glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | nov. 2019
It's been a wild ride for the new vision of the Batman universe's most popular villain, hasn't it?
Initially getting a positive reaction prior to its release it soon began to see a pre-emptive backlash from what I can only describe as hysterical reactionary voices that decried and insulted the main character and the kind of audience they expected would enjoy the film.
The evocation of fears about “incels” (involuntary celibates) going off on a shooting spree as a result of the movie was dressed fully in the badges of gaudy race-identity politics, condescension, mockery and class discrimination, as once again the single white male was trotted out as a reason that a piece of pop culture was an embodiment of risk to society. Had any other demographic been targeted in such a specific way, not only would those words be rightly decried, but not a single one of the high-tier publications would have touched it.
It's exactly the kind of reaction I saw in the early 1980s when in my country the “video nasties” scare was happening, where working-class families, and in particular, the young boys in those families, were the target of fears from “polite society” that they're irresponsible psychopaths who just need a movie to push them over the edge. Some context for the unaware: The late-'70s and early '80ss in Britain saw the video cassette boom, which gave unprecedented access and control of movies to people in their homes. And, as they were outside the control of the censor at the time, there were many films that would have never made it through the BBFC's offices. During the escalating hysteria, whipped up by the notorious players in the press, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Express, in particular, the films were described as being akin to drugs — addictive, corrupting and criminal — but the people who were described as being most likely to be subject to their influence were always the working class. Now, it seems, the worst in society is described simply in terms of “whiteness” and “maleness” while ignoring the real-world social and societal aspects of why there is a disenfranchised section of society.
“Joker” isn't a film about whiteness as one reviewer, in particular, claimed in some prominent and highly labored articles, not even sub-textually. It's not a film about race at all; it's a film about a man on the very bottom of the heap who has problems and no route of escape. Arthur Fleck comes from a very broken family with a history of severe mental problems and lives in a world that has no interest in helping him. Even his psychiatrist seems bored and dismissive of him, and even that safety net is soon to be de-funded by the government. Fleck's world is also framed in context of where he is in comparison to the unattainable heights of society, where the rich, the famous, the successful live in a very different, comfortable world and where those below are seen as being a nuisance, something that should be ignored until they need putting back in their place. The government meanwhile blames them for the deteriorating situation whilst leaving the bins to overflow while deflecting their responsibility.
The rise of Joker comes around initially out of an act of fighting back and when the violent act resonates with others of his class, a revolution follows, not that Fleck intended that. He just wanted a shot at success (don't we all), but due to him being utterly out of step with the world around him, shown through his disorder that prompts him to laugh loudly at inappropriate moments, he fails and is mocked by his idol on TV. As his violent actions become more prominent, most notably during a scene where he shoots a gang of rich bullies who attacked him, he finds the path to possibly the only respect he'll get is through violence, which leads to his TV appearance, which I won't spoil.
Not once is he lauded for what he does, he's simply reacting and people react to his actions. As a character, his only route to any kind of recognition for his mere existence is through extreme measures and it's ugly. It's a warning about marginalizing and ignoring the vulnerable in society whilst beating them down so they have no chance to make something of themselves.
The irony for me is that Joker is actually a surprisingly left-leaning film in terms of sub-text. It looks at the class divide of the rich and the poor, the effect that a man with a gun can have, the dangerous lack of care for the mentally troubled and the desire and personal need to be accepted yet it's a film that has been railed upon largely by people who are recognized for crying out for these things, and largely because of the character's race and status.
It's fine to not like the film, it really is, it's uncomfortable, violent and disturbing on many levels and is most certainly not easy viewing, though I found it quite captivating. What's not fine is doing exactly what the film cautions against, stomping down on a section of society that has no more power or influence than any other group.
While the Joker may be a white guy, that's not what he's about. What he's made into comes from what's around him and that's what the film is about: how we make monsters of the disenfranchised and weak. And it's astonishingly reflective of the world we face today.
It's a well-made, well-written, superbly performed and directed film with a real punch and one that prompts the thought that this is how you do dark and gritty, not as an aesthetic, but with intent and purpose.
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.