Joker is a work which attempts to reconnect with a certain cinema of the past, a period known as the Hollywood Renaissance, which occurred between the late sixties and the early eighties, most obviously, in the case of Joker, Scorcese’s Taxi Driver ( 1976) and The King of Comedy (1982). That period developed a general aesthetic of gritty realism, urban decay and alienated anti-heroes. Joker certainly succeeds in presenting an imitation of the visual surface but it lacks the inner content of a movie like Taxi Driver which I examined in a much earlier post here
There are similarities in the isolation of the central characters, Travis Bickle and Arthur Fleck. Where Travis has a mask of relative normalcy and presentability, Arthur is from the outset presented as a misfit. In the original screenplay of Taxi Driver Paul Schrader describes Travis thus:
On the surface he appears good-looking, even handsome; he has a quiet steady look and a disarming smile which flashes from nowhere lighting up his whole face. But behind that smile, around his dark eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can see the ominous stains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness and loneliness. He seems to have wandered in from a land where it always cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space. Travis is now drifting in and out of the New York City night-life, a dark shadow among darker shadows. Not noticed, no reason to be noticed. Travis is one with his surroundings. He wears rider jeans, cowboy boots, a plaid western shirt and a worn beige army jacket with a patch reading King Kong Company 1968-70. He has the smell of sex about him: sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex, but sex nonetheless. He is a raw male force, driving forward; toward what, one cannot tell. Then one looks closer and sees the inevitable. The clock spring cannot be wound continually tighter. As the earth moves toward the sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence.
Situated in the same decaying and divided cityscape, Joker is an origin story loosely connected to the Batman movies but departing completely from the superhero genre. Arthur Fleck, who will become The Joker, suffers from a form of Tourettes in which stress expresses itself through a type of maniacal laughter. He is on seven different medications and dependent on welfare-subsidised therapy. He lives with his mentally unstable mother and ekes out a living as a clown while pursuing his ambition to be a stand-up comedian. This is similar to Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy who performs and hones his comedy routine in the basement of his mother’s house before a wall of faces.
We gradually learn more about Arthur as he discovers that he was adopted; that he was a victim of child abuse by his mother’s boyfriend and that his relationship with a woman across the hall was completely imaginary. Arthur is clearly depicted as a hapless victim of the system. We see him early on being beaten up by a gang who steal the sign he was paid to advertise and then humiliated further by being billed by his employer for the breakage of it. His medication is cut off by welfare-budgeting priorities, and he loses his job due to his own foolishness. His condition is depicted as a result of socio-political and biochemical causes, not existential. By that I mean that it is set in a materialistic framework which makes it difficult to access the dimensions of a deeper symbolism which Scorsese achieves by situating the conflicts of Travis inside his own character.
With Travis we never get a back-story to explain his condition. We gather that he was in Vietnam and he seems to have experience with guns and combat preparation, although we only hear him speaking of an honourable discharge from the Marines. He writes a card to his parents but beyond that there is very little revealed and we don’t need to know because the script was intended to depict an existential anti-hero in the tradition of European literature: characters such as Dostoevsky’s nameless narrator in Notes from the Underground, The Stranger of Albert Camus, and Roquentin from Sartre’s Nausea. Schrader has said he wanted to import that modern European sensibility into American cinema and Scorsese likewise brought a cinematic vision informed by the New Wave French cinema of Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc-Goddard. The character is there to personify an existential dilemma which the author wishes to explore and the drama lies in tracing their struggle to emerge from the situation. The atmosphere is imbued with the tensions they contain in themselves and these tensions shape the reality they inhabit. An example of this is a dissolving tablet which Travis places in his drink which absorbs his attention as the talk of his co-workers fades out. This is open to different readings but it seems to be an indication of his tendency to obsessive fixation and the ‘bad ideas’ bubbling up from his subconscious.
