Popcorn double feature: And the winners are… Joker and Judy

Well, whad’ya know? Yesterday’s Golden Globes, again hosted with acid acrid aplomb by Ricky Gervais, featured climate change talk, drunk speeches and some big surprises. Best picture went to Sam Mendes’ first world war epic 1917, while Renée Zellweger won best actress for her uncannily precise portrayal of Judy Garland, and Joaquin Phoenix beat off Adam Driver and Christian Bale to pick up best actor* for Joker. 

Phoenix’s winner’s speech may not have pleased everyone, but it was certainly memorable, covering climate change issues and a plea for celebrities to use their private jets less often. That includes you Harry and Meghan.

Russell Crowe, everyone’s favourite grumpy grizzly Kiwi, picked up a best acting award but couldn’t attend the ceremony because, like me, he’s in Australia trying to contend with daily bushfire devastation.

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This year’s two frontrunners for acting Oscars have struck big, but the similarities don’t end there. Besides the fact that Judy Garland was a real person, and the Joker is a violently psychotic comic book character, the two movies have a few things in common.

Both films feature titular characters with names beginning with J; both wear trademark white make-up beneath a shock of dyed hair; both solicit pathos with tales of the world’s great cruelty towards them; and both win our admiration for smiling through the tears and putting on a show. 

In particular, both characters convey so much about themselves through movement. You only have to look at both the strength of Renée Zellweger on stage as Judy, as well as the moment that she slumps over in her dressing room to realise how key movement is. Likewise, “they’re both vulnerable outsiders,” Judy biopic director Rupert Goold told Digital Spy.

“They’re both remarkable performances by incredibly committed actors. Other than they’re completely different movies, of course, there are parallels. I think Renée’s physical work on the film is just incredible. I can take credit for just a small part of it… it’s her body.”

Zellweger’s performance as Judy Garland has already started talk of Oscar nominations. Her vocal, physical, and of course emotional work is in part thanks to Goold’s vision. But other than both movies referencing Sinatra in very different ways, there the similarities between Judy and the Joker, portrayed by Phoenix, end, although there were points in both their respective movies when, having watched them back to back during a wet afternoon in Dublin, I wished heartily they would swap positions.

2019 was a pretty challenging year for many of us, and 2020 shows no let up in the doom and gloom department. Despite a slight interregnum of a cardiac nature, I managed to complete my 50/50 mission of visiting fifty sovereign nations and all fifty states of America on the day I turned 50. Mission accomplished and Australia calling, I spent the rest of summer on a tighter than shoestring budget in Europe, the final week of travels coinciding with the final week of October on the island of Ireland. I have family in Eire but Belfast was new to me, as was Northern Ireland generally, the only piece of the jigsaw that is the ‘United’ Kingdom I hadn’t set those feet in before 2019.

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It was a topical time to be there, I’ll say that much. Just 48 hours before I arrived, the Westminster parliament enforced a new act to bring Ulster into line with the rest of the UK on the obviously important issues of abortion and same sex marriage. All this while the border between the two Irelands was leading the news bulletins due to the new Herr Heifer a.k.a Prime Minister Boris Johnson allegedly trying to thrash out a ‘new’ Brexit deal that would satisfy Stormont, Dublin and the EU. Fat chance.

After catching the fabulous Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark one night and the slightly less entertaining Andrea Bocelli the next, I headed to Dublin on the Aircoach, crossing the much-debated border 45 minutes after leaving the NI capital.

When the coach arrived at the city centre it was pissing down with rain. I was about a 10 to 15 minute walk to my accommodation for the night (thank you for your hospitality then Clarence Hotel, owned by U2). I was travelling lighter than light with no umbrella and taxis were out, so I decided check-in and any potential sightseeing could wait.

In one of those serendipitous spur of the moments, as luck would have it there was a cinema right outside said O’Connell Street bus stop. Spying the cinema lobby posters, I made a very impromptu decision to dodge the heavens and headed for the relative warmth of the Savoy. Oi.

Of the multiple screen offerings, there were two films I wanted to see and they both began with a J: Judy and Joker. Fortunately it was mid afternoon so tickets were affordable. I decided to see them both, with a likely quick dash to the screen next door, handily, as soon as the first film’s credits rolled. Seats reserved, I only had to wait 20 minutes for the first of my self-created double bill. Luckily there was candy to eye in the meantime. ’Scuse the mop.

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First up was Joker, and, lo and behold, this is my review. You’re welcome.

