The tears of a sad clown. | Warner Bros.
John Semley,  October 7

Corrupted Headspace

Joker and the vacuity of influence

The tears of a sad clown. | Warner Bros.
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Since it was announced in 2018, the spectre of Martin Scorsese has loomed over Joker. Initially attached as a producer, before leaving to work on his own The Irishman, Scorsese’s sway over Todd Phillips’s eagerly gritty urban psychodrama has become almost spiritual.

Following Arthur Fleck (a wildly watchable Joaquin Phoenix), who we meet as a jobbing clown-for-hire, Joker riffs on several of Scorsese’s New York City crime dramas. From Taxi Driver it lifts a study of a fractured male ego, shots of psychotically scribbled notebooks, and certain workplace dynamics—including jokes about little people, and a bearish confidant who nudges our antihero toward violence (Glenn Fleshler’s Randall is a too-obvious take on Peter Boyle’s Wizard). From The King of Comedy, Joker borrows not only the general arc of an entitled wannabe entertainer driven to criminality, but his extended delusions of competence. It also borrows actor Robert De Niro, whose role as late night Gotham City talk show host Murray Franklin is a direct nod to his flunked Rupert Pupkin’s own late-night aspirations in The King of Comedy. (Beyond this bit of wink-nudge, metatextual self-reference De Niro is, sadly, wasted.) But if there’s a single gritty, grimy, greasy classic of American crime cinema that’s most deeply, inextricably woven into the textures of Phillips’s film, it’s not one of Scorsese’s high masterpieces, but a cinematic triumph of regressive exploitation: the 1974 Charles Bronson out-for-vengeance thriller Death Wish.

Midway through Joker, a newly jobless Fleck is slumped on a filthy subway car rattling through Gotham City’s urban wastes. He watches askance as a woman is harassed by three well-dressed, and clearly well-soused, Wall Street-styled suits. (Phillips has a sharp eye for such brain-dead meathead jock types: first capturing them in his 1998 doc Frat House, later spoofing them in the 2003 comedy Old School, then valorizing them across the Hangover trilogy.) When the bankers turn their attention to Phoenix’s sad clown, he brutally returns their advances: producing a snub-nosed pistol and blasting the trio of predatory drunkards away.

Beyond recalling a similar sequence in Death Wish, it also serves as the motor of Joker’s plot. Fleck flees the car and holes up in a public washroom where he engages in a teetering bit of tai-chi, balletically uncurling his spindly form in various configurations. Where Arthur, once utterly unassuming, slunk through space, now he embraces it, imposing himself upon it. He is reborn.

From there, the “Clown Killer” gains media attention as an urban vigilante. Like Bronson’s Paul Kersey, he is hailed as a folk hero by the hard-done-by rabble of a crime-filled, rat-infested metropolis. Yet Death Wish’s influence on Joker runs deeper than a subway capping or its vision of a murderous gunman recast as a ruddy avenging angel. Like the Bronson film, Joker treats a seemingly sensitive, liberal conscience turning toward violence as a foregone conclusion. Weakness and sensitivity are flaws, exploited or ignored by a society slanting irrevocably toward cruelty and injustice.

Joker is, to pilfer a favorite turn from the critic Karl Kraus, a symptom of the very same disease it pretends to diagnose.

Given the way Death Wish—and, especially, its increasingly ludicrous sequels—have become synonymous with the all-American fixation on firearms and extra-legal vigilantism (both embodied in Bronson’s stone-faced, gun-wielding “hero”), it’s hard to remember that Kersey enters the original film described as a “bleeding-heart liberal.” And pretty much literally: he confesses early on that his heart “bleeds a little for the underprivileged.” He’s a conscientious objector during the Korean War with a deep antipathy toward guns (following the death of his father in a hunting accident, a sort of structuring anti-gun liberal trauma). A brutal assault on his wife and daughter perpetrated by a gang of whooping New York thugs (among them: a very young Jeff Goldblum), and ensuing constabulary incompetence result in Kersey’s taking the law, per the cliché, into his own hands. And while he never goes so far as to repudiate his ostensibly liberal values, or his affection for “the underprivileged” (the same underprivileged he proceeds to blast away with a revolver and thump with dress sock full of loose change), Kersey transforms into a rock-hard model of American self-sufficiency: one man army, judge, jury, and cartoonish firing squad.

Yet “transforms” isn’t quite the right word. As in Joker, Death Wish doesn’t play Kersey’s move to violence as a natural extension of his circumstances, or a measured response to the character’s context. It’s more that his violent nature—which is his “true” nature, and so that of the implied audience—is revealed. Bronson’s flinty visage is the craggy figure chiseled out of some heavy lump of narrative and political granite. So it is with Joker’s Arthur Fleck. Instead of morphing into Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime, Fleck proceeds, throughout the film’s runtime, to shed his vestiges of compassion: for his mother (revealed to be a psychotic abuser), for his across-the-hall girlfriend (whose affection is an unhinged product of Fleck’s own blooming psychoses), for the beloved King of Comedy who brings cheer to the late night TV landscape, for civility and sanity itself.

This sure-fire quality is, perhaps, an inherent flaw in Joker’s premise. Despite being a “one-off” origin story, detached from the unruly miscellanea of the existent DC Comics superhero movies, Joker is nonetheless based on an existing “IP,” and so must satisfy certain preconditions. It’s not like we’re going to watch Phoenix bend himself out of shape as his affections (romantic and patriarchal) are rejected and his social services are cut, and then rise to occasion by eating healthier, hitting a Zumba class, and devoting himself to a reinvigorating regimen of bath bombs and self-care crystals. The Joker’s turn toward anarchic murderousness is assured. An origin story, after all, takes the destination as inevitable.

