Phillips: Joker (2019)
It’s not hard to see why Joker won the Golden Lion, or why it has become such a talking point over the last couple of months, since this is one of the most ingenious depictions yet of precisely what is at stake in current debates around white privilege and white fragility. As the title suggests, the film focuses on Joker, from the Batman universe, but this is a very different Joker from the figure we have seen performed by Jared Leto and Heath Ledger over the last fifteen years. Here, Joker starts out as Arthur Fleck, a loner and failed stand-up comic, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who lives with his mother, shuns company and dreams of appearing on a variety show hosted by Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro. After suffering a series of privations – some psychological, some socioeconomic – Arthur morphs into his alter ego, the Joker, and commences a reign of terror that links up with the canonical Batman narrative in quite an astonishing and original way. In the process, Phillips crafts a film that enacts the discursive conditions that still prevent whiteness being adequately discussed in modern media – a film that both demands to be understood in terms of whiteness, but that also forecloses whiteness as a stable point of reference as well.
In order to do this, Phillips converges Gotham City with New Hollywood, situating the film in a hyperreal version of 1970s New York. During this time, directors were often fascinated by asocial men – men who could only be socialized by adopting extreme right-wing postures. While New Hollywood was liberal in some ways, it also formed a backlash against the rise of feminism, civil rights and sexual liberation, often trafficking in white men who went to extremes to resist a world that was starting to question their role as mouthpieces for society. Eventually, this tendency in New Hollywood would spill over into the action film, and into figures like Rocky and Rambo, where it would be framed much more explicitly as a form of white pride. For most of the 1970s, however, it tended to be more tacit, centred on decrepit city cores, and white male protagonists who were exposed to the indignities of urban decay as African-American and Hispanic communities started to predominate around them. By presenting Arthur Fleck as a product of this time, Phillips both signals his indebtedness to the white flight of the 1970s, but also forecloses whiteness as a point of reference, since New Hollywood precedes the discourses of white privilege in the present.
Of all the asocial men of New Hollywood, Travis Bickle, from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, was the most iconic in his articulation of white angst. Although Travis seethed with contempt for New York, and burned with a purifying mission, there wasn’t much to explain his peculiar brand of rage apart from identity politics. No doubt, New York was nearing bankruptcy at this time, and many people were struggling to survive, but these experiences are shared by nearly everyone in Scorsese’s film, rather than being the province of Travis alone – and many people have it worse. Instead, Travis’ special brand of angst comes from the sense of being displaced in his own city by other identity groups – identity groups that he experiences in a unique way in his constant movement through the city as a taxi driver. While Travis is apolitical, his resentment corresponds to conservative politics at the time, as Scorsese makes clear in his relationship with Betsy, a progressive political campaigner played by Cybill Shepherd. Through Travis’ love-hate relationship with Betsy, Scorsese builds a dialogue between disenfranchised whiteness and liberal politics, conceding that their incompatibility is partly responsible for the tension and dynamism of his directorial outlook.
From the very outset, Phillips presents Joker as a descendant of Taxi Driver. Not only does the screenplay brim with similar denouncements of society (“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”), but Robert De Niro plays a major role in the film as Murray Franklin, the host of the most popular variety show in Gotham City. Time and again, Arthur tries to establish a direct connection with Murray, his idol, from a fantasy sequence in which he imagines Murray embracing him as his prodigy (“I’d give it all up to have a son like you”) to a final act in which he appears on Murray’s show as a gag, paving the way for the violent conclusion. Sometimes this yearning occurs diegetically, as Arthur longs to be Murray, or to be like Murray. Yet this yearning also crosses over into an ambiguous diegetic space, as Arthur seems to know De Niro as the lead actor of Taxi Driver too. In one scene, for example, he repeats some of the iconic lines from Scorsese’s film in front of the television set, while Murray’s show is playing, but is unable to muster up the intensity of Travis’ presence. At moments like these, Arthur seems to be trying to establish a direct connection with Taxi Driver itself, or with the form of masculinity that De Niro espoused, which was so pervasive for such a long time, but has started to crumble and disintegrate in recent years.
In other words, Arthur’s relation with Murray feels a lot like Phillips’ relation with De Niro, and Taxi Driver, since both men appear to be looking back to a white masculine archetype that is unable to sustain or satisfy them in the present. For both men, too, this failure is bound up with the broader fate of comedy in the contemporary world. On the one hand, Phillips prefaced the release of Joker by observing that laughter has become impossible in American culture, voicing a common conservative complaint that wokeness has precluded comedy operating in any real way in the American media sphere. In that respect, Joker is an anti-comedy – an attempt to deal with this absence of comedy, or to explain why comedy can no longer exist, from a director who built his career on precisely the forms of fratboy comedy that have recently come under such scrutiny. On the other hand, Arthur is also a failed stand-up comic, and respects Murray because he is a successful stand-up comic. In fact, one of the reasons Arthur wants to appear on Murray’s show is to rehabilitate his stand-up career, since he is unable to appeal to crowds in the right way, or to make them amenable to his act. Moreover, Arthur has a psychological condition which means that he laughs uncontrollably at random moments, further offsetting the comic tonality of the film.