A character etched in cinematic history, the Joker has been redefined from performance to performance, with each iterations seemingly learning from the last. But in the Clown Prince of Crime’s latest outing, Todd Phillips directs and deconstructs Batman’s sadistic nemesis in a way that has never been attempted before – without the Caped Crusader himself.

But it begs the question, is there such a thing as a sympathetic psychopath?

The premise is a simple one: living on the outside of society but plying his trade right in the centre of it, Arthur Fleck (A-Fleck; Affleck; ho ho ho) is an oddball, lonely guy who works for a sad rent-a-clown joint in Gotham City while taking care of the sickly mother (played by a wan Frances Conroy) the fey skinny mummy’s boy love-hates. Through a succession of physical beat-downs, mental breakdowns and revelations, Arthur begins to don the make up with a growing sinister intent, one that ends in carnage, civil unrest and multiple murders.

It’s far from my favourite movie genre, but those inherently focused on comic book cinema may be surprised at how quietly low-key the film opens – Arthur is seen in the mirror applying his cosmetic mask, hooking two fingers under his upper lip. He pulls, hard, distorting his face into a mirthless grin. Unblinking, the emaciated Phoenix holds the position, for as long as he can stand it. A tear rolls down his gaunt whiteface cheek. This is a grim party trick, performed by a clown on the edge of bloody psychosis. The audience subconsciously begs for relief, settling in for two more hours as the huge emboldened JOKER hits the screen and into the title credits. 

Yet in that brief exchange, Phillips establishes the movie’s tone – a tense, mediative atmosphere that feels close to breaking point at any single moment. You’re either in or you’re not. And one man who was very much in is Joaquin Phoenix, bringing both Arthur and Joker to life with an equally understated but bold portrayal. Phoenix is acting as if his life depending on it, and you can almost feel the desperation throbbing in his veins. He leaves you wanting to start him a GoFundMe campaign, so he won’t have to pour so much sweat into his job again.

The movie is set in a Gotham City that’s an oh-so-obvious approximation of gritty late 1970s-era New York, complete with garbage strikes and “super-rats” overrunning the city. Nothing ever goes right. This is clear from the moment we meet him: he’s tense and nervous and he never has no fun. On the job in clown costume, Arthur gets beaten up by a mob of punks — and then almost gets fired because they destroyed the “going out of business sign” he was twirling for a client.

Tourettishly timed for maximum audience discomfort, Phoenix’s spine-tingling airhorn-style blasts of maniacal cackle are, so we’re told, caused by a neurological condition growing up. He carries around a little laminated card that he holds out helpfully whenever he laughs inappropriately, which is pretty much all the time. It reads, “Forgive my laughter, I have a brain injury.”

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks. Actually, it’s both.

More bad stuff happens, day in, day out. He gets angrier and more isolated by the minute. No one is ever kind to Arthur; he’s the world’s saddest punching bag. It’s all uncomfortably rooted in the deepest pathos. The one bright spot of his day, or night, is watching a Johnny Carson-style talk-show host, Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro, presumably to head off the lawsuits that might otherwise attend Phillips’s riotous pilfering of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver), on television. He dreams of being a stand-up comic and someday being on the show. His wish will come true, but life will have beaten the poor lad down interminably before then.

Joaquin’s physicality is compelling, if unashamedly scene-swallowing (digesting De Niro as a mere supporting cartoon). There are funky-chicken style dance moves, the occasional blank, dead stare and assorted moony expressions indicating soulful lonerism. He hops around like an unhinged Emmett Kelly, twisting his physique into weird and unsettling shapes. His body has a rubbery angularity, like a chicken bone soaked in Coca-Cola.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axWt4HVT7iY

The emotional resonance behind every body contortion and act of violence hinges on a performance that’s unafraid to become ugly. It’s this dichotomy of Fleck’s horrific actions, with the dark and devastating things that happen to him forming the moral focus of the movie. Phillips plays this line with extreme caution, allowing the audience into Arthur’s mind without explicitly condoning the violent and homicidal acts that are the result.

The plot – if there is one – is bulldozed towards Fleck so his change seems inevitable. How else to respond to a crazy world other than with violence and nihilism? Just as the so-so Star Wars prequels had audiences checking their watches for three films for the hero to eventually pull on the Darth Vader helmet, so too Joker needs to really show you how much Arthur suffered to explain his metamorphosis. Just before one of his more violent tirades, Arthur muses, like a baby, “Everybody just screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore.” No shit, Sherlock.

