Joker: The existentialist anti-villain

Having won 50 awards including the Golden Lion and two Golden Globes, nominated in 11 separate categories each for the Academy Awards and the British Academy Film Awards amongst others, been the first R-rated film to attain an aggregated U.S. $ 1 billion in box office worldwide, and with bookies offering 8/1 and 1/10 respectively for the film Joker to win Best Picture and Best Leading Actor, critics are once again torn on the comminatory undertones of the film’s portrayal of mental illness and its treatment of violence, notwithstanding the adroit performance of Joaquin Phoenix, the virtuoso brilliance of Todd Phillips’s direction, the ineffable cinematography, and the captivating musical score.

            The film tells of the tale of one party clown named Arthur Fleck, atomised and agonised, shunned as an outcast, caused by pseudobulbar affect (P.B.A.), inducing him to laugh uncontrollably in inappropriate situations. From the very outset the film has presented Arthur as the subject of continuous mishaps and abuse: unsuccessful and impecunious, heavily reliant on government-funded social services for his medications, taunted and brutalised by a gang of ruffians, accused of theft by his boss, fired for owning a revolver which his co-worker has given to him for protection, and was beaten up by three minacious and inimical womanisers in the subway. He snapped and pulled the revolver out and shot them in self-defence. Vamoosed, Arthur henceforth became inured in face of unjust calamities and tribulations, vowing avenge on those who wronged him: his psychopathic mother, who gave her imprimatur to her then-boyfriend to assault and affront him as a young child, which had indubitably led to his brain injury, and ergo, P.B.A.; his co-worker Randall, who passed the buck and lied about having nothing to do with the revolver he gave Arthur to safeguard himself with; and Murray Franklin, the talk show host and Arthur’s childhood idol who made a crass and crude mockery out of him. At the end, despite his assertion that he was apolitical rather than a frondeur, he became the accidental revolutionary – and an unsung folk hero like Guy Fawkes and V – who inadvertently kick-started an insurrectionist movement.

            Critics who disliked the film, such as IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, and the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw – as well as those who feared the film might inspire another mass shooting – have all missed the point. Unlike previous Joker films, namely Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker in Joker (2019) is not an intransigent, obdurate pyromaniac: whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker laughs of sadism, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker laughs of pain – anguish, despair, torment, and ressentiment; and whereas Thomas Wayne is usually depicted as a compassionate doctor who saves lives irrespective of who his patients are, Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne is more reminiscent of billionaires and moguls in reality: smug, condescending, vituperating, braggadocious. It is almost as if Joker ought to be rated as a stand-alone movie about one man who coveted for society’s approbation and struggled to acculturate himself into all the inanities – and insanities – of everyday existence, only to be injured and abjured by the same society he beseeched for acceptance, which exacerbated his desolation and in turn provoked a truculent umbrage against that very same society he attempted to seek acknowledgement from: he was an iconoclast who, in spite of becoming a profligate vigilante full of vengeance, was not an impetuous reprobate as manifested by his goodwill towards his ex-colleague Gary. In other words, Joker is a symptom not the cause; the cause is atomised and compartmentalised postmodernity.

            Arthur Fleck’s odyssey of misfortunes and dereliction shares parallels with Charles Bukowski’s alter-ego in his second novel Factotum. The protagonist in Bukowski’s roman-à-clef Henry Chinaski was a nomadic vagabond who, like Arthur, was an outcast in solitude, unemployed, wanted to become a writer the same way that Arthur aspired to become a stand-up comedian, and was rejected by the publisher he has reverence for – comparable to Murray Franklin’s scoffing of Arthur’s failed comedy acts. Although Chinaski did not become a murderer the same way that Arthur did and rather opted for a Henry Miller-esque sexual escapade, via his alter-ego Bukowski rhetorically questioned the sameness, mundanity, and repetition of life itself:

How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?

Elsewhere, the philosopher Emil Cioran propounded the paradoxical nature of existence in an aphorism no less powerful and cogent in A Short History of Decay:

All truths are against us. But we go on living, because we accept them in themselves, because we refuse to draw the consequences. … We can act only against the truth. Man starts over again every day, in spite of everything he knows, against everything he knows.