This assurance works largely to undermine Joker’s most interesting character moments. When Fleck is recruited to appear on an episode of The Murray Franklin show, in what he knows is intended as a mocking ritual of humiliation, he flirts with the notion of pulling out a pistol in the middle of a knock-knock joke and blowing his own brains out, Budd Dwyer-style. It would be a compelling moment of self-immolation, one fitting the arc of the character depicted herein. But Phillips cannot sustain the tension. Because we—whether diehard Joker-heads or casual filmgoers acquainted with the broad strokes of the canonical Batman mythos—know that Joker must live. And so Fleck, embracing his clownish nom de guerre, makes a victim of his late night hero. In turn, Joker is embraced as a hero himself by the rioting unwashed of Gotham City, who don cheapo plastic clown masks and siege the streets of Gotham in a burlesque of class solidarity. Their violence, too, is made to seem inevitable, a matter of predetermined course.

This climatic, streets-on-fire sequence also permits Phillips (a former video store jockey) a chance for plenty more rapid-fire film references, signaling his own influences and affinities. A cab passes by an adult theater advertising a porno called Ace in The Hole, reworking (as Joker itself does) Billy Wilder’s hard-nosed 1951 media satire as sleazy exploitation. But the best cinephilic name-drop comes when the eminent Wayne family—that is: the soon-to-be Batman and his folks—meet their boringly inexorable fate after leaving a cinema screening Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller Blow Out. In that film, jaded sound tech Jack Terry (John Travolta) valiantly attempts to unravel a distinctly Chappaquiddick-inspired political conspiracy. His gumshoe aspirations are ultimately crushed, and the film ends with Terry forced to re-listen to the dying wail of a woman he loves, reworked as a sound effect for a zero-budget slasher flick. He is defeated and deeply cynical. But that cynicism is, at the very least, earned. It is a response to his feelings of uselessness, and his inability to stand his proverbial ground against the powers that be. Joker takes such cynicism for granted, and uses it not to ground a defeat, but to justify crime, murder, and a form of free-for-all social upheaval that unproductively bucks the very idea of society.

It’s also in this homestretch that Joker confirms any misgivings with regard to its potential seriousness. The film’s much-cited antecedents from the Scorsese Cinematic Universe manage to complicate their characters’ violence, delusion, and psychopathy. When Travis Bickle (De Niro) barnstorms a brothel to liberate Jodie Foster’s young sex worker (who, the film suggests, isn’t much interested in her own liberation), he’s injured in an explosive exchange of gunfire, and as the cops find him bleeding out he holds his fingers to his head like a gun, mimicking his own suicide (a gesture Joker repeats ad nauseam, in empty pantomime).

Unlike Joker, the film’s much-cited antecedents from the Scorsese Cinematic Universe manage to complicate their characters’ violence, delusion, and psychopathy.

Likewise: when The King of Comedy’s hackish Rupert Pupkin kidnaps a talk show host in order to wedge his way onto the late-night airwaves, there’s little sense that the star (Jerry Lewis’s Jerry Langford) is in any real danger, given his captor’s well-established incompetence. Both films end with fantastic codas, in which Bickle and Pupkin are recuperated as heroic figures of frantic media interest. But again, all signs point to these being products of the characters’ delusional mindsets. It’s not only that their actions are rash and stupid—their very dreams are foolish.

Joker’s elevation to anarchic antihero is, by contrast, meant to feel quite real. It is consistent with both the narrative reality of Phillips’s film, and a more quotidian reality in which the Joker character has, at least since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, been cast as a psychotic edgelord-savant by various contingents of loners, losers, and those who maintain that they’re misunderstood. Joker is the dream made real. Taxi Driver and King of Comedy offer programmatic analyses (and implicit condemnations) of headspaces corrupted in part by mitigating cultural forces (the Vietnam War and the persistent mediation of reality through television, respectively). Joker is, to pilfer a favorite turn from the critic Karl Kraus, a symptom of the very same disease it pretends to diagnose.

Hell, even Death Wish ends with a sly meta-gesture, in which Bronson makes a wink-and-gun gesture, staring down the barrel of the camera, as if warning the viewer: “Paul Kersey’s gonna getcha!” Joker concludes with a similarly stiff angle, in which we watch our demented harlequin strut through a mental institution, leaving blood-red footprints that muddy the blinding white hallways. It’s less an indictment of the viewer’s presumed sympathies with a psychotic, self-persecuting clown than an invitation to follow in his grisly footsteps.

That such images constitute, as more hysterical critics and commentators contend, a meaningful call-to-arms pitched at the real-world soldiers of the alienated Joker Mafia seems dubious at best. These images are, however, deeply stupid. And they betray the solemnity of a filmmaker who doesn’t even seem to know which buttons he’s pushing—let alone why. Still, for his intermittent artfulness, and ability to re-skin a superhero property as a supposedly serious adult entertainment, Phillips is already winning plenty of plaudits: the prestigious Golden Lion prize courtesy a Venice jury, and packed-house screenings when it made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. An admirable, and vaguely amusing, feat for the guy who brought you The Hangover Part III.

Todd Phillips may have relinquished his own crown as some reigning monarch of Hollywood comedy to indulge even more hollow, if just as nihilistic, genre provocations. But in so doing, he’s staked his claim as king-for-a-day of the messy commonwealth of moralizing, marketing, and meaning-making we call “The Discourse.” This too, I suspect, shall pass. But as Rupert Pupkin puts it when, through a mix of dogged tenacity and scam-artistry, he finally steps into the spotlight on The Jerry Langford Show: “Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime!”

John Semley is a writer based in Toronto. His most recent book is Hater: On The Virtues Of Utter Disagreeability.

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