Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its own, wondrous, magnificent thing.
As of this writing, Todd Phillips’ “Joker" has earned nearly $1 billion globally, making it one of the most successful comic book movies ever released. But the discourse surrounding it will outlive this moment. No comic book-derived film since "Black Panther " has sparked more commentary, although the discussion surrounding this one has been more oppositional than anything else, and clouded by bad faith on every side.
Before its release, and in the aftermath of its surprise win of the Golden Lion, first prize at the Venice Film Festival, the movie was an object of dread. Some worried that it was going to cause violence by 8chan trolls, because of the widely circulated but incorrect belief that the Aurora, Colorado shooter was dressed as the Joker when he committed his massacre at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises”; and because the character of the Joker, as incarnated by Heath Ledger in 2008’s "The Dark Knight," had been adopted by reactionaries (and trolls in general) as an avatar of chaos and malice. On the other side of the divide, superhero movie boosters, who still saw themselves as beleaguered underdogs despite the commercial dominance of superhero films over Hollywood since 2008 (also the year of the first MCU entry, "Iron Man”) saw “Joker” as ultimate proof that this kind of movie could be "serious.” This was an ironic victory, considering that on social media, the most commonly quoted line from Christopher Nolan’s film was the villain asking rhetorically, and vaguely, ”Why so serious?”—a rebuke to anyone who had a negative reaction to the latest superhero blockbuster.
Regardless, what followed was a commercial smash that didn’t cause any real-world damage, save for a handful of disruptions in theaters that could just as easily have happened at a "Jurassic Park" or "Toy Story” sequel. When the laughing gas cleared and it was possible to evaluate the movie as a movie, "Joker" seemed more like a sincere and partly successful attempt to deepen the form, unfortunately hampered by the limits of the filmmakers’ imagination.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill introvert with a compulsive laugh. He lives with his mother (played by Frances Conroy) in a retro version of Gotham that evokes the grubby New York dramas that fed the director’s imagination as a teenager. The shadow of Martin Scorsese looms larger than any other (he was attached as a producer before exiting the project), and "Joker" pilfers elements from his films about alienated and/or vengeful loners, particularly "Taxi Driver " and "The King of Comedy.” Arthur is a comedian, and not a good one, and his ambition sits oddly with his corrosive anxiety about interacting with other people. He seems to want to become a stand-up star because the title of the movie is “Joker," not because he seems like the type—and because having Arthur be a standup-wannabe gives Phillips an easy avenue to stage homages to "The King of Comedy.” The biggest one is a piece of casting: Robert De Niro, who starred in Scorsese's film as mediocre comedian turned kidnapper Rupert Pupkin. The concept also owes plenty to Alan Moore’s vastly superior but similar take on the character, "The Killing Joke,” which was likewise set in a sort of retro-Scorsese urban hellscape. And it ties in with trends in auteur-driven DC comics titles from the 80s, like Frank Miller’s "The Dark Knight Returns” and Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen," all of which channeled reactionary Hollywood cinema like the "Death Wish” and “Dirty Harry” series, “Cobra,” “Robocop,” and other dark urban fantasies. (In the case of ‘Watchmen,’ the attitude was ambivalent, or at least questioning.) These movies portrayed American cities, which were then ridden by financial distress, class warfare, and racial unrest, as cesspools of violence and despair that could only be saved if they were ruled by a strong, even fascistic, dominating force, preferably wearing armor and jackboots.
It’s characteristic of Phillips’s crushingly literal idea of homage that he would cast the onetime Rupert Pupkin as the revered host of a New York-based TV talk show, basically promoting him to the Jerry Langford part in "Comedy." That De Niro, despite his prodigious gifts, is unconvincing as an avuncular, cynical but beloved pop culture figure doesn’t impede the movie’s plot machinations at all. Like a lot of stuff in the movie, you just have to accept that it makes internal sense and “works,” otherwise portions of the film become unconvincing.
The film’s confused social commentary and political allusions are half-baked as well. It’s unclear if it’s trying to be all things to all people and avoid offending anyone too deeply, or if Phillips just hasn’t put a lot of thought into that aspect, but much like Nolan’s "The Dark Knight” and "The Dark Knight Rises,” the movie seems unable to make up its mind which social forces weigh most heavily on its beleaguered hero, or what it thinks of them.
And, as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, Okayplayer’s Jourdain Searles, and others have noted, “Joker," like "Taxi Driver " before it, has a powerful undercurrent of white racial resentment, and seems to know better than to plumb it too deeply because the material is unstable enough to blow up in the movie’s face. We see a group of nonwhite teens exacerbating Arthur’s mental illness through cruelty (stealing his sign and beating him up); a social worker (Sharon Washington) failing to grasp the depth of his despair; an employee at a police evidence locker (Brian Tyree Henry) sensing Arthur’s humanity and failing to talk him off the ledge; and a single mother on a bus getting irritated when Arthur tries to entertain her young son, then reading one of his little cards stating that he has a nervous condition and realizing, in the words of Tambay Obenson, that "she is a powerless cog in the wheel of a bullshit bureaucracy, and he is a victim of it; both are members of the disenfranchised." At its worst, the movie seems to want to use black characters to amplify the white hero's feelings of alienation, despair and entitlement while simultaneously wrapping those interactions in a layer of humanism so thin that you can see right through it. At its worst, the movie seems to want to use white racial paranoia to juice up the movie’s tension level, without having the stones to face what it’s doing head-on.
It’s worth mentioning here that early versions of Paul Schrader’s screenplay for "Taxi Driver " climaxed with the title character, unhinged and quietly racist cab driver Travis Bickle, mass-murdering a brothel full of African-Americans, but this portion of the movie was reframed so that the victims were mob-adjacent Italians instead. That being said, Scorsese still has a more precise grasp of these aspects than Phillips, who seems to understand the world mainly through the films that people like Scorsese have made about it. Where the climax of "Taxi Driver" verified Scorsese's conscience and fed into the final ironic celebration of Travis as a hero (if he'd killed black people instead of Italian-American mobsters, the public might not have been so quick to lionize him, except in The New York Post), the pivotal confrontation in "Joker" between Arthur and a group of white Wall Street bros feels more like an evasion, setting up a kind of cynical DSA genuflection that the rest of the film does nothing to earn. (The preppy goons tauntingly sing "Send in the Clowns" at Arthur, as if that’s a song guys like this would have memorized. Were they riding home after attending a meeting of the Citigroup Sondheim Appreciation Society?) This scene climaxes in an orgy of violence that evokes Bernard Goetz’s 1984 shooting of four black teenagers that he said were menacing him on a New York subway—just one more transposition of racial resentment with class resentment by "Joker." And yet there are still echoes of the original "Death Wish"—a movie that, whatever its flaws as urban sociology, at least had the nerve to show the audience its true face.
It’s impossible to know if Arthur’s mental illness would have accelerated even without these unfortunate encounters, or if any of them can truly be considered society’s "fault, " even if we attribute them to bland collective indifference. All we can know is what the director shows us, or omits. Politically, it's a muddle. Like the imagery of Occupy Wall Street-type protests in "The Dark Knight Rises,” not to mention the authoritarian glamour of characters like Batman and the archvillain Bane, it looks as if "Joker" is not attempting an all-encompassing indictment of American dysfunction, but chucking elements into cinematic gumbo without giving much thought to whether the ingredients are compatible.
All that having been said, I can’t deny that a movie like this is a step in the right direction for the genre. Despite its failings, I can’t think of another big-budget movie based on established superhero IP that is ultimately a character study, standing by itself, focusing on the main character and various supporting players while not getting too hung up on how it fits into a matrix of monetizable film and TV projects and/or merchandise. If Phillips’ goal was to make the film version of something like The Killing Joke, a comic book strongly inspired by a certain brand of American urban nightmare movie, he succeeded. It's far from a masterpiece, but a masterpiece becomes more possible in the genre thanks to works like this, which are at least trying to do something different from the approved corporate templates. Its thefts are baldfaced, but at least it’s rifling through popular art made before the year 2000 and borrowing from projects that made people uncomfortable. The sheer number of 1970s urban drama references may prompt some viewers to look up the real things, just as 1977’s original Star Wars acquainted viewers with John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Leni Riefenstahl, the original Flash Gordon serials and John Carter books, and all the other sources that George Lucas cited as inspiration for his medium-altering pastiche.
Joaquin Phoenix raises the project up a level. He was handsomely compensated for this, but I think he deserves a bonus anyway for tying together all of the movie’s contradictory and poorly thought out elements through charisma and intelligence. It’s hard to imagine anybody calling this a subtle performance, but he’s playing the Joker for god’s sake. Grand gestures are not only permissible but expected, and he delivers in the manner of a Peter Lorre or Nicolas Cage. So many elements in his performance can stand in for the performance itself, from Arthur’s explosive cackle to the way his emaciated body instinctively slumps over like a beaten dog or curls up in a fetal position.
