Shorts In The Dark

A peek into the Joker's mind

When the film ended, I instinctively looked around for my mask before I realised I was wearing it already.

 |  Shorts In The Dark  |  5-minute read |   19-10-2019
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Todd Phillips' Joker sucks you into its tunnel-vision dystopia right away. It's a seductive portrayal of the mental dissolution of one man, a sexy downward spiral, a glorious, gory slide into the abyss.

The unravelling of the self is paired with the theme of a city falling to pieces, each instigating the other's descent into an incandescent oblivion, the only state of purity available and possible in such apocalyptic times.

Not a typical DC film

It's 1981. Gotham City is witnessing a typhoid epidemic; mass protests against the wealthy; attacks by swarms of killer rats; a crumbling economy.

As the city's infrastructure unspools, so does its moral fibre. Joker has enough going on for the Batman/ comic book/ Martin Scorsese/ clown movie nerds, but you can watch it as a standalone film, requiring no prior familiarity with the Batman mythology.

It's not the typical comic book film that relies heavily on overt special effects.

Joker has provoked three kinds of responses. Outrage, if one interprets it as a celebratory ode to the mass shooting culture that afflicts the US.

It is feared that the movie could inspire more mass shooters. Indeed, in parts of the country, it was screened under heavy security.

The second response, in defence of the film, came from an unlikely quarter, the Leftist writer and filmmaker, Michael Moore, who wrote: "The greater danger to society may be if you DON'T go see this movie. Because the story it tells and the issues it raises are so profound, so necessary, that if you look away from the genius of this work of art, you will miss the gift of the mirror it is offering us."

The third reaction is of the viewers who were left not shocked but underwhelmed, a clear case of the hype backfiring. Joker does have a deceptive simplicity. It's not as dense and complex as Fight Club. There is a lot here that is singular. Joaquin Phoenix, angular and gaunt, exudes an intense physicality, especially when he's dancing.

This isn't conventional dancing, but an outward manifestation of inner turmoil that temporarily heals the self and makes it complete. Each awkward move is an unwritten dialogue. There is a mannered grace to the spontaneous alternating eruptions of bloodletting and dancing.

Phoenix's Arthur Fleck aka Joker is a struggling comic with a condition that makes him burst out in uncontrollable, scything peals of laughter in public. It makes him vulnerable to acts of gratuitous violence.

Fleck is on seven kinds of medication, a detail that gives the film a distinctive mental illness track. He goes off his meds. Budget cuts mean the government is pulling back on mental health workers. This has parallels with contemporary America and Britain.

Personal hell

Fleck enjoys a tender relationship with his mother (Frances Conroy) up to a point. He lives with her in a dilapidated flat, bathes her, feeds her and even dances with her.

This offers him his only chance of normalcy, until he discovers that even his mother's 'normal' is compromised. That really breaks him.

Fleck keeps a notebook in which he writes his jokes, sticks pornographic pictures and jots down one-liners: "The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave like you DON'T"; "People are finally beginning to notice that I exist"; and "I just don't want to feel so bad anymore."

The sense of insolvable alienation, and the acts of violence accompanying it, is heightened by an outstanding cello score by Hildur Gunadottir.

It captures the brooding shackled soul as well as the soul breaking these chains and soaring, however briefly. It bares howl and anguish even as it provides succour, a bloody balm.

Joker has been interpreted as an indictment of contemporary media, politics and mass culture. The joker becomes an unlikely beacon for the anti-rich protesters; clown mask-wearing citizens of Gotham City crowd the subway in protest. Everyone is looking to the madman for salvation.

A new franchise

To me, in many ways, Phillips' retelling of Joker's character marks a triumph of capitalism. It's a shining example of globalised existentialism. This is a director with his finger on the pulse of a worldwide audience. He does this not by compromising on particularity (Joker is entirely American), nor by creating a universally accessible franchise clown, like Ronald McDonald.

Phillips instead creates Fleck, an everyman loner with mental health issues, and transposes him against the casual everyday cruelty that we are all capable of.

What he creates is a memorable character and houses him in a building with doors and windows left slightly ajar. This allows the viewer anywhere to engage with the film on a thoroughly personal basis, to establish a personal spiritual connect.

A viewer of any class or gender can consume Joker in any language, in any continent, in a big city or small-town. No wonder it's a worldwide phenomenon. I'd never have thought that a big budget studio film could mine so much darkness, avoid any kind of moralising and make pots of money.

When the film ended, I instinctively looked around for my mask before I realised I was wearing it already.

By the time I reached the auditorium exit I was laughing hysterically and without care.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: War's success shows critics and audiences differ on what is a good film


Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

The writer is the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'

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