“It seems to me Joker is this impactful not because of its superb quality, but that it’s a sort of political Rorschach test for our time.”
After having seen Joker for the first time I’ve spent the night thinking about it. Beyond the disturbing depiction of the main character’s descent into madness—played by the talented Joaquin Pheonix—there was always something odd about the dynamics at play, that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. But before I get into a few examples, I have to confess that I’m guilty of having done the very thing that I’ll be criticizing in this article. Aside from being conditioned by the countless reviews that came out—having closely followed the media storm that surrounded the upcoming release—I’m guilty of having analyzed the picture with a political lens, searching for the ideological motives behind rather than simply focusing on capturing its artistic essence.
In my defense, (as already mentioned above) that was mostly due to the unprecedented media-hype around the movie. In the United States, shortly after its August’s premiere at the 76th Venice Film Festival—contrary to the initial overwhelmingly positive response—a swamp of negative reviews started pouring down on the director of the Hangover saga. From those who exaggerated the violence, to those who resented an impeccable performance by Pheonix, all the way to those who ingeniously detected right-wing propaganda, Joker was suddenly all over the news, and everyone—and I mean everyone—was talking about it. Usual concerns about the dangers of possible copycat crimes (despite there being no scientific empirical data to support them) were soon followed by paranoid reports of supposed threats of mass-shootings at the premiere screenings.
Yet, despite what the mainstream media were so desperately trying to make us believe—”some of them even to a point where they seemed to be rooting for the occurrence of a horrible imitative crime just to provide an ‘I told you so moment”, as Christopher Ferguson puts it—it was pretty clear from the start that what sparked the sudden change of heart by the critics was not an honest concern for citizen safety (nor the social fabric in general) but an attempt to smear the director Todd Phillips. Prior to the international release, in an interview for Vanity Fair, Phillips had made indeed negative comments on today’s left-wing cancel culture in the entertainment industry, blaming political correctness and, literally, ‘wokeness’ for his sudden change of style.
“There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore” he said, “I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘fuck this shit’, because I don’t want to offend you.” As you’d expect, the progressive rage came without delay. Because we all know that under Hollywood’s well-known dogmatic political umbrella, “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture”, isn’t the kind of statement that goes unpunished. The first angry responses masqueraded as criticism from within the media industry and the artistic establishment were just a matter of hours away.
The most insane (and there were plenty) appeared perhaps on CNN, which, promptly, couldn’t miss the opportunity to draw nonsense parallels between the protagonist Arthur Fleck and President Trump. According to Jeff Yang, Joker wasn’t about social alienation, nor existential anguish in a broken system, but rather: “an insidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Donald Trump to power.” Anyone who has seen the movie, knows perfectly well how delusional that is. The ridiculousness in Yang analysis almost defies belief, giving that Joker, aside from being indeed white, apparently straight, and indeed, a man, had literally nothing in common with modern Republican ideology, and much less with Donald Trump himself. The only connection one could conjure up between the movie’s young fans and the POTUS, would probably be the feeling of social alienation that could drive them to vote against the very Establishment that stands in opposition to Trump, but even that takes quite the creativity.
Was it that, then? Was is the lack of meaning in Joker’s life and his need for belonging in an increasingly alienating reality that made all those reviewers see right-wing narratives? No, none of that. It’s only thanks to the dogma of intersectionality that the whole media fiasco starts making sense. We all know that the simple act of portraying a white male suffering (from anything worthy of attention) could be enough to be called a Nazi in woke circles. No diversity there. One doesn’t have to express concerns about immigration, show any signs of patriotism, boast about his wealth, make a tiny sexist comment, nor do any other behavior reasonably attributable to Trump or a fan of his, to be accused of being under his same ideological spell. After all, having some of the same group characteristics of the elected President, such as his sexual orientation or skin color is—for someone like Yang—enough to validate accusations of ‘collusion’. How can a straight-white-man possibly be a victim of society with all of those inherent privileges?
In a review for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw, analyzing the Joker’s motivations for his first violent acts perpetrated against three ‘Wall-Street types’ (as Joker himself calls them), further illustrates part the same problem. Emphasizing the lack of racial allegories in the scene, Bradshaw describes how he lost interest in the movie after noticing how “Phillips prudently makes the scene a non-racist attack”. Rather than an honest criticism, his observation sounds a lot like a disappointment for not seeing his ideological hopes validated by the plot. If instead of three rich-white-men getting shot it would have been a group of kids of Hispanic origins like those who attack Arthur for no reason in the first scene (or any other marginalized groups for that matter), we can be sure that his review would have been a lot more favorable.
Yet none of that was still very clear to me during the journey home from the theatre. The excessive political climate around the movie still didn’t make much sense. Lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep, there were many question marks still hanging. Why were all these left-wing journalists so eager to criticize the movie? Why not just simply take the opportunity to embrace its clearly negative depiction of capitalist dynamism, for example? You wouldn’t expect that from CNN… But I mean, from an outlet like Vox at least! (who rather called it: “not nearly as edgy as it thinks”). Or how about its critique of income inequality? Questions such as those kept bothering me through the night, and remained unanswered for most of the following day. It was only stumbling across a video-review on YouTube late that day that I was able to see what I was terribly lacking. As the host of the Symbolic World Podcast Jonathan Pageau explains, the act of trying to pinpoint a consistent, one-sided modern-political-narrative on the plot was what was preventing me from perceiving it in its full complexity. In the video called ‘How Joker smashes our political narratives‘, Pageau explains how the movie stops making sense if examined with a ‘modern’ political lens. Every-time one tries to apply one of the political frameworks that we’re all used to these days, like identity-politics, Joker contradicts it with a following or a previous scene.
Let’s take the gun used by Arthur Fleck to commit his first murders. The weapon is given to him by a tall, white, overweight-man. A bully-like character that perfectly fits the left’s fantasy of a stereotypical irresponsible gun owner. At this point, even the most relaxed among the progressives probably thought that the plot was (in a warped sense of the phrase) on their side. But those perceptions are challenged as soon as Joker uses the gun not only in self-defense, but against three more of the left’s favorite stereotypical ‘bad guys’, the likes of Wall-Street or (as Pageau calls them) ‘Covington kids types’ (all made a lot worse by the fact that they were even harassing a woman on the train). Joker’s lack of bad intent, therefore—combined with the fact that there wasn’t any racial, homophobic, or sexist motivation behind his actions—heavily contradicts the idea that gun owners are likely to be the ones to perpetrate hate crimes, and rarely need to defend themselves. A left-winger would probably have loved to see Joker joining those three white guys in harassing the woman, confirming the notion that gun owners are misogynistic bullies rather than victims out to defend themselves (while, at the same time, a conservative might have preferred not having the gun owner negatively stereotyped in the first place, nor the three privileged lads being the cause of the problem).
Another example of a political narrative ‘smashed’, is best represented by the relationship between Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) and the mother of Joker. According to her version of the story, we’re all led to believe in the first part of the movie that Arthur’s miserable existence is a result of the fact that she was taken advantage of by Wayne, having had a child (Joker) from a relationship kept-secret, to then being abandoned and left to raise him on her own. At this point of the story one can’t help but empathize with Arthur’s mother, and blame a rich, dislikable, powerful-white-man like Wayne for the many miseries among the Flecks (making us think that, not only he is the real villain, but also the cause of Arthur’s illness and future derangement). But the identity-politics’ friendly framework gets once again destroyed, this time quite blatantly, when Joker finds out that his mother suffered from delusions, made up the relationship with Wayne in the first place, and—among many other things—was the one who allowed the abuse on him when he was only a kid. And there it goes. The story that seemed to fit the type of behavior often condemned by feminists and progressives alike—that of a powerful man taking advantage of an innocent woman—again dissolves into dust. If you also take into account that Joker’s love interest is a black woman (ruling out racism) and that the movement inspired by his crimes is a revolt against income inequality (no capitalist greed there), you inevitably start to get the point.
Joker‘s brilliance cannot be found in its political message. True art can rarely express itself through the means of political discourse. Yet, personally, I can’t help but think that part of Phillips’ motivations in writing the screenplay was also to take advantage of today’s widespread cultural madness. The reason why the ‘critics’ were going crazy wasn’t because of the many revealing political messages, Joker goes even as far as to explicitly say that he’s not political, but because those that they thought were getting revealed were disproven in one or the other scene. And as Pageau points out, at the beginning of the film when garbage in the city is piling up and Joker is holding a sign which says, ‘Everything must go‘, most people in the theatre have probably thought, or even wished, that they, in a way, were the ones holding the sign. But the rest of the plot also seem to play with that notion, confusing anyone who thought that the world’s most infamous comic book villain of all time can actually be on anyone’s side, and makes a mockery out of the idea that the Joker’s motivations—a nihilistic mentally ill murderer—can ever make any sense at all.
“You want to tell me what is so funny?” Asks the psychiatrist in the last scene of the movie. “Nah, you wouldn’t get it”, answers an amused Joker.
by: Mark Granza
Click here to read the Italian version.