While Joker may be set in a version of the 70s, then, it also speaks to the way that the fate of stand-up comedy has become a focal point for recent debates around white privilege and white fragility. If this version of the 70s is dystopian, it is especially dystopian for stand-up comics like Arthur, who appear to have been jettisoned from their audiences, berated and ignored by the people who once supported them. Indeed, Arthur only adopts the name Joker for the first time when appearing as a lesson in how not to perform stand-up on Murray’s show. He then announces his terrorist manifesto after being resorting to shock material to revive himself as a stand-up comic. In both cases, Phillips presents terror as a logical response to the failure of stand-up comedy, but also presents stand-up as a form of terror itself, committed above all to the sanctity of the stand-up comic’s voice and outlook.
In doing so, Phillips provocatively presents the fragility of the stand-up comic as an especially intense subset of white fragility, presenting stand-up comedy as a form of identity politics, rather than a neutral space that has only recently been oppressed by identity politics. While the film takes place in a nominal 1970s, it also appears to be situated at the cusp between variety television and stand-up comedy, meaning that the potency of stand-up feels especially raw in Arthur’s world. As a result, stand-up feels more poised between tragedy and comedy than it often does in the modern world, where the conventions and expectations of stand-up are so ingrained that genuine vulnerability, and genuine tragedy, is relatively unusual, though not impossible, as releases like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette affirm.
The role of the stand-up comic, and the way they mediate tragedy and comedy, has become a sticking-point in many recent considerations of whiteness, from Louis to The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel to Obvious Child. In large part, that’s because stand-up comedy epitomises one of the paradoxes around how victimhood is construed in our society – a paradox that Barbara Johnson articulated succinctly, in a short passage that has recently gone viral on Tumblr and Facebook. Victimhood, Johnson suggests, is always linked to power, but not simply in the sense that victims tend to enjoy less power. Instead, Johnson argues, those with the most power are often the keenest to arrogate victimhood to themselves, and to resist counter-narratives that might involve crediting less fortunate people with victimhood. Most stand-up comedy operates in this way, since the premise of stand-up is to simultaneously present the speaker as all-powerful (they are the only one speaking) and as a universal victim (they testify to the comedy of a world that eludes or misunderstands them). Stand-up comedy is not always the province of white men, but it often obeys an arrogation of victimhood that correlates with the way white culture balances comedy and tragedy more generally in its representation of its own relation to forces that lie outside it.
More recently, white stand-up comedy has often retreated to “observational comedy” in order to distance itself from the comedy of women and non-white men, which is perceived to be informed by identity politics. Yet this observational stance is also a form of white identity politics, according to the logic of Joker, since it simply involves taking the omniscient stance of stand-up comedy and narrowing it to a smaller field, while also commenting upon the absurdity of a world in which the white voice has been restricted and contained in this way. While I love Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy, it’s not hard to see his style as the genesis of this movement in recent comedy. In both Seinfeld and in his stand-up, Jerry has an omniscient swagger that is hard to sustain in this day and age, meaning that he has to train it on increasingly pedantic minutiae. This contrast between panoramic assurance and minute observation is, at some level, the joke, but it also speaks to a deeper anxiety, and even a deeper self-pity, about the absurdity of a world in which his voice has been curtailed and constrained from the panoramic assurance it might have commanded several decades ago. No surprise, then, that Seinfeld has proven to be the least adept of the Seinfeld cast at improvising dialogue, whether in his web series or in the reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
While stand-up comedy may encompass many voices, Joker provocatively suggests that the central pose of stand-up comedy is one of white fragility, and that white male stand-up comics, in particular, are the most acutely affected by recent shifts in how comedy and tragedy are configured in American culture at large. This produces the central paradox of Joker, which wants to present Arthur as a victim of systemic injustice, but to also suggest that his suffering is different in kind from everyone else in the system as well. No doubt, as many commentators have suggested, Arthur is beset by austerity, unemployment, bad health care, economic decline and a whole host of other factors that mirror Donald Trump’s America. Yet the most Trumpian aspect of Joker is that these “systemic” factors seem to affect Arthur in a totally unsystemic way, imbuing him with a level of pathos and gravitas that far exceeds anything that anyone else in the film seems capable of suffering or feeling.
That’s an absurd premise, and Phillips embraces its absurdity by looking back to vaudeville, musical theatre and, eventually, silent film, to evoke a kind of melodramatic victimhood that exceeds any single social matrix that might create it. Watching this mélange of older modes is a bit like watching the media consensus that white terrorism must be psychologized, but non-white terrorism muse be politicised, since the film seems to mine the entire twentieth-century playbook to “personalize” Arthur’s suffering away from the suffering of his peers. Imagine that The Wire featured one white character who was treated as a vaudeville figure, rather than a social realist figure, and you start to glimpse the weirdness of how Arthur sits in Phillips’ film, where his victimhood precedes any plausible social or political explanation.
While Joker may not be an incel per se, this immediate arrogation of victimhood has a lot in common with the incel community, who also often appeal to old-fashioned versions and visions of masculinity to make their demands of the world feel less revanchist and entitled. Incels don’t tend to assume victimhood in response to social forces, but as a subject position in and of itself that informs their response to social forces – and a similar process occurs with Arthur, whose automatic victimhood converges incel and stand-up sensibilities upon a particularly acute mode of white fragility. Here, as in so much current conservative culture, the #MeToo movement proves to be a trigger point, both as a taboo subject in stand-up comedy, but also as a riposte to the incel movement, and to the way its assumptions about female compliance are reflected in American culture more broadly. For that reason, Arthur only really feels at home in his stand-up routine when he makes jokes about sexual assault. Only when he turns female compliance into a joke is he able to laugh naturally, and to reassert his voice – although to preserve this state he has to eventually move into the guise of the Joker, and use this fleeting moment of stand-up confidence for a terrorist manifesto.
Between these three poles of stand-up comedy, the incel community and the rise of the #MeToo movement, Phillips seems concerned, above all, with freedom of speech as it pertains to white men. So much of contemporary conservative culture revolves around white men wringing their hands about the fate of free speech, and due process, for other white men – a process that Phillips captures quite ingeniously, and beautifully, in the Joker’s trademark dance. This dance recurs regularly through the film, especially during kill sequences, and grows more looping and languorous as Arthur settles further into the persona of Joker. Everyone who has seen it will recognise it, and yet it’s difficult to describe – a swaying, conducting kind of motion, bereft of any regular metre or rhythm but still propelled by its own internal logic and momentum. In many ways, it’s less like a dance, and more like a newfound proprioceptive freedom, as Arthur takes in the space that opens up around him whenever he becomes Joker, relishing the room he finds for his body to expand and distend. Where Arthur is compressed into ever tighter spaces, Joker revels in space, and seems to elasticise the space around him with each breath, until he is almost floating in air.
At one level, this dance forms part of a long science fiction tradition of white re-embodiment, in which the white body evolves and expands to address a world in which it has lost its physiological primacy. Yet Joker’s languorous dance also speaks to the anxiety of white men whose sense of being stifled, and victimized, is so great, that they fantasise freedom of speech, and freedom from wokeness, as entailing just this breezy catharsis. In America, in particular, freedom of speech seems to be policed on an increasingly biopolitical terrain, as white men resort to ever greater acts of terror and violence to compensate for the way in which their voices, and by extension their bodies, are supposedly being silenced. Although Arthur’s body seems to unlock and unloosen during these hypnotic sequences, his voice is even more liberated, floating around his body, and commenting freely on anything he encounters without having to accommodate wokeness, political correctness or any other movement that might force him to consider why his victimhood is so special or exceptional.
The film as a whole is driven by this distinction between Arthur and Joker, and between manic laughter and graceful dancing. If dance represents the liberated white male body, then Arthur’s laughter is a vision of how the white male body looks when it can’t arrogate victimhood, or when it can’t comfortably use laughter to differentiate itself from an other. Not being able to assume this victimhood creates – or reveals – a state of arrested development that demands a series of increasingly older media to assuage and naturalise it. While Joker’s dancing takes him further towards his final terrorist manifesto, it also moves him back through musical theatre, vaudeville, stage melodrama and, eventually, silent cinema, presented here as the best way to capture a world in which white men can only understand themselves as silenced protagonists. In fact, Joker perhaps makes most sense as a (very) belated silent film along the lines of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, which plays during one of Arthur’s pivotal transitions to Joker. Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Joker is out of touch with modernity – a new kind of modernity – and has to fall back upon silence to articulate it.
Like Chaplin’s Tramp, too, Joker’s dances feel more and more detached from the real world, until he seems to be trying to imitate himself better and better, more and more addictively attuned to the dance, not unlike the severe sightlines that often eclipse everything else but him from the film’s plane of focus. It’s not hard to see, then, why the film has gained such an immediate and visceral following, since Arthur’s very existence, and his awareness of the world’s existence, seems unthinkable without Joker, culminating with his extraordinary confession that “my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed – but I do.” It’s not hard to see, either, why there was such anxiety about the film playing in theatres, since the film puts the audience in the same position, forcing us to either accept Joker, or else sacrifice the world, along with our connection to Arthur, even if Arthur is also destroyed by Joker too. Of course, I don’t believe in film censorship, but I’ve also never felt so on edge in a theatre (and this is in Australia), not even during the most visceral set pieces of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, both of which prepared the foundation for Joker’s eerie terrorist sublime.
