8 October

Review: The Joker, Final Word

by Jon Katz

I am grateful that I saw the Joker for a second time this afternoon, and grateful also that Maria came with me. Our conversation on the way home could have been a great podcast.

(This is my first ever two-part movie review. So yes, I must have really liked it.)

Maria loved the movie, she said it was gorgeous and important. And you cannot drag her to a violent movie.

And yes, she added, it was also unnerving.

I’m happy to share this evolutionary review with you. This is a window into thinking, for better or worse.

If you love movies, go see it. You won’t be sorry, I can almost promise. I don’t like dark and scary movies either, but this one is different.

I grew up on the Joker, Batman, Comic, and Superhero culture and have watched in astonishment as our little geek/oddball passion/hobby (we couldn’t do sports) has mushroomed beyond our imaginations into the most mainstream, popular and commercial film genre ever.

Geeks and oddballs are finally in, too late for me.

If you had seen the long lines of nerds and outcasts waiting outside the comic book store each Wednesday in Providence, R.I.,  for their spotless and tightly wrapped new episode, you would have seen a lot of nerds and outsiders, many unhappy, even broken.

We were not the guys who got the girls or even knew any. We didn’t even think of trying out for football. We were the guys who wet our beds, got beat up by bullies, and masturbated frequently in the bathroom with our father’s Playboy.

We were almost always alone, even when we were together.

Arthur Fletch, our newest Joker,  might well have been in the line for the next Joker tale.

The Joker himself was the most famous and compelling of all of the characters we obsessed over, at least in my world.

I’ve watched in wonder at this little known geek literature has spawned these billion-dollar mega movies whose heroes save the earth every year or two, raking in billions of dollars worldwide.

Marketing can truly work miracles.

The Superheros, it should be said, have absolutely nothing in common with Arther Fletch, the pathetic, ungainly and despised hero of Todd Phillip’s new Joker. The Avengers wouldn’t let him in the door, let alone onto a space teleport.

So I was thrown off balance by the radical re-imagining of this comic book/movie revolution that Todd Phillips created. And by its stunning appeal. This was always an outsider art in my experience. It was not especially popular.

I was expecting a movie so dark and violent – that was the hype – that it was more akin to a horror movie than a film about one of the most interesting comic book villains ever created.

But I was wrong. It wasn’t horrific. It was creative.

This is a character study movie, not a comic or superhero movie. Phillips really took the leap of faith with this one, and his $100 million weekend vindicated him, especially by Hollywood standards.

_____

I’ll just give some rapid-fire impressions from the second and final viewing while they are fresh.

Phillips has blown open the superhero/comic film formula with the Joker, which is now a blockbuster hit. He’s also exposed its limitations. This means it is important and will change how these stories are told in the future, or perhaps create a new genre altogether.

It’s a new ball game for the comic revolution.

These movies make so much money and are seen by so many people they may be the most influential form of culture on the planet.

Phillips set out to make an origin movie, notorious for shallow and sappy tales of innocence and bravery.

The Joker dispenses with most, if not all of the gushy, faux emotional, and overblown save-the-world formulas that mark these movies. How many explosions do you really need?

Our heroes in these movies – a family, really – will save us. They might be fun and play with our emotions,  but they don’t go any deeper than that. None of them would pass for real.

Although the Joker is being criticized for promoting or encouraging violence, this is actually the least violent comic/superhero movie I have ever seen. And also the most diverse. There are black and brown faces in almost every scene, the cast loaded with women. I haven’t quite figured the central women these African – America women played in this film, but it’s worth thinking about.

The Superhero formula is by nature wildly overdone, overdue for a shake-up.

Tens of thousands of people die, but none of them bleed or seem real.  The world is in great peril, and half of it gets blown up before being rescued.

Arthur Fletch is very, very, real. This movie is so different from those others.

The big comic movies do not even try to make anyone think and are so loud and noisy as to be graphic and visual cartoons. Nobody argues about them for days after they are seen. You can blow up a whole city and it doesn’t draw much notice. Just another boom.

The Joker is very different. Phillips exposes the shallowness of the genre.  And suggests that doing something original and creative can actually make a ton of money.

This origin story really does explain where our “hero” came from and why he commits evil. We see it happening step by painful step. The real violence is to Fletch’s psyche.

By movie villain standards these days, this Joker kills very few people  – seven by my count, three at one time – and none of them were killed at random or gunned down praying or shopping.

They were all bad people in their own ways.

Every one of them harmed him or abandoned or abused Arthur.

Fletch never forgets the people who were nice to him. He never harms them. Murder is murder, but few movie monsters remember the kind people in their lives.

In fact, no kind people were killed or harmed in the making of this film.

