If You’ve Heard This One Before

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

By the time you’re reading this, the Todd Phillips film Joker will have been in theatres for a while and the word is out: it’s a pretty astounding film.

It’s also… worrying many, to say the least.

Having seen it on opening day, I am inclined to share that worry—particularly, the shared worry among some reviewers and common moviegoers alike that films like Joker may aim to land some biting critique of the personalities that become violent, charismatic killers, but seem to forget that we have far too many of those in real life for any filmmaker to risk doing so haphazardly.

And haphazardly Phillips does. Instead of simply feeling like the story flitting through the troubled psyche of an unreliable narrator, scenes just end up feeling like they have no connective tissue, down to the background fading suddenly from its jazzy 60s soundtrack to its affec-tive Hildur Guðnadóttir score in the middle of an action. For an attempt at a grounded DC narrative, it can’t help but revel in its attachments to Batman lore, first implying a frankly silly direct Wayne family connection very early on and then closing by reestablishing the tragedy that turned young Bruce into Gotham City’s caped vigilante—not only giving us the third time in fourteen years that we have to watch a child watch his parents die in a DC movie, but begging for a future sequel where the bond between hero and villain dates all the way back to Bruce’s first loss. The film’s penultimate scene is literally a messianic framing, our antihero Arthur Fleck among a mass of clown-masked rioters cheering as he skips, without ever considering that sometimes people who commit radical acts of violence are empowered by recognition and martyrdom. Every attempt to say something deep about emotional isolation, mental illness, social marginalization, or anything else falls apart into a scene that says nothing or, far worse, a scene that visually implies the far opposite: that at the very least, you can be seen and valued if you commit a dramatic-enough act of force.

I would go so far as to say that none of these were issues our current zeitgeist can bear to witness carelessly. After all, there is also a long list of films and television shows that aim to do what Phillips aimed to do here and actually deliver, but still end up having their messages lost in the spectacle and dramatics of what’s in front of the audience. Just like in this film’s arguable case, often enough there is a paradox where the work that deliberately seeks to take people to task for the hostile ideologies that breed violent actions are also the works that make those ideologies and those actions seem trendy and fascinating to impressionable consumers, not because those consumers are ignorant or undiscerning, but because they’ve been primed. And there is no better example of that priming than—

—well, there are so many examples, it’s not even funny.

During an interview with The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin to promote Joker, lead Joaquin Phoenix allegedly walked out after being asked whether at any point he worried the film could possibly lead to similar acts of violence by others.

Now, to be fair, that is a question wrongly asked. That isn’t how cultivation theory works. A more useful question would have been whether Phoenix thought people would be entranced by him—whether people would go beyond merely humanizing his character and consider his ideology appealing, even accurate.

The comments of the piece where Collin refers to the event are full of folks (many of whom surely haven’t seen the film yet, because it hadn’t been released by the time that interview took place) going out of their way to paint his character as simply down on his luck and motivated by his own suffering to try shocking the system, regardless of the actual context provided by reviews, including Collin’s own four-out-of-five-star write-up on the film. Commenters seemed eager to argue that “SJWs” like Collin “have their knives out” for the film because it centres a white male protagonist—you know, like dozens of other films that people have rated just as highly as Joker, even terribly violent films, but films that nevertheless don’t somehow inspire worry in a subset of viewers.

I don’t think Phoenix’s reaction was a tantrum, or some malicious refusal to consider the possibility. I think it is much more likely just a kind of frustration borne from never having so considered it: it’s just a movie, after all, and maybe an actor who just wants an award doesn’t want to be confronted with the idea that it’s his fault if someone watches a movie and hurts someone.

It doesn’t matter, though, if that person personally commits an act of violence. Most people will not, or at the very least, when someone does hurt someone, it won’t be as cut and dried as whether the movie flipped a switch in someone’s mind between peace and violence. It’s about whether the movie told them that some deeply held conviction on one side of the screen is valuable in the other. Whether the movie confirms that their real world doesn’t care about them, that your deepest desires are worth securing by violence and grandeur, that violence can make you revered. Movies don’t put guns in people’s hands. They put ideas in their heads.

Just a matter of days after Collin’s piece, IGN reviewer Jim Vejvoda (who himself gave the film a perfect score) sat with Phillips and Phoenix to discuss the very point Collin said was avoided. Vejvoda himself insists in his review that “the film may ask viewers to empathize with its central protagonist but it doesn’t ask us to forgive him for his increasingly evil choices.”

