Joker: What Oscar critics missed

As soon as it was announced that Joker had received a whopping 11 nominations for the coming Academy Awards, disapprobation, consternation, and apprehension followed. After describing Joker as 2019’s “biggest disappointment”, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw continued his altercation with the highest-grossing R-rated psychological thriller in cinematic history by labelling it as “mediocre”, “overrated”, and less interesting than the laid-back customer at a kebab in Portsmouth amidst an unfolding fracas before his very eyes. Kyle Turner from the Washington Post straight-up called it a “very dumb movie” with “nothing to say” – and segued to lambaste the Academy Awards in celebrating mediocrity and not meritocracy. Slate’s Dan Kois hated the movie so much that it reads more like a wrathful upbraiding rant than a well-thought-out theatre critique – so much so that it is on par with – and reminiscent of – Gawker’s frenzied gobbledegook on the monarchy.

            From the very outset the film was lampooned for its apocryphal – erroneous, even – portrayal of mental illness: that it only served to perpetuate “unfounded stereotypes and spread misinformation”. Fair enough. Other criticisms against Joker include the wholly contradictory quandaries of edginess for the sake of being edgy (regarding violence and transgression) and wokeness for the sake of being woke (regarding the anti-capitalist class riots). Buzzfeed alleged the film in courting the “disaffected and lonely” – and somehow, the plot and theme of the film are apparently about women – black women in particular – holding white men back. At one point the United States Army cautioned its servicemen and women that the film might induce possible violence from “incels” – “involuntary celibates” in short, admonished them to remain cognizant and vigilant at all times, and provided them with a survival guide of some sort. The theatre at Aurora, Colorado where a mass shooting had occurred in 2012 did not screen the film, in fear of a copycat effect.

            Alas, most critics – and criticasters – have missed the point, and some egregiously so. Joker, whether one likes it or not, highlights the atomisation of our society, the negligence of the vulnerable, the defunding of vital mental health services, and, in spite of its inchoate imperfection in presentation, the meaning of life. In an adjacent op-ed, I have analysed that:

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.

Social alienation, as explained by emeritus professor of the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.) Melvin Seeman, could be categorised in five stages: “powerlessness”, “meaninglessness”, “normlessness”, “isolation”, and “self-estrangement”.

            In Joker, Arthur Fleck’s realisation that no matter what he did – be it a party clown or a stand-up comedian, he was unable to impress anyone; thus his sense of powerlessness. When he scribbled onto his notebook “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t,” meaninglessness arose as he was befuddled of what society expected him to do, in spite of conforming to societal expectations. Soon as he was reprimanded for stealing a sign away – a crime which he did not commit, as well as being remissive at work, he became aware of the discrepancy in his own worth and what rewards – reprehensions, rather – he had – and would have – received. He then became more susceptible that only an arrogating revolt could re-adjust the paradigm in favour of men like him per normlessness and, subsequently, isolation. By telling his soon-to-be laid off social worker Debra Kane that people were starting to notice his existence, and that nothing in his character, talent, and work he had done was worth anything, his self-estrangement enabled him to renounce and denounce all that he was taught and had acquired.

            If anything, rather than glorifying nihilism and violence, the film has once again reminded us and accentuated on the ramifications of modernised atomisation on our society; a powerful and cogent allegorical and rhetorical question nonetheless, when Arthur squabbled with Murray Franklin moments before shooting his childhood idol by saying “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”, rather than redoubtably perpetuating the stigmatisation and discrimination of psychotically disordered individuals as dangerous neurotics, it acts as a subtle, reversed, metaphorical plea and reminder that the most vulnerable members in our society deserve the same level of security, warmth, and assuagement as everyone else – if not more. Arthur may not be the most apt person to showcase clinical depression, but it is nonetheless real; though it is more of a symptom and not an etiology, that should not enable anyone to discountenance nor pooh-pooh the existence of mental disorders the way that the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz did.

            “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital,” Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, “When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.” The disparity in consensus between critics and commoners could not be more clear, and now that the film is back in theatres once more, people could go watch it themselves and establish their own opinions about it; but to deny the film Best Picture at the Oscars because of frivolous trivialities such as characters like Thomas Wayne deviating from how he is and used to be depicted in D.C. Comics would be a travesty when taken into account its lucid and invigorating portrayal of the human condition under atomised societies.

            Of course, these are just my two cents’ worth.

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