JOKER – Combining Virtual Reality with Real Worldly existence
Joker can be classified into the neo noir genre and is rather a dark film about depths of despair, depression, degeneration, desperation leading to death and general disorder, so graphically depicted that audiences come out disappointed and dispirited.
Hype, hysteria and hoopla over Todd Phillips’s directed film ‘Joker’ could be best summed up in Shakespearean statement ‘much ado about nothing’. Typical of tendency in human history and thought of reading too much hidden text, the world is doing threadbare analysis about this film’s moorings , meanings, motives – ignoring the main motive of moolah that moves all moviedom. After all, in commercial venture, cash is king and Marvel Comic Universe (MCU) driven cinema currently is ultimate cash cow (Avengers: Endgame broke all box office records). And while the going is good, why not combine the MCU of Batman with modern man’s muddled mind and social universe, thereby contextualizing content to current cultural symbols and common consciousness. This combination gives a bizarre, banal and somewhat surreal feel of having seen these disparate elements amongst desperate people.
This reason alone explains such intense reaction to the film. It also helped in creating interest in generation socialized in screen reality of the MCU( on paper pages before screen adaptation). So, one can observe the natural progression of bringing the virtual world of MCU to real world of real-life characters and universe. Joaquin Phoenix’s character Arthur Fleck encapsulates all essential elements that haunt modern man of megapolis. Actually, Phillips has ingeniously used the West’s post World War II abiding metaphor of the ‘Outsider’- an archetypical atomized, urbanized individual facing existential crisis and has linked it another Western proclivity of finding explanations of individual and societal neuroses in Freudian psychoanalysis ( film replaces the psychoanalyst’s couch with counsellor in chair).
Joker can be classified into the neo noir genre and is rather a dark film about depths of despair, depression, degeneration, desperation leading to death and general disorder, so graphically depicted that audiences come out disappointed and dispirited. The stunned silence of a shaken audience , after seeing such a sombre film, gives a feel of someone playing a joke, tricking them to see the film.
Actually, the Joker of Batman in MCU had no clear elaboration about his origins. Todd Phillips ingenuity lies in trying to discover the reasons that made the Joker of MCU a menacing villain and reconciling with the psychopathic character of this film; he linked the latter typically to parental neglect, unloved and uncared for childhood, mental health, urban existential issues. Joker is transformed from clown prince of crime due to accident in chemical factory into real world clown clad character of crime due to combination of childhood trauma , mental illness and unfortunate circumstances.
Maybe, Todd Phillips’ next natural progression would take him to reconcile virtual MCU with real existential universe by retelling a serial screen saga of a humanized Joker of the Batman Comic Universe. That way, he could have the best of both world in booking mega bucks in box office.
Honestly speaking, hype indeed has helped generating huge footfalls for Todd Martin’s rather ordinary film ‘Joker’. Basically , it is devoid of any originality whatsoever- be its storyline, scenic treatment, musical score, shot-making et al. But for Joaquin Phoenix virtuoso acting masterclass that showcases all shades of emotional spectrum, film would have passed unnoticed. Much like Jack Nicholson’s madman’s act in seventies film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Phoenix singularly holds audience hypnotically spellbound by sheer magic of his acting. Or to put it in popular parlance, his acting has made the actor and the character indistinguishable (much like De Niro, Brando, Daniel Day Lewis have done earlier in their films).
Film is symptomatic of how contrasting real-world existential universe is vis a vis Marvel Comic Universe. Last two decades, dominated by MCU, have created an alternate or virtual reality that is completely disassociated with actual reality ,with audience fully knowing the difference between the two. The virtual reality was accepted as natural extension of gaming world. Film like Joker disturbed this distinction by mixing the virtual with the real, leaving the gaming generation bewildered as to which world this character actually belonged .
One saw it coming for some time . Last two decades have seen box office domination of MCU’s super-heroes inhabiting virtual scenic screen world created by the CGI, VFX special effects; they entertained the child in us by acts/actions in children’s make-believe world ; but that cinema failed to connect or find identification with real life existence or real-life characters. As stated, Joker’s appeal lies in humanizing a MCU comic book character, embedded in popular consciousness, by bringing to earth with all too familiar human failings, fears ,fallibilities fostered by an edgy existence.
