Saturday, October 5, 2019

A Source of Innocent Merriment

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In the song "A More Humane Mikado," from the operetta The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan, that character, the Mikado, a Japanese emperor, believes himself, and proclaims himself, to be entirely sympathetic, unquestionably so, while going on to list all the different ways he will suitably punish the various criminal types whose fates fall within the scope of his rule. The Mikado being light opera, many of the punishments are rather silly, though, crucially, not all ("The advertising quack who wearies/with tales of countless cures/his teeth, I've enacted, to be extracted/by terrified amateurs"); moreover, the crimes for which many of these citizens are being punished are hardly crimes at all -- women who dye their hair, "idiots" who write on train windows, bad singers. Add on top of this the Mikado's insistence on his own humane nature and essential goodness, and not only that, but that his pursuit of these questionable punishments is actually evidence of his basic human decency ("A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist/To nobody second I'm certainly reckoned a true philanthropist/It is my very humane endeavor to make, to some extent/each evil liver a running river/of harmless merriment) and the audience for this 1885 musical can't help but conclude that this man positively exhales great clouds of disingenuousness.

Jump ahead 134 years. Todd Phillips, our modern W.S. Gilbert, and previously the director of the scam documentary Frat House, such decent but disposable comedies as Old School, and such empty, insulting shock-banality comedies as The Hangover Part 2 (the first Hangover film having begun, if one is being generous, in the "decent but disposable" category before being spaghettified by the black hole of its successor; both of them have since collapsed into The Hangover Part 3 which may not exist) has now, Todd Phillips has, won the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival. The Venice Film Festival is no joke, as these things go, and the Golden Lion is its equivalent of the Palme d'Or. Past winners include Agnes Varda's Vagabond and Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray. Phillips won it for Joker, about the evil clown villain who is Batman's archnemesis. I myself am a great fan of the Batman character, as well as the Joker. Well, I'm not a fan of the Joker, but he's a great character -- at his best he's weird, and funny, and actually frightening, a hyper-verbal genius who has somehow turned Vaudeville into violence, and who will do anything. The Joker has changed over the years, becoming more grim and nihilistic since Batman himself shed his 60s goofball frivolity and reclaimed his noir-ish freakshow roots in the 1970s. The Joker has followed suit to become a figure of true evil in the comics and in his various cinematic incarnations, most notably in Christopher Nolan's 2008 film The Dark Knight, in which Heath Ledger gave a tremendous performance as a twitchy, mysterious, vile, murderous comedian who, we're told in arguably the film's most famous line, "just wants to watch the world burn." So that's where we were basically with the Joker when Todd Phillips got his grubby mitts on the character and thought "Well I'm the most cynical asshole on the planet, let's see what this gets me." Hello, Golden Lion!

The phenomenon of Joker is something that...well, listen, I can't be a hypocrite about this. I've engaged in the online hullaballoo, and have made my doubts about Phillips's movie, sight unseen, very clear. I've also made very clear that critics who run through the streets like Kevin McCarthy, begging anyone within earshot to heed their warnings about the violence movies like Joker will without a doubt inspire its dunderpated audiences to commit (it used to be conservatives who did this, which meant it was paranoid and authoritarian; now its liberals, which means it's fine) are condescending fear-mongering, sniveling, cowardly little shits. But having now seen the film, I want to make it even more clear that it has become impossible for me to engage in the discourse about Joker any longer because it doesn't deserve even the stupid fucking arguments people have been having about it. Joker has absolutely zero going on in it, it is thoughtless, frequently dull, silly, anticlimactic, a waste; it's thieving, insincere, stupid, carpetbagging nonsense. With a couple of good shots that as far as I know Todd Phillips came up with all by himself.

