Freud, in the only book of his I’ve read, The Interpretation of Dreams, argues that every dream, no matter how unpleasant, represents an unarticulated desire. This has always struck me as more convincing (and useful) as a description of fictions like books and movies than for interpreting my own dreams. Whose unarticulated desire is being represented is a matter for debate of course- the protagonist’s, the author or director or performer’s, the audience’s? Hard to say. Karl Popper said of Freudianism that it wasn’t science because you couldn’t prove it wrong, but literary criticism isn’t astrophysics and a certain malleability goes a long way.
But accept for the moment that movies represent desires (not always unarticulated: I’ve heard multiple four-year-olds say they want to be Iron Man.) What kind of desire is represented by the new movie Joker, comic book in origins but resolutely art house in style? This question was taken to have some social import even before the film was in wide release. A story in which a man (the appellation “young” often added by critics beforehand, though more about that later) finds actualization through psychopathic violence was warned to be a potential instigation to more real life instances of nihilistic violence, of the mass shooter type we’ve seen with great regularity over the last several years. This fear was not, I thought, entirely groundless: a showing of an earlier Batman-related movie, The Dark Knight Rises, was the scene of a 2012 mass shooting, and while as it turned out that killer had not intended his dyed hair to mark himself as “the Joker,” the rumor that he had has persisted. The earlier incarnation of this character by Heath Ledger, in the 2008 The Dark Knight, seemed indeed to embody exactly what makes mass shootings a potent source of terror, in spite of their low aggregate frequency and body count relative to other forms of homicide: The Dark Knight‘s Joker was motivated by chaos for its own sake, often contradicting himself in discussing his motivations and “how I got these scars.” Heath Ledger’s death at 28 prior to The Dark Knight‘s release from a cocktail of abused prescription drugs put a seal on an indelible performance, suggesting the darkness of the character (in a movie that, to be honest, I find kind of a slog whenever Ledger’s Joker is not on screen) came at least in part from real life internal torment as well as the actor, director, and screenwriters’ craft.
If this backstory gave some cause for concern, media outlets were eager to magnify it, with dozens of articles warning that the Joker movie could set off copycat (copying off of real or fictional violence unclear) killings, to the point where it became ambiguous whether these articles were intended to forestall violence, use its threat to boost ticket sales, or, for the benefit of an ideological narrative, call it into existence. Fortunately, we have been spared any accompanying violence related to the film; even last night, there were three uniformed local police prominently standing at the entrance to my local megaplex when my wife and I went to see the 9:45.
The genre which Joker forms a part of is both an unusual one- the art house homage to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy that is also a comic book movie- while it is also immediately adjacent to the preeminent commercial production of our time, the superhero origin story. Almost every superhero franchise and reboot now begins with a portrayal of how the hero gained his or her powers, how he or she became- by magic or mutation or training montage- a god sent to live among men. The origin story is, it would appear, the audience’s entry-point into identification with the superhero; it is not enough that the great ones of the earth have our interest at heart, but that we learn how they were once weak and helpless like us, whether as babies saved from Krypton or as young orphaned billionaire heirs.
More precisely analogous to Joker is 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which sought to portray the origin not of an individual superhero (though it is really antihero Magneto’s film) but of the broader social world of the other X-Men films, of Professor X’s School for mutants as well as Magneto’s competing band of outlaws. What was distinctive about First Class was its temporal setting: casting backwards before the era of the earlier movies of the series, it sets itself in a mythic Kennedy Era of Cold War intrigue (unleashed in the film by mutants rather than ideology) and of mutants’ Civil Rights struggles substituting for black Americans’. While to me one of the most artistically successful of recent superhero movies, First Class is notable in how comfortable its alternative history feels to us; we are used to viewing the era immediately before the 60s counterculture as an ancien regime both glorious and unjust, as Mad Men was fond of showing- we are eager both to revel in the aesthetics and grandiosity of the world of the Baby Boomers’ childhood and deplore its moral failures and unequal civic ethics.
Joker is more unfamiliar and unsettling in its setting. The disintegration of urban America prior to its partial rebirth in the last 30 years is easily remembered, and in the case of New York, where Joker is more-or-less explicitly set, is often if incompletely discussed. But it is an ambiguous and incompletely mythologized portion of our collective narrative. What exactly led to American cities being riddled with garbage, graffiti and crime, near abandoned by middle class families, aesthetically blighted and seemingly spiritually bereft? Why were there over 2,000 murders a year in New York City (when there have been under 300 per year in a larger city in the last few years)? My precinct in my last neighborhood in Brooklyn had 99 rapes in a single year in the early 90s, and only one the year I lived there, 2006. To say that this descent into Tartarus was due to lead poisoning, or white flight, are clearly incomplete; to say this was due to a collapse of civic authority and popular morality begs the question.