And let’s not forget the dance: not just the instantly iconic victory jig on that Bronx staircase—set to Gary Glitter’s "Rock and Roll Part II,” seemingly a deliberate trolling of "woke” commentators—but also the smaller, more graceful movements that he makes when Arthur is overcome by boldness or euphoria. Like Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens," Jeff Goldblum in "The Fly,” Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists in "Dead Ringers,” Toni Colette as the disturbed mother in “Hereditary," and of course, Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson as previous versions of the Joker, this is a performance richly deserving of acclaim, and a reminder (as if we needed any) that genre films are more likely to contain bold, stylized, exciting performances than more “realistic” fare.
One aspect of the movie that hasn’t been remarked upon is the unreliability of its narrative. Like "Taxi Driver,” which alternated between 1st and 3rd person—between things that seemingly, objectively "happened” and things that might have been warped or wholly invented by Travis Bickle’s imagination—it’s not entirely clear which parts of this story are true (whatever that word means in a movie such as this). The movie takes a turn in the final act rather like Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s adaptation of "American Psycho,” confirming that at least some of the things that we believe happened may have been figments of Arthur’s imagination, such as his relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beets), who lives in his building. Her character is initially depicted as the kind of nearly mute, adoring stand-by-your-man character familiar from so many American movies about troubled men, including ones that are far more respected than this. (In “Serpico,” the hero’s girlfriend doesn’t have much to do besides warn the whistleblower cop to be careful.) But then we're told that they never had a relationship; she's the fabled Canadian girlfriend transposed to a comic book film. (I’ve been told that a leaked early copy of the shooting script made it seem as if the character’s devotion to Arthur was real, and the relationship climaxed with him a very Scorsese-like scene of Arthur confronting and verbally abusing her over an infidelity; maybe a future oral history of "Joker " will confirm when the decision was made to change this element, and why.)
Once that twist hits, most if not all of the film’s "reality " starts to seem questionable, including De Niro's Murray Franklin calling on Arthur in the audience, then subsequently humiliating him by airing footage of a failed open mic night performance, something not even the most callous and self-centered talk show host would do. By the end, you might wonder, as I did, whether Arthur really killed Murray on the air. The questions pile up because if some parts of the story seem unreliable, you have to start wondering if it all is. We get glimpses of Arthur's Travis Bickle-style diary; is this movie a screenplay based on it? Did his confrontation with the Wall Street bros on the subway really spark some kind of widespread though vaguely justified protest movement, epitomized by clown masks? Is this an origin story about the super-villain who would go on to torment Batman and repeatedly bring Gotham City to its knees? Or is it the story of, quite literally, some Joker, a character who had a brief and horrible 15 minutes of fame and whose flameout might have incidentally inspired the "real" Joker? Maybe the unnamed character in the clown mask who facilitates Arthur’s escape from the police is the person who eventually becomes Joker, the supervillain? (Arthur doesn't kill Bruce Wayne's parents; that's a different rioter who was inspired by him.)
Give credit to Phillips for planting the seeds for an endless, nerdy discussion of all this. Indeed, the unstable relationship of "Joker " to the character of the Joker, and to the viewer, is the most fascinating part of the experience of watching the movie. And it at partially exculpates Phillips from charges that he’s not doing the necessary thinking to justify the project's claims on importance. Maybe in the end, this is mainly a text about other texts—and the audience’s relationship to, or ignorance of, those texts, whether they're comics, films, mythology, or something else.
Perhaps it's also further confirmation that, despite their wildly inconsistent quality from film to film, the big-budget DC films are more exciting to think about than all but a handful of the Marvel movies, which practice stricter quality control, but in the manner of cars rolling off a factory assembly line: the engineers and designers seem to offer a great deal of variety when most of the time they’re just changing the placement of knobs on the dashboard, the coloring material of the seats, and the brightness of the headlights.
In fixating on the obvious failings of "Joker" as social commentary, critics and editorialists miss its richness as a movie, and a bridge to other, better movies, some existing, others as yet unmade. That its richness might be partly the byproduct of trying to do too much, or not knowing exactly what it’s doing, is one more part of the project's chaotic energy. Inside all of that obviousness and clumsiness is something genuinely mysterious and disturbing. The movie is a Joker's trick.
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