The result is a radical exercise in white visibility, in which the presence of other white people in the audience – especially white men – feels continuous with the terror exuded by the film as a whole. In fact, the experience of the theatre, and the flickering spectacle of white faces in darkness, is inscribed in the palette and lighting of the film, which is quite different to that of any other recent mainstream film. In recent years, there has been more attention to the way that Hollywood lighting tends to leach and flatten black skin, with series such as Insecure and films such as Us making a concerted effort to introduce lighting schemes that accommodate the diversity, complexity and beauty of black tonality. One of the surprising features of Joker, initially, is that it is lit more like these films, producing a world in which black faces are always thrown into complex relief, but white faces appear sallow, submerged and semi-visible by comparison. Within the film’s paranoid lighting scheme, then, Joker has to paint his face in order to bring his whiteness into proper visibility, much as his compulsive laughter forces people to acknowledge the contours of a face that normally passes beneath attention. Witnessing his face emerge from the gloom of Phillips’ film, and watching the white faces around me emerge and recede from the darkened theatre, I felt more anxious about whiteness than in any recent film I’ve watched.
This eerie, playful space between screen and audience also allows Joker to elude precisely the questions about whiteness that it raises, in a microcosm of how white discourse functions more broadly in the United States today. This is particularly evident in the trajectory of indignities, and tally of victims, that lead to Joker’s final apotheosis. As Richard Brody has noted, the only thing that really sets Arthur apart from all the other suffering residents of Gotham City is that he is ignored, misunderstood or slighted by a cross-section of black and Hispanic people. Of course, not every white figure connotes whiteness, and not every black figure connotes blackness, but the distribution of bodies feels schematic here, especially since the trailer condenses these indignities into the same paranoid anxiety about disenfranchised inner city whiteness that drove the vigilante exercises of the 1970s. At the same time, while Arthur’s first victims might be white jocks, this also conforms to incel communities, which tend to be comprised of beta males who are outraged that their supposed sensitivity and liberality isn’t acknowledged by the bad taste of jock-mad women.
Yet Joker also refuses to align itself explicitly with this white pride in the same way as a 1970s vigilante film, or a 1980s action film. As the screenplay proceeds, Joker becomes totally disassociated from the political movement that develops around his acts, eventually assassinating Murray in total oblivion to the protests and strikes happening on the street outside. While an entire revolution has occurred in his name, he confides that “I don’t believe in any of that, I don’t believe in anything,” before he transforms the revolution by shifting it from an incipient variation on Occupy Wall Street to a white pride parade – the future and revolution that white terrorists want. Yet his oblivion to politics, and his disinterest in politics, is also what makes him such a powerful vehicle for white fragility, since it’s clear that the masses here want a white savior without having to identify him as such. Watching these final acts is therefore like watching the paradoxical logic of white identity politics unfold, whereby white male identity, in particular, is affirmed precisely by eroding the very vocabulary of identity as it proceeds. Only by erasing identity politics, this final scene seems to suggest, and perhaps only by erasing the notion of politics itself, can white identity politics properly articulate itself, and the Joker finally achieve his stunning apotheosis – swaying, hypnotically, as Gotham City burns and crumbles all around his feet.
Joker therefore ends with the constitutive fantasy of white identity politics, and white fragility generally – that white angst is a form of class protest in and of itself, and that white angst is necessary and sufficient to generate social change. Rather than ending by directly articulating this point, however, Phillips ends negatively, foreclosing any other option but this – and it is here, finally, that Batman comes in, for it is during this final rally that Bruce Wayne’s parents are shot on their way out of the theatre, leaving Wayne an orphan. Whereas Nolan’s films are fascinated with this origin moment, Phillips presents it as a dead end, squaring the circle between the white fragility of New Hollywood and the white fragility of the superhero film to craft what, finally, feels like the definitive end of the era that started with Sam Raimi’s Spiderman in 2002. Absolutely antithetical to the endless franchise-building of the MCU, Joker ends with Joker laughing maniacally in an all-white space that seems to both preclude, and to have already processed and internalised, any possible sequel. While the perkiness of the MCU dominated critical discussion for many years, the sombre finitude of the DCU has the last say here, in what feels like the last great superhero film, and the logical endpoint of the superhero solipsism of the last twenty years, so I hope that Phillips and Phoenix have to the courage to avoid a sequel or a franchise.
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