JOKER. I am aware of the ex post facto politicization of Joker but I have not — will not — wade into that swamp. All art is a product of its time and place, of course, and this is a dark movie borne of dark times. To ascribe intent, though, to allow context to subsume the art itself or to transfer responsibility for the actions of individuals to a work of art by which they may have been influenced, is ignorant, often malicious and, especially in this age of diminished onus, increasingly dangerous. Art is a reflection of culture; one can hardly blame a mirror for the image one sees in it.
The complicating factor in all of this would seem to be the entry of comic book mythology into the contemporary canon. Comics exist in their own space and speak their own language. But in this moment, they have displaced the classics from which they draw their themes and tropes. Comics have become the classics: a mirror image of a mirror image of a mirror image made new as sacred text. And the characters therein have become archetypes themselves, the Joker as perhaps foremost example.
Where the smiling sociopath once represented a foil for the Batman, albeit a more complex and essential one than most, he has now become a canvas for examinations of villainy, and of notions of cause and effect.
Batman (1989), written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and directed by Tim Burton — and one of the most formative cinematic experiences of my youth — presents a Joker origin story, albeit a very brief one: Rakish ne'er-do-well Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), found philandering and double-crossed by his boss, is baptized in a chemical bath and reborn as a tyrannical clown. Nicholson takes great and obvious pleasure in the transformation, gleefully gnawing the exquisite scenery from behind his pancake makeup. But the transition, from mid-level thug to super-villain, is a precipitous one and serves mainly to move the story along. And despite the brilliance of Nicholson's performance, the character is dimensionally limited. He's a hoodlum with no remorse who hits the bad-guy lottery.
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), probably the most revered of a triptych that has become, to many, the definitive take on the Batman character, defines the Joker (Heath Ledger) by ambiguity and negative space. Ledger's version of the character is as much a cypher as a psycho: A preening menace, he constantly reinvents his own origin story, in his own words, grooming it for maximum psychological devastation in his victims. The movie itself leaves far more questions about the character asked than answered, though Ledger's subsequent self-medication death might indicate that he (and Nolan) had plumbed the darkness in getting at the unseen truth of the character.
(I think a discussion of Cesar Romero's portrayal on the Batman TV series from 1966 from 68 might belong elsewhere, as much as I love the show).
Joker, directed by Todd Phillips from a screenplay he co-wrote with Scott Silver, moves the character's arc back in time, both in the setting and its relationship to the Batman origin story, imagining Gotham City as a sort of Hell's Kitchen become whole city become suppurating garbage pile. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is not well: Malnourished, constantly smoking, he cares for his homebound mother Penny (Frances Conroy) but there no one cares for him. His near-catastrophic mental illness is subdued by a panoply of psychiatric drugs, at least until the city cuts funding to its mental health department. He's not particularly well suited to his job as a party clown, as evidenced by his carrying and subsequently dropping of a revolver as a children's hospital gig. His dream of becoming a stand-up comedian and appearing on Murray Franklin's (Robert DeNiro) late night talk show seems like it might only come true as a waking nightmare. Arthur's mental state declines — or crystallizes, depending on perspective — in concert with the dissolution of his personal and professional life, just as the city visits him with increasing violence. It's a pressure cooker and Arthur cum Joker is the relief valve.
Phillips, known mainly for making often hilarious, deceptively well-constructed dumb comedies, has really done something here cinematically. Joker has a distinct, immersive, fetid, gorgeous aesthetic. It plays out in a constructed world of exceptional depth and detail, suffused with decay and seething with barely restrained brutality. The lighting and camera moves (credit to director of photography Lawrence Sher and to production designer Mark Friedberg) add to the atmosphere of claustrophobia and enervation masterfully. The movie is undeniably beautiful to look at.
Phoenix, reinforcing my hypothesis that he may be one of the modern geniuses of physical comedy, lost a seemingly impossible amount of weight for this role, making himself over as an upholstered skeleton possessed of remarkable corporeal grace. He dances through as many scenes as he cries, his moves punctuated by terrible, involuntary, wheezing, staccato laughter.
The greatest significance of the Joker narrative lies in its nuance and deliberate ambiguity: Arthur blames society — do I hear echoes of that Repo Man speech? — for his lot in life and for his actions, and he is not wrong. Of course, he's not right either; the truth is in those contradictory notions held simultaneously. R. 121M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill