Jokers, Parasites and Fear

Why are people so afraid of Joker?


In the September 25th issue of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael asked “Are people becoming afraid of American movies?” 

This was, of course, 1978, not 2019. Yet it seems likely the great film critic would have asked the same question forty-one years later, given the critical hysteria over Todd Phillip’s Joker.

Kael continued: 

When acquaintances ask me what they should see and I say The Last Waltz or Convoy or Eyes of Laura Mars, I can see the recoil. It’s the same look of distrust I encountered when I suggested Carrie or The Fury or Jaws or Taxi Driver or the two Godfathers before that… They don’t see why they should subject themselves to experiences that will tie up their guts or give them nightmares….Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art—of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we’ve been getting a new cultural puritanism… and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision…

The parallels to today should be obvious to anyone following much of the critical reaction to Phillip’s brilliant and deeply unsettling masterpiece.

I’m a fan, obviously. Joker is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. If left me shaken, disturbed and in need of a double shot of Bulleit. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the troubled man at the center of the movie, delivers one of the great cinematic performances of all time. Brimming with dozens of cinematic references, the movie is gorgeously crafted: this was a crew that working overtime on every single frame. Joker resonates on a deep emotional level, particularly for those of us who have struggled personally or dealt socially with madness. Joker is upsetting for many reasons, not the least of which is that although it’s set in fictional Gotham of 1981, the movie thrusts many troubling aspects of our present society in our face, forcing us to bear witness.

The movie certainly has many fellow defenders. Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival where it received an eight minute standing ovation. And the public is supporting the movie with wild abandon: the film is a smash hit worldwide, already earning over half a billion dollars.  In the US alone it had the biggest October opening weekend ever and broke even more records this past weekend, its second. Hitting #1 the second weekend is telling: films can have a big opening but then fall off once word of mouth spreads a movie is a stinker. Joker is not falling off. People are continuing to go see it. 

Yet many critics are assaulting the movie. I don’t mean the typical “I didn’t like this and here’s why” type of reviews. Before Joker’s release two weeks ago these critics were clearly trying to hurt the film, cripple its box office and wipe it from memory before it could get going.

Here’s a quick look at what some of these critics had to say:  “a viewing experience of a rare, numbing emptiness.” “ punishingly dull”, “pompous, grim, relentlessly one-note”, “Dangerous”, “pernicious garbage” , “grim, shallow, distractingly derivative”, a dangerous manifesto that could inspire incels to commit acts of violence” and “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting”, which, if you’ve seen the movie, even if you hated it, has to appear ridiculous given what happens in Joker. To call this particular movie dull and uninteresting is in itself “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting.”

Clearly the movie is getting under these critics’ skin. They are attempting to render Joker immoral, often wildly misrepresenting the movie and its contents in order to do so.

One frequent attack is that the movie is hero worshipping a killer, that it’s a how-to manifesto for incel violence, and that the movie turns the hero “into an angry guy with a gun and violent disregard for everyone.”

But this isn’t true in the slightest. Joker doesn’t go rampaging through the city shooting at any or everyone (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). Key here are two sequences: one in which Arthur lets a co-worker go free after killing another co-worker: “You were the only one who was nice to me.”  The other is Arthur’s TV appearance. He easily could have been depicted as going on a rampage, shooting into the audience, yet he only kills one man, the man who made fun of him. The violence in the movie, while shocking and horrifying, is nothing compared to normal screen violence (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). In fact, compared to such movies the body count in Joker is quite low.

Something interesting is going on.

It’s obvious that part of what’s driving these critics crazy is the sympathy many of us feel for Arthur. This sympathy clearly enrages and scares them. Is creating sympathy for Arthur condoning his actions? Of course not. These critics, however, seem to confuse understanding and sympathy with approval. The idea that we can understand how Arthur becomes Joker and have sympathy for him, while still finding his acts repellant and horrific, is apparently too complex for some. Complex ideas don’t much seem to exist anymore. In our era of quick soundbites and a media universe where someone is either good or evil/repellent with no possibility of shading in between, attempting to understand why someone is driven to become a killer is anathema and morally offensive.

