• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On "Joker"

October 2019

For what was, in my opinion, a disappointingly average film, Joker—starring the inimitable Joaquin Phoenix and, so far as I could tell, no one else—has recently held the conversation of the day. What’s more, it seems not to be loosening its grip. Apparently, the film has been deemed inimical to the sensitivities and hostile to the delicate tastes of most viewers (for whom, one might point out, other similarly-rated films—all of them more graphic and violent than this—have aroused no comparable reproach), the criticism by which it’s been inundated has been shocking. News outlets can’t stop commenting on it, pious Christians can’t stop condemning it, and humble blogs, such as the one in whose vacant receptacle my thoughts seem endlessly to accrue, can’t keep their distance from its controversial allure.

Certainly, the energy with which this film has been analyzed by both “users” and critics alike is incommensurate with the film’s cinematic worth. That much should be said from the start. In a word, if I could be so blunt, the film is not very good. Most of the criticism, then, if it arrives not a this same conclusion, is an exhalation of wasted breath. That doesn’t mean, however, that the film and the studio by which it was produced are attempting to avoid the contentious, thick, and soot-filled intrigue of this air. Lifted by the winds of so much publicity (be it good or, in this case, bad), the film is prepared to encounter profits and to reach the height of commercial altitudes that seldom a film that’s so objectively bad gets to see. Still, while its revenues will be inflated, so too will its value—and grossly so.

It’s neither tragic nor heroic, but tedious from its start till its end. Granted, the performance put in by Phoenix (who, like the bird for whom I think him aptly named, seldom fails to arise from the latencies of a long-lived Hollywood career and enflame us with the passion of his craft) is astounding, but it is narrowly confined. At the expense of breadth in the form of supporting actors and plotlines, there is remarkable depth in his singular person and the force of his skill. In this film, there is but one locus upon which our attention is permanently fixed. That would be on none other than the character of Phoenix, his Arthur Fleck—on every inch of his sadomasochistic soul.

Yet even Phoenix, despite his theatrical genius, risks becoming wearisome for the audience before which he laughs, cries, and kills. It soon tires of his mental illness, his nihilism, and the shrillness of his laugh. It searches in him for something onto which it can hold, but nary a crag is to be found. It’s for this reason, along with innumerable others, that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is uncontestably the superior film of the two: not only is Nolan’s Joker (upon whose figure the late Heath Ledger forever stamped his name—an approbation, I might add, that still applies, even in this ascendant age of Phoenix) more perfectly personified, but the context in which he exists is far more diverse and compelling.

One could, and—at this point—probably should indulge his desire for a digression. The temptation to do so, by which all those who think like me are overcome, is to celebrate The Dark Knight’s superiority and Heath Ledger’s unconquerable merit. We must, at this time, show our restraint. We must forswear so jubilant a remembrance of a truly monumental person and film. Admittedly, such an encomium is on the tip of my tongue, but I’ll swallow it and I’ll resist. I’ll instead opt for another path.

Comparisons aside, Joker—whether it was intentionally made to be so or not—was a philosophically-rich film. That, of course, is quite different from it being cinematically worthwhile. Perhaps I was—through the duration of a yawn-inducing film—reading into its plot philosophical schools and ideas that didn’t actually apply, but I thought I sensed in this film the influence of two thinkers in particular—each one of lasting provocation and, upon your reading of them, pernicious renown.

Upon seeing, and—due to the craftiness of the cinematic approach—very nearly sniffing the rapidity and the insatiability with which Phoenix’s “Arthur Fleck” consumed his endless cache of cigarettes, my mind immediately leapt to Sigmund Freud. How could it not? This terrible and insalubrious habit, I thought, must be representative of what the good doctor of Vienna and its discontents might’ve called an oral fixation—one manifesting itself inappropriately late in life. Normally, during this psychosexual stage of Freudian development (which spans, for all those young parents concerned, the time from the child’s immediate birth until the first year of his age), all pleasure is derived from the lips. This is the stage during which the basic acts of sucking, nursing, and exploring with the all-too-sensitive tongue are of the greatest import and of the most incessant application.

Deprived of this opportunity for oral exploration and tactile glee, the child—now grown—must find a way to appease that of which he was, in his youth, bereft. Thus, an “oral” person, whenever laden by anxieties or burdened by despairs, will satisfy his desire by holding something in the mouth. It’s made clear that young Arthur Fleck, the adopted child of a deranged and delusional woman under the employ of the Waynes, was denied the solicitous care and bounty of his mother’s love—most readily transacted and communicated in the milk of her breast. It’s because of this that cigarettes, though noxious and destructive with the inhalation of every plume, substitute and appease this latent desire. It might also be noted that no other character, so far as I can recall, was to be seen with a cigarette in her hand.

