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Leading character Arthur Fleck’s confessional quote ‘I’m not political’ is the key to unpacking the Joker, writer/director Todd Phillips’ controversial Halloween 2019 film. This response, upon being asked if his make-up of choice is in relation to the mass uprisings in Gotham perpetrated by people wearing clown masks in direct reference to Fleck, makes for a contentious plot point. Whether it’s a dangerous and ignorant act of irresponsibility from Phillips, or him snidely shrugging his shoulders at critics of this crude and nasty film, cannot be answered simply.
Of course, everything is political, regardless of Fleck and/or Phillip’s objections. As Marxist-Leninist philosopher Louis Althusser said ‘an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.’ A text, or film, cannot exist outside of its societal influences, whether or not the author is conscious of this. Philips has created a political artefact, and it should be analysed as such.
A surface level reading of this film is that it promotes a left-wing insurgency, an attack on the generic category of the rich. There is some evidence to support this. Arthur’s first killings are acts of self-defence against some repulsive Wall Street bros. Gotham is as drab and poverty-riven as in any post-Nolan depiction, but within that there’s something brewing. News broadcasts early in the film mention a general hostility amongst the population. Fleck is barely getting by in his run-down apartment, while caring for his ailing mother. His mother is under the literal delusion that Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) will write them a get-out-of-poverty cheque. This depiction of the Wayne family is refreshing; far from the noble and gracious elites depicted in Batman Begins who become victims of unexplainable acts of circumstantial violence, Thomas Wayne is depicted as a bourgeois billionaire with no regard for the poor. He looks down on those rioting - those fed up with their situation and who blame the capitalists – and regards them as ‘clowns’. This film explicitly points out that the Waynes’ hoarding of Gotham’s wealth is directly draining resources from Gotham’s impoverished, and keeping them in this state. And for that, his death is not unexplained, but even depicted as righteous. Good riddance.
But to take that grain of truth and run with it as if that’s the sole idea of the film would be dishonest. It’s just not that simple. Like its titular character, it is an agent of chaos and contradiction. And Phillips cares more about the chaos than ideas.
We can see narrative contradictions abound just by looking at the framing of Fleck’s mental illness. While never explicitly named, Fleck’s frequent bouts of uncontrollable laughter suggest a diagnosis of Involuntary Emotional Expression Disorder. He takes four different kinds of medication, attends therapy, and speaks openly about his depression. He is mocked at work for his passive behaviour, and is depicted as the ‘loner’ trope. And the film seems intent on relating poor mental health to capitalism, which is certainly reflected in the real world. The city cuts the therapy programme Fleck is attending, and therefore he is unable to get his medication. ‘They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. They don’t really give a shit about people like me,’ Fleck’s therapist says in one of the film’s many examples of overtly spelling out its themes.
So far, so good with an interesting depiction of mental health and capitalism. But the trouble comes with the film’s portrayal of the relationship between mental health and violence. Prior to him coming off his medication, Fleck’s only incident of violence was the subway self-defence shootings. But after his medication becomes unobtainable, his transformation into the Joker ramps up, and his acts of violence become nothing but murderous. Of course, the film is clear in illustrating that mental health is just one of many factors that are in play in Fleck becoming the Joker. But this reading of the film is nonetheless there, and open and harmful in what it is saying: that people with poor mental health are inherently violent and dangerous in their actions and behaviours. People diagnosed with severe mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, but it is doubtful Phillips cares. ‘Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism’, but Phillips is only interested in the spectacle of the chaos.
Another concerning matter regarding Joker is its racial blindness. One element is the role that the two Black women characters of the film play in Fleck’s story: one is merely an imagined love interest (and therefore has no agency, she only exists to satisfy Fleck’s fantasies). The other is Fleck’s therapist, whose role is to act as a state-sanctioned caregiver to our protagonist (Bechdel, anyone?). In the closing moments, after Fleck has been detained in Arkham Asylum, and after the therapist visits him, we are greeted with a slow-motion shot of Fleck walking through Arkham’s corridors, a trail of blood following him. It doesn’t take anyone with a screenwriting degree to understand what went on in that room; the question is, why? How does this act of violence progress Fleck’s character story? To murder one of the few people who actually listened to him? The obvious answer is this is just Phillips wanting a cool and shocking shot to close his film, and not thinking of the impact in the story or its politics. The more troublesome answer is that this plays into Fleck’s story as one of violent white male entitlement. He sees himself entitled to these black female bodies, who won’t give him what he wants.
