Joker Todd Phillips (USA 2019) Joaquin Phoenix
Viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 23 Oct 2019; ticket £10.75
An I for an I
The film’s script is the predictable Hollywood sensory motor drive vehicle, creating a film that is a series of one thing after another, the connecting linkage deriving from the psychological state of the protagonist. Joker charts the movement of its eponymous subject as he moves from victim state to master state. Joker is a chronicle of an overcoming which is the familiar theme of the stereotypical American achievement story.
The Joker invokes a series of validating psychic clichés such as resentment, repression, disappointment against a background of sets that have the look of stylised video games that is the default setting of today’s immersive movies. The Joker is a loner, living in a fragmented urban space isolated except for his invalid mother, and his passive membership of compulsive TV viewers club, a self elected community, which like fake canned laughter, lend the trappings of reality to the TV stations.
Set in the vague time zone known as ‘sometime in the past’ (a zone liked by script writers for the freedom it offers them of being able to include or exclude inconvenient social or technical considerations) when we had TV but we didn’t have mobile phones. In this snug time zone, little people like the Joker could make no claim for any sort of social recognition. They were simply fodder, workers in an exploitative labour market; and at leisure marked for the unctuous exploitative paternalism of the big TV and radio channels and their advertisers (There is a visual reference to Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’ in the scenario). Todd Phillips (and co writer Scott Silver) in the script exploit the familiar trope of the oleaginous dominant talk show host as an exciter of Arthur’s neo Nietzschian will to power, that finally leads to the inversion of his despised clown persona, into a badge of self found individuality. Arthur belittled by his powerlessness acquires a gun, the tool that changes situations, and thereby transforms himself into a being able to enforce his own intents and purposes (whether in ‘fantasy’ or for ‘real’ as the scenario is careful to confuse the status of its actual referencing).
Joker is a delivery machine.
The Joker’s psychic message endorses above all, the spirit of the times. It says what people want to hear. Todd Phillips delivers an affirmative endorsement of the individuating forces of a commercialised product fixated society with its digital technology that places the individual at the centre of their own universe of possibilities. Arthur once self re-invented as the Joker says: “ I didn’t know if I really existed, but now I do!”
An engaging belief of the age is that the self is a repressed entity, subjected to the range of social relations into which it is born. The object of the career of ‘the self’ is overcoming; the finding of the one and true self, the who you really are. The community as a source of identity, class as a source of identity are all but destroyed. We are just functionaries with families, which are often festering nests of destructive emotions. But high tech as developed by late stage capitalism, after reducing us to functionaries, has provided us with the means to fill out the stuff of life. A multiplicity of products and services in the consumer cornucopia enable serious shopping for identity: the products and services of digital technology, where the particle, the individual seated at the centre of their own web voyaging out into on-line universe, is released as a free agent to explore identity on all its facets.
Phillips and `silver’s ‘Joker’ is ultimately a rationalisation for the self fixated narcissism of the times. Whatever stands in the way of the onward march of the true ‘self’ can be pushed aside, destroyed buy any means necessary. The true self allows nothing to stand in the way of its transfiguration. The sub text of ‘the Joker’ incorporates the on-line world as the triumph of a solipsistic nihilism.
Lurking in the images of Joker is not just the performance of Joaquin Phoenix but his body. It re-appears through the film, lithe like a snake, bone brazen, moving dancing saying things without words that suggests a deeper level of penetration into the Joker’s psychic make up. The images are narcissistic and self centred particularly in movement. But when still they suggested to me a vulnerability of flesh and blood, the skin of a being animal.