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The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, one of our great actors, as Arthur Fleck, a sort of, I don't know, clown for hire? Who works for a sort of clown subcontractor, hiring guys like Fleck out to dress up in clown gear and hold signs outside of their stores, or perform at children's hospitals. You know, a clown subcontractor. From frame one of Joker, we know that Arthur Fleck is mentally ill. We will eventually learn some specifics, such as that he has a condition which, in moments of extreme stress, causes him to laugh uncontrollably, despite laughter being at odds with his mood. He has a laminated card he hands to people who might be startled by this. He lives with his mom (Frances Conroy) in a scummy little apartment in the middle of Gotham City. They're very fond of each other, but his mom can't stop bringing up local billionaire Thomas Wayne, to whom she frequently writes letter, but from whom she never gets a response. At night, the two of them, otherwise lonely, bond over a late night talk show, hosted by the Johnny Carson-esque -- or rather, the Jerry Langford-esque (but actually resembling neither) -- Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Franklin is Fleck's hero. Fleck is an aspiring stand-up comic, in addition to being a clown. But unlike any other character in the history of cinema, Fleck's dreams of comedy success are badly hindered by his mental illness. He regularly sees a social worker (Sharon Washington), but funding's about to be cut, and Fleck won't be able to get his pills anymore. And he keeps getting beat up. Then again, he seems to have made a connection with a neighbor in his apartment building (Zazie Beetz). But on the other hand he keeps getting beaten up. One night, after being fired from his children's hospital gig for carrying a gun, he's on the subway when three of those Wall Street Guys, you know the type, start making fun of a woman and throw what appear to be Cheetos at her. Arthur starts acting weird, so the Rich Fellows decide "Let's destroy this guy" and they start harassing Arthur, but then Arthur pulls that gun he had and shoots them all to death.

I'll try to speed through the rest of the relevant plot summary. This triple murder, committed by a clown against three Rich Fellows (aka Wall Street Guys) somehow instantly inspires the creation of a massive city-wide protest, with citizens dressed as clowns holding signs that say "Resist" (held upside down! How punk!) and "We Are All Clowns", which is doubtlessly true. But I'm not kidding, this happens overnight. If Todd Phillips's aesthetic approach was (God forgive me) "gritty realism," then shouldn't some of this make any sense at all? There's no build up to any of this. After maybe 40 minutes of boredom involving Fleck's sad inactivity, Joker leaps into full-on "Gotham is ablaze!" mode. The same can be said for Fleck's relationship with Zazie Beetz's Sophie, although that bit has a twist to it, which might seem obvious. But the fact that what is revealed about their relationship plays as a twist (and here's the twist: they're not in a relationship, Fleck imagined it all, and it turns out Sophie is frightened by him) means that Phillips, that fucking numbnuts, thought that the two of them being in love, as he presented it, somehow worked, that it played, even though Sophie is a normal person raising a child by herself, and Arthur is never depicted as anything other than, at best, a genial psycho, and that when he pulls back the curtain, by which I mean, when he steals from M. Night Shyamalan, he thinks we should be thinking "well what the fuck I thought they'd spend eternity together."


Speaking of stealing. Before he "left" comedy (about which more in a bit), and in between Hangsover, Todd Phillips released Due Date, a film that is a naked rip-off of John Hughes's Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Evidently pleased by how that all worked out for him, Phillips decided his narrative and aesthetic approach to Joker (which he co-wrote, as well as directed) should be to graft large chunks of classic Martin Scorsese films onto the two ideas he had (those two ideas being Arthur Fleck's laughing disorder, and to sometimes have Fleck walk into a room, point the camera up at him from the floor, and move it around a bit), and then sort of just shove it in front of an audience. Because, I mean, that Zazie Beetz stuff is just a bad version of the De Niro and Diahnne Abbott material from Scorsese's King of Comedy, a film which is also the source of all the talk show stuff in Joker. And the PTSD/violent retribution stuff from Taxi Driver, etc. Everybody knows this before they even see Joker. It's shameless, and because the marketing has led with this, it's not even interesting. You can't even say "Aha, you brigand" because, smirking cynic that he is, Phillips got ahead of it. He gets to "be" Scorsese (he won the Golden Lion!) by being the opposite of Scorsese, by innovating nothing, by adding nothing. Phillips's shield is that he roped Scorsese in to help him line up Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Scorsese's producing partner, to work on the film. Had John Hughes not already been dead when Phillips was making Due Date, a similar arrangement would have surely been made.

A good hint of what's to come can be found right at the beginning, in the opening credits font. It's a kind of old-fashioned curlicue which I think might be meant to evoke Vaudeville but actually, to me anyway, brought to mind fairy tales, but in any case is "ironic" in the "oh that font is fun, but that guy just got beat up while I was enjoying the font" sense. This is more or less the cinematographic philosophy throughout. The two good shots are the one from that early poster, the one of Joaquin Phoenix in his Joker makeup, enveloped by that municipal green paint and boiler room-lighting, arms up, appearing to be caught in a moment of almost religious grace (this is one of those shot-from-below bits I mentioned earlier, and it does pay off, however briefly). The other comes late in the film, after the Joker commits an act of violence which cannot be hidden. Again he's in full makeup, and in his full purple suit (the Joker look designed for this film is a good one, I'll admit that much), now with blood on his face. That's a cliché, but the shot is almost of Phoenix's profile -- he's smiling and trembling at once. It's the trembling that makes it all work. Phoenix seems to be actually shaking in the adrenal aftermath of a life- and mind-changing explosion. It's Phoenix's best moment, from a performance that is otherwise fine, but a pale shadow of his work in films that ask much more of him. I would, for instance, defy anyone to point to a role and performance that is anything like what he was asked to do, and did, in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. In comparison, Phillips seems to have said "Okay, be crazy, but quiet. And...action!"