In the interview, Phoenix puts the question of the film’s moral request more sternly: “Well, I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong. And those that aren’t are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to[…] So I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that’s obvious. [T]he truth is you don’t know what is going to be the fuel for somebody. And it might very well be your question. It might be this moment, right? But you can’t function in life saying, ‘Well, I can’t ask that question for the small chance that somebody might be affected by [it].’ I wouldn’t ask you to do that.” Phillips, for his part, stands by the themes that he wanted to leave in his audience’s minds: “[t]he movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message.” All three speakers seem pretty content simply by acknowledging, in Phillips’ words, that “art can be complicated and oftentimes art is meant to be complicated[…] If you want uncomplicated art, you might want to take up calligraphy, but filmmaking will always be a complicated art.”

Phillips is right, but this, to me, makes his and Phoenix’s seeming caginess about the responsibility of that art seem much more careless. We make media because we believe that ideas matter, and because we trust our capacity to deliver those ideas. It is baffling to most of us that we live in a world where people call television with LGBT characters “social justice propaganda” for reminding us that people exist in the world, but we don’t consider that a movie may have a capacity to radicalise its viewers. Knowing that isn’t an encouragement to censorship—I, like many other critical reviewers, do think this is an important conversation-space to be in—but a call for clarity of purpose and delivery. That capacity for transmission is why Phillips values those themes, and it’s why reviewers in turn are critical of what the film has to say and how. That’s even what a few of them seem to mean when they ask if it’s this year’s answer to David Fincher’s infamous 1999 film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a film similarly panned for its crassness during its release season but critically lauded years afterward: will this popularise another phrase men unironically quote to confirm their hardcore nihilist philosophies?

This matters here the most, because so many reviewers seem to come to the conclusion that this is the definite opposite of Joker’s intent, but that it may still be the film’s impact.

This is also what a few reviewers mean when they compare the film to Fight Club.

Many fans can speak at length about how the hypermasculine lens of heterosexuality obviously plays a part in these films because there is an awareness of how sexual desire is a potential radicaliser, as a trigger for both peculiar heroisms and ruinous acts of violence. Evangelion is very good at being critical of this while still poking fun; each episode of the series ends with an eager promise of fanservice, but each instance thereof is either just a detached sight gag or the setup for a serious conversation about desire and relationships. After all, it is about Shinji Ikari, a teenager given control of a massive, daunting, dangerous form by his parents and trusted to wield it responsibly without as much as an instruction. It doesn’t get much more puberty-allegory than this, the looming end of the world and all.

Through that lens, consider how sexuality and relationships are shaped in so many other standout films about masculine violence: A Clockwork Orange, where the ultraviolence of Alex DeLarge and his fellow droogs is visually sexual in every frame and with every weapon; the latest Star Wars trilogy, where Kylo Ren’s bottomless and easily incited rage conflicts with Rey’s willingness to be available and compassionate even in her passion; Tyler Durden’s words in Fight Club to Jack the pseudo-nameless narrator while he luxuriates in a scummy bathtub: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”

They all often spend so much energy discussing how a perceived lack of power is a powerful tool in the extremist recruitment arsenal. Shinji is a literal teenager given an ultimatum over the safety of the world, complaining that his father and coworkers refuse to support him. Kylo is chasing the rank and infamy of the powerful fascists who precede him, seeking their approval after feeling rejected by those he considered family. Jack seeks escape through capitalist pleasure to restore his identity, and when all of that literally goes up in flames, he replaces it with violence both small and large. In all three, their complicated relationships to their feminine foils are all a kind of minor resistance. Shinji longs for the romantic and sexual approval of his female colleagues. Kylo struggles to reconcile his own complicated connection to the Force and his own legacy with Rey’s far more fluid control. Jack first considers Marla, the only woman in his space, to be a usurper in his rituals of human connection, and that resentment grows in tandem with his own sexual desire and feelings of masculine inferiority.

Arthur Fleck is a loner seeking affection, approval, to be noticed at all by the people around him in a world he considers increasingly colder toward others. The film deliberately constructs a subplot of him being smitten with his down-the-hall neighbour Sophie Dumond (played by Zazie Beetz). He stalks her the morning after they meet briefly in an elevator. She confronts him that night, but remarkably, she seems into it. They bond over his comedy dreams, and it blossoms into romance. She is caring, cheerful, affectionate.