The social context of garbage strikes and dilapidation in Taxi Driver is mirrored in the Gotham cityscape (which has always been understood as a stand in for New York) but functioned only as a background to Travis and against which he attempts to assert his individuality. The cities racial and class divisions and the disconnected politicians are secondary to the inner crisis he struggles with. Travis may have been a Vietnam vet spat on by the anti-war hippies on his return but this could also have been the experience of his co-workers who have adapted to their situation without becoming alienated. The problem is in him and he knows it. His own mind is attempting to create a purpose and a direction, to carve out a place for himself in the loneliness of his condition. ‘God’s lonely man’ is how he describes himself, and this can sustain him, or at least opens the possibility of seeing himself set in a wider context and a larger plan. It offers a way to escape his subjectivity, realising that the world is, in a sense, what he makes it:
All my life needed was a sense of direction, a sense of someplace to go. I do not believe one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, but should become a person like other people.
These lines are a voice over reading from his journal as he lies on the bed staring into space with various types of pills and pornography scattered around, along with a bottle of peach brandy which he uses instead of milk on his cereal. His unhealthy lifestyle and his inability to organise his life is a form of self-sabotaging and self-contempt tied up with class and race. When he takes Betsy to a porno flick on their first date he is genuinely surprised at her reaction because, as the screenplay explains:
Compared to the movies he sees, this is respectable. But then there’s also something that Travis could not even acknowledge, much less admit: that he really wants to get this pure white girl into that dark porno theatre.
Todd Philips, a director of comedies, has said he felt so restricted by the ‘woke’ culture of today, which takes offense so easily, that he decided to turn to another genre. Yet he has produced a work which represents that culture very well, despite his intentions. He situates the characters in the past but they all have the sensibilities of the present. There was a concern that the film would provide an anti-hero that the ‘right- wing’ could identify with and which would provoke copycat violence. Paul Schrader makes the valid point that Travis types, alienated males, could be triggered just as easily by adverts or television shows, and there is a section in the screenplay which describes this:
The T.V. is broadcasting Rock Time, a late afternoon teenage dance and rock show. On screen young teenyboppers are dancing and the T.V. cameraman, as any devotee of the genre knows, is relentlessly zooming in on their firm young breasts, asses and crotches – a sensibility which reflects Travis’ own. These supper-hour rock dance shows are the most unabashedly voyeuristic form of broadcasting the medium has yet developed.
Taxi Driver was a part of the emergence of a dissident vision that articulated the underlying tensions of American culture in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-hippie era; the honest expression of a real malaise at the heart of the culture. Joker had the potential to do the same for the dissident currents operating today, to offer a critique of the status quo which Hollywood movies and television shows now embody. The proliferation of alternative platforms has broken the monopoly on information and entertainment which the mainstream media held in the past. The stultifying orthodoxy of the establishment position articulated by these mainstream outlets, the lack of diversity when it comes to opinions, and the impossibility of thought in such a stifling atmosphere is driving away the more discerning viewers and bringing about its demise.
The empty rhetoric of political theatre and the self-congratulatory back-slapping complacency, which Joker shows to some effect in the Murray Franklin talk show scenes, is not far from the truth. We see the same rhetorical emptiness in the speeches of Senator Palantine as we do in the speeches of Thomas Wayne. We can imagine Travis being taken in by Trump’s rhetoric of ‘America First’ which he deployed to his advantage in 2016 despite lifting the slogan from a far more radical political movement advocating non-intervention in the run-up to World War II, which included the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. It’s very likely the idea to use that particular slogan came from campaign manager Steve Bannon who, knowing his history, also knew that it would trigger a reaction from the mainstream outlets who would much rather downplay that history. We can also imagine Arthur Fleck agreeing with Hilary Clinton about Trump supporters being ‘a basket of deplorables’ which backfired on her spectacularly just as the remarks by Thomas Wayne about ‘jokers’ empower a backlash against the rich in Gotham.
Yet far from ushering in a new form of nationalism Trump is the same old same old in a new guise, just as Obama was with his empty slogan of ‘Change’. Immigration has not stopped, the wall has not being built, the manufacturing base has not returned, and military involvement in the Middle East continues.
YOU DON’T LISTEN, DO YOU?
