The Joke’s on Us: “Joker” Doesn’t Get its Own Sense of Humor


The walls are closing in. Every form of liberty is really an exercise of the freedom of movement, the freedom to explore one’s physical and mental environment. Ergo, in order to move freely, one must have a free environment, which is to say: a natural environment. Imprisonment is punishing because it is unnatural: the barriers, restrictions, and limitations form a rigid antithesis to the fluid volatility of natural life. Some unnatural construction is required for the development of a society, lest the endless splintering reduce the unifying center to a superfluity, unfamiliar and useless; the problem is not the forming of a society, but the refusal of that society to leave in peace those who live, or would live, without it or apart from it. When the society seizes from uninterested outsiders, then the society has become a virus—and unless the virus is cured, then the society will eventually devour itself once it has consumed everybody else.

The United States is a society whose obsessive-compulsive fetish for death, death by consumption, has resulted in the acquisition of immense international power, but this external power, which I would argue is largely illusory, is reciprocated by an internal impotence. Our interpersonal dysfunction, mirrored by our incoherent culture, is an inevitable symptom of our pervasive social sickness, the physical act of destructive consumption transmuted and made ethereal, but much more palpable, as well. It is not impossible to live well in an unwell society, but it is impossible to live without coming into contact with some element of the diseased, and in turn, running the risk of infection. Usually, this infection takes the form of economic hardship—or economic anxiety, at the very least—which is later manifested in our increasingly strained personal ties. Our own failings become indistinct from our society’s, and we are unified only in our hopeless march toward our gruesome climax.

Our own ability to abandon this sinister parade is contingent on our freedom of movement. Absent this power, the people continue to make their unfree selections, selections that were chosen for them long before they were presented to them. One such selection is the movie Joker, currently in its fourth day of release. The film is centered on a miserable man named Arthur Fleck, who, in the midst of psychological deterioration engendered by incessant immersion in bleak society, finds catharsis in dressing as a clown and engaging in disturbing antisocial behavior, including murder. Countless people have been fascinated by this film since the release of its brilliant teaser trailer six months ago, and with good reason: the premise is a reflection of the unsettling, ominous decadence of our own social structure, and in embracing this grotesquerie before deconstructing it, the movie promises an emotional discharge for us as well as Arthur.

We who have expressed our excitement for this film—we who have contributed to Warner Bros.’s vast marketing venture—have fancied our enthusiasm as a kind of populist dint, and our energetic tweeting and posting as an act of spirited defiance of the tyrants who corrode and immiserate our society daily. Recently, this prideful indulgence, however innocent it may be, achieved indignant validation when the corporate media promoted niggling rumors that someone would take demented inspiration from the movie’s premise, enter a theater with a gun, and open fire on the audience. It wouldn’t shock me if such an event were to come to pass, but I might ask why a person who finds in Arthur Fleck a kindred spirit would kill the people who are supporting his film. Instead of asking this question, the invisible scribes and judges in the corporate media places the burden of proof—

proof of what, I don’t know; moral cleanliness, perhaps—on those of us who were looking forward to the movie. Curiously, the corporate media that accepted copious payment from Warner Bros. to advertise the film, and which is still broadcasting commercials for the film as we speak, has yet to be accused of the same moral failing.

Such is our freedom of movement in the United States: the choice between buying a product and dodging a perplexing moral reprimand. Joker presents such a degrading dilemma, and as is usually the case, capitalism triumphs in what can be described only as a truly Pyrrhic victory. John Stankey has his cake and eats it, too, as American adults defied the doomsday predictions that they pay to hear on CNN and happily purchased tickets to Joker, which has generated more than $90 million in ticket sales as of this writing. Almost twenty dollars of that came from me, as I wrapped up my weekly interviews with D Pearce SSC in time to make it to the theater on opening night, which is something that I haven’t done in years.

In approaching the auditorium, I couldn’t disregard the funereal ether exuding from within, an aura which did nothing to halt the development in my mind of the garish imagery of a massacre. I still remember watching The Dark Knight Rises—in the same auditorium, come to think of it—and my blood cooling, just a little bit, every time someone entered the theater from a visit to the bathroom or the snack bar. I wondered, if only for a moment, if the incoming patron had a bag of popcorn or a gun—and even at the time, I was embarrassed to succumb to such senseless paranoia, though not nearly as embarrassed as I am to confess how many times I fought against the same suspicion as I watched Joker. This is my own susceptibility to the malignant influence of propagandistic media, and although I do believe I’ve learned to overcome the agitprop that is the specialty of cable news, some of the fearmongering still reaches me now and then.

Perhaps my own anxiety was heightened by my own presence, or by my own appearance: a solitary white man in a hoodie has become the archetypal image of a mass shooter, and it probably didn’t help that I was visibly uncomfortable with the environment. As I may have mentioned in my write-up of the movie 3 from Hell, cinematic auditoriums are equipped with reclining seats these days, and the sight of so many intoxicated people kicking back, the girth of their bellies cresting above their knees, their greasy fingers sliding across the screens of their phones, is sometimes enough to induce in me an unmitigated panic attack. It’s happened to me before, especially at the IMAX, an exhibition format so excessive and so overwhelming that it bears a disquieting resemblance to the monolith in 2001, and a downright distressing resemblance to “the feelies” of Brave New World.