We learn several scenes later that they in fact have never even spoken. Whole scenes we previously witnessed with Sophie in them never included her at all—but it doesn’t at all have the gravitas of (re)discovering that Jack is Tyler, it just feels like the movie lied by omission. Fleck enters her apartment and she is immediately fearful. She speaks more in this moment—in fear—than she does in any of her other sparse scenes in the film. When Fleck leaves, we have no idea what happened to her—or her young daughter—and we never see or hear from her again.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Reviewers’ comparisons between Joker and Fight Club interest me not because they are obvious, but because when you compare them both to a larger body of films that focus on disaffected male protagonists who feel left behind by society, other less-obvious comparisons reveal themselves. Each film centres a man considered emasculated by mainstream culture around them, especially when an element of that emasculation is their experience of mental illness. Each of these men struggle with with interpersonal interaction, finding ways to cope with that struggle, even and especially through violence. Each draws toward the climax of large and violent challenges to a socially hostile status quo which exacerbates those struggles, while each challenge differs in presentation—where one destroys skyscrapers, another destroys the world.

For example, Fight Club’s Jack and Evangelion’s Shinji are, strictly speaking, not terrible or irredeemable people. They are more often simply broken, laid low by loneliness, and struggling to come to terms with that brokenness. Their attempts to do so are not perfect or healthy, but they are not immediately hostile either. It is important that Jack seeks closeness and vulnerability by feigning illness in multiple support groups, and that Shinji does so by being consistently deferential and dependent in his work relationships. This importance isn’t because this makes them weak or less masculine, but because it emphasises how difficult it is for men to perform themselves productively and valuably in a society that begs certain things of them and decries anything else as effeminate.

Many of these films are deliberately in some manner of response to this. A Clockwork Orange ends with a delight in Alex’s urges, but the Anthony Burgess novel which the film adapts includes a much more redemptive final chapter beyond this point, one where those urges fade with time and maturity. Of note is that, as the story goes, that final chapter is not in Kubrick’s film because it is not in the American edition of Burgess’ novel—that is, the lack of that redemption was shaped specifically for American audiences.

There is also Taxi Driver, from which Joker borrows large portions of framing and theme heavily (and, again, haphazardly). Like Joker, this film ends with a glimpse of peace and comfort won after the violence has stopped, but even Travis Bickle’s peace is short-lived, his potential for a return to violence on a hair trigger without more guidance, a consequence of war trauma and obviously misapplied wants and nobilities.

Fight Club particularly spends a long time showing us how Jack’s struggle to deal with this primes him for radicalisation. We get to see so much of his internal life through not just inner dialogue, but probing, critical montages of how he has framed his life before Tyler, and how he reframes it in Tyler’s wake. Jack doesn’t hesitate to let us know that he is filling a void in his life, with as much mass as possible to accommodate for its undeniable dark depth. When he loses all his other means of doing so, he latches on to a notion of an ideal man he met on a plane, and proves his faith in that man’s ideals by punching him in an alley on command. The rest, as they say, is men’s studies.

The film gets a bad rap, though, for endorsing and glorifying hostile ideas of masculinity when really they are the ones he sees as dangerous and borne out of being emotionally unmoored. Fight Club, like many of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels, argues strongly that men who replace a fear of being weak and rudderless in the world with pure longing and conquest and violence can’t hope to be ultimately fulfilled at the end.

How did some folks come out of Fight Club thinking that Tyler Durden is a powerful, rugged idea of a man, and that Jack potentially taking his place in the rubble of the new world is radical, cool, or impressive?

How did some folks come out of End of Evangelion alternatively thinking that Shinji is a brat who learns nothing and does nothing impressive when he tells the godly form of his friend to give humanity their souls back?

Do audiences care very much to compare Travis Bickle’s mental illness to Kylo Ren’s, or to Jack’s? How much do we notice that isolation and a need for control are shaped very often not by the idea that the world is actually hostile to these men, but that they lack other forms of mastery over their own life: over their PTSD or their intermittent anger, their fear of abandonment or invalidation? What do these films say about the seemingly masculine urge to just matter, to be considered vital in a world where not being ultimately important is framed as being ultimately unimportant?

How did some folks not notice that, at the core, they’re all the same movie?

That is the fear Phillips considers complicated, the discomfort Phoenix is drawn to confront. To be sure, the desire to pursue stories like these by any means is admirable. But make no mistake, even the most minor shift of the heart in many men is in part because they saw these films, and it is noteworthy in people’s discussion of both that the shift in some has been to lionise Tyler and mock Shinji, despite the goal of both films being so similar. Even I still wonder what it means for films that are actually so uncomplicated in their delivery that some can still muddle their meaning. Is it a purposeful rejection of anything that pulls some from those paths? Is it that these films are too visually or ideologically dense for anyone at all to really make sense of what they subconsciously may leave with? Or are folks right when they say these films have no effect at all?