One of the most glaring influences on Joker (to the point of sharing cast members) is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and one can observe the utter lack of nuance, care, or willingness to explore narrative connotations in just what Phillips chooses to lift from the story of Travis Bickle; namely, the racial dyanmics. (Re)watch Taxi Driver, and notice what the camera focuses on as Bickle laments on the ‘scum’ and the ‘filth’ on the streets of NYC: black men. In fact, Paul Schrader’s original script had the victims of the climactic bloodbath be all black men, before Scorsese changed it. Bickle’s story isn’t just one of violent male entitlement, it’s one of violent white male entitlement. But when Phillips saw Taxi Driver, he read it wrong and saw Bickle as the hero. He saw Bickle as a man who went and took what he deserved, rather than as a dangerous man indoctrinated with racist, classist and sexist ideology.
It’s also worth mentioning the racial elements that are omitted in Joker, notably in the subway shooting scene. Given Gotham City is a stand-in for New York City (in pretty much every Batman narrative), it’s not a stretch to imagine the 1984 NYC subway shootings were an influence when writing the script. While white gunman Bernhard Goetz claimed self-defence (much like how Fleck acts), his victims all being black male teenagers, and the racist comments he had made in the past (‘The only way we're going to clean up this street is to get rid of the sp*** and n******’), cannot be ignored. Goetz was a real-life Travis Bickle. And yet Fleck’s victims were all white, erasing the racist elements in the real-life shooting, and in so many other ‘lone-gunman’ shootings in America. There is also the fact that the vast majority of our clown protestors are visibly white. If Gotham City is an allegory for New York City, shouldn’t they be largely black and Hispanic, to reflect the racial poverty lines in NYC? We commonly see, across the political spectrum, references to ‘working-class’ interests from the elites as shorthand for the ‘white working class’, ignoring the inner contradictions yet shared interests that cut across racial lines. There is a rich history of multiracial proletarian solidarity; one only has to look at the anti-fascist Battle of Lewisham in 1977, or the Rainbow Coalition.
Another noteworthy aspect of the film is that while Arthur Fleck is portrayed as the figurehead of a revolutionary uprising in Gotham, we as an audience do not know Fleck’s demands; he vocally distances himself from these uprisings whenever asked, yet in the finale feels seen and heard by them. The masses are only stirred into action upon Fleck’s subway shootings, which are seen as an attack on Gotham’s ruling class, or bourgeoisie. The masses soon don clown masks, alluding to “the Jokerz”, the villain's street gang, casting them in the role of villains, and take to the streets, becoming more violent as events in the film progress. Popular readings of the film allude to connotations of the Occupy Wall Street movement (which did have people wearing V For Vendetta masks), but the fact protestors in Joker hold placards explicitly calling Thomas Wayne a fascist lead the audience to believe this a conscious representation of recent antifascist demonstrations. Beyond sloganeering placards, however, these protestors have no clear demands beyond general discontent. A very shallow reading may seem to see sympathy in depiction here, but the sheep-like behaviour in idolising Fleck and copying his visage, and the rapid descent into hooliganism and reckless, anarchic violence clearly indicate an authorial reactionary attitude. The film wants you to be angry at the Wayne family for being responsible for Gotham’s poverty and despair - but don’t you dare actually do anything meaningful about it.
The film’s attitude to these uprisings is incorrect in multiple ways, expanding its contradictory nature. On the one hand, it is a patronising stance to depict the masses as such mindless opportunists. Perhaps best said in the words of Freire, ‘[A revolutionary educator’s] efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power’. It is inaccurate to depict antifascists as perpetrators of sectarian violence, and serves fascistic interests to do so. On the other hand, to call these particular portrayed uprisings revolutionary, as the film tries to do, would also be inaccurate. As Lenin said, spontaneous risings are ‘more in the nature of outbursts of desperation and vengeance than of struggle…simply the resistance of the oppressed’ This is not to suggest riots cannot have revolutionary demands or implications; they certainly can, for instance if they demand wealth redistribution and class justice, or an end to racist state/police harassment (as in England’s inner cities in 1980-1, or more recently 2011) etc. These issues, however, are swept aside in the film by its portrayal of uprisings as unthinking outbursts of violence, and this contributes to the chauvinistic attitudes many have towards the poorest sections of the working class. This is even true for Marxists, particularly those rooted in academia with no organisational connection to the masses.
To praise Joker as a great left-wing film is a poor and inaccurate reading at best, and dangerous at worst. Dangerous, not only to accept that this is the best we can get (from Warner Bros and the writer of The Hangover no less), but dangerous to view that chauvinistic attitudes regarding race, gender, class and mental health are acceptable in mass movements. The Joker is not a good film, politically speaking. Nonetheless, we cannot rely on only the greats of political cinema to inform us, but also the bad; it is in those unintended, dangerous contradictions that we can learn.
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