Joker is, in its own way, eager to answer this question. The Gotham of Joker is not Tim Burton’s cartoonish 1940s Gothic of his Batman movies, or Christopher Nolan’s Bloombergian circle of shiny glass and steel from the Dark Knight trilogy. It is, instead, an exaggeratedly decayed, almost shattered, version of the 1970s pimps-and-pushers New York of Taxi Driver, with an endless garbage strike reminiscent of several from 1968 to 1977 piling refuse in every exterior shot, over which giant rats crawl, and the filming locations drawn from the sadder and more austere corners of the Outer Boroughs. The movie’s most deliberately iconic image, of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker dancing on the steps leading to his apartment building, is a real staircase in the Bronx several blocks from the school where I taught and which I described in 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip.
In fact, in an ill-fated field trip that didn’t make it into the book, I led my students to and from Crotona Park past those exact stairs to dig up and observe grubs and earthworms. (On the way back, a boy was accused of slapping a girl’s butt, leading to hours of recrimination, between me and the students and between the principal and me). I lived at the time next to a similar, if slightly less filmic set of stairs in Washington Heights, and spent a lot of time in apartment buildings identical in design if slightly less poorly maintained to the one where Joaquin’s character Arthur Fleck, lives. The subway stations and trains are similarly familiar to anyone who has lived in New York, even if the names are changed.
All of which is to say that Joker wants itself to be set in a real-seeming, if mythically nightmarish, New York-turned-Gotham, a 1970s megalopolis collapsing under its own refuse and under the burden of hatred and collective ill will. The first image of the film is a faded, deliberately dated version of the Warner Brothers’ logo, flickering and faltering. The human elements of Gotham are, in general, shown through a similarly harsh lens; while many reviewers describe the Arthur Fleck character as an alienated young man, Joaquin Phoenix is shown as anything but; his face, on screen for practically every shot, is made to seem every minute of his 44 years:
His wasted torso, for which the actor lost over 50 pounds, is similarly contorted, abandoned, presumptively worn down by the character’s nonexistent diet, constant chainsmoking, and cocktail of pharmaceutical meds. There’s something interesting about this visual emphasis on the character and actor’s age. Compare, for example, to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, a youthful 32 playing 26:
De Niro’s Travis Bickle is, implicitly, the “all American kid from New York City,” explaining other characters’ frequent positive affect towards him, and his own social incapacity and descent into violence is, visually at least, the result of the fallen world impinging upon him rather than his own intrinsic corruption. He amiably convinces Cybil Shephard to go out with him on a date, before his incomprehension of the world leads him to take her to an X-rated film. Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck on the other hand, is not only visibly aged and incapable of ordinary conversation, passing into peals of barking laughter and incoherence, but evidently has an inner life constructed only of darkness and destructive images, as shown by the ink-scribbled journal and alleged joke diary he writes in, into which pornographic images are taped and from which these humiliating pictures inopportunely fall out.
What exactly is Arthur Fleck- or Joaquin Phoenix- doing in this 1970s world, we might ask? While X Men: First Class substituted youthful James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in telling the origin of the characters previously inhabited by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Joker is about a middle aged man trapped in perpetual boyhood, searching pathetically for father figures, resentful of his mother’s injuries to him, yearning for women with whom he cannot speak. It seems not coincidental that both Phoenix and director/screenwriter Todd Phillips are of an age to have been born roughly at the time of the film’s setting, and that the film’s central axis finds Fleck trying to understand the mystery of his birth, becoming the Joker only when this question is revealed to be unanswerable. In other words, Joker is a Generation X origin story, an attempt to find, in the inscrutable dirt of urban blight, the origin of an inconvenient and extraneous generation like Fleck’s inconvenient and extraneous man.
If the viewer is cast backwards into the past to find their own origins amid 1970s decay, Fleck is equally out of temporal step with his world. A clown is intrinsically a dated persona, even in a 1970s milieu, and much of the film emphasizes that Arthur’s world is itself locked in an inaccessible and unrealized past. Arthur first appears dancing to a ragtime piece, watches Fred Astaire on TV, and the songs referenced up until his transformation into the Joker are either old (“Slap That Bass,” “That’s Life,” Jimmy Durante’s “Smile” ) or deliberately dated despite their 1970s provenance, like “Send in the Clowns.” When Arthur tails Thomas Wayne to the theatre, it is Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times that they- and the rest of the city’s fat cats- are watching and laughing to; just as we as viewers are cutoff from the mystery and dishonor of our origins amid 1970s decay, Arthur cannot come to understand his origins in the forgotten and unlearnable disgraces of the 30s.