Which is another thing: why make a Joker film, and make the character so inarticulate? In the comics, and in the various Batman films in which the character has appeared, The Joker is a chatterbox, gleefully, maliciously, verbal. That's a big part of the idea -- the guy makes a lot of jokes! In Joker, Arthur Fleck is, to borrow a line from a film made by one of Phillips's "key" "inspirations," a mumbling, stuttering prick. He can barely finish telling a joke. We see him do stand-up once, after he's gone off his meds and is just a total mess. If we're going to have The Joker explained to us, then maybe make his interest in comedy a little bit more a part of it all. Better a little bit, than nothing. Anyway, a video of that stand-up performance, which is disastrous, makes its way to Murray Franklin, who plays it on his show, which leads to the film's climax. Which is very violent, and rides the wave of that sudden revolutionary impulse among Gothamites that Joker's random train murders began, and which includes a surprising amount of Batman lore. All of which I found utterly ridiculous. "Is that fucking Alfred???" I asked myself at one point. And then at the end I got to watch Phillips pilfer Frank Miller. It's all nonsense, the film so obviously believes it's above comic books and comic book films, yet relies on them for its big boost at the end.

I mean, if you refuse to show The Joker making jokes (with all his shots of Phoenix all decked out in purple walking in slow-motion while Gary Glitter(!) plays, or etc., Phillips seems more interested in making him look cool), to show him being funny while he's being vicious, then why is any of this even happening? But of course, Todd Phillips is serious now. In a recent interview, Phillips said that he stopped making comedies because what with "wokeness" and "cancel culture," it's impossible to be funny anymore. I'm fairly conflicted about this, because I don't tend to like the kind of comedy that Phillips argues has been ruined by the current political climate, but, on the other hand, I sometimes do, and I think those who wish to do away with it are breathtakingly hypocritical, lacking in self-awareness to such a degree that they might literally fade into nothing. But also a bullshit hypocrite is Phillips. Early in the film there's a scene where Arthur goes to a comedy club, as part of the audience. Performing that night is Gary Gulman, an actual stand-up, and playing himself, in a sense, because he's doing one of his own routines, a bit that, if you keep up with current stand-up at all, is pretty well-known. It's an extended piece, ostensibly about the sexual role play Gulman and his wife engage in, involving a male professor and a female student, but which very quickly becomes an extended complicated story about the difficulties of  being a professor dealing with a difficult student, a story that almost instantly sheds any and all sexual connotations. It's very funny, and very clean. It's absurd, and is guaranteed to offend not a single person on earth. So if Phillips thinks comedy is impossible now, why is he aware of, and why does he approve of, Gary Gulman? And approve of his comedy so much that he puts Gulman in his film doing one of his own bits??

Probably because, as others have said, Phillips doesn't believe a goddamn word he says. "Meaning what I say" isn't part of the plan. "Saying it" is enough. This goes for the sympathy his film pretends we're supposed to feel for Arthur Fleck. That sympathy, or the idea of it, is what's caused the film to become such a controversial piece ever since Warner Brothers released the first trailer. But it's all a hoax. It's a scam. Why everybody at the Venice Film Festival bought into it, I don't know, but I guess Don't Look Now, The Comfort of Strangers, and Robert Aickman were right. But when you create (using that word loosely) a character who is mentally ill, and have him kill only people the audience is meant to hate, and who have done him, this poor fellow, wrong, and pretend, then, as Phillips has done, that the audience isn't meant to (this doesn't mean they will) approve of this behavior, at least as a piece of entertainment, then you're having it both ways, or trying to, which means you're lying. And again, I think the critics predicting violence in the wake of Joker's release are behaving reprehensibly (the only group I'm aware of who has reacted to the film with frothing positivity are the critics who saw it in Venice). But, Phillips will insist, do not criticize me, for I have behaved nobly. My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time, to let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime. And make each prisoner pent, unwillingly represent, a source of innocent merriment, of innocent merriment.

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