Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 3, 2019

Joker

Filed under: Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

The first thing that strikes you about Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is its open homage to two of Martin Scorsese’s films: “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”. From “Taxi Driver”, it borrows the main character’s borderline personality and the portrayal of New York City as hell on earth. Travis Bickle, the Vietnam vet evidently suffering from PTSD, puts it this way: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

While “King of Comedy” is not considered vintage Scorsese, it was made to order for Todd Phillip’s main character Arthur Fleck, whose last name even evokes De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver”. In “King of Comedy”, De Niro plays an aspiring stand-up comedian who idolizes Jerry Langford, the Johnny Carson-like late night host played by Jerry Lewis. To connect with Scorsese’s film, De Niro is cast as late night host Murray Franklin in “Joker” but with much more of a mean streak—think of David Letterman waking up on the wrong side of bed. Now about the same age as Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy” and endowed with the same kind of geezer cockiness, De Niro is the best thing about “Joker”.

Unlike the muscular and fearless Travis Bickle, Arthur Fleck is a downtrodden sad sack who has been picked on his whole life. We meet him working as a clown on the streets of New York in 1981. He holds an advertising sign above his head meant to draw customers into the shop he dances about in front of. Within a few seconds, a gang of teens (mostly Latino, it appears) grabs the sign from him and runs down the street with him in hot pursuit. When he catches up with them in an alley, they beat the living daylights out of him. One cannot be sure of director Todd Phillip’s intention, but this evokes the “wilding” episodes of the 1990s that gained notoriety through the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five. Or perhaps Phillips simply wanted to indicate that the city was infested with sadistic teens.

More directly related to the period, Fleck is riding the subway home late at night in his clown costume when a trio of drunken “Wall Street” guys (employees of the future Batman’s father Thomas Wayne, as it happens) begin to harass a young woman seated opposite them. Afflicted with a mental illness that turns out to be sui generis, Fleck begins to laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately. This draws the trio’s attention away from the woman and toward Fleck who is carrying a pistol that a fellow clown gave him for protection (and to make a few bucks through the sale.) When they begin to beat and kick him, he shoots two to death on the subway car and pursues the third in the station, who becomes his last victim. This incident will remind any New Yorker of the Bernhard Goetz attack on four black teenagers in a subway car in 1984. Goetz, a white technician, fired bullets from an unlicensed pistol into all four because he felt that they were trying to rob him.

This scene is simply unbelievable. Anybody who works on Wall Street in an obviously well-paying job, drunk or not, is the last person who will harass a total stranger on a subway train. Most New Yorkers, especially those dressed in business suits, simply want to be left alone. To advance his plot, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver, tried to connect the dots between Thomas Wayne and the future Joker by having him kill the three white-collar workers in his employ. If I had been in a writing session with the two, I would have warned them against such an unlikely act of aggression by people who work in cubicles. Then again, they probably calculated that this would make no difference to a theater audience that cared so little about logic. This is 2019, after all.

Phillips’s problem is that he wanted to capture the malaise of New York City in the early 80s, but blend it with the Batman story. In previous films drawn from the comic book, Gotham (i.e., New York) was much more mythical. In Tim Burton’s hands, there was no attempt to draw analogies with the real city. Most of the action occurred indoors with Jack Nicholson as the Joker stealing every scene. In Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight”, we see more of Gotham’s street life but it is even more disconnected from New York (it was filmed in Chicago.)

Unlike Nicholson and Ledger’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is no master criminal. He is a pathetic figure who makes Walter Mitty look like a hard-nosed realist. Each night he watches De Niro’s Murray Franklin and fantasizes about making an appearance on his show. He does make an appearance one night but not in the fashion he hoped for. One of Franklin’s assistants gets his hands on a video recording of Fleck bombing at a comedy club. Nobody laughs at his jokes and when he himself begins to have one of his psychotic laughing bouts, he is shown the door. When Fleck sees himself being humiliated on national TV, he begins to plot his revenge.

At this point, he is beginning to resemble Travis Bickle who was humiliated by election campaign aide Cybill Shepherd, who was so aghast at his taking her to a 42nd Street porn movie for a date that she told him never to contact her again. In retaliation, he decides to assassinate the liberal politician she is working for.

