My husband and I used to frequent the movie theaters before we had kids, and then when the kids were old enough and good movies still common. Lately, the theaters offer a lot of remakes and superheroes or remade superheroes (Really? Another Spider Man?). And if not one of those, Hollywood patronizes us with mainstream scat popped of cupcake molds. They slather it with a little frosting, hoping to masquerade the crap below. I get it; originality in writing is risky in the big economy. Society likes to chew on the same themes and memes, because repetition doesn’t force individuals to think beyond the boundary of their knowledge. It’s the same reason young children like to be entertained with the same book or movie; nothing is more comforting than retreading steps to the same conclusion. While the Joker is a spin on an old tale – a prequel to Batman – don’t go to the theater expecting an action-packed DC episode, but do reflect how society’s indifference for the individual transforms Arthur Fleck into the Joker, a man we all fear.
The Joker is not about defeating good or evil. Or even combatting it. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of a man already struggling with mental illness who is injured, demoralized, and humiliated by society is both fascinating and painful to watch. Arthur Fleck begins the film as socially awkward but good-hearted man with contorted and cringey dance moves. Skipping the step-by-step erosion of a man’s dignity, I will tell you he is physically assaulted by both teenage thugs and Wall Street-type upstarts. He shows strangers kindness, but they rudely dismiss his company. Coworkers betray him. And he learns of his mother’s treason to his young, innocent self – most likely the catalyst to his mental illness. But the Joker’s transformation solidifies when Fleck’s role model publicly humiliates Arthur in his pursuit of a lifelong aspiration. Nothing is better than a viral laugh unless it is to the detriment of another.
Arthur’s life course is the recipe of suicides, mass shootings, and radicalizations. Let’s face it; life is hard. If the constraints of society do not inter us, then we are fighting to survive in a third world country. And we need to belong in this ugliness, to feel that those moments of connection with others are worth trudging through the mind-numbing sludge. But demoralized or isolated, as a pariah to others, few can resist the impact. Some escape the pain in one fashion or another. And others shift into something beyond societal boundaries.
All it takes are moments of kindness, communication, genuine reflection and connection with others. These drops of dust in the erosion of time are the nourishment of community. Just a smile, a shared laughed, or twin tears can bind us, propping us up for days, weeks, years. But when life is stupidly busy, it’s hard to find those moments. We take loved-ones for granted, overlook friends, and ignore strangers. Though we try, social media is not a substitute for authentic connection. Those ones and zeros only dissolve the glue of society, injecting it with anger. Instead, be present in the real world, look for that friend, that stranger, and engage in a conversation. In the world’s strife, find something common, and share in that commonality. Take an interest in another’s life, and maybe they will take an interest in yours. And for goodness sakes, a smiling emoji is not the same as a genuine smile.
When the Joker emerges from his streak of revenge, the city is in civil unrest. With riots, protestors, and flames surrounding him, the Joker stands atop a police car, and never did he dance so beautifully smooth. In the absence of all others, he had found a connection with chaos.
Toward the movie’s beginning, before undergoing the brutal attacks, Arthur is in his social worker’s office. She’s asking him routine questions, and he notes that despite her job, she never really listens to him for her narrative never varies visit to visit. And he asks, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Yes, Arthur. Yes, it is.