Doesn’t my retelling of Arthur Fleck’s “moment of lucidity” before the climactic murders undercut my premise that the film “honestly” portrayed mental illness? After all, he says, “Mentally ill people who do horrible things generally do not have that kind of coherence, even when their delusions intersect with ideologies.”

I’ll admit this does undercut my premise, at least to a degree. Violence committed by the severely mentally ill tends to be incoherent by its nature, and Fleck’s moments of lucidity don’t testify to his having had a psychotic break in a traditional sense. It strengthens Kevin’s chief assertion — and in turn, weakens mine — that the Joker film failed to “decide whether Arthur Fleck is a lunatic or a rational actor using terrorism as a form of social criticism.” 

But madness, as such, is not always so simple. Sometimes it is — a paranoid schizophrenic suffering a psychotic break would not be able to channel a Fleck-like lucidity — but other times, mental illnesses can impose themselves onto the existing corpus of a man’s mind, creating a Frankenstein’s monster out of the tepid interplay between a man’s faculties of reason and neurosis. Kevin’s allusion to T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet critique reminded me of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and of Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s prescient remarks on how that play portrays the convoluted nature of mental illness:

First of all we have many complexes that are produced by sin without ever tracing the true cause, which is guilt. Take for example Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespeare was born in 1554 as I recall, and died in 1616, long before there was any such thing as psychiatry; and yet in this tragedy Macbeth has a psychosis and Lady Macbeth has a neurosis. Both of them contrived to murder the King in order to seize the throne. Macbeth thinks that he sees the dagger before him, the instrument of murder, with the handle toward his hand.

Lady Macbeth had the neurosis; she thought that she saw blood on her hands, spots. At last, all the water of the seven seas were not enough to wash that blood from her hands. There was no blood, there was no dagger but these were the psychological manifestations of guilt. Because there is an abnormal show of guilt, it does not prove that there is no normal guilt at the basis and foundation.

“Psychosis,” Sheen once said, “is organic,” a “constitutional” bug in a man that forces him to lose grip on reality. “Neurosis,” he said, “is acquired,” the manifestation of internal guilt and sin that one refuses to face — like squeezing a balloon, the “air” of guilt has to pop up somewhere. Maybe Arthur Fleck was suffering from a little bit of both psychosis and neurosis — or maybe I, as Kevin says of the film, am “confused.”

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