This movie does not evoke mass murders or nightclub slaughters, There is nothing romantic or glorified about this miserable lost soul. Nobody likes him, the best he can hope for is mercy.

Phillips recognizes that Gotham City is a metaphor for the national psyche.

Our economy is said to be strong, but the ties that bind us together are weak. If times are so good, why are we so unhappy? Crime is low, but mass murders are a daily and de-humanizing reality. We don’t feel safe or hopeful.

The  Apocalyptic mess that is Gotham City in the movie is appropriate for a rich nation where many thousands of people live in the streets. The movie is a warning about where we have been and where we might be going. The rich and the poor hate one another there, and perhaps, here.

And in Gotham City, they blame the poor for being poor, just as do we.

Bruce Wayne’s father wants to run for mayor to make Gotham City great again.

Definitely, there is something disturbingly timely about this movie.

Cable news is much more violent every single day than this movie is, and no one is howling about them enabling the murder of innocents or because of their cowardice and denial or the hypocrisy of our corrupt elected officials.

This film speaks of our abandonment of the vulnerable and mentally ill, and our indifference to their suffering, and our refusal to help them, rather than toss them in jail.

It evokes the political greed and cowardice that enables us to blame them for being sick and imprison them when they fall apart or leave them to the streets.

Thousands of people gather in America’s stadiums to recreate the Roman Coliseum at its worst, mobs howling for blood and vengeance.

We do it in politics, why can’t draw from that in a movie? Perhaps the controversy is about seeing ourselves in this awful mirror. Ouch.

In the movie, Arthur Fletch seeks help, not trouble. Violence becomes his salvation.  He complains that nobody is listening to him. He’s right.

He wants help desperately but his therapist tells him early on in the film that the city is cutting back on social welfare budgets, and there is no longer any help for him or medication for his illness. “I’m sorry, “Arthur,” she tells her patient:

“The city doesn’t give a shit about you.”

It’s true, Arthur knows it. If nobody cares about him, how would he learn to care about anybody else?

Free of pills, the monster is born.

The film is dark, but it is beautifully dark and creatively dark. I take back what I said about not bring children to see it. I think they ought to see it if they wish, especially teenagers and adolescents.

The other thing I saw today was that the movie is just wonderfully shot – gorgeous is the word that keeps popping up in my mind, that I keep repeating – and the acting by Joaquin Phoenix was so deep and powerful that I needed to see it again, because I may not ever see it again.

It was truly outstanding and very special.  As a movie lover, I would not want to have missed it.

The cinematography in the movie was almost eerily evocative.  But the ending was really special.

I was somewhat distracted and perhaps drained by the ending when I saw it yesterday. It blew me away today.

Arthur Fleck is a broken human who needs help and wants help and learns what so many Americans know – there is no help, we are the richest country on the earth and hundreds of thousands of people now sleep on our streets while the pundits gush over our “strong economy.”

Strong for who, exactly?

As an origin movie, its purpose is to explain the life and events of the character we called the Joker. The original origin films in this genre are notoriously shallow and manipulative.

This one was very real. There is nothing cartoony about it, Phillips tells us all those explosions and epic battles are not really necessary, at least all of the time. It rings true enough to ring in my ears. The special effects in the comic-inspired movies distance us from the violence in them, there is nothing between us and suffering here.

It’s right in our faces, which has unsettled a lot of people.

Huzzah!

The words that come to mind in summing up the movie are devastating and beautiful – unnerving, too.

This psychopath was not born but made. We ignore the broke ones at our peril, a booming economy does not make us safe. We are complicit.

So what I saw clearly today, and was lost in my fog yesterday – this stuff is important to me – is that this is a story of rebirth and redemption.

Our sometimes cruel and uncaring world made Arthur Fletch, and when he was beaten and crushed nearly to death, the Joker emerged to become a kind of hellish triumph. When the Joker himself finally emerged out of Fletch’s smoldering ashes in his landmark red suit and Joker make-up, dancing for joy, I came close to crying.

It was a moment.

Joker, as he now called himself,  found himself in hate and evil, but he did find himself.  He rose out of his miserable life and survived. He found his peeps in the angry and howling mob, aggrieved and out of control. They got him.

Frankly, I  thought of the mobs that rage unchecked all day on Twitter. I suspect Phillips was reminding us of the cesspool of hate, bullying, and argument that so much of the Internet has become, along with our Congress.

Fletch said several times in the movie that he had never had a happy day in his life. But when the Joker emerged from his psychopathy, he was happy at last.  He danced down some concrete stairs. And that was beautiful.

He got his wish. People got him at last.

He had found his meaning, he finally liked himself and accepted his new identity without shame. The days of being picked on and humiliated were over.

