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.
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.
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.”