Besides multiple motifs of MCU, film also deploys age old motif of nihilistic individual whose pent-up repression finds violent release in retributive revenge that makes one’s senses shudder . Film also deploys time tested abiding metaphor of vigilante justice a la self-justification mode making moral dimension muddled. One could say that excessive violence in such films is seemingly sought to be justified and can be construed as a form of screen sublimation , making the individual avenge act against the wrong done by individuals and society acceptable to audience. It could be easily compared to universal motif of warring countr(y)ies justifying going to war in self-defense and blaming the other countr(y)ies irrespective of time and space in human history.
Todd Phillips has indeed pulled out a bagful of Joker’s tricks to trick one into believing in film’s originality. It ain’t a joke to prepare a potpourri containing images, plot , personalities and acts drawn from both the past and present. Film is a mélange of ideas, images, adaptation and interpretation of available material. His inspiration stems from serious ingestion of disparate elements emanating from pop culture, popular cinema and consciousness of past decades. This is amply evident in déjà vu feel of its storyline, script, screenplay shot making and scenic treatment. For example, film plays out the 1951 Red Hood character statements that world is ‘a black ,awful joke’ not worth fighting for and that it takes ‘one bad day’ to drive an ordinary man insane.
Todd Phillips is a tad honest in making no pretentious claim whatsoever to any originality or novelty in inspiration, conception or execution of the film. Film can be easily be called a master derivative or an update act with current motifs and dramatic elements of films of earlier era. Nothing is more illustrative than Phoenix adapting and accentuating the ceaseless, uncontrollable chuckle of Joker (Jack Nicholson) in Batman of 1989 ( also included in soundtrack of Batdance done by the Prince ). He openly acknowledges to drawing plot line primarily from Alan Moore’s book Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) and stretching back the search the pathological origins in Joker’s story arc that started in 1951 film ‘The Man Behind the Red Hood); and marrying it with multiple motifs of modern man ‘s megapolis life and living.
Todd Phillips integrates several motifs of Martin Scorsese films : Taxi Driver -1976 ( atomized individual, urban ennui, politicians promising the ‘promised land’ or ’heaven on earth’ in election, saving damsel in distress with bloody violence and winning popular acclaim ); King of Comedy -1983 ( high-strung stand-up comedian, aspiring for stardom through appearance in celebrity talk show , fixation of famous show host, taking name of actor Randall for a character in present film, open public confession of kidnapping crime and giggling ); Man Who Laughs (1928) with an incessant freakish grin as object of ridicule – a silent era film, with delayed release for releasing with sound to enhance impact of grin ringing for long . This ceaseless chuckle would ring again through Nicholson’s unnerving laughter in Batman’s Batdance . Phoenix maddening laughter is extension of the one in Batdance and is unsettling with its ubiquitous association with most madmen. One also sees elements drawn from films like Serpico-1973, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest ( Louis Fletcher’s role recall through heartless employer dealing with a group of odd men). One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest , though, was far deeper in depicting extreme societal control over individual, differential behavioral individual instincts and impact of control on individuals; this film is a plain portrayal of person afflicted with a mental illness and insecurities exacerbated by existential issues of livelihood and lack of guidance .
In addition to integrating elements from these films, Joker draws from several strands taken from real life issues affecting American life (i) anonymous, atomized individual existence of modern megapolis (ii) mental health issues afflicting individuals () massive mass insecurity over medical insurance including Medicare muddle (iii) opioid crisis that has affected individuals and families (over 20 million affected wherein over 10 million by opioid and over 9 m by prescription drugs besides heroin addiction and 130 people dying everyday (iv) shrinking State Support Programmes for the poor and unemployed ( vi) gun violence and intractable gun control issues (vii) unemployment, street arson and violence (viii) promise and failings of elections ( ix) very high suicide rate by white men now called as death of despair by rural, middle aged white men.
Film’s storyline has multiple motifs drawn from Batman from MCU : (i) unabashed adoption of names from Batman like Bruce Wayne and Gotham city ( ii) the incessant laughter of the Joker made famous by the iconic Batdance song by Prince (iii ) similar contextualization of Mayor and elections in the city (iv) all-pervading, intrusive presence of TV crews and interviews (v) disruption of city life with crowds indulging in looting, arson and violence (vi) childhood trauma of younger Batman (vii) crowd hysteria and city ticker parade a la Jack Nicholson in earlier Batman film (viii ) sombre mood of city caught in the grip of violence and arson (ix ) butler as protector of young Wayne (x) crime and unemployment (xi ) helpless state facing arsonists (xii)trigger happy rioters holding city to ransom.
