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Art, Mental Health, and Gaslighting: A Review of the 2019 Joker Film, Part 1
The Kunlangeta Part III
In October, 2019, perhaps as SARS-CoV-2 cases were ramping up in Wuhan, one of the most interesting films in history was released: Joker. Having grown up in a violent and dysfunctional household that had given itself in service to a cult, watching my brothers wither early, suffer from addiction and mental illness, then die slowly through early adulthood, the movie struck a nerve with me. Until around the age of 12, I didn't expect to survive to adulthood, but found a way through.
Perhaps also due to a disorder that seems to cause a trade-off between my audio and visual sensory input (which I most often describe as dyslexia for lack of a better explanation), I felt like I needed to see the movie twice. The symbolism and clues to the bigger picture behind the story are many, and I suspect even those who don't have my limited viewing frame could miss plenty. A few days after my first viewing, I took a notebook to the theater to watch it again. With those notes, I went home, did a bit of poking around the internet to see what others had to say, felt like the commentary was all wrong, then penned a long essay that I published to Medium on October 14, 2019.
As you read this essay, ask yourself if there is an additional layer to the story given what we're all living through. This time around, I'm adding emphasis, images, and links in certain spots (and correcting a couple of typos, as per usual). Forgive the self-plagiarism. Due to length, this will take two parts.
I nearly dodged seeing Joker. The comic book movie genre has grown old, and Hollywood produces scarce good cinema these days. But people I trust seemed to like Joker, so I took the plunge. I’m extremely glad I did because Joker may be the most important movie of this era.
What is this era, anyway? Oh, haha. That’s a joke. This is an era in which anything interesting I might say about this era will draw fire. Think on that for a moment.
Next, Jokeris no comic book flick. Nor is it the vacuously dark and “edgy” horror story dismissed by many of this era’s primary film critics. This is a serious movie about serious topics that requisitions the comic book genre, within its traditionally darkest story, to draw in an audience that’s ready (and demanding of) some stark reality (or as close as you can get with stylized fiction).
Before I really dive in, I’m going to make this plain: Joker is nothing like what the pundits and professional reviewers say it is. In fact, that they get it wrong is part of the point! As I’ve said, that’s the era we live in.
Joker is not liberal or conservative or right-wing or left-wing. It’s not Antifa and it’s not the alt-right. However, if you look straight at it with plain eyes, you’ll see the commentary on not only the extremes, but the real source of those extremes. Why hack at the leaves when we can get at the root, anyhow?
While political elements are there as part of the story, Joker is a mental health movie, and a cautionary tale about ignoring important flaws in the organization of our entire society. As such, Joker pushes back at the many faulty partisan critiques at once, and confuses exactly those whose ignorance most matters. This includes large swaths of the media and even the well educated critics whose keen minds we depend on when analyzing any art that reveals some important aspects of the world around us.
Joker is incisively political by remaining apolitical in its coding.
My goodness! Who is left who can help make sense of it all?!
Perhaps you can. There are no oracles better than your own keen mind, once you disentangle it from expectations.
This is going to be a long story, so strap in. And if you haven’t seen the film yet…spoiler alerts. In fact, I’m going to spoil nearly the whole damned enterprise. But if you haven’t seen it, perhaps you’ll understand why you should. Ye have been fairly warned. Forgive any mild misquotes. I get them mostly right, but don’t have a script on hand.
First, all the acting jobs were top notch. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is one of the best in cinema history, considering all he had to pull off (which is hopefully clear by the time I’m done). Frances Conroy pulled off exactly what had to be pulled off, and Zazie Beetz did the job of pulling off hope and despair. Of course, I don’t expect any of them to win any awards. My favorite film in childhood, Lawrence of Arabia, didn’t win best picture, and nobody I ever voted for (ever) won an election. I don’t do popular well, it seems.
Addendum (2021): As was pointed out to me after I wrote this essay, Lawrence of Arabia did win Best Picture. I'm glad I can pick a winner once in a while. But I still haven't voted for a winner, and at this point I might be afraid of what it meant if I did.
The movie begins in a brick office in Gotham, the comic book equivalent of New York City, as Arthur Fleck applies his make up. Other clowns go about their preparatory work. A report on a radio or TV reveals that the city is in the midst of a garbage strike. The people who take out the trash aren’t working.
Arthur practices a forced smile. A tear rolls down his face, carrying a streak of dark eye shadow with it.
