Is ‘Joker’ the Best Film of 2019?

 

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“Hitler, as the point of convergence for so many nostalgias, resentments and anxieties, became a historical figure.”

– Joachim Fest, Hitler

In the wake of the Sandy Hook School Shooting in 2012, President Obama gave a press conference during which he beseeched Americans to support the introduction of basic mental health screenings for gun buyers.

Speaking in a voice abraded by tears, he said that, ‘Countries like ours, the United Kingdom and Australia, introduced gun laws and put a stop to mass shootings.’

Shortly after, I saw a clip of an Australian journalist giving an editorial in response to that speech. He said that President Obama was wrong: Australia was nothing like the US, which had never let go of its ‘Wild West’ mythology and the violent fantasies that inhabit the national psyche.

And this, in fact, is what makes the film Joker so horribly compelling.

**

Joker has drawn a mix of very positive and very negative reviews. I saw one posted by Vice that featured some odd young woman calling someone a ‘cunt’. This increased my interest, of course, and I did a bit of further googling.

The best review I discovered was published in The New Yorker. The reviewer, Anthony Lane, writes exceptionally well and deftly identifies the moving parts of the drama. Finally, he says that, ‘[he] dislikes the film as heartily as anything [he] has seen in the last decade.’

Naturally, I had to see it.

**

Joker is a peculiar melange of place and time, conjuring a Gotham City strongly reminiscent of New York in the 1970s, especially as it was cast in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Joker’s Gotham is even replete with rubbish, as was Scorsese’s New York, courtesy of the city-wide garbage strike that transpired at the time of filming.

Thomas Wayne, father of Batman, is a wealthy industrialist who, in the story’s macro, is running for mayor of Gotham City. He presents his own Trumpian dichotomy; while Trump divided the world up in terms of winners and losers in his book The Art of the Deal , Wayne has dubbed those losers ‘clowns’.

Joker also recalls Scorsese’s lesser-known film The King of Comedy, in which a deranged young man, played by Robert De Niro, seeks to achieve fame and fortune by kidnapping his idealised father figure, a late-night television show host. These references bring with them all their baggage of an alienated young man using violence reach out to a society that has rejected them.

Joker’s protagonist, Arthur Fleck, is a different kind of loner. While depressed, he is functional, and undergoes counselling for his depression. However, funding for both Arthur’s counselling and medication is drying up in the wake of government cutbacks to social services. It is a delicate balance, however, and he is ultimately capsized by a succession of events, some cruel and some unlucky, until he finally snaps.

In a Gotham sharply divided between the haves and have-nots, Thomas Wayne’s ‘clown’ becomes a symbol of resistance. In riots and other acts of violent disobedience, offenders conceal themselves behind cheap clown masks. The trope becomes literal and is seen increasingly often as the film nears its climax.

The street violence and unrest reach fever pitch at the same time that Arthur Fleck arrives at his nadir. Rather than dissolution, Fleck’s ‘Joker’ persona emerges to the tune of Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2.

The Joker that appears shortly after on Robert De Niro’s Late Show is not a third-rate comedian who has come to be laughed at, but someone who has come to recognise that his circumstances are so dire they’re funny and the only reasonable response to them is laughter – and murder.

The clown becomes a symbol, courtesy of Wayne, and the ensuing struggle between Batman and the Joker becomes a class war.

In fact, what the filmmaker has succeeded in conjuring is a kind of messiah story in which the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone. Joker is rescued in the middle of a riot and ascends the bonnet of a police car, striking a Jesus Christ pose, redeemed by his ascent into celebrity.

Possibly the film’s most powerful success is the way it demonstrates how one feckless, ordinary person can become ‘historical’ under a given set of circumstances.

**

From what I can gather, the film has been derided as dangerous because it either celebrates or justifies ‘incel’ behaviour. I didn’t see that film.

I did see Breaking Bad: El Camino on Netflix a week prior. That film’s climax featured a protagonist gunning down a number of other men in a ‘justified’ shootout.

It’s not simply the presence of this trope that is disturbing. It is also the fact that this kind of violence is a common feature of American films that is rarely questioned by a society that has suffered 33,737 gun-related deaths so far this year.

The second outstanding trope is redemption through celebrity. And finally, when Joker is rescued from custody by rioters in clown masks, ascending onto the bonnet of a police car to strike his Jesus Christ pose, the screen behind him wreathed in flames, the viewer is confronted by full blown anarchy.

**

German director Wim Wenders once said, ‘The Americans have colonised our subconscious.’ And while this is certainly true in Australia, we don’t have the same myths; both the assertion of masculine identity through violence and redemption through celebrity, while present, are not stories that we tell ourselves divested of irony.

Joker is somewhat reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, particularly in its characters’ use of violence as a method for solving problems. In Peckinpah’s ultra-violent western, his characters are sympathetic, but clearly villains of the first order.

The experience of viewing that film is made increasingly complex by the fact that so is almost every other character who emerges through the course of the story. Peckinpah presents no moral editorial; just one event after another.

In that respect, Joker is the kind of film we used to see. It doesn’t allow its spectators a safe distance; you’re saturated in it. Thrilled and appalled, frightened and implicated.

Is the film a herald of the end? How much of the film is creation and how much of it is divination? Is this film a telegram from a culture in its last days?

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