Joker (Tod Phillips, 2019) “Pathological Struggle for Recognition”

Editor’s Note: Since the film is in the cinemas at the moment while I am writing this article, I will not reveal any details about the film’s plot, and I will certainly not write a value judgment of the film. Whether the film is enjoyable or not in the final verdict is a matter of personal taste, although I do believe that this personal taste can be good or bad, superficial or refined. When I write about films, I write about the ones which (in my own opinion) have something to say about the world we are living in, about a certain period and in the end, about ourselves.

Tod Phillips directing Joker several years after directing comedies, i.e. “buddy movies”, feels as if some successful comedian suffering from depression (Jim Carrey, for example) abruptly stopped taking his antidepressants, and this resulted in violent and horrific nightmares (which in fact are this very film I am writing about), along with some other side effects. It is funny how sometimes things turn out, since while I was searching for an article to substantiate the fact that a famous comedian, Jim Carrey for instance, suffered from depression, although this is a well-known fact, I came across an interesting thought in that very article, which coalesced with my understanding of Joker: “Carrey shares the startling realization he came to after years of fame: it’s totally pointless to spend our whole lives creating and curating some specific identity for ourselves. This is all ego: desiring to be important, to be someone, to matter. In reality, this grasping at a singular identity brings us only pain and suffering…”A few minutes earlier, while reflecting on Joker, my conclusion was that Arthur Fleck’s violent outburst was induced by the same desire we all share, the one for recognition by other human beings, that we are valuable, in other words the Greek concept of thymos.

When reflecting on Arthur Fleck, the problem doesn’t lie in the fact that he is not appreciated or recognized enough, he is thrown away like garbage. He is occasionally beaten by teenagers or yuppies on the train, he gets fired from this job as a clown, he is mentally ill and people tend to ridicule him or avoid him, and as many reviewers have pointed out, he lives with his mother. The specific problem with this in Arthur’s case is that he lives in bad conditions, taking into account the state of the building he lives in, and his mother being ailing and emotionally bringing him down. Social welfare cuts in the city mean for Arthur that he will no longer be able to see a psychiatrist, and what’s worse, since he is jobless he won’t have an opportunity to get his medication. Even the social worker, a black psychiatrist says that the rich and powerful do not care about her either. In the film, there is a toxic opposition between the greedy, arrogant rich people and the poor which are socially discarded.

 

The mayor which runs for election tells that the “unsuccessful” are “nothing but clowns”. This gives rise to a city-wide rebellion and Arthur Fleck’s actions are tantamount to it. I am not entirely sure if this film is a symptom of the populist era we are living in now, or it tries to say something about it. Probably both is the case. This opposition between the people who are discarded and those who “have everything”, has almost Schmittian dimensions of an existential struggle (a “quiet” civil war Karl Marx would say), there is a specifically political relationship between the friend and the enemy, which means there is no political community. The aspiring mayor Wayne has a populist rhetoric and the state of emergency is declared due to the garbage which consumes the town and the “super-rats” which harass the population. Joker portrays the final phase of decadence in which the populace is no longer satisfied with life going on in its as usual, since things are not normal. Everything is set for a violent confrontation and only a spark is needed to ignite the populace. In other words, they long for thymos, to be recognized as valuable, and their powerlessness and rejection by the upper-classes is shown in a radical manner in Arthur Fleck’s character.

Arthur is an aspiring comedian, and when he gets a chance to do a stand-up comedy show, he laughs uncontrollably and tells a joke: “I hated school and my mother always told me that I will have to earn for a living later in my life. That’s why I decided to be a comedian.” This clip, which resembles a Youtube clip, is shown on the talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s character Murray Franklin. Arthur has always dreamed of being on this show, and perceived Franklin as a father-figure he never had. When he does turn up there, but only to be ridiculed, his sense of self is further diminished. He is recognized, but only as a clown, metaphorically speaking, and this feeling of betrayal was one of the main catalysts for the outburst of violence. The audience loved the clip, it is as if he gained a huge Twitter popularity, speaking in contemporary language, and he is actually invited to be a guest on the show. Thus, he is finally recognized as a valuable and important individual, but only after his sense of self is completely destroyed.

Earlier, after committing violence, he says to the psychiatrist that he was never aware of his own existence, and now he is. This means that his sense of self has awakened due to the reaction to violence with violence, and this is a dangerous statement, and an understanding of the self. Although his mother calls him “Happy” and that he was meant to bring joy and happiness to people’s lives, he says that he hasn’t felt happy for a single day of his life. The jokes he writes in his diary are bleak to the extent of madness, and humorous only to the mind which contemplates horror each day of his life. He says earlier in the film: “All I have are negative thoughts.” When he comes to the Murray Franklin’s show it seems as if he was following a twisted paraphrase of a precept from Machiavelli’s Il Principe, which could read something like this: It is much better to be hated than loved, “love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage”, but hatred is preserved by the strength of passion which, when directed at you, slowly fades. Arthur Fleck in the end got what he wanted, he was recognized by others, be it hero or villain. History hardly distinguishes the two.

 

 

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