Was that not what Arthur had to do and endure every day? The opening scene commenced with Arthur trying to force himself to smile; to be sanguine and copacetic; to, despite the toils and pains he went through day after day, enjoy his job and existence, but how long was he able to keep his act in one piece before snapping into delirium, furore, and rage? His contrived smile through using his two index fingers to pull his labial commissures upwards was accompanied with a tear-drop from his right eye: a silent scream; a J’accuse against society; a testimony of the tormented. By “losing it” and shooting the three bankers in the subway – the moment of cataclysmic catharsis – Arthur decided to stand up and embrace the Absurd, which, per Absurdism, enables one to discover ebullience and life’s purpose – and thence, was Arthur not buoyant afterwards, where he danced ecstatically in the public restrooms? But as he met his social worker Debra Kane he became sullen and dejected once more before moving onto elegiac lament and self-pity a la Job and Qoheleth. Then his soon-to-be laid off social worker said, “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” and before Arthur was able to say anything, she added, “And they really don’t give a shit about people like me either.” It is as such that the film masterfully and ingeniously visualised the atomisation of our society – the debasement of meaning, tradition, interpersonal relationships, and community, as well as the splendorous and vivid portrayal of the human condition in emotion, mortality, ideology, and conflict.

            The heated dialogue between Arthur and Murray Franklin further fortified the sublimation of the philosophical subconscious and social alienation on the part of Arthur. Lines such as “I’ve got nothing left to lose. Nothing can hurt me anymore. My life is nothing but a comedy” and “If it was me dying on the sidewalk you’d walk right over me! I pass you every day and you don’t notice me!” resemble – and are reminiscent of – the wrathful opening pages of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, upbraiding the psychosis of existence, the pretension of mannerisms, and all the discombobulations, contradictions, prevarications, and follies ubiquitous in human behaviour; and though as we make “humanity” synonymous with “altruism”, “friendship”, “compassion”, and “benevolence”, as evident in history we are anything but. Flip open a daily paper and turn to the court and crime sections and people can see for themselves what “humanity” actually is. “Not everyone’s awful,” admonished Murray; a rereading of Xunzi, De Sade, Le Bon, and Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect could – and would – easily dispel and rebuke such an untenable, simplistic, and naïve assertion.

            The film’s dénouement featured the incarceration of Arthur at Arkham Asylum, where he laughed when he met his psychiatrist. “What’s so funny?” his psychiatrist asked. “I’m just thinking of a joke,” Arthur responded. “Do you want to tell it to me?” his psychiatrist continued. “You wouldn’t get it,” Arthur rebutted. In Kierkegaard’s Diapsalmata, through the utilisation of the Narrator the Danish philosopher elucidated in melancholy that:

… when I became an adult, when I opened my eyes and saw actuality, then I started to laugh and have never stopped laughing since that time. I saw that the meaning of life was to make a living, its goal to become a councillor, that the rich delight of love was to acquire a well-to-do girl, that the blessedness of friendship was to help each other in financial difficulties, that wisdom was whatever the majority assumed it to be, that enthusiasm was to give a speech, that courage was to risk being fined ten dollars, that cordiality was to say ‘May it do you good’ after a meal, that piety was to go to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.

Thence, Arthur’s laugh should be interpreted not only as a defence mechanism against the Absurd but also as an evincing – a circumlocution, even – of existential angst and dread. He may be diagnosed to be clinically insane but equivocally he metaphorically embodies and epitomises the postmodern man pushed to his limits by the bêtise of life, teetering on the cliff-edge, before hitting the tipping point and breaking down into complete lunacy the same way Nietzsche did after seeing a chariot lashing a horse.

            “Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” and so as the proverb goes. What if Joker is the Shakespearean Fool who masqueraded his insanity with discerning intellect? No need for asides like when Macbeth or Prince Hamlet turned and spoke directly to the audience, what if Joker was communicating to us all along? The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Albert Camus in 1957, commending the Absurdist philosopher for illuminating “the problems of the human conscience”. Joker is one of the rarer films produced in our times which is not a potpourri of clichés, a facsimile, or eye candy – it challenges the viewer; it conveys a message; it compels critical analysis. As such, there is no reason why, at the very least, this film should not win Best Picture at the Oscars – but do the judges understand what Arthur, wondrously executed and realised by Joaquin Phoenix, is conveying? More so, do they want to understand? That is the question.

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