When I read Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, its thesis was simple and therefore immense: if you can pinpoint those who are excluded in society, you can gain a sense of the priorities and the space by which civilization is formed in each era. In Foucault’s thinking, progress is a myth, and the purpose for historians is not the collection of knowledge, but rather its use in unveiling the manifestations of power to its readers. Power by governments and institutions, power by lawmakers and tax collectors. I read History of Madness as a twenty-three year old young man in a Starbucks over the course of two months and thought that someone finally understood me. Madness had been sometimes conflated with unreason, and both terms had been used throughout various eras to erase those left out by the economic system and cast as Other.
It’s good to read Foucault as a young person. His system-building ideas and edgy perspective on the history of the world is great for young radicals.
Seeing the 2019 Joker film gave me that feeling, almost as if Todd Phillips had read Foucault and decided that it was time to adapt it into something a moviegoer could see and get an abridged version of.
Well, maybe he read the Spark Notes instead.
You have to understand where I am coming from. I just got done teaching a bunch of sophomore guys who swear by this movie. It felt like I was looking at my younger self in a mirror, only my rebellious film was V for Vendetta, a movie which is especially similar only…more eloquent. In the sense it had more words in it.
In fact, on that note, I had to sit in classes with my students, or be a substitute for someone else’s class, and I had to be subjected to the climactic monologue on the late night comedy show over…and over…and over again.
A Simple Take
We might as well start there. Every film has to have a giant monologue at the end, a big finish. It seems odd that the film has led us to believe that this character is simply incapable of having coherent thoughts or legitimate experiences with people, even and especially in front of a public audience, which is the impetus for ending up on yet another stage in front of another public audience, and yet he somehow gives a 180 degree turn and produces a sober critique of the wealth inequality and destitution of Gotham City, using his own anecdotal evidence.
A fan of the movie could claim that, rightly, the film shows Arthur in a psych ward, fending off the therapist and the hired employees socially and physically, which could imply that none of what we saw ever actually took place. If that was true, it would be insulting to a film goer, who relies on the movie to reveal to us when a switch is happening.
Fight Club will forever be the gold standard of the twist in movies, in my response.
Okay, but the movie did reveal this possibility with Arthur’s romantic interests being obviously fake, not to mention his hallucination of being on Murray’s late night show.
Yet, and yet, the movie was willing to inform us through the twists and the return to “reality” that those moments had not occurred the way Arthur imagined him, and we can see the reaction on his face of the realization that he might not be as sane as he would like to believe. His lover actually wasn’t next to him at the hospital. They actually didn’t see the newspaper together.
Not to mention that the Wayne family deaths did occur during this supposed hallucination, which is a pretty canonical moment in Batman lore, if you get what I am saying. It seems odd to have all this be fake.
So a more acceptable notion is to say that his time in the psych ward is much later in the film, looking back as a kind of fond memory.
You could run this thought experiment forever. There’s little point, because the movie does not earn that sort of mincing of its moments. What are we really doing here? Let’s assume you’ve seen the movie and you don’t want this nitpicking of the plot. What would you rather have?
A Deeper Take
We could explore the plot and style of the film, which is incredibly unsubtle and rather bloated.
Yes, plot-wise, Arthur is an edge case. He has been repeatedly abused, repeatedly ignored, and there is a looming mental health crisis in the man and his mother that is largely ignored. Villains are made in the 21st century, not born, and had Arthur had gotten the love and support and psych eval he needed at an earlier time, he might not have become the Joker. But did we really need a Joker origin story? Batman is a silly concept, a symbol like any hero, but the Joker?
Because the central character is a bullied and unbelievable symbol, the movie has to bend reality to make it work. First, we would have to assume that cities are more violent than they were in the past (they weren’t) so it is set in the late 20th century, in a more violent time. You have to assume that Arthur is a very charismatic and idiosyncratic villain which, if you’ve seen literally any of the true crime of some notorious serial killers out there, there is a code that is…unfortunately…very easy to crack. Cruelty to animals, wets the bed, starts fires.
But somehow Joker is different, because he has mental health problems.
And that is a very dangerous road to go down too. From artists to criminals, mental health has often been used as a scapegoat for abnormal behavior, as a way to produce sensational genius and the sort of “tortured artist” we hope will bring us insight. Typical madness is far more banal than that. The brain is an organ, and it is connected to a body with biological structures that help to explain much at this point as to what deteriorates, alters, or even improves consciousness. The film attempts to ground the Joker in a real world setting, but each time it does, it reiterates the point that Joker should never have an origin film. Like science fiction even, the second you try and explain it, you have to cut corners.