What makes Todd Phillips a second-rate director/screenwriter compared to Martin Scorsese, who he obviously reveres, is character development. In “Taxi Driver”, we get to know Travis Bickle intimately. Throughout his haunting voice-over monologues that we hear as he drives across city streets late at night, we understand his pain and alienation. We also learn more about his motivation in his conversations with fellow workers and even the campaign worker who found him physically attractive, if clearly “off”. But most of all, the scenes between De Niro and Jodie Foster, playing a 12-year old streetwalker, are some of the most poignant in any film made in the 1970s. Showing a paternal care for her that makes his ultimate violent explosion logical, we see a consistency that is utterly lacking in “Joker”. Throughout the entire film, there is almost no dialog between Fleck and other characters except his mother who is as disturbed as him. In one particularly grotesque scene, he is shown scrubbing her back when she is taking a bath. The only time he expresses himself is when he begins to laugh uncontrollably, like someone with Tourette’s Syndrome shouting four-letter words out of the blue in public.

About that laughing disorder, I checked on it the day after seeing “Joker”. People magazine claims that while the movie never identifies the specific illness, such fits of controllable laughter are based on an actual disorder called the Pseudobulbar Affect, or PBA. When you check Wikipedia on the Pseudobulbar Affect, however, you learn that it has nothing to do with schizophrenia or any other psychosis. Instead, it is connected to a neurological disorder or brain injury. Some researchers look to the role of the corticobulbar pathways. When there are lesions, you can see a failure of voluntary control of emotions.

Obviously, Phillips is not interested in lesions. For him, the laughing goes hand in hand with Fleck’s mental illness that is obviously schizophrenia. Proof of that is his hallucinations of having a romance with a woman who lives down the hall from him. On the day of his appearance on the Murray Franklin show, he walks into her apartment unannounced (the door was unlocked—another touch of illogic in this script) expecting to enjoy some intimacies. When she walks in, she says, “Aren’t you the guy who lives down the hall? What do you want”. When he acts as if she was his girlfriend, she tells him to leave or else she will call the cops.

Obviously this rejection primes him to fire a bullet into Murray Franklin that evening on national TV. His psychosis has finally matured into the condition that will identify him as the Joker from that moment on. This is not the first time that a connection has been made between mental illness and the Joker. In a November 4, 2007 interview with the NY Times, Ledger described his character as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”.

Schizophrenic? In film today, there are very few nationalities that can still be demonized routinely without pushback. Arab terrorists obviously remain the number one favorite of Hollywood hacks, but “crazy people” come in second with hardly anybody taking up their cause. The reality is that schizophrenics never carry out attacks for revenge, such as was the case with Fleck’s killing of Murray Franklin. By and large, they carry out acts of violence against total strangers who voices in their head direct them to push in the path of an oncoming subway train, etc. Another typical victim is the schizophrenic himself who the voices condemn as not worth living.

The best way to prevent such tragedies that are becoming more and more common as hospitals were emptied of the mentally ill years ago after psychotropic drugs like Thorazine were developed is to develop a support network. If they are taken under supervision in group homes, medicated properly, and have social workers looking after them, the violence decreases. There is an allusion to that in “Joker” in  a scene between Fleck and a psychotherapist but that hardly makes up for the utterly backward portrayal of someone suffering from a mental illness.

My advice is to wait for this movie to show up on Amazon Prime. It is certainly not worth the $15 you’d have to pay for it at your local Cineplex. Why it has garnered such raves, including from those on the left who would have you believe it is the second coming of “Battle of Algiers”, is simply beyond me.

 

30 Comments »

  1. a beef i have with the movie, and it also was exemplified in the Batman movie with Bane, is that discontents and people lashing out against the oppressive system are depicted as mentally ill… Joker is clearly mentally ill but that illness can serve as a cover for the repressive capitalist system… The same dynamics were at work in the movie Black Panther…. those rising up against the established order are motivated and misguided by criminal mindsets or mental illness…

    Comment by James McCallum — November 4, 2019 @ 5:24 am

  2. All these rotten reviews make absolutely no sense. U are diving way to deep into the meaning of the movie. The movie isn’t meant to make a political statement. It’s meant to tell the story of a extremely loved villain. That is literally all it is. It’s an origin story. This is how the Clown Prince of Crime came to fruition. So like stop trying to make something out of nothing and enjoy the film for what it is SUPPOSED TO BE. Not what you want it to be 👌👌👌

    Comment by Michael Garlinghouse — November 5, 2019 @ 2:46 am

  3. 8122922387. Text me and lasts have an intelligent conversation on how you sir are wrong #fuckingretard