This is where I was rooting for the monster, I couldn’t help it. This was the first Joker who broke my heart.

Fletch was literally reborn, he is the Joker now. We understand the origin of him.

His resurrection came not in being a victim, but in making victims. And in this Joker as in the others, he never took himself seriously.

Did he really find it funny that he killed people, one of his victims asked shortly before dying?

“No, not really, not at all,” he said, “it’s kind of a joke. It’s funny.”

Thanks for bearing with me through this process. I love doing it.

7 October

Review, The Joker, Part Two

by Jon Katz

This is not a simple or easy movie for me to review. So I’m going to write the review in two parts, one right here, and I’m thinking about seeing it again tomorrow.

I grew up with the Joker, and know the character well, and I was unprepared – even left off-balance –  by the grim route Director, Todd Phillips took to tell this origin story of one of the most iconic and popular characters in comic book history.

As Batman’s long-time and wiliest nemesis, the Joker has a special place in the genre, but this movie went well beyond that. This is a brave effort Phillips was not afraid to try to create his own genre.

This Joker movie has also become one of those Hollywood Responsibility morality plays and dramas that are boring, predictable and irrelevant. They are always a publicity and revenue windfall for the studio.

This question of what is responsible in a movie is an argument that can never be won on either side.

So I’ll skip it.

I’m not sure, but a second viewing may bring me more clarity than I felt tonight. The film shook me up a bit, and that is a compliment.

But I’ll give the review a shot, being fresh from the theater. I may write another.

The movie was astonishingly good in some ways, most of them being the performance of a lifetime by Joaquin Phoenix and some gorgeous cinematography.

I should say what the movie is not:

It is not a comic book movie; it is not a superhero movie, it is not an adventure story.

It is a brilliant, even grinding,  psychological study of the severe mental illness and disintegration of a  savagely abused and hapless part-time clown, Mama’s boy, and loser. It is also apocalyptic, this Gotham is a bleak, dark,  violent and joyless place.

The tone is set from the opening scene when street thugs grab the Arthur Fletch’s  sign (he’s working for a shop going out of business), lead him on a chase, and then break the sign over his head. Like the Gotham City of the Dark Knight, the city is a horror, garbage and graffiti and sirens everywhere.

But Fleltche’s humiliation has just begun.

It’s well into the movie before the Joker character devolves into something we can recognize as the Joker and comes into the character we know, and are, in my case, waiting for.

As played by Joaquin Phoenix, this Joker is a smoldering time bomb.

The movie could not possibly be any darker, and it’s clear there is a message:

Phillips is trying to say something about government dysfunction, the evil and corrupt nature of modern politics, and the mob anger and adoration that centers around our President, and the widening gap in income equality. We get it.

Here, the left and the right are sick of each other.  They are beyond argument. There is no good or normal person to hang onto in this world.

The Trumpian character in this movie is Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne, a/k/a Batman, who is very young and about to be orphaned. In the movie, Bruce briefly meets his future nemesis.

Wayne senior is instantly familiar to us in 2019. He is running for mayor, and he wants to make Gotham City great again. The relevance of his arrogance and contempt for the poor is hard to miss.

In this story, the rich and the poor are equally evil and the populist hatred for the wealthy “elites” is yet another message for modern times. In the mob scenes that build throughout the movie, I had the distinct sense we were supposed to be thinking of those political rallies where people in red hats scream for blood and vengeance.

They are chilling in the movie too.

The rich-poor gap was not nearly as severe 20 years ago as it is now, this might explain the rage and hatred in the people of Gotham City.

Here, everybody hates everybody, and everyone is mean to our hero, who is prodded and provoked into becoming the monster we know he will be when he finally breaks.

Phillips seemed obsessed with 80’s movies, especially Taxi Driver and the King Of Comedy, two great movies from that era.  (I’ve read that there are also  elements of Death Wish, Network, The Empire Strikes Back and others).

There are all kinds of insider references to those and other movies. I couldn’t follow them all. It felt a bit obsessive to me, a lot of insider baseball.

In this movie, Phillips is actually trying to new ground. Why all the bowing and scraping and homage to the past? And I don’t get the relevance of Taxi  Driver, maybe I’m just dense.

Phillips even brought Robert DeNiro (the star of Taxi Driver) into the film as co-star, playing a late-night Johnny Carson kind of talk show host.

Phoenix is really astonishing in this movie, and we are reminded he’s a wonderful dancer too. His character- gaunt and lean in the film –  is over the top, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, and that is not an emotion one would ever feel for any of the Joker’s that preceded him.

The DC Comics Joker was never unhappy, he was gleefully malignant, he never felt sorry for himself.

One of the things I loved about the best “Jokers” is that they are all joyous villains, they loved being bad and busting Batman’s chops.  And they were clever, they often outmaneuvered the stolid, dull Batman.