Besides the above elements, scenic depiction gives a feeling of déjà vu of scenes from other films (i) low lit shooting of scenes are deployed to stimulate despairing moods and darker human instinct ( ii) street ramming of vehicles, arson and burning are repeated from Batman and other MCU films (iii) puking blood in spurts is from MCU films (iv) neon light lit city landscape of skyscrapers (v) staring from car’s back seat at city’s arson ( in fact one could substitute shot Phoenix’s face with Heath Ledger in Dark Knight) ( vi) use of lift with a difference of a ramshackle one used here to high speed ones in Batman films (vii) back alleys fights amongst dumpsters (viii) stalking, distant presence of detectives and long winding staircase that takes one to dark spots ( ix) killing by smothering by a pillow from OFOTKN (xii) make city great again from Taxi Driver and Batman film.
One can say that Todd Phillips’ unification of comical-fictional with fictional -real has created relatively far greater identification impact amongst audience; its unlike watching usual MCU superhero films where identification is infantile like . He has unified the traits of the do-gooder Batman and villainous Joker of Batman Comic Universe (BCU)in character of Arthur Fleck itself and this combination takes film closer to real life identification. Consider some easy identification elements : Joker has been shown to lovingly care for his old, sick mother only to turn cold and cold bloodedly murder her in retribution ; Phoenix stands up as a good Samaritan in saving the hapless girl in subway ; to highlight the human side, Phoenix lets go of the midget friend go unharmed; he stalks the love interest and shows a tender side. Thus, despite being depicted as mentally sick, his daily existential life is apparently normal .And he is shown to possess a sense of justice in saving the girl in train but that sense gets totally out of control in vengeful psychopathic execution style murders.
Unifying fictional tale threads from MCU with reality has made it easier for Todd Phillips to shun straddling moral turf and taking sides.
Film is reflective of times we live in – of information overflow and instinctive overdrive for immediate gratification. It finds correspondence in immediacy of reactive responses of irrational nature. The release of repressed rage becomes rather easy with easy access to guns ( America averages one mass shooting a day).
Film’s general tone is not life affirming but life -denying through destruction of the other or the self .And this may be due to sombre American mood afflicted by opioid crisIs, gun violence and unusual high suicide rates amongst white middle-aged men. Besides, this century’s custodian church‘s child abuse issues and MeToo shockers have accentuated individual’s uncertainties. Film uses the usual universal motif of rejection as root cause for irrational behavior.
Both Western theology and philosophy postulate that there is no other but only the self to contend and conquer to reach solution and salvation – much like the Eastern philosophy. Yet day to day popular consciousness is ridden with ascribing blame on the other -outside event/s, circumstance/s , individual/s- .And when things go apparently out of control, the enraged individual is archetypically seen and shown as letting out the steam by breaking things and firing bullets, depending upon intensity.
Todd Phillips’ filmography swings from the comedy genre ( Hangover trilogy) to violence ( War Dogs ) . For him then only natural progression could be from comic villainy to villainous real life and individual protagonist which he has done in this film.
Hollywood has always made violent films but depiction of graphic violence has been the domain of few like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino ; latter’s recent film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood typically depicted excessive violent scenes comparable to the Joker .
The bombs and bazookas blitzkrieg created through CGI in MCU, despite all the mind-numbing sound and fury sound effects, doesn’t really evoke any real recoil in audiences ,comparable to films like Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction or Joker . May be Todd Phillips wanted to create this effect.
Film Joker is an individual cinematic case study of unraveling anatomy of human destructiveness of an archetypical atomized individual in a magapolis ( Erich Fromm studied the same at societal level in human history).Film is a cinematic expression of decades old unsettled debate in the West between behaviourist and instinctivistic ( Nature Vs Nurture).And like the academic debate, after watching this film, one comes out unsettled which side to blame- bad biology or bad circumstances.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest(OFOTKN) was far deeper in depicting extreme societal control over individual, differential behavioral instincts of individual and impact of control on individuals; but this film is a plain portrayal of person afflicted with a mental illness and insecurities exacerbated by existential issues of livelihood and lack of guidance . Like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Joker is an intergenerational reel reminder of what defines madman ( its cine precursor was Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s film Psycho). OFOTKN was about some maladjusted individuals being normatively readjusted to return adjusted to live in normal society; Joker is about an archetypical maladjusted individual in a society beset with multiple socio eco cultural problems further compounding the problem.