Some commentators have accused Joker of being stuffed with a phoney philosophy. Indeed, it is a film that desperately wants us to think it’s imparting subtle political or cultural wisdom. David Bowie once declared, “I’m afraid of Americans”, but, let’s be honest, who isn’t? In the US, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week. Did someone call a cab?

Before long, the Joker becomes a kind of vigilante folk hero — his first signature act is to kill a trio of annoying Wall Street spuds while riding the subway, which inspires the masses to don clown masks and march enthusiastically around the city with “Kill the Rich!” placards. Arthur inspires chaos and anarchy, but the movie makes it look like he’s starting a revolution, where the rich are taken down, the poor get everything they need and deserve, and the misfits who can’t get a date become killer heroes. The poor, troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love. 

Arthur also tries to work out a personal beef with wealthy asshat and aspiring city mayor Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father of you-know-who. Because, it turns out, our Clown Prince has some daddy issues too. Who knew?

And as Gotham is the parallel universe NYC, we get the sledgehammer associations of the power-hungry Wayne as a corrupt Trump-type privileged politician while Joker’s own growing band of supporters look like the Occupy Movement or Extinction Rebellion. The Joker himself, however, professes in the film that he has no political ideology. Therefore, although apolitical, Joker serves but serves as a dire societal warning about how the pressure cooker of a politically corrupt city where “nobody is civil anymore” can bring a man to boiling point, and how this vulnerable and disturbed individual’s actions can be politicised by the crowd to achieve their own violent means.

Joker is a tragedy: showing the sympathetic victimisation of a man who commits condemnable acts, and provides us with an opportunity for collective introspection to see exactly the ways in which we can cause someone to act in this way. Having said that, for all its bravura performance the film doesn’t always gel as it tries to link meaning through its influences, Joker isn’t counter cultural in the way the films of the 1970s that it draws from were. It leaves us with the world on fire and a lunatic victorious which just may be Phillips’s nihilism and why filmmaker Michael Moore says Americans are “in greater danger if they don’t see this movie”. 

The most telling scene is when Phoenix completes the transformation – donning the garish suit and face paint – then dances to convicted paedophile Gary Glitter’s Rock ’n’ Roll Part 2 on stairs (filmed in The Bronx) so steep they belong in The Exorcist. It is several cultural artefacts hoping their association creates meaning, though at times the music score’s heavy reliance on violins felt at odds with the suitably chosen songs of Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante.

Neither a turkey or a masterpiece, Joker also plays as a cautionary tale of a villain birthed by the toxic environment that surrounds him, and how that infectious mindset can inspire a movement of “super-sanity” anarchists intent on “watching the world burn”. It’s a representation of how our twentieth and twenty-first century metropolises are “mouse utopias”, reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: in the absence of physical struggle, our minds invert and create conflicts within ourselves. With no barbarians at our gates, we each resort to savagery and devour the city from inside its walls. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeyhtYD3Dkc

Ultimately, the film works as a harrowing tale of mental illness, Phillips clearly attaches blame on society’s ignorance and indifference to psychological health, while also condemning the traumatic episodes that Arthur both suffers and subsequently inflicts. A YouTube user succinctly summed up the character chronology:

1989: joker created by chemicals

1999: joker created by Batman

2009: joker created by chaos

2019: joker created by society

However, perhaps the most disturbing part about the film was the level to which I could empathise a bit with this misunderstood savant. Not to break out the violins here, but, despite his utterly awful actions later in the film, Fleck’s social ostracism, seemingly illogical mistreatment by others, need to pre-plan and fantasise about mastering social interactions and achieving his ambitions, and reliance on humour to perceive hope in bleakness, are all things I can relate to.

I’m sadly sure that many others can too: the leading cause of death for men below 45 in the US and UK is a skyrocketing rate of suicide, which is no doubt a consequence of high rates of crippling loneliness and friendlessness. Whilst I count myself lucky to have a few close friends and family who care, many of us don’t, least of all the often the insincere fakery of friends and followers on social media networks, and Joker has us recognise the potentially catastrophic implications of this on a person.

The show must go on.

Steve Pafford

*Slightly overshadowed by Joaquin’s win, Taron Egerton picked up a Best Actor In A Comedy Or Musical gong for the Elton John musical biopic/fantasy romp Rocketman. Huzzah.

Part two of this feature will follow 

 

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