    Comment by Michael Garlinghouse — November 5, 2019 @ 3:33 am

  4. Your issue with the portrayal of mental illness is not a problem with this film, but with the character of Joker, and by extension, supervillians of all kinds. The very point of the character is that no sane person would possibly do what he does for the reasons he does it. Therefore, he must not be sane. The specific mental illness is about as important as a specific super power, that is to say, not very. And just like if a super power is made up, so what if the mental illness is? In fact, wouldn’t that make mental illness less stigmatized, if they had to invent one just to get a character to be crazy in this way? If you are depicting a character whose motivations are guided completely by impulse, chaos, and destruction, do you actually think it is possible to have them be depicted as sane? And likewise with Thanos- someone who is delusional so fully that they not only accept but actively try everything in their power to kill half of the universe is at least as pathological. Let’s see… there’s scarecrow, magneto, green goblin, red skull, juggernaut, lex luthor, ozymondias… the superhero genre lends itself well to depicting various forms of pathology. Why? Because it is interesting and we rarely or never see it in our daily lives, and novelty sells. Combine that with violence selling, and there you have it- most of the supervillians of our times.

    This leaves you with two options that preserve your consistency- either speak out against all films depicting any form of mental illness in any way less than glowing, (I’d be happy to be proven wrong, but I don’t imagine you called out Batman Begins, X-men, Spiderman, Captain America, Deadpool, Superman, Watchmen, or others for this), or accept that when a character’s nature depends on them having a mental illness, creators can take liberties with the depiction (as they do with doctors, lawyers, homeless people, bartenders, and everyone else under the sun). Unless you can see a clear attempt to demonize mental illness a la Reefer Madness with pot, that’s probably not the intent, and we, as a people, are smart enough to not need to be shielded from anything less than 100% authentic.

    Comment by Jimmy — November 5, 2019 @ 7:08 am

  5. I wonder if this critic has any experience growing up like Arthur. I’ve witnessed plenary of high paying suits act exactly like that. I’ve seen that exact social inequality as well. I think it added to the movie and I personally liked it because it shows another side of life and how some live it

    Comment by Joey Garcia — November 6, 2019 @ 2:40 pm

  6. This is a horrible review from a person who obviously did not understand the movie at all. If anything is demonized throughout this film, it’s the way society treats and reacts to the mentally ill. You actually reviewing here, or you just trying to hate on something because it’s better than you?

    Comment by Daniel — November 6, 2019 @ 4:32 pm

  7. What kind of moron are you? I understand that the film disapproves of the way that schizophrenics are treated. My point is that Todd Phillips has about as much of an understanding of schizophrenic behavior as I do of quantum physics.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 6, 2019 @ 8:00 pm

  8. “It also distorts NY realities in the early 80s.” joker isnt set in NY how is this person allowed to review movies if they have no idea what there talking about

    Comment by Brendan — November 6, 2019 @ 11:10 pm

  9. It isn’t set in NY? What city had the subways Fleck went back and forth on other than NY? Toledo, Ohio? Tucson, Arizona? Also, you need to finish high school. It is not “what there talking about”. It is “what they’re talking about”.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 6, 2019 @ 11:36 pm

  10. “Obviously, Phillips is not interested in lesions. For him, the laughing goes hand in hand with Fleck’s mental illness that is obviously schizophrenia.”

    Wow, you clearly weren’t paying attention. “Obviously” the uncontrollable laughing is attributed to brain injury, as you can clearly see on the card that is handed to the lady on the bus. It is also implied, much later, that this happened when Fleck was beaten as a child. Where you watching the movie?

    The imaginary relationship with neighbor can be more easily attributed to a daydream, like the appearance on the talk show, rather than schizophrenia. Fleck is desperately lonely and imagines a better life so he can cope with his situation. He leaves, when asked by the neighbor, because he knows the relationship is not real. If he was delusional he would never leave so easily.

    The whole wall street bros scene on the subway, minus the shooting, has played out many times in my real life. Perhaps you have not been to a bar where wall street bros hang out? Many of the lines delivered were word for word, to what I have seen, when drunk/coked up bros think they are gods gift to women and don’t know when to take “no” as an answer.

    You are way off base on this review.

    Comment by gb0101010101 — November 8, 2019 @ 7:13 am

  11. Its Gotham City not NY

    Comment by Bobsen — November 8, 2019 @ 12:07 pm

  12. Some thoughts as I read your review…

    “a gang of teens (mostly Latino, it appears)”

    And?

    “Anybody who works on Wall Street in an obviously well-paying job, drunk or not, is the last person who will harass a total stranger on a subway train.”

    What struck me as wrong about this scene was not that they were harassing a stranger on the subway, but that they were riding the subway. These guys get cars home when they leave after dark.