Going out in public and surrounding oneself with strangers is becoming an audacious act in itself—not because of any elevated risk of being gunned down, but because of a burgeoning fear among people, a fear of people. This fear isn’t new, not forty-three years after Howard Beale observed, “We don’t go out anymore, we sit in the house and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller,” but it is becoming more ubiquitous, and it manifests itself in the superstition that this is the day, and this is the time, and this is the scene of our death as engineered by some wild gunman. I have no doubt that each and every person in the audience had contemplated this, if not seriously believed it, at some point in their evening at the theater, but I wonder how many of them felt any discomfort during the preview reel: all of the advertised films featured sexy agents of the American military and government wielding assault rifles and tossing grenades. Actually, that reminds me of a question I wanted to ask: has Will Smith ever starred in a film that wasn’t a propaganda piece for the military or intelligence agencies?

Unfortunately, the only optimistic observation one can make about Joker is that it doesn’t indulge in erotic jingoism. It does, however, engage in significant pedantic fearmongering, even as we are supposedly asked to empathize with Arthur Fleck. The fearmongering requires no explanation: we are aware from the very beginning that there are people like Arthur in our society, that such people “not only can but even must exist in our society, taking into consideration those circumstances in which our society was formed,” as Dostoyevsky wrote of his own specimen in social implosion. It is the pedantry, the suffocating blatancy of the characterization and social juxtaposition, that seems to have escaped the notice of the film’s adoring fans. The screenwriters—Todd Phillips, who also directed, has built his career by glorifying infantilism in embarrassing features like the Hangover series and Will Ferrell movies; and Scott Silver, whose contempt for subtlety was clearly displayed in The Fighter and 8 Mile—want us to note at every moment in the film that Arthur has an awful lot in common with the “mass shooter profile” that is outlined in the media each day. Our fearful apprehension, which never reaches satisfactory veneration, is predicated on our association of this man with all of the other men who exhibited the same archetypal “warning signs”. The film is little more than a companion piece to the homogenized reports and commentary in the mass media, an instance not of art imitating life, but of art parasitically feeding off of life.

Because Joker is less a work of political commentary than a republication of that commentary, the message is delivered with a jarring lack of grace. Before Arthur’s ascent into madness reaches its apex, he informs the world, in explicit and unambiguous terms, that he is “what happens when a mentally ill person” is dismantled “by a society that treats him like garbage”. No thoughtful viewer would be left in the dark on that point, even without this bit of dialogue, which is why the dialogue insults not only our intelligence, but our powers of perception, too: Phillips and Silver believe they must reduce their material to pap and then feed it to us as if by a spoon. The result of this excessive distrust of the audience is not a courageous penetration of our societal dysfunction, but one further layer added atop. It is no creative adaptation of our unctuous culture, but an adaptation in reverse, a reduction of our knowledge of that which makes us ill.

This reduction is achieved through the redirection of our focus, which also ensures the narrowing of our knowledge. The news conglomerates specialize in this kind of intellectual suffocation, but Phillips and Silver prove themselves to be respectably apt pupils: they teach us to fear a civilian with a gun. Arthur loses his job, and terrifies us in the audience, when he brings a pistol to work, work taking place in a children’s cancer ward. We are frightened not by the possibility of violence, especially when there was no indication that Arthur planned to kill anybody there—but by the nigh unfathomable humiliation of being in that situation, of being caught with a gun and forever exiled by everyone around you. It is the association of the gun with social disapproval—and, conversely, not its part in bloodshed—that I find so sinisterly intriguing. We are being trained and directed to believe that guns do not belong in the hands of civilians, but only in the grips of a cop or a soldier or some other agent of the government and the state. We are being instructed to believe that a civilian with a gun poses an unacceptable risk to others, even if the gun is only a small pistol, like Arthur’s. This induced fear of civilian empowerment did not begin with principal photography of Joker, of course, but Phillips and Silver are serving a purpose in demonizing civilian self-defense.

Even if we grant Phillips and Silver the discourtesy of assuming they did not intend for their film to thrive only as an abscess within the corporate media—plausible, given that neither man is likely to possess serious political convictions; but doubtful, considering the protracted and distastefully symbolic shot of the many television screens near the movie’s end—we cannot overlook the film’s utility as a work of psychological propaganda. As indecisive in its perspective on Arthur as it is in its choice of villain—neither Brett Cullen’s character nor Robert De Niro’s was developed clearly enough to thrive as a central antagonist—the movie serves only to inspire a desultory disgust with our societal dysfunction without articulating that disgust or even selecting any coherent cause. It’s an unbecoming gaze into colorless, shapeless squalor, and because it is so superficial in its portrait of the agony of isolation, it cannot obtain the trenchant credibility of a film like Taxi Driver, which haunts us not because it is built upon disturbing content, but because it is true. Likewise for a film like Requiem for a Dream, which sometimes dabbles in the grime of exploitation, but which also brings us into the grime.

Joker lacks us even that reckless abandon. It is an exploitation film, all right, but one that has been castrated, truncated, and ablated for convenient airing on daytime television. And the filmmakers’ inability to acknowledge this speaks to their misunderstanding of the material—and because they cannot know it, they cannot hope to satisfy its potential, either. Their denial of the film’s own spirit is probably their single greatest failing, one which obviates any secondary success. Watching Joker reminded me constantly of the movie Willard, another film about a lonely man who lives with his elderly mother and who discovers an unorthodox method of taking bloody vengeance. Willard is not a perfect movie—in fact, it’s not even original: I’m speaking of the remake, released in 2003—but it is a relentlessly enjoyable film because its creators were principled enough to acknowledge the nature of what they were making. Phillips and Silver prefer to think that they are doing something different—but what are they doing? In their minds, they are making a film that is insane; but in fact, their labors are safely compos menti.


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