Joker, however, endeavours to have the same DNA as these films, but seems to stray. Moments after a heavy-handed reminder of compassion for the mentally ill, the film seems to relish in making several absurd comedic beats out of Fleck’s pseudobulbar affect or similar disorder, which catches him in uncontrollable bouts of laughter that Phoenix makes a scene to painfully hold back. The film’s first act seems hesitant to come to consensus about whether Fleck is a violent man, instead implying that he is merely gullible and being taken advantage of, only for him to rush toward enjoying the power that comes from violence—from being seen, being considered fearsome.

Is it that this movie is also so dense that I have missed something in that reading? Even Jack has moments when his faith in Tyler is tested. Shinji’s entire tenure in Evangelion is one big test, arguably from the Heavens itself. Alex’s second-act conflict in Clockwork Orange is all about being redeemed by the force of mental torture, and his third-act conflict is all about the weight of such a brutal means of social cohesion. But Fleck is never obviously conflicted.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

If Phillips’ own insistences about the film’s theme are to be believed, the goal at the end is to have a serious conversation about the kinds of isolation and rejection that radicalise young men in the wake of an American zeitgeist that is still reeling from young male domestic terrorism in the shape of mass shootings in public spaces. Those triggers are key to so many of the other films it shares space with. Evangelion creative mastermind Hideaki Anno has spoken at length in several interviews about the lingering effect that Aum Shinrikyo and the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack of 1995 had on the show’s production and its final themes. Palahniuk’s work, Fight Club arguably chief among their examples, is constantly concerned with, in the author’s own words, “a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people.”

It’s because that goal is important—because getting through to disenchanted men is important—that creators can’t afford to be comfortable. The discomfort that Phoenix hints at isn’t merely a state of moral unease, but a deeper worry about success. It makes the fair-enough messages of the IGN interview all the more strikingly contradictory: we hope to get to the heart of what makes men violent, and we hope that people see that, but whether getting there breaks some eggs is not our concern. Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, intent is not magic. The work must actually bear it out.

Phillips is painfully right, though, that we cannot hope to presume the hearts of all viewers, especially when the people we’re ultimately worried about are so few. I also cannot—and do not—assume that the film is this psychic catalyst that will push people to paint their faces and assault people, or should be censored simply because it crosses a theoretical boundary. But it bears repeating that it is important to ask how these things are framed.

Is it fair to ask an audience to agree with the assertion that a random act of violence on a train would truly be the trigger for an anticapitalist movement? Is it fair to tie such an Eat-The-Rich bonfire to the signpost of a man simply seeking reverence through violence—therefore opening the contradictory twin gates of labeling marginalized discontent as wanton cruelty and labeling a love of brutality as morally complex? Is it fair that during a struggle of class, all of the women of colour are either instruments of judgment or objects of desire to Fleck, and at least two of them are hinted to be victims of his violence rather than claimants to this alleged revolution? Does it matter that, instead of committing to the idea that those living with mental illnesses require support because the system overlooks and disenfranchises them, it instead ends up arguing that you should give them what they want or else they’ll snap and take their mothers and their neighbours with them?

Stop me if you’ve heard these ones before.

Telling these stories is always precarious. Conversations about the experiences of marginalisation are really important to tell, especially in the present zeitgeist—ask any marginalised person. Even when discussing the actions and fates of violent persons, there is value in unraveling the suffering and isolation that spurs them, not from a fetishistic angle, but from a compassionate and complex one that doesn’t unravel for the sake of pure drama (or worse, comedy), with an eye for the often truly off-putting, jarring, real, awkward truth behind that isolation. As controversial as it may seem, even the real Arthur Flecks of the world—the men who arrive at the doors of places of worship and places of learning with the intent to take the lives of innocent people—deserve to be truly seen.

Even the most challenging of films I’ve mentioned here are also trying to do the hard work of truly being critical of toxic masculine hyperviolence in society, and even the best of them struggle in one way or another. More people than the reviewers of this latest film have said as much. It isn’t a matter of being sensitive, or bitter, or bad. It’s a matter of asking the questions each film claims to pose.

But make no mistake, watching violence is not the same as observing it.

One doesn’t end up making meaningful, deep, thought-provoking art by simply saying they wish to do so. Thoughtful creation often means discovering that your desires clash with your creative instincts, and knowing that is a good thing, because it helps you get past them. Sometimes as a wider culture, it means we push ourselves to stop missing the forest for the trees, to think more deeply than the idea that watching suffering is the same as caring. Sometimes it means fighting the insistence that white men justifying their cruelty with their isolation is an artistic value above the question of the lives of the women and people of colour in their wake.

And insisting otherwise is not funny.

Brandon O’Brien

Brandon O’Brien is a writer, performance poet, teaching artist and game designer from Trinidad and Tobago. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published in Strange Horizons, Reckoning, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also a performing artist with The 2 Cents Movement, and the poetry editor of FIYAH: A Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction.

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