At the same time, Arthur is, like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, incapable of speech, but expressive in movement. While Travis Bickle’s social missteps are mitigated by his youth and external amiability and the measured tone of his voiceovers, Arthur Fleck is redeemed only in a few moments of physical performance- in the moments before a gang of kids intercedes to attack him or a gun falls out of his pocket, he is clearly a gifted physical performer when in make-up as a clown. The film concludes with him becoming the Joker, his acts of violence having merged the darkness of his inner verbal life with the grace and self-possession of his clown performance, and he is self-actualized in psychopathy. Suddenly, the film’s dissonance between temporal setting and cultural signifiers disappear- no more dated jazz on the soundtrack. The Joker dances to Gary Glitter’s 1973 “Rock and Roll (Part 2)” on the stairs, and as Gotham descends into the fire and chaos that delights the Joker’s heart, that universal cliche of unchained liberation, Cream’s “White Room” plays a few distorted guitar bars of freedom.
A hidden tension in our culture- starting to become less hidden- is that once Baby Boomers took over the culture, historical consciousness became somewhat fixed and recent eras have been mostly exempt from the myth-making and revisionism that dominate our views of the world before Watergate. My guess is that both MeToo and some of the media controversy over Joker are partly driven by this closed book starting to open and people angling to grab control over what can be written in it and what cannot. For now, it seems telling the story of the costs of post-Sixties liberation and urban blight is allowable, as long as these costs are presented as result of empowering the rich, white, male, and straight to indulge temptations, not a broader breakdown of order that encompassed multiple types of culprit and victims. This creation of historical myth is perhaps what distinguishes the prominent generational cohorts from the marginal ones.
The supposed political controversy over Joker is at one level strange; the film takes a basically left-sympathetic view of the horror of Gotham, with canceled social services and rich, sadistic or narcissistic businessmen primarily to blame, and the racial dynamics of Joker are at least at a surface level politically correct. While Arthur is assaulted by a mixed-race group of young hoodlums at the movie’s onset, he explicitly forgives them, in a way he doesn’t the three rich white men who attack him later. The riots by which Gotham is consumed at the film’s end is shown as outsider white men rising up against insider, rich white men. The four main black characters- his social worker, his next door love interest, a clerk at the insane asylum he convinces to share his mother’s file, and a psychiatrist he meets with at the end of the film- are not only sympathetic and kind. They are essentially the only characters, apart from a colleague with dwarfism, to show Arthur attention and concern, and with whom he finds himself eager to express himself in humane terms and show himself to be sane. Not coincidentally, they are filmed in a forgiving and gracious light, at odds with the washed-out and unforgiving appearance of almost all the other (white) characters.
If there is a racial subtext to Joker– and this is America, how could there not be- it is likely that it is, in fact, the desire to sideline racial conflict from the paroxysms of post-60s urban life, to present black Americans as patient, sane, wisely enduring bystanders to class and civic conflict and crime rather than participants and victims. Arthur’s visible fantasies- or hallucinations- of a love affair with his next door neighbor are exaggeratedly chaste, in spite of the cutout pictures of naked black women in his notebook. While 1970s films themselves often wished to juggle the social role of blacks and whites in collective consciousness (as Rocky did), or to offer white men a role as instruments of reactionary vengeance without primarily invoking racial revenge (as Taxi Driver did by making the main target of Travis Bickle’s bloodshed the white pimp played by Harvey Keitel), Joker takes place in a different kind of dream-like world- there is a reason Arthur’s six-shooter revolver shoots nine bullets in his first burst of violence. The dream desire I would guess it seeks is to find an origin story for our own incoherences, inequalities, injustices, that does not make race determinative of whether one is inside or outside the circle of privilege, in the present and in the past. If fictions are defined by pretending to be someone else, perhaps Joker is an attempt by middle aged white guys, to say that, while they may be the villain, they can at least choose what kind of villain they wish to be. This choice amounts, according to many in media to the Joker dancing on concrete steps following bloody deeds, an ornamentation of psychopathy that does not and cannot change its character. But the problem of figuring out what to think about our recent past- our origin story- will still be with us, whether we used to think our story a comedy, but now realize it is a tragedy, or the other way around.