Okay, so the plot leaves plenty to be desired, so how about style? You might be surprised by watching the film of just how bare the script is. There’s hardly any talking. Much of the nonverbal physical acting of Joaquin Phonix is wonderful, and having seen him in The Master, Inherent Vice, Gladiator, and so on and so forth, I have always appreciated his willingness to throw himself, literally, into any role. Instead, the talking is replaced by uncomfortable scenes of Arthur walking into a public place and scaring the hell out of us as we wonder what he’ll do next. He laughs for, I swear, at least 20% of this film. 20% of the film has vulnerable close ups of Arthur smoking. Another 20% is him running either away or toward the next set piece. The last 20% of the movie consists of montages to easy listening.
There’s a drinking game in all this…
These latter moments, these music videos, feel very much like Zack Snyder moments: it clearly looks beautiful, but there’s no substance. Only one real moment did I feel any sort of gravitas, which comes from Joker leaving the train station as the cops run past him to handle a riot that he started, as he smokes a cigarette and places his mask in the trashcan. That moment to me highlighted more than ever the death of whatever was left of Arthur and the realization of the what the Joker could do.
Philosophy for Dessert
Perhaps Todd Phillips really had no plan beyond simply an origin story, but going back to Foucault, here is what I saw. The modern conception of mental health problems has to take into account the Enlightenment era, as in reason and science as a method for understanding the world. This means we trust experts to decide for us and for us, and we work alongside them to help create reality by studying it for evidence and reporting back. Joker is uncomfortable with this idea, as he so…eloquently relates on the late night show:
“Comedy is sub, subjective, isn’t
that what they say? All of you, the
system that knows so much, you
decide what’s right or wrong.
What’s real or what’s made up. The
same way you decide what’s funny or
For Joker to “win” at the end, and for the Waynes to lose, is a sort of reversal of the confinement of the mad and insane, a return to a pre-modern era. Back to the era of Hieronymus Bosch and the Ship of Fools.
In the pre-modern era, the mad were able to get on the ship and off along the Mediterranean as they saw fit, and while occasionally playwrights like Shakespeare might consider madness as an occasional gateway to the voice of God, the mad were simply allowed to roam the streets. But with the massive reduction of leprosy, quite suddenly there were empty spaces perfect for the confinement of those deemed unfit for civilization.
Reversing this allows the mad back out, as we see, onto the streets of Gotham. The madness in all of us is allowed to publicize itself.
I am actually not trying to give the movie credit. I’m just trying to rationalize why I kept watching.
I’ll tell you exactly the moment where I knew this film was fucking with me.
So Arthur gets the idea from his mother that Thomas Wayne is actually his father. During a riot in front of a movie theater, Arthur manages to sneak in and disguise himself as an employee. When he sees Thomas Wayne in a box seat get up to head to the restroom, he finds him and confronts him about the possibility of being his son. Thomas Wayne reveals the truth: your mother is crazy, you’re adopted, blah blah blah. Arthur has a very asocial reaction of laughing, and then he starts yelling. Thomas Wayne at first gets my attention with a responding look of curiosity. Oh boy, I think, is someone finally going to address the obvious issues, like this character explicitly says he’s going to? No.
Thomas Wayne punches Arthur in the face.
Just consider the fact that this is Bruce Wayne’s father, and he is supposed to be a paragon to the city for his philanthropy. Would he really also have an asocial reaction too? I highly doubt it. I remember watching with my wife and shaking my head. “He’s gonna punch him in the face,” I said, because the camera lingers just long enough to make you unconsciously ask for it.
The film pushes because, without it, it cannot perpetuate itself. Each moment in the unlucky streak made me laugh to hide how uncomfortable it all is. Joker is a silly movie. I am sorry I am so dismissive of it, but to claim it as anything above entertainment is to make a mockery of the progress we’ve made. A nuanced conversation about mental health, this is not. A nuanced take on wealth inequality, this is not. An empirical look at the rate of violent crime in urban cities, this is most definitely not. It’s a film where, if anyone says it was the best movie they’ve ever seen, you suddenly know too much about them. It’s gaudy and audacious in so many wrong ways. I had to bring in Foucault for God’s sake!
Christopher Nolan had a much better interpretation of the Joker than Phillips. Each time Heath Ledger had the opportunity to give a backstory to the scars on the side of his face, he tells a different story. Knowing less let’s us fear more.
Phoenix as Joker is not a terrifying figure, but as Mark Kermode stated in his review, he is rather a villain to be pitied.
Which was never the point.