It is Phoenix like acting masterclass of Joaquin Phoenix that has elevated the film to exceptional curiosity. Film is surely becoming another fine example of method acting as Phoenix lost twenty kg. to wear the wasted, emaciated look , kept unkempt look ( hairdo and facial makeup like Heath Ledger in Dark Knight), spoke in measured tones to convey lost in the world feeling, smoked in unsettling style, stared strongly to indicate intensity, tapped feet in an uncontrolled twitching, laughed loonily, walked and ran like a lunatic in the hospital, danced slo-mo tai chi style preceding impending storm and calmful celebration after cyclonic storm et al. His silences, stares, smoking, sitting, standing, sprint et al make it difficult to distinguish character from the actor.
One would simply run out of epithets expressing his exceptional, once in a life time acting and this film will become his defining moment. It’s in category of performances of Marlon Brando in Godfather, De Niro in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver, Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood or My Left Foot.
Though unsettling , there are several reasons for people finding ‘connect’ with the film (i) universal experience of people knowing directly or directly individuals with mental health issues (ii) latent gnawing guilt of not showing empathy towards such or less fortunate people (iii) propensity to justify grossly irrational behavioral patterns on someone, circumstance/s .
Film’s violence has stoked debated about negative Impact of such films -much in mode of chicken and egg argument; But then films alone can’t be blamed for causing violence as edgy individuals have always existed and Jack the Ripper was stalking London streets in nineteenth century much before cinema came into our lives and stopping films made on serial killers wouldn’t stop serial killers. It would be wrong to fault Jodie Foster for propelling John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981 .
Films come and go grabbing our attention for a while till some other film, incident or issue would grab and grapple us with attention- much like the pop ups are doing on screens in palms or tables in our lives now. Film isn’t an apology for a madman’s violence much like Dirty Harry blowing the brains of a killer was not espousing cause of a policeman’s delivering instant justice or Godfather was for don’s delivery of justice and circumventing the law. Films showing dacoits robbing banks came much later than gangsters looting banks in the USA. Of course, at times individuals go over the line like the young ground staff stole small plane at Seattle airport in 2018 to experience a ‘moment of serenity’ and flew excitedly only to crash knowing full well the outcome of the effort and admitted to being a broken guy with loose screws . Can one blame film like Jean Luc Goddard’s 1969 film Breathless or its Richard Gere reincarnated version of 1983 for such individuals? Certainly not.
To apply touchstone of rationality and to see logic governing affairs of men can be a tough act. Logic can prop up arguments both for and against almost anything. For example, everyone has a reason to retaliate; even terrorism has always found enough reasons ( see ISIS and suicide bombers). Even perpetrators of mass shootings in USA and Europe have justified their acts but to consider films stimulating such action is seeing a very limited perspective.
In fact, MCU Joker is humanized and integrated in normal human existential experience and reason why films is finding a connect of sorts. From queer to quintessential evil with unapologetic and umpteenth reason to retaliate and retribution.
Film repeats time tested tactic of using crescendo like music buildup causing anticipation of an unexpected edgy shocker. Similar musical score heightened scary anticipation of next situation.
Film’s camerawork in just fine. The aerial shots of trains is finely done. The aerial shots are becoming a staple fare much like zooming in and out became a fad when such technology came into use in the sixties.
Joker touches the recurrent question of psychoanalyst’s restricted role in behavioural change of maladjusted individuals. Are they merely filling the basic human need of finding someone to connect for just being listened to or are they actually reforming individuals. Undoubtedly, in modern megapolis society, with failing safety and support structures, pent up personal pressure is vented out through psychoanalyst’s patient hearing . With that possibility gone for Phoenix, the pent-up pressure found violent release.
Don’t’ read too much about what the writer director wanted to say. He just wanted to make a film that made money and name for film makers. Coincidentally, Phoenix phenomenal acting talent transformed the appeal of an ordinary film. As stated, Todd Phillips went about creating from all available cine material and current issues in popular consciousness. Film is simply a superb character study of an unfortunate individual. Don’t intellectualize the film when that wasn’t intended at all .It was a collision of virtual of MCU with real world on screen that aroused appeal. Nothing more and let us leave it at that.
At one level Joker reflects about the present generation growing up in MCU alternate reality that is completely disassociated with real world reality and difficulties in reconciling the two. The challenge is posed by living a dual life – one lived with gaming orientation and the other of real life, ridden with all real challenges posed by individual’s interaction with society and systems. Maybe film depicts the tough existence posed by modern society in transition; what happens to people with limited education and qualification for living in a world not needing them if converted to world driven by the Artificial Intelligence syndrome.
Film only novelty is reconciling the alternate virtual reality with actual reality by showing how a schizophrenic individual’s existential struggles combined with psychological scars caused by issues of approval , rejection and acceptance can affect society. This has touched a universal chord amongst audiences.