Why “The Joker” is a cultural artifact

30 Dec

“I haven’t been happy one fucking minute of my entire life”, Arthur Fleck(the Joker) says to his mother before he chokes her to death. “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life” is what he wrote in his notebook, as his resignation to death becomes his only goal for the remainder of his life.  “The Joker” is a humanization of a supervillan who faces the afflictions of the societal structure around him.  Destruction beomes a purpose when there is little else to grasp for.  It is not so much a cinematic classic, but a worthy conversational piece for the here and now and a cultural artifact for our age. Some of this is due to the superb portrayal of the antihero by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix’s Joker lacks the traditional stereotypes of being cunning and instead is openly suffering the symptoms of the world he lives in. His mental illness ties him to being a reactive character and never in a proactive position of certainty until his nihilism takes him over. That is bred from when he realizes he lacks any true sense of connection to the people he counted on before, mainly his mother and his two father figures.  The film definitely shows the symptoms of what we would call the modern world.
His connection to the world did not come through his heartfelt pathetic attempts at comedy, but is only achieved through violence. Using violence allows him to feel connection, even though it is “unformed, unplanned, negative, escapist.”1 He brings up questions for himself and for the audience, such as do you truly become yourself when you lose control?  Is violence a type of inevitable outcome when you’ve lost societal connection and want to gain it back in some form?  As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, ” paradoxically a mask means I can be who I really am.”2
The movie is set in 1981 New York/Gotham City, but the strength of “The Joker” is in the setting being entirely applicable today, both in an external and a psychological sense. The falling kingdom of Gotham City certainly takes it influence from “Dark Knight”, but Todd Phillips’ most impressive accomplishment is relating the early 1980s New York to 2019, as the issues from the fictional then are not specified, nor need to be since all of it is under the modern late capitalism umbrella. If there is any now/then linkage, it is how the film shows how many issues have not changed since the early 1980s and have only gotten stagnatively worse.
The appeal of the movie for one like me, who has a serious disinterest in any superhero flick and any branding or past narratives surrounding the cinematic product, is in how it makes an entirely non-cartoonish depiction of The Joker in Arthur Fleck. Unlike Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix’s character lacks a clear purpose or commitment in his actions till the climax of the movie. There is wanted disconnect between Phoenix’s Joker and past versions such as Jack Nicholson’s depiction in Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
The effects of alienation on Phoenix’s Joker is the character becoming Dionysiac, nihilistic and losing control.  He turns to an immediate joy of sensual instinct, when his medication funding stops. This actually makes his actions proactive and pre-meditated(eg. putting scissors in his back pocket before he sees his coworkers). The Joker in this film has “subjective destitution”3 and can only resort to “pure chaos.”4. You can make the either/or contrast between Joker and Batman of one being Dionysiac and the other being Apollonian, but I feel it is worth observing if that is too simplistic and that we all have aspects of both and it is a matter of which one will be more domineering above our internal psychological state.
Joker’s violence is in some ways a reaction to the repression in his life, either through his medications, before they are cut off due to funding cuts, or him taking care of his mother. It is seen at the beginning, when Joker stares at a mirror, physically forcing himself to smile and instead displays a “painful, empty reflection.”5 The alienation in the end is maximized when he realizes that his mother was delusional in feeling that Thomas Wayne was his father and worse, that she allowed him to suffer intense trauma and abuse as a child. This incites his reactive position to murder his mother.
The movie’s climax is when The Joker shoots and kills the three Wall Street brokers in an arguable position of self-defence and then puts himself in a public bathroom, intiating himself in his new found self through dance(more on this later). After this part however, the movie does become partially cartoonish, thriving in part, on traditional Hollywood glorification of violence. The ending is predictable(the shooting of Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin)and overly dramatized, in a Christ-like manner, as The Joker lies on top of a car with carnage flaming all around him before he rises and dances.  With Murray Franklin, there is the attempted display to the audience of Fleck’s delusions and feelings of victimhood.  He says to Murray, “You…the system..you decide whats right and wrong, the same way you decide whats funny or not..if it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me…”
The film cleverly interludes, shifting a fine line between being apolitical and overtly political. When trust is lost, so is part of your humanity. We at first don’t know what to do, such as when Arthur puts himself in his own refrigerator and then finds out how his mother abused him as a child and that he was an orphan. He says to De Niro’s Murray Franklin before shooting him: “you invited me to just make fun of me..What do you get if you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”  Some can take this moment fallously as an incel portrayal. It is equally fallous to see it only through the view of the structural breakdown of Gotham: the garbage workers on strike, Joker’s social worker funding cut and the ending of access to medication. It is a combination of individual action and societal neglect.  It is not a promotion of either.  The movie attempts to walks a fine line between balancing an authentic portrayal of Fleck’s nihilistic psychotic breakdown while trying not to soley rely upon  a Hollywood-esque fascination of the psychotic killer. It slips and falls to the detriment of some of us suffering from mental illness that wanted a complete authenticity(most of us with mental illness are not going to resort to murdering those who were cruel to us). The movie is “purely deconstructive, not constructive”6 and does not have a political vision persay, but nevertheless,shows the implications of political action.
One may prefer continuing this conversation on a higher level, thinking of the Joker representing a type of radicalism versus the neoliberalism of Thomas Wayne, later Batman.  While this may be worthy as a conversation piece, it is not itself an explanation for the movie’s direction or human character specifically. As is said, the movie is a “classwar in utero”7 and wants us to explore it ourselves, if either in a Hegelian, Marxist or even Jordan Peterson direction, but regardless, the film is not there to do that itself.
It is always worth mentioning any Freudian aspects of the movie, specifically the murder of the two father figures. This is a perspective that can argue the film takes a more psychoanalytic view than anything political. I feel this is not entirely accurate as everything in life has political linkage of some manner. There is the fascinating, at times highly confusing angle the movie takes on what is real and what isn’t and how one can differentiate between either. How trustworthy is the narrative is a paradoxical question fixated to the film? Did the killings of the two father figures really occur? How much did he know of the single mother? The most appropriate way to apply Freud to “The Joker” is see how one can have an idiosynchratic approach to art. Do not become too close to a fictional tale but take what you use and apply it to your own life.  This is what art is for.
On one level Fleck’s psychotic breakdown is his own path to freedom. Symbolically one can see this from the view of the long public stairs. In the first part of the film, he walks up the stairs with his head down, shoulders bent and an overall physical expression of one oppressed. It is done in a certain “Hobbesian” manner.8 Compare that to the final section of the film, when he goes down the stairs dancing joyfully with the police looking down from the top, to the sports anthem of the “Hey Song”.  One struggles to make sense of the Joker and how his actions correspond to certain conflicts. How one ex-coworker was stabbed in the eye with scissors, while the accompanying worker was let out the door. Albeit, the one who was stabbed had told his former employer that Fleck had a gun without mentioning it was him who gave it to him and the other was a midget that seemed too angelic to murder. “Revolution is kind of enjoyable….and makes you feel icky about that.”9 In a Hegelian Master/Slave context, the slave or the Joker can only know himself through his killings, those are what represent his work. In this context it is ironically a sublimation.10
A magical area of the film is how Phoenix brings dance into the film as expression that reaches beyond the sometimes empty dialogue. Dance brings the viewer closer in touch with Fleck’s character, most profoundly in the bathroom scene I previously mentioned, with the master cello player, Hildur Guonadottir, providing the sound that feels the sense of the story along with Phoenix’s movements. There is a transcendence felt through Arthur Fleck’s movements after he has killed the despised Wall Street trio. You also feel and see the paranoia of Fleck played out in his dance.
This film will last as a cultural artifact for the end of the 2010s and the beginning of the 2020s. If it were not for the encounter with a young Bruce Wayne, one could honestly see this film as independent from any corporate branding of DC comics. The film is political but not in an overt George Clooney-like manner but more of a bigger picture of the political effects on one’s psychosis and how that goes around in a circular motion of the psychosis affecting the politics as well. The film is not trying to speak to the lone gunman(always a man), it speaking of them.
The film’s societal criticism subtly criticizes how we as a society seem to need a saviour to cure our ills. How we profoundly believe one will come and once the supposed saviour has come, we will stick by them to the greatest extent possible, believe in everything they say, since we feel entirely powerless on our own front. The saviour status of anyone put into that role-from Trump to Obama to Elon Musk to Doug Ford- is in itself a promotion of the Apollonian police state. When we are at our weakest, we want to have a higher power having complete control over us and removing us of our hopelessness. This is perhaps tied to our human naturesque need for religion in the secular age.  Fleck’s mothers impetious belief in Thomas Wayne, is the epic example of this in the film.  The other side is full of hopelessness, having “White Room” playing in the background, while you see Joker looking at the riots with a perverse laughter and feeling the true sense of victory, however deranged, however brief.
So of course there are no easy answers to these modern dilemnas and “The Joker” does not give you any, but it does an admirable job of diagnosing the situation, not so much in a specific issue-related manner but in a partial economical, mainly psychological sense.