    “Goetz, a white technician, fired bullets from an unlicensed pistol into all four because he felt that they were trying to rob him.”

    They WERE robbing him. I guess your way of describing it is true though; people who are robbing you are also trying to rob you.

    “There is an allusion to that in “Joker” in a scene between Fleck and a psychotherapist…”

    There was more than an allusion to this. Fleck visited a therapist/social worker regularly, until the funding was cut for the program that he was in. We don’t see him visiting a therapist again until he’s locked up, and the scene with her is an echo of the scenes with the other therapist in the beginning — with a different outcome, of course.

    “It is certainly not worth the $15 you’d have to pay for it at your local Cineplex.”

    You paid only $15? I paid $20! Damn. Mine was a 70mm screen though. I guess that’s a $5 perk.

    “Why it has garnered such raves, including from those on the left … is simply beyond me.”

    I agree. I think it’s disturbing, but not in a good way. The intense close-ups and the music that is more in the foreground than the scene it plays during, are more manipulative than anything else. I’ll see it again — maybe I’ll change my mind about it the second time — but I’ll wait until I don’t have to pay for it.

    Comment by Robert Green — November 8, 2019 @ 12:23 pm

  13. Wow, you clearly weren’t paying attention. “Obviously” the uncontrollable laughing is attributed to brain injury, as you can clearly see on the card that is handed to the lady on the bus. It is also implied, much later, that this happened when Fleck was beaten as a child. Where you watching the movie?

    Did getting beaten as a child also cause him to hallucinate that he was in a relationship with the woman down the hall, a clear reference not to neural damage but schizophrenia that has nothing to do with getting beaten?

    Comment by louisproyect — November 8, 2019 @ 1:04 pm

  14. Its Gotham City not NY.

    Yes, they call it Gotham City but for all practical purposes it is NYC.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 8, 2019 @ 1:13 pm

  15. louisproyect, You’re not making any sense, “Yes, they call it Gotham City but for all practical purposes it is NYC”, really?

    Comment by Anndrew — November 8, 2019 @ 4:33 pm

  16. You fan boys might not get it but everybody else does. This is from a top film critic who has the same take as me:

    The first dramatic scene in “Joker,” which is set in a grungy and turbulent New Yor— I mean, Gotham City, seemingly around 1980 (judging from details of décor), shows a clown, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), on a busy street in midtown, working as a sign twirler for a music store. A group of teen-agers of color hassle him and steal his sign. He chases them into a garbage-strewn alley (the city is in the midst of an apocalyptic garbage strike), where one kid hits Arthur in the face with the sign and knocks him down. Then the whole group swarms him, pummels him, kicks him, and leaves him bruised and bleeding and sobbing, alone, in the filthy alley. The crime alluded to is the attack wrongly attributed to five young men mislabelled as the Central Park Five—an attack on an isolated and vulnerable white person by a group of young people of color. The scene waves away history and says, in effect, that it may not have been those five, but there was another group out there wreaking havoc; they’re not figments of a demagogue’s hate-filled imagination—here they are, and they’re the spark of all the gory action that follows.

    What follows, soon thereafter, is another scene of brutality: Arthur, whose beating is the talk of the locker room at the clown agency for which he works, is handed a gun by a blustery colleague named Randall (Glenn Fleshler). When Arthur is assaulted on the subway by three young men (whites, in suits), he pulls out the gun and fires—and even pursues one of the men onto the platform in order to shoot him dead. It’s an evocation of the shooting, in 1984, by Bernhard Goetz, of four teen-agers in a subway who, Goetz believed, were about to rob him. They were four black teen-agers, and Goetz, after his arrest, made racist remarks. In “Joker,” the director, Todd Phillips (who wrote the script with Scott Silver), whitewashes Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive and turning it into an act of self-defense gone out of control.

    https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/joker-is-a-viewing-experience-of-rare-numbing-emptiness

    Comment by louisproyect — November 8, 2019 @ 4:52 pm

  17. I felt weirdly numb after watching this movie. I also still can’t decide if I really liked it or not. The only part of your review that I along with other commentators disagree with is your claim that Wall Street bros don’t behave that way. I have lived in both NYC and Denver and I know for a fact that this is a typical Wall Street/tech bro (basically the same thing?) behavior

    Comment by Ginger rodgers — November 8, 2019 @ 7:05 pm

  18. I know for a fact that this is a typical Wall Street/tech bro (basically the same thing?) behavior

    —-

    Throwing french fries at a well-dressed white woman? Not likely…

    Comment by louisproyect — November 8, 2019 @ 9:37 pm

  19. Seriously?! The New Yorker? Trés bourgeois!

    Comment by Janet Avery — November 9, 2019 @ 12:23 pm

  20. Evidently, you have no idea who Richard Brody is or his politics.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 9, 2019 @ 12:53 pm

  21. Wow, a critic who clearly has no understanding of mental illness. Arthur Fleck clearly does not have Schizophrenia in this film. You assume because he is a murderer, that he must have Schizophrenia as a diagnosis, because of the stigma surrounding that particular illness. I recommend that you do actual research before you write articles on movies, instead of spreading falsehoods about Schizophrenia. I have written multiple books on the subject that can be bought on Amazon or read on my website for free.

    Comment by Dan Hoeweler — November 10, 2019 @ 2:49 pm

  22. What the fuck are you talking about? He hallucinates that he is in a relationship with the woman down the hall from him. What other mental illness is associated with hallucinations?

    Comment by louisproyect — November 10, 2019 @ 4:21 pm

  23. Did this guy not see the movie? The director wasn’t interested in lesions? What does he think that scene in the mental hospital with the records was all about? Is the reviewer this obtuse and lacking any insight? Her boyfriend beat the young boy so badly he has lost both the memory of it and probably suffered the brain trauma that led to his condition. Duh. What a stupid and short sighted review. Oh, and why does this reviewer think a bunch of young drunk Wall Streeters wouldn’t harass a pretty young woman on a train? A. We are living in the post-Me Too era and this schmuck still doesn’t get it? Of course they would! B. He doesn’t know or get young entitled men of priviledge….they can be more deadly than any gang of impoverished street toughs of color. This reviewer is so dense, its rather sad.

    Comment by The Joker — November 10, 2019 @ 9:29 pm

  24. Another schmuck weighs in. Two things don’t go together. Neural damage that causes uncontrollable laughter and hallucinations. If it makes you feel good to accept such horse-shit, be my guest.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 11, 2019 @ 12:31 am

  25. You are the schmuck, louis. The talk show host is Murray Franklin, not Murray Benjamin. How do you expect anyone to take your reviews seriously with mistakes like that. You have zero credibility.

    Comment by Joey Magadonuts — November 11, 2019 @ 4:12 am

  26. So it was Franklin rather than Benjamin. That’s a mistake. Now if I could only get the imbeciles to admit that their failure to understand that Pseudobulbar Affect and schizophrenia have nothing to do with each other, then we’d be making some progress.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 11, 2019 @ 12:41 pm

  27. The behaviour of those rich white young men on the subway is 100% believable. I empathised with that woman and felt like I had even met them in real life. They exist, believe me.

    I thought it was implied that when he discovered his mother’s file and found out about the abuse he suffered as a child that in fact that was the reason for his uncontrollable laughter. It made much more sense, and he even confronted his mother about it before he killed her. It wasn’t mental at all, it was a physical defect as a result of head trauma, no? That’s how I took it anyway.

    I thought the film was phenomenal and it deeply affected me.

    Comment by Amy — November 15, 2019 @ 3:46 am

  28. The behaviour of those rich white young men on the subway is 100% believable.

    I see you spell behavior the British way. I’ve only lived in NYC on and off for close to fifty years and have never seen white men in suits on a subway caar behaving anything remotely resembling this scene in “Joker”. But for fan boys and girls of this shitty movie, there seems to be some need to defend it. Go figure.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 15, 2019 @ 1:10 pm

  29. The movie is set in Gotham City… it is fiction. Your research into mental illness is more insulting than anything that was in Joker. The fact that you used People and Wikipedia only highlight your inability to do research. I bet when you google searched whatever salad of letters you typed, you scrolled passed the research articles from peer-reviewed journals until you recognized a brand that is capable of dumbing it down to your level. Straight out of Idiocracy… Again, the movie is set in Gotham City which is a fictional location in the Batman universe; you should check it out.

    Comment by Hal Lott — November 18, 2019 @ 9:57 am

  30. Yeah, it says Gotham City. But every single street scene and every subway ride is New York. Plus, two of the main scenes are drawn from NYC history: a wilding episode in which the clown’s sign is stolen and his subsequent Bernie Goetz type attack on the subway car. Okay, you putz, go ahead and find any documentation of a mental illness that combines schizophrenia and the Pseudobulbar Affect. It is just made-up bullshit that exploits mental illness as a kind of threat to normal people, like a TV talk show host.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 18, 2019 @ 2:49 pm


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