Following Freud just a bit longer, though probably—as tends to be the case with that devilish Austrian shrink—just an inch too far, a psychoanalytically-inclined audience member might accuse poor Arthur of suffering from an Oedipal complex. In this particular case, the Jocasta of his heart’s yearning would be the mentally-unstable matriarch by whom he was once adopted, and with whom, much to our discomfort, he still lives. Until he decides to smother with a pillow her ailing and expressionless face and, having done so, hasten the arrival of her inevitable death, Arthur is rather morbidly infatuated with his mother. He bathes her, he feeds her, he dances with her, and he sleeps at her side—all while she appears quite capable of handling at least the first two of those activities well-enough on her own. Until his liberation in the hospital from her Sophoclean pull, he is, in a word, enamored of his mom. The solicitude with which he exerts himself to tend to her every need and ease her life of dubious decrepitude, would be enough to make blush that royal Theban prince—now an incestuous Grecian king.

To fall into the Freudian rabbit hole is, as most modern psychologists will admit, a dangerous descent. Yet, however ample our forewarning, this trap lays open, even yawning, at our feet. It sits before us, a gaping chasm in the terra firma of this, the “hard” science of psychology, out of which the Freudian devotees and the acolytes of psychoanalysis seldom climb. Once a plunge is made into its depths and a breath is taken of its air, the future possibility of an ascent is unlikely. It is, in a word, a most powerful and persuasive intoxicant.

Often, the attribution of Freud’s ideas to people, much less to fictional characters, studied from afar is misplaced. One can go very wrong in evoking the reliability of his creed. I concede as much, but still commit myself, although coyly and without sufficient scientific trust, to the notion that Phoenix is a Freudian figure. I feel no hesitation, however, in calling upon another philosopher to round out and color in the darkened hues of the Joker’s lurking shades.

The thinker upon whom my mind pivots next in its exploration of this character and of this movie was the great German sage, Friedrich Nietzsche. The Joker might find in him a person, albeit historical rather than fictional, with whom his tortured empathies might be shared. Toward the end of his short life, Nietzsche was—to put it mildly—an affiliate of the cognitively insane. Such was the consequence of lapse of his celibacy. His mind, already unstable, was overcome by the syphilitic venom that coursed through his veins.

Still, though sexually-compromised by this communicable “Gallic” disease, Nietzsche was able to beget nearly an entire brood of philosophical thought. This progeny would prove endless and his mind, while it lasted, devilishly fecund. In the coming decades, his children, his ideas, would dance and grow, eventually becoming a stimulus for the minds of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin.

Nietzsche was, in an ironic partnership with the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialism. We might designate Kierkegaard the mother—the Hera to Nietzsche’s Zeus. Without delving too deeply into this theory of thought (to which the Frenchman, Jean-Paul Sartre—by naming and popularizing it—gave impetus), we might most broadly categorize it as an extension of Nihilism. This too reads to most eyes as a pretentious and foreign term but it means, quite literally, “nothingness”. It means nothing else. Nihilism captures the idea that there is no inherent value in life. There is no objective ideal, no absolute meaning, no Platonic “Form”, no Judeo-Christian God to which we humans all jointly aspire.

In the absence of a system of values or of any recognizable meaning, we humans are left to the caprice and to the assertion of our own individual wills. Because there is no prescribed morality, no blessed good nor an odious evil by whose lines we would otherwise abide, we’re free to transcend all boundaries and create those values of our own choosing. Nietzsche thought that these silly concepts of “good and evil” were simple impediments beyond which we ought to move—and move vigorously, at that. He who was most capable of asserting his “will to power” would do so—ending ultimately in the acquisition of the title of Ubermensch, a term loosely defined to mean Over- or Superman.

The Joker is no such super hero, but he is a Nietzschean apotheosis of the first order. He is Nietzsche incarnate—a man risen from the solitude of the philosopher’s beloved Alps. To the Joker, all is without value, and all is for the taking. He is, or at least he becomes, completely nihilistic in his approach to life. It matters not what he does, so long as it wills it done. A definitive moment is when, in reference to the Existentialism of which I made earlier mention, he tells the distracted social worker in whom he’s compelled to confide that he’s felt himself to be non-existent for the majority of his life. Though not an original sentiment (indeed, one catches in its utterance a waft that’s very Fight Club-esque), it’s nonetheless arresting.

However, once the Joker begins to kill, he begins more palpably to live. Only in death does he come alive. This is the assertion of his will to power, and it’s through this assertion that he comes to exist.

Is this too deep a reading into a mediocre film? Probably. But it’s where the mind, when not transfixed by the action and development of the plot, tends to go. Philosophy remains the greatest of life’s fascinations upon the stage behind our eyes. There’s no limit on one’s inward viewing when the exterior is so disappointing.

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