They had a blast being evil. They never forget that they were clowns.

There is not a drop of joy or humor in this movie.

I might want to go see the movie again tomorrow because at times I saw the film as a masterpiece as did many of the critics, and at times I saw it as a hollow mess with a brilliant actor holding a tortured and circular storyline together.

I want to see if I can make up my mind. I owe it that, I think.

The film is a deep and penetrating study of extreme mental illness, a human bullied and tormented by everyone in his world.

That may be compelling to watch, even fascinating, but it wasn’t fun for me.

Arther Fleck (the Joker’s name) suffers from uncontrollable laughter that is either a neurological disorder or the result of childhood abuse.

We are also meant to understand the profound alienation in Gotham is caused by social inequality, the decline of civility, political corruption, cable news, paralyzed government bureaucracy and grotesque urban decay, usually associated with New York City in the ’70s and ’80s.

The media is very much a target here, and for good reason.

We definitely see the troubled state of our divided country mirrored in this film.  New York City is in much better shape than it was in the earlier Batman/Joker films, but the country isn’t.

What we don’t see here, if it matters,  is any kind of resolution or hope. It’s easy to capture disappointment and rage, but what are we supposed to take from that? Go home and throw ourselves into the river?

In the Joker’s world, as in our world today, the embrace of deception and radical evil becomes a kind of integrity, the new grievance, the new cool. That is an idea for me to think about when I read the news.

At times, I felt the movie’s narrative lost itself, too much laughing, too much insanity, too much blood. Arther Fletch wasn’t just disturbed, he was cuckoo.

I was restless at times for the story to get moving, perhaps I’m spoiled and used to the whiz-bang pace of the superhero/comic genre.  Seeing thousands of people blown away doesn’t seem to stick. Seeing one go to pieces or be hacked to death is tougher, at least for me.

But then I remember that this movie broke away from its own genre, perhaps even re-defining it. Lots of people really love it. That makes it worth seeing for me.

The Joker was created in 1940, and published and still owned by DC Comics. The character was created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane,  Jerry Robinson.

It was a brilliant stroke to take the clown and turn him into a criminal mastermind. That really got to children and kids, and into their imagination. It got into mine.

But if the character is pure evil,  a broken kind of monster, then what can we really take from it?

There is little of the comic book ethos in this movie, in fact, there was none.

There wasn’t a single explosion, and it wasn’t until nearly the end of the movie that the Joker came alive and revealed himself in his bright red suit and familiar mask. It was powerful – I got a chill –  but a bit late.

A.O. Scott my favorite movie critic, wrote in the New York Times that the movie is both weightless and shallow, and can’t be taken seriously. “Is that the joke?,” he wondered after the movie won first prize at the Venice Film Festival.

I’m not sure if that was the joke. But Scott’s comment got to me when I read it.

There was some truly amazing acting, cinematography, mystical beauty in the movie, it was riveting and repelling at the same time.  Sometimes graceful, sometimes wrenching. Once or twice, it was disgusting.

For those of you who are wondering, there is extreme violence and brutality in two or three scenes, I would not recommend it for children, this is not a rollicking, cartoonish superhero movie.  Not only do the good guys not win,  there are no good guys, not a one.

The violence is not romanticized or softened, it is very real and very disturbing.

Make no mistake, this is an unrelenting psycho-drama. We see Arthur Fletch get dumped by his therapist and deprived of his meds. He disintegrates bit by bit until he is finally destroyed and reborn as a nightmare.

So this is as far as I can go tonight. I’ll consider seeing the movie again tomorrow and see if the uncertainty clears up a bit for me. The movie sure did have an effect on me, that’s worth mentioning.

Anyone who loves movies as an art form should not hesitate to see it.  Phoenix is amazing. And this is a movie you will think about, and perhaps argue about, for a long time.

People who don’t like unadulterated darkness and blood and despair can skip it.

7 October

The Joker And Me. Off To The Movies, Part One

by Jon Katz

(Above, Fate at my story/book reading at the Mansion)

I’m going to see the film The Joker, this afternoon, it has become one of the most controversial movies in years and millions of our children have already seen it once or twice.  I want to see what the fuss is about.

I don’t care if the movie is sensitive or not, I leave that to the windbags. Filmmakers and writers don’t need to be sensitive, just authentic and creative.

I care if it’s worth seeing and stimulating or entertaining, and I care if it does, in fact, reflect a deepening darkness in our country right now. I’ll write a  review later tonight or in the morning, depending on when I get home.

The movie has already struck a deep nerve, and it just came out, earning $93.5 million at domestic theaters this weekend. I’ll add my $7 at the Bennington, Vt. