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Joker: Cinema Not Cynema

Joker is a horror movie.

I will classify it as social horror, while I’ve seen others label it psychological horror. As I find One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Se7en and to an extent Network as social horrors, Joker falls right into this category.

Cynema is not about “movie reviews” yet I have to tackle some of that to get to my point.

Joker is not Cynema, which is why I have taken the time write about it for this blog. However, it is Cinema.

What Warners and Disney have done with “comic book movies” can be debated forever and already more than enough has been written about their production and validity as real cinema. See the recent Martin Scorsese or Jennifer Aniston (?) flap to make a point. The important one is Scorsese’s opinion as he full out declared comic book films, particularly Marvel adaptations as theme parks and not real artistry, film or even close to cinema.

Scorsese

Ironically, Martin Scorsese was considered, and from what I have read, actually did consider directing Joker; and that leads me to invoking the grit films of the last Golden Era of American Cinema: The 70s.

Joker has been compared to Taxi Driver. It has the feel of Serpico, Dirty Harry and even The French Connection. From the very first frame of the cinematography, you are transported back to around 1981 but it feels more like 1974.

The film opens with the old school Warner Brothers logo…one I have not seen since the 80s at the front of The Shining, the Clint Eastwood Every Which Way But Loose or Dirty Harry films..  Its opening titles are a hybrid of old 70s and 80s with a dollop of 1930s. Oddly, there is a faint hint of Tim Burton’s set design here, cleverly interwoven into the realistic city and sets and fused with Nolan’s Chicago backdrop. The kicker is that we are completely transported back to New York City before its mid-80s transformation and renaissance.

“The End” comes up after a Charlie Chaplin-esque chase scene in Arkham Asylum with the old 1930s one-reel font style. All of this is calculated to evoke a Depression-era, slapstick feel. In many ways Joker is a nightmare Benny and Joon  with Phoenix as a grotesque Johnny Depp.

No Hope

It’s a pretty bleak setting. The sanitation strike piles up garbage that lines almost every street and alley way in the film. This is ancient Rome, complete with “Super Rats” and a city looking for its Caesar or Tiberius while feasting on Bread and Circuses with all eyes to Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Carson clone, Murray Franklin and his inexplicably popular live talk show. Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin and every other disenfranchised mentally disturbed guy we’ve come across in 70s, early 80s film.

With one click he could’ve been a Vietnam Vet and the scars of war brought him to his transformation. It’s not a slippery slope.

DeNiro is not cast happenstance here. Taxi Driver is this film’s soul but The King of Comedy is also a major ingredient in Joker. The entire film is a quasi valentine to Scorsese.

Gotham is New York City of the 1970s and if the production design is not nominated for an Oscar, it’s a crime of Gotham City proportions. I forgot I was watching a 2019 film and was completely transported back to an era long gone. The film is a visual delight and perfectly captures the look of 70s American cinema and yet, as I said, has small hints of Burton and Nolan peppered in there to let you know we are still part of the comic book universe.

Get It Out of the Way

Joker is artistry. It is narrative filmmaking restored to form and it has changed the evolution of comic book translations to screen. I will go as far to say that it makes Marvel’s films look silly…kid’s fare and cartoonish. Nolan’s Dark Knight series holds up far better against Joker but there are those that will argue nothing should be compared and to let Joker stand on its own accord. Fair enough.

However, I am not sure, after leaving the film,. that I want my comic books films so deep into reality territory. Someone correct me, but if we count Joker as a comic book film, it’s the first to have “fuck” dropped into it. I watched Godzilla King of the Monsters do the same earlier this summer and was disappointed in that aspect. For Joker’s world, it works and I get it.

Dark Times

I may have grown weary of the bleak, depressed super hero movie. Superman breaks Zod’s neck in Man of Steel, allows thousands to die and broods throughout while taking on an equally depressed and maniacal Batman in Batman vs. Superman. Even Nolan’s Dark Knight series offers hope, that there is still good out there and that PEOPLE are capable and DESERVING of that good.

Joker offers none of that.

People fucking suck. Society is shit and we get what we deserve. The best we can hope for is not pissing off the psychos that will eventually come for us all because we created them.

I don’t know if I want a Superman movie featuring a hardcore love scene. Picture Superman naked, on top of Lois Lane, slamming her good like Cavill and Adams or close ups of their orgasms or even moving into BDSM territory. I still like my Lex Luthor leaning toward Gene Hackman than Kevin Spacey’s knife-stabbing villain. Not sure I want Lex brutally murdering people with that psycho glint in his eye.

The dark thing has worked for Batman for sure. Tim Burton dispelled the ghost of the Adam West Batman TV series (which director Todd Phillips gives a wonderful, blink and you’ll miss it nod) and Nolan expanded into reality by ditching the cartoonish feel of the 80s films. (I exclude the Schumacher films which took the series backwards into TV series territory).

A friend once told me that the decline of comic books started when they stopped making them for kids. Once they catered to the older crowd that grew old with the industry, they abandoned the principles that made these worlds great. I was not a comic book kid growing up, so I can’t say he is right or wrong, but his convictions are firm as a he was that comic book kid.

These heroes are super heroes, right? They transcend human. So why the massive effort to take that away and make them human? I get it, and the new angles are always cool, but I gotta say, I prefer Chris Reeve’s “overgrown Boy Scout” Superman to Cavill’s brooding, GQ model angry guy.

And…Joker IS a Batman movie. Don’t let anyone tell you different. The Thomas and Bruce Wayne characters loom large here and behind everything. We are waiting for Bruce Wayne because we know this is the start of two dark journeys that will lead to a collision course.

It may be Joker’s story  but it is Batman’s movie.

Not A Review

Phoenix deserves a Oscar nomination at the least. Will the Academy do it after bestowing the honor for the role to another actor? We will see. The direction and editing have been scrutinized but what Todd Phillips does best is he allows us to stay on a scene a tad longer than we should. Lesser directors would’ve cut away from things to keep the beat and momentum of our MTV rapid-fire editing attention spans. Instead, Phillips allows his camera to come into a scene, inviting us, and then keeping us there so long we almost want to beg him to let us go. This is illustrated when Fleck kills his former co-worker, Randall. We feel for his little person co-worker who just wants to be let out of the apartment-turned crime scene. And so do we.

The cinematography takes us back into time and makes the illusion complete. Set design is phenomenal, down to the shit and grit on the walls, streets, trains and buses. Every car is perfectly used–I could just get lost in the art and production design of this film. Take notes, future set designers…this is the film to examine.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Joker is a masterpiece. It is a feast for the eyes and senses. There isn’t a single bad performance in the movie.

While some complained that the plot is flat, even “derivative” or Phillips’ direction uninspired and dull, I counter that Phillips wanted to get us into the mundane, the every day and build us up from there. Fleck’s transformation from a truly disturbed man who’s barely holding his shit together into the demi-god Joker in the final street scene is true filmmaking and he allows it to evolve without forcing the issue for audiences that require much of their entertainment spoon fed with ham fists.

There are no wild camera angles or moves here. Phillips uses a restrained style to let us flow with the narrative. This is back to 70s storytelling and those with attention disorders might find the film not only boring but “confusing.” That’s because it takes its time and doesn’t telegraph its plot in quick visual bites. There is nothing confusing in Joker. All you have to do is pay attention and appreciate good story telling.

That’s it. Joker is also a good analogy to the end of the Roman Empire…a society in decay and oblivious to its own demise. More on that below.

The Heart of The Matter

Joker hit me in the way that Fincher’s Se7en, Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or even Kaufmann’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers did.

It left me feeling there is no hope. The human race is fundamentally corrupt and awful and in the end, deserving of the shitty things that befall it. I had a rough childhood growing up, an unstable one where I felt the few moments of peace or stability were quickly taken from me. Joker tells us that those who worked, were not afflicted by mental illness are bad people and that whatever they worked for isn’t deserved and should be taken away by those less fortunate.

While Thomas Wayne is a prick in this film, and we are currently facing a backlash against the ultra rich in this society (a topic The Dark Knight Rises used as its central plotline) the film provides no hope or solution. Wayne is a Roman Trump-ish emperor, coming in to “save” the stupid masses…from themselves. Society is cold and harsh for those less fortunate. We treat each other like shit and in the end, we are as shitty as the subway floors and alleyways where Arthur is kicked and beaten into submission.

I have worked for everything I have. I grew up poor with rats in my dirt-floor basement, knocking them from my pantry shelves as a boy to fight for the puffed wheat cereal. My mother dated an alcoholic, abusive man who knocked my tooth out at the table for not asking for the salt. My nickname from this guy at home was “Little Faggot” and in school I was called a faggot because I couldn’t play sports and wasn’t as masculine I guess as some of the other guys.

I had no wealthy parents to lavish nepotism on me for filmmaking. I failed out of college, went back, paid for it myself by going into debt, paid off that debt and yada, yada, yada…I now make movies.

However I don’t make Max Landis level movies because I don’t have a father who made Animal House or Coming to America or American Werewolf. So maybe that’s why I don’t treat people  like assholes or abuse women with impunity.

Yet, I read almost daily that my race…my “white privilege” has put me so far ahead of others. I would like to know when that kicks in. Can someone let me know? So whatever I have, as little as I have in the film world, I feel is waiting to be taken away by people like Arthur Fleck. I lived next door to people who needed their meds, didn’t take them and felt it was okay to help themselves to what I had because they deemed me as “having too much.”

Close To Home

So there was a moment at the end of Joker when DeNiro gives his “so you felt it was okay to shoot three guys because they were dicks” speech that I found myself nodding with him. And I had to catch myself because Arthur is sick. He had a horrid life of physical abuse by a mother who should wasn’t fit to raise a hamster let alone a child. Arthur was probably made mentally unstable from brain damage as to the abuse inflicted upon him. he turned around and took care of the mother who allowed it, but she was also disabled by her own illness.

So?

Is everyone in society sick? What the fuck happened and HOW did we get here?

The film had me despising Arthur and yet, chastising myself for being unsympathetic to him and what brought him here. But in that respect should we afford people like John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy the same respect? Let’s go all the way and excuse Hitler’s bad behavior on his own home problems, abuse and mental illness possibly coming from syphilis.

Where do we draw a line? Will compassion help this situation? How do we reign in the pharmaceutical industries or how do we streamline the social welfare system to get the people that really need  help the help they need?

I don’t know and that’s why I left the film with bleakness in my heart. I wanted to pack my things, head out west into Montana or Wyoming and never see another human being again.

I still feel that way as I write this.

So I am guilted for being born white. Now I am guilted for working my way up and for what I have done for myself?

I have to afford compassion for people who kill? For people who can’t or won’t abide by society’s rules? I have to look at the story of each child molester, killer or dangerous individual? Is that what I have to do?

…should we afford people like John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy the same respect? Let’s go all the way and excuse Hitler’s bad behavior on his own home problems, abuse and mental illness possibly coming from syphilis.

And while Fleck does not seem a danger to children; I don’t know if I can find compassion for a real-life pedophile who records his abuses for his own entertainment or to share on the Dark Web with other sick individuals. I don’t know if I believe people like that can be rehabilitated. I don’t know if people with severe mental illnesses should be out there in the streets, driving cars or having children.

I feel there are no answers. I feel there is little hope for us, as a species, to clean up our act. We will struggle along until we finally just collapse in on ourselves. Joker is foreshadowing, a sneak peek to the inevitable ending. Even Batman is a temporary fix. Batman can’t change attitudes or values.

Batman and his kind are chemotherapy. It might stall the progress of the cancer, but the cancer is eventually going to get you.

Rome Is Burning

The film is an allegory to Rome in its final years of decline. The masses became dumb and fat on victory…becoming detached from their government and their moral responsibilities. “Living wages” were created inside the fat, victorious empire, allowing people not to work, take “The Dole” and get lost in endless entertainments while oblivious to the cancer growing from inside their society.

The Barbarians amassing outside their realm, sharpening their knives to breach the gates are the masses in Joker in their clown masks, ready to tear down Gotham’s walls to get the indifferent elite that shunned them for so long. Thomas Wayne imperiously dismisses the downtrodden as clowns, and unwittingly gives birth to a monstrous movement.

That is our society today. Roughly ten individuals on this planet control almost all of its wealth. We live in a world where celebrities flaunt excess at every turn to idol-worshiping dumb fans. The middle class is all but gone, dollar stores and austerity have crept into our regular worlds while the elite dine in towers, on super yachts and wag their fingers about climate change while their excess is the heaviest carbon footprint of all.

America is Gotham and we have our Jokers as the cynical media campaigns loved to point out up to and after the film’s release.

What we need is a Batman and I don’t see one in sight because the system allows for the reality of a villain like Arthur Fleck.

It does not allow the same building blocks for a Batman. Our Bruce Waynes are running online stores or social media empires, sucking up attention for space programs or caught in a dead pedophile’s sex ring.

Right now I would settle for just a Jim Gordon at this point.

I left the movie thinking the Joker goes unchallenged. I left without hope and contempt for my fellow man.

Todd Phillips and Phoenix would be pleased.

You can find the Podcast version of Cynema on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play Music and everywhere.