How Joker explores the disappearance of a man and his inevitable reduction to a symbol of chaos

Anupam Kant Verma

Oct 09, 2019 14:17:04 IST

[Potential spoilers ahead]

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, is a feature-length requiem for the disappearance of a man and his inadvertent yet inevitable reduction to a symbol.

Since the film features intellectual property owned by DC Comics, the transformation manifests in the form of the Joker emerging from the ashes of Arthur Fleck. The two of them are poles apart and the distance between them is bridged by violence. Violence is the stuff that this origins story is made of. Violence fosters the protagonist’s growing identification with the symbol, his increasing understanding of the dangerous power it lends him and his eventual embrace of it.

Everything in Arthur must go to yield place to the Joker. But unlike the rioting crowd that cheers the Joker on the streets or the horrified audience at the chat show, the film makes us witness the slow and painful erosion of a person who believes that his purpose is to bring joy to a cold, dark world.

Arthur is poor and mentally ill. He lives with his mother in a grim apartment under the gloomy skies of Gotham city. He works at a rent-a-clown joint and dreams of becoming a famous stand-up comedian. He scribbles copious notes at stand-up gigs but evidently lacks the talent to become one. It is clear that the world will never laugh along with him. But his act will give them ample opportunity to laugh at him and, ironically, land him on the big stage, right next to the who’s who, whom he will soon leave far behind and, abandoning himself likewise, transform into the Joker, a symbol and vessel for the pent up frustrations and seething discontent of the masses.

If this scenario seems vaguely familiar to the present day, consider it intentional.

 How Joker explores the disappearance of a man and his inevitable reduction to a symbol of chaos

Joaquin Phoenix in and as Joker | Warner Bros.

Joker is set in the early ’80s. Gotham is a seedier, darker version of the New York of the time. Arthur is a nobody who will have power thrust upon him. But not before emptying him of all that made him decent and courteous, two things that he asked of people. Backstage on the chat show, Arthur, now under layers of paint, assures Murray Franklin, his hero and pseudo father figure, that he believes in nothing. Not even in comedy or bringing joy. Self-assured, confident and a showman, Joker—aka Arthur robbed of all meaning—is now pure symbol and will proceed to have meaning thrust upon him. He will now discover beauty in the violence on the streets and refuse to share a joke, confident that we will not get it. We have well and truly lost him.

Phillips employs the protagonist’s increasing alienation from the audience as a corrective to the empathy that will be fostered by a film that features Joaquin Phoenix, the actor playing Arthur, in every single frame.

Arthur’s initial acts of violence are presented as a result of unfortunate accidents birthed in jealousy and misunderstanding.

His initial uneasy relationship with the gun results in one of the more memorable scenes that dexterously balances the comic and the serious inside a hospital ward. Phillips constantly undercuts the Joker’s triumphs. For instance, when the Joker walks out of his house in his spanking new dress and dances on the stairs, his celebration is stopped short by policemen. It’s hard not to notice the unwieldiness of these comic scenes. They sit uncomfortably within the overwhelmingly grim aspect of the film. It’s as if the director is taking pains to draw our attention to something he fears we might miss.

The endless straining on Phillips' part takes away from Joker’s immersive nature. It tips the balance of impact firmly in favour of the film’s rousing, anarchic finale, which he then seeks to undercut with another quiet scene. Individually, however, these scenes make for the most meaningful and revelatory stretches of the film. Arthur and the crowd, for all the distance between them, are never too far apart. Phillips’ character study cannot flourish without the world jutting into Arthur’s private space. This friction combines with Arthur’s gnawing need to be liked and the Joker’s commingling with the crowd to give the film the raw power that it unleashes at the end.

It is arson in the heart of the system. A system that abandoned its people and disparaged them as clowns until they found refuge behind the mask and the gloves finally went off. That doesn’t mean Arthur/Joker and the crowd are one and the same now. Joker’s mask is lovingly painted on, a sombre reminder of his past. When he takes the make-up off it is still there like a phantom limb. Not so for the masks in the crowd. The moment they come on or off, they switch allegiance between symbols. The weariness only increases.

Still from Joker trailer. YouTube screengrab

Still from Joker trailer. YouTube screengrab

Joker, meanwhile, is in a white room, while his nemesis is born on a dark alley in Gotham, standing solemnly over the corpses of his slain parents. Phillips uses similar, canted shots twice in the film to depict the origins of the Joker and the Batman. They can also be read as depictions of the radically different paths people can take when confronted by grave tragedy. These shots also hark back to the noir tinge that Christopher Nolan lent to his Batman films. Most significantly, they set us up for the battle of good and evil that must follow. For the starlings are tired, the city is in chaos and, not surprisingly, crying itself hoarse for a saviour.

It has all come at the expense of a decent man whose existence has been stomped all over to make way for a grand battle.

A man whose cries for help are lost in the din of the city and finally buried under layers of paint—red, white and blue; the colours of liberty and opportunity. A man inundated by fantasy and trampled by reality. A hollow being who draws strength from the indignation poured into him by the crowd. Man become symbol, a character in an ongoing franchise whose success depends on his dramatic defeat—again and again—at the hands of socially sanctioned good. But not before he puts a smile across your face.

Updated Date: Oct 09, 2019 14:17:04 IST