The will of a majority of the American people seems to be at odds with the will of the political establishment but, due to the dogmatic creed of democracy and equality, the de facto gulf is dissimulated by the de jure unity of being an American citizen. This sacred article of faith, which has always been debatable, is why there are taboos in place on discussions pertaining to race, to take one example among many. These taboos, and the mechanism of enforcement we call political correctness, are stifling and disabling honest expressions of disagreement in the mainstream media and increasing the detachment from political and civic life among the population.
A very good symbol of this division is the Starbucks ‘Race Together’ campaign which wanted to open a frank discussion on race in the wake of the Ferguson riots. It only stirred up latent tensions and uncomfortable statistics and was soon dropped.
This ‘woke capital’ trend among the corporations is back-firing quite badly at times. The support for the Black Lives Matter movement is another example of a tone-deaf media believing their own hype. The sanitised image of the Civil Rights movement with its airbrushed icons of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks was superimposed on the BLM movement. Unfortunately the leaders of the movement expressed themselves in such a ridiculous self-aggrandising manner that they alienated anyone with a sense of humour. That they were parroting the convoluted jargon of crusty old Marxist professors, who merely wanted to stoke up grievances and enlist them as foot soldiers in their war against the establishment, becomes even more comical when these professors don’t seem to realise that they themselves are the establishment’s pet rebels. As if it couldn’t get worse Pepsi decided to use an ‘iconic’ image of a BLM protest to sell its product. The discomforting reality of the race problem in America is transformed into a virtue-signalling opportunity for the brand.
If politics is downstream of culture then we could say that the cultural fragmentation seen in rise of the new media platforms and the diverse range of opinions are bound to come into conflict with the old guard establishment figures who still think they are the vanguard and operate as if there is a hegemony of opinion behind them when in reality they are on their last legs, propped up by corporate interests and croaking out vacuous slogans. The new alternative media is similar to the 17th Century proliferation of pamphlets caused by the rise of literacy, the technology of the printing press, and the ability to produce and disseminate ideas for minimal financial outlay. It is leading to the same fractiousness and bewilderment along with the reshaping of cultural discourse. Anyone with cheap editing sotware and an opinion can put their ideas online. The meme culture is an example of this unleashing of expressive possibilities.
Tatiania McGrath aka comedian Andew Doyle attempts to rein in the Orwellian excesses of the ‘woke’ culture by satirical mimicry on Twitter:
Meanwhile 14 year old ‘Soph’ goes head to head with her arch nemesis Greta Thurnberg in a video that epitomises the internet dissidence which Joker could have tapped into.
The business model where diversity is a strength, because it can adapt to a changing market, does not translate into a social model unless people are regarded as mere units of consumption and production, replaceable and instrumental. That is the real vulgarity of the age and Joker edges near to addressing the issue at times but scurries away. Appropriately enough, there is a repellent insect-like quality in Joachim Phoenix’s portrayal of the character; the writhing, smirking, effeminate mannerisms of a petulant misfit; the sullen withdrawals and strange contortions which bring to mind the image of a snail emerging from and retracting inside its shell. There was never any danger of the audience identifying with such a figure.
YOU’RE A FUNNY GUY…BUT LOOKS AREN’T EVERYTHING
The overwhelming effect of Joker is negative, despite some striking images, in part because there is no engaging dialogue and interaction between him and the other characters. Watching Taxi Driver again in comparison is to notice the wealth of character detail and comical banter which occurs among the working-class cabbies and the Wasp campaign staff. Scorsese talked of little gaps in the script where he could insert some cinematic idea, such as letting the camera follow Travis as he leaves the Cab Company, then sweep in a semi-circle to show the environs before returning to him again. The same applies to dialogue. In his interaction with Matthew aka Sport, the pimp, we see how comical Travis appears to a very different sensibility
There is nothing like this in Joker which merely assumes a mask of authentic dissent from forty years ago and plays at being significant while carefully avoiding stepping on anyone’s toes with it’s clown shoes. There is a thirst for Hollywood to produce real challenging cinema again, which is why this drew such large audiences and raised expectations. But the sad truth is that the studios, like Todd Philips, are never going to see the world from an alienated perspective because they are safely ensconsed within the status-quo and have nothing new to say. Scorsese and Schrader were both outsiders and misfits who found a way in and carried some of that experience over into the studio system.