The Corner

Film & TV

Socialized Madness

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.)

I am not sure I agree with John’s assertion that Joker is “brazenly honest” in its portrayal of mental illness. (Editorial note: “Brazen” in this sense means “shameless,” i.e. having a face made of brass and therefore incapable of blushing, so “brazenly honest” doesn’t really make sense, even in these troubled times.) I think it is a good film in many ways and appreciate its ambition, but its approach to mental illness struck me as not exactly dishonest but deficient. It is confused.

It also is formulaic: trauma x plus trauma y multiplied by social condition z equals atrocity a.

John describes the little sociological speech leading up to the film’s climactic murder as representing the title character’s “lone moment of lucidity in the film,” and perhaps it does — which is the problem. Mentally ill people who do horrible things generally do not have that kind of coherence, even when their delusions intersect with ideologies. Consider the case of John Salvi, the abortion-clinic shooter. He obviously cared a great deal about abortion, but his crimes were precipitated by a dispute at work (he was in training to be a hairdresser) and his political obsessions ran the gamut from fiat money (that inexhaustible source of conspiracy fodder) to Freemasonry and other assorted kookery. His views were incoherent, not lucid. If you’ve never had the firsthand experience, you can go to YouTube and watch interviews with people who are suffering from mental illness such as schizophrenia to get a sense of the different affects, which are generally nothing at all like the depiction in Joker.

Compare that with, say, Timothy McVeigh, whose political views were childish and inconsistent but coherently expressed and understood. He was not a raving lunatic. He was a rational actor, in his fashion. His terrorism was considered. Anders Breivik is a similar character.

The maternal issue in Joker put me in mind of Hamlet and T. S. Eliot’s criticism of it, which is germane to this film:

The state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him. And it must be noticed that the very nature of the données of the problem precludes objective equivalence. To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.

In Eliot’s view, Shakespeare fails to resolve the question of Hamlet’s madness (partly feigned, partly genuine) because the author simply “tackled a problem which proved too much for him.” And so: “For Shakespeare it is less than madness and more than feigned. The levity of Hamlet, his repetition of phrase, his puns, are not part of a deliberate plan of dissimulation, but a form of emotional relief. In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art.”

We might say much the same thing of Todd Phillips. Joker’s problem is that it cannot decide whether Arthur Fleck is a lunatic or a rational actor using terrorism as a form of social criticism. The film vacillates between those possibilities; its inability to situate Fleck in one reality or the other is its principal dramatic defect. As has been pointed out already, that’s the great difference between this Joker and Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the character, the Heath Ledger performance that mocks these sad-sack victim-of-society narratives by giving a new and different and banal account of his original trauma at every turn.

Say this for Todd Phillips: He’s made a movie about which there is a great deal to say.


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