1Auston Hayden Smidt and Troy Polidori.  (October 17, 2019).  Joker:  Profound or Confused? Owls at Dawn.  http://www.owlsatdawn.com/episodes-2/2019/10/21/joker-profound-or-confused-owls-at-dawn-episode-1

2Slavoj Zizek.  Slavoj Zizek-the new ‘Joker’ movie, YouTube video, 9:02, October 21, 2019  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXfLafgzoX0

3Auston Hayden Smidt and Troy Polidori.  (October 17, 2019).  Joker:  Profound or Confused? Owls at Dawn.  http://www.owlsatdawn.com/episodes-2/2019/10/21/joker-profound-or-confused-owls-at-dawn-episode-1


5Daniel Tutti. October 9, 2019.  “A Lacanian Reading of Joker”  https://danieltutt.com/2019/10/09/a-lacanian-reading-of-joker/

6Auston Hayden Smidt and Troy Polidori.  (October 17, 2019).  Joker:  Profound or Confused? Owls at Dawn.  http://www.owlsatdawn.com/episodes-2/2019/10/21/joker-profound-or-confused-owls-at-dawn-episode-1

7Daniel Tutti. October 9, 2019.  “A Lacanian Reading of Joker”  https://danieltutt.com/2019/10/09/a-lacanian-reading-of-joker/

8Auston Hayden Smidt and Troy Polidori.  (October 17, 2019).  Joker:  Profound or Confused? Owls at Dawn.  http://www.owlsatdawn.com/episodes-2/2019/10/21/joker-profound-or-confused-owls-at-dawn-episode-1


10Wes Alwan.  (December 6, 2019).  (sub)Text:  A Discussion of Todd Phillips’ Film ‘Joker’.  The Partially Examined Life.  https://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2019/12/06/subtext7-joker/




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