I wonder what current critics would think of the brilliant Fritz Lang film M, still one of the most unnerving movies movies ever created. I repeatedly encourage people to watch this 1931 movie about the manhunt for a serial killer of children in Berlin. Arguably the first movie about a serial killer, M, through Peter Lorre’s devastating performance and a famous monologue he delivers in the third act, somehow creates sympathy for Hans Beckert, a pedophile child murderer. Never in any way condoning his actions, M refuses to turn Beckert into a pure demon, creating instead a very complex portrait of a man tormented by his actions. Todd Phillips’ treatment of Arthur is the same.

It’s interesting to compare this critical reaction to the equally brilliant Parasite, released this past weekend one weekend after Joker. Parasite also deals with class, the have-nots rising up against the haves. Yet even though the have-nots in Parasite resort to malevolent actions, including violence and murder, they are being celebrated by critics while Arthur is not. We realize, then, it’s not the dispossessed and downtrodden that matter but the right kind of dispossessed and downtrodden. For these critics, the wrong have-nots rise in Joker and it terrifies them. So much so they must attack the movie on every level imaginable.

It’s not just the wrong kind of downtrodden critics attack but anyone who likes the movie. 

JOKER, a film where you’re supposed to sympathize with a mediocre white man radicalized into deranged violence, will no doubt be appealing to the wrong audience for the worst reasons.

There’s an entire symphony of voices in the criticism about “the wrong people.” The wrong people in the movie and the wrong people in the audience. While it isn’t easy to figure out to whom they are referring, given my own regard for the movie I wonder what they would think about a progressive gay man loving the film. I guess even I am part of the “wrong audience” lauding the movie for “the worst reasons.” This kind of labeling and separation – the wrong people, the wrong way of thinking – has become the norm in discourse today and I despise it, along with the superior condescension of these attacks, a superior condescension social media has made so easy. (I can barely scroll through the Facebook newsfeed anymore, this condescension is so rampant.)

Personally, I’m thrilled the moviegoing public has ignored the critics and the faux controversy they tried to create before the movie’s release. The box office success is rousing to me in a way I imagine continues to terrify these critics. (How many people does it take, btw, to call something a controversy? Looks to me like it’s just some critics and a small number of people on twitter foaming at the mouth…. Sorry, that’s not a controversy.)

One of the many reasons I found Joker so affecting and disturbing is that the Arthur I see at the beginning of the movie is a person I see often on the streets of Los Angeles. I do some work with the homeless downtown and when you stop and talk to the men and women living in the tent cities on our streets, stories and personalities that mimic Arthur’s are everywhere. Many of these people, like Arthur, just need to be heard. But no one is listening.

People just want – need – to be listened to. This means all of us, not just the right kind of people. All of us includes the homeless and dispossessed, whatever color or belief. Believe me, it. can be difficult to listen to a thirty minute rant from a schizophrenic homeless person. Yet sometimes you can see that the listening helps them, tempers them, the same way all of us are helped and tempered when our friends listen to us. (My poor friends temper me all the time.) One of the many powers of Joker is that it can help people who live not so difficult lives look at people living difficult lives in a different, more sympathetic way. That’s powerful. Attacking Joker by saying it will inspire people to similar violence is missing the point. Joker forces us to look at the lost and dispossessed of our society, of all races and political beliefs, and asks us to see them and listen to them. Joker also serves as a warning, if people will look and listen. 

Am I saying you need to see Joker? Not at all. Am I saying you need to like Joker if you do see it? Again, no way. What bothers me, though, about the attacks on Joker is that the response from many of those who don’t like it, or are unsettled by it, attack the movie and anyone who likes it on a moral level.