Outside, Arthur holds up a sign while a piano player adds festive noise to the streets that resemble the Big Apple of the 1980s. A group of five punk boys, maybe 10 to 16 years of age, grab Arthur’s sign and he makes chase. Once off the avenue and in an alley, the boys jump Arthur, beating him badly. Ink spills out of the flower from his lapel like blood from his heart.
Arthur is one among the dregs of the big city. But the critics who call him self-pitying don’t get it. He’s doing better than you would expect of a poor man in his condition when all is said and done, and he eats his own pain with barely a complaint. He is the man who lives with his elderly mother, whom he bathes and cares for, and who tells him to “put on a happy face” [which he does with paint when he can’t] and “bring joy and laughter to the world” [which he tries to do, and sometimes even fantasizes about].
Arthur is a good man! At least, Arthur is a man who intends goodness, though he makes people uncomfortable. Arthur provides forgiveness in understanding of the punks who assault him. He entertains a child on the bus. He holds the door for a young, beleaguered single mother. But given the opportunity, Arthur refuses to pile on the one man around him over whom he might hold social rank (were he to take it): the midget who is an assistant at the clown office. Unfortunately Arthur suffers from a condition in which he laughs inappropriately. Really, Arthur laughs when he is in pain, and we’ll find out why.
We next find Arthur in the office of a jaded mental health social worker. She asks him questions. He answers, but she doesn’t really care to put effort into listening. He asks, “Is it me or is it getting crazier out there?” Next we find out that Arthur spent time locked up in a hospital for unnamed mental health problems. He thinks maybe it would be best to up his medication, but the social worker tells him that he’s on seven medications already. “I just don’t want to feel so bad, anymore.”
Why does Arthur feel so bad? In truth, everyone in the city seems mentally unhealthy in one way or another, just about. (Why does it take Arthur to see this? Can nobody else recognize it?) Randal, his clown coworker, is a bully. The kids on the streets are punks, taking out their pain in turn on others. The elites of the city are variously revealed as psychopaths. His mother suffers from PTSD and delusions. But Arthur’s condition is different. He has a tick that reaches out and smacks you in the face. It’s like Tourette’s syndrome, but because it comes out as a high pitched laughter, makes everyone intensely more uncomfortable. People look away or distance themselves, sometimes flinging various insults as a method to dig an emotional moat. Arthur tells us himself: his malady is not the pain. People’s reactions are the pain.
And that just makes him laugh more. And yes, that’s about as creepy as it can get. Creepy-feeling, at least. For the most part, Arthur allows people their distance, and retreats to his isolation.
The disengaged mental health worker isn’t going to help him find hope for his predicament.
As mentioned, Arthur cares for his mother as best he can, with limited means. In the evenings they watch a late night comedian, Murray Franklin, and Arthur fantasizes about meeting Murray on his show. He longs to become a comedian himself, turns his mental health journal into a [terrible] joke book, and attends a local comedy club to enjoy and study. A daydream perhaps more intense than the average aspirational hope. After all, this man’s pain is more desperate than most.
Arthur even imagines a relationship with his cute neighbor, the single mother whom he once stalks through part of her day.
Back at the office, Randal gives Arthur a gun. Who knows where this gun has been or what it’s been used for, but Randal clearly wants to look like a good chum—the bully who protects his pal from bullies. But the gun gets Arthur into trouble when it falls out of his coat at a hospital while he sings and dances to entertain sick children. Arthur gets fired from his job by a boss who has already told Arthur that he makes everyone uncomfortable, and needed little excuse to pull that trigger.
Things are going pretty badly for Arthur. How could it get any worse? On the subway ride home, a group of wealthy, spoiled brat banker types harasses a woman. Arthur’s squealing laughter draws their attention, giving her the opportunity to walk to another car. The three men surround Arthur and attack him. Another beating.
Let’s pause here for a moment. Have you ever heard of Napoleon Chagnon? If you don’t read up on works or controversies in anthropology, you probably haven’t. Chagnon died two weeks before Joker opened. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences who spent time with the Yanomamo, a tribe of indigenous Amazonians. After time spent with the Yanomamo, he penned The Fierce People, painting the Yanomamo as a violent society, and likely genetically so. Controversy erupted in debate between the sociobiological explanation Chagnan offered and the sociocultural position favored by others in his field.
“Just call it nature versus nurture, asshole!”
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. I just wanted to introduce the scientific terms for posterity. You can put that on my tombstone.
The question: Do nearly a third of Yanomamo die violently due to a genetic predisposition toward conflict? Or does something else, such as the structure of their society, play a more primary role?
Do we have enough evidence to make that call, yet?
At the very least, we can say that civilization exists due to the influences of our various institutions, the codification of game theoretic conflict resolution. Perhaps it’s all institutions that keep us safe. Perhaps the peaceful society that results breeds more peaceful people.
Perhaps the institutions keep us safe, but psychopaths climb to the top, motivated by the opportunity to better breed (and abuse people) that wealth affords them? Perhaps neither Chagnon nor his detractors got all of it right! But the further we go into the future, the more I look to economist Douglas North and his fixation on the economic value of institutions. The further we progress, the more work institutions are doing. We better keep an eye on that…
Back to Arthur…good, kind, malformed Arthur is pushed to the extreme as three grown men kick the snot out of him. It’s not kids this time, and if they’ve gone this far, these maniacal goons may have neither the moral compass nor the fear instinct…BANG! BANG BANG! BANG! Arthur kills two of them and shoots the third in the leg as he flees. Arthur stands up, and in the moment, hunts the third man down, off the train, limping toward the stairs at the desolate train stop. Arthur shoots this last man in the back.
All three men dead, Arthur bolts and runs to find himself in a park bathroom. He slams the door and catches his breath. He breathes. He relaxes. Arthur can finally relax. He feels good. Arthur begins to dance, as if to some imagined symphony, finally playing in tune with his life.
What. The. Hell. Just. Happened?
This is a key moment in the story, and a key place where pundits fail to call a Rorschach test a Rorschach test. Some will say that Arthur “broke” or “turned evil” in this moment. Various pundits will make allusions to one or another populist movement. But let’s take a look back at the Yanomamo, and the differences between us and them. In a primitive society, people fight when something important is at stake. Heck, dueling was only outlawed in most states gradually throughout the 1800s. Probably to keep the educated elite safe from the psychopaths (ushering in something like an era of employment?). Fighting is natural to our species, which is why we develop such complex layers of laws to keep us from killing one another from day to day! That’s why we accompany those laws with lessons of morality and adherence to legal and religious tradition. But when push comes to shove, we kill. So long as we have agency!
Arthur had always lacked agency. His condition made him the juiciest target for those causing pain, intentionally or unintentionally, but a combination of moral training and social mores kept him from throwing down with the jerks who caused him so much pain from one day to the next. Arthur ate all the pain.
And that’s why he always felt so bad. That’s why he could feel the city getting crazier, too. The pain he bore was a mental health barometer.
But taking action into his own hands, which he would only do when forced, relieved all that tension. Arthur felt an existential weight lift from his shoulders.
So he danced.
Killing is ugly. Killing is immoral.
Also, you’re an animal. Yes, you are. You’re an incredible animal! But you’re an animal. Your training takes you far from your instincts, and if the two are in conflict, you suffer.
Thankfully you don’t suffer all the time. But Arthur did. All. The. Time.
It was only a matter of time before the gloves came off. Because, just like me and you, Arthur is an animal.
No, this isn’t a blame it on society story. The structure of society didn’t pull the trigger. Yet, it would be too easy to end the story with, “Well, I guess Arthur is a bad guy, now.”
If neither explanation is correct, what is?
Maybe the answer is that we’re not yet done perfecting society. And listen up, buddy, crowds are amassing on the streets. People are in pain, dying of addiction, killing themselves, and devolving into nihilistic fantasy drones one step away from pointing a loaded gun at whoever harmed them (or they imagined harmed them) last. Society separated too wide as we surpassed Dunbar numbers of various technological stabilities. And the psychopathic leadership we have now doesn’t get it, doesn’t want to handle it, and doesn’t fund solutions. In the U.S., we dismantled our mental health institutions, drug the crap out of kids who can’t sit still for long enough in a brick box, and point fingers over partisan lines (of political and also other varieties) because we’re too focused on secondary and tertiary problems. Or maybe we're just too focused on our own lives. Because we can focus inwardly. Stay inside. With our TVs. And our smartphones.
If you’re not part of the solution, are you part of the problem?
No. We’re just a mentally unhealthy society that doesn’t recognize the poison leaking in. We need to be smacked in the face with it. We need to crawl, coughing and wheezing to the nearest exit, breathe, get up, then go back and look for survivors to rehabilitate.
Evil, if we want to call it that, isn’t necessarily anybody’s fault. Or maybe it’s everybody’s fault, but that’s not the point. The point is that we need to fix it.
That’s what Joker is about. It’s a story. There is a problem. This problem is distilled madness of the highest order. And we need to fix it.