This kind of attack is certainly not new. People went after Fritz Lang in similar fashion over M. Pauline Kael herself could be guilty of this kind when she hated something. She went after Dirty Harry with a vengeance, for instance, calling it fascist, which is ridiculous. Don Siegel’s masterpiece remains a terrific and complex movie, perhaps even more so today. Kael also reacted virulently to any show of faith on screen. Yet she changed criticism enormously and she certainly changed my life. Her brilliant writing and enormous passion for movies affirmed and uplifted my own passions at a time I needed affirmation and uplift desperately. Even today, when I’m in a funk, which isn’t rare, I have two books I reach for: Flannery O’Connor’s letters and Pauline Kael’s reviews, this volume in particular. Both continually affirm and uplift in powerful ways.

I also want to make clear all movies don’t need to be dark and disturbing, as much as I myself am attracted to darker films. I can watch Pillow Talk or Notting Hill or Heaven Can Wait (a movie Kael trashes in this same essay) every day. I love a feel good movie. But I do want to challenge those who dislike Joker simply because it is so upsetting or challenges their world view. People no longer like their world view challenged. That’s not safe. Nor comfortable. To then have to see, acknowledge and listen to a person who disagrees with a personal world view? No way.

And so we attack.

Let us end with Kael:

This is, of course, a rejection of the particular greatness of movies: their power to affect us on so many sensory levels that we become emotionally accessible, in spite of our thinking selves. Movies get around our cleverness and our wariness; that’s what used to draw us to the picture show. Movies—and they don’t even have to be first-rate, much less great—can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper—to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they’ve been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they’re not showing higher, more refined taste; they’re just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.



11 thoughts on “Jokers, Parasites and Fear

  1. Tom – Your review of Joker, especially with your broader commentary, is remarkable, capturing my exact sentiments since seeing the movie yesterday, as I discussed it this morning with a good friend. Thanks for sharing your wise insights. Please pass along my best to Stolaroff. Y’all make me proud to be a Fiji and PII alum! – PAS

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Hi Tom,

    I always enjoy your take on difficult movies and subjects. They are usually deeper than my own and make me think. I did see JOKER; I’m not sure it’s a movie I can say I enjoyed. I do think Joaquin Phoenix did an extraordinary job and will probably be nominated for an academy award. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as violent as I expected. That’s not to say that it wasn’t violent. I think it’s a difficult subject for the times. There is so much violence in our world today by those who feel mistreated or with mental health issues making this a sore spot that America is not quite ready to address. Or maybe America is more than ready to address we just don’t know how to move forward. The film deals well with society’s inability to deal with mental health issues and any differences we don’t understand. But it also seems to put people in one category of uncaring. I know that’s the movie world we have to make someone the bad guy but society as a whole is deeper than that. Sure there are those that don’t care, those who are clueless as to world news but there are also those out there fighting for justice and thirsting for knowledge. People do care they don’t always know how to more forward but they do care. You care about the homeless, I care about the oppressed, that person over there cares about the environment we are actually a caring society even when it’s hard to see.

    Thank you for this article it is nice to hear dissension from the pact it makes us think and reflect. Teresa

    1. Hey, Teresa! Thank you much. And agreed to all… is it a movie anyone can ‘enjoy’? Not sure. It certainly energized me but it also disturbed me deeply. You are right that there are indeed people out there fighting to help, amen. Really cool thoughts, thank you!

  3. Tom, lovely analysis as always, but I think this is the first time you and I have been strictly on opposite sides of a drawn line. I found Joker to be surface-level, puerile, and irresponsible in ways not immediately obvious. The way the film handles mental health and mental health issues is almost deplorable, because it doesn’t even make the effort to define what Arthur’s illness is (aside from involuntary laughing). They don’t explain what these seven different medications do for him. They don’t explain why they are important, nor do they suggest what would happen if taken off of them. I got a sense pf “safe sympathy”, sort of like having sympathy for Arthur’s situation but still being repulsed enough by him and his “mental illness” that you don’t even go that far in.

    I found the whole thing unfocused, contradictory, and rather pointless. It is both full of value and valueless; its value comes from it being accepted as a work of art in these times. It has sociological value. But, I was, buy turns, bored, annoyed, and depressed by this flick. I just wish I could see all of this in it, but I really don’t.

    1. Josh! Thanks for reading. And posting. Love hearing your POV as always. And no desire to change your view. As mentioned in the piece, I don’t think anyone has to see it *or* like it and I very much understand people not liking it.

      What bothered you didn’t bother me because, for me, the exploration of the how/what/when/why of his madness isn’t what the movie is about. I’ve seen it twice and Arthur breaks my heart each viewing, I have enormous sympathy for him. I hope others might look at the mentally ill in a more sympathetic way if they see the movie. But I do understand your perspective.

      I loved this piece, which surprised me and hit some of my points more effectively:

      1. Cool, thanks for the link! I’ll definitely check it out.

        Basically, the biggest problem I had with the movie is that it seemes that Todd Phillips and co just didn’t know what they were talking about, or just tried to communicate them in a lazy fashion. “He’s on seven different meds!!!! OMG, he’s crrrraaaaaaazy!!!” Plus, you see no signs of *real* struggle in Arthur’s life apart from being beaten up once and foolishly bringing a gun to a job.

        My friend said “this movie was made by millionaires”, and that was the biggest problem with it. Joaquin Phoenix was terrific, but I felt the movie and the script let him down in more ways than one.

        So, having read that piece, I guess the biggest problem with the film for me is in the details. They just seem dishonest and lazy. I still don’t really understand why Arthur snapped. It didn’t feel genuine to me.

        If nothing else, I applaud this film for stirring up legitimate discourse in people who normally wouldn’t discuss films to this degree.

        Still — for stories about people like this, I still feel Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy hit it home. And neither of those characters were on meds. (Yes, as you can tell, this element of the film really bothered me, haha.)

        1. Funny comment about the millionaires. I feel that about a lot of movies, too. And understood on the details. My reason even for writing this piece wasn’t that people didn’t like it… rather, it was why certain people were going after the movie, which I found illegitimate and purposeful. Your qualms are legitimate!

  4. Excellent, thoughtful piece, Tom. Really appreciate your main point about how contempt, fear and condescension drove so much of the critical pre-judgements/prejudice against Joker. It truly has become one of those “social barometer” movies…

    Two supplementary thoughts:

    1) So many of those who were ready in advance to condemn the movie worried over how it might cause “incel” violence… But the term “incel” as far as I understand it is in itself exactly the kind of ugly attempt to dehumanize the Other that the movie is railing against… In a weird way, in dramatizing so much cruelty and lack of compassion, Joker (it seems to me) is crying out for us to stop this kind of behavior and “try a little tenderness” instead.

    So the irony of the “incel violence!” hysteria is thick.

    2) Regarding the fear factor…

    First things: I believe that there is healthy fear and that there is toxic fear. Healthy fear is born from truth/reality — it tells the petite woman “don’t get in the elevator alone with the big burly man at night.” Toxic fear, on the other hand, is born from lies/unreality.

    The genesis of all of the panic and fear around Joker seems to have been the shooting incident at the Aurora, Colorado cinema showing The Dark Knight Rises. The logic being “Hey, that movie was set in the Batman universe and a mentally ill guy dressed as the Joker shot up a bunch of people, so this new Joker movie will do the same.” But the Aurora shooting narrative is simply NOT true. The shooter did NOT dress or in any other way claim to be like the Joker (for one obvious example, he dyed his hair red, not green like the Joker). See this article for more:

    That so many “news” outlets published and abetted the toxic fear around Joker, without bothering to research the Aurora rumor is shameful. They need to do better.

    1. Great thoughts, Keith, agreed! It also seems clear to me a lot of these people were actually trying to incite the violence. They wanted it to happen. Which is enraging. “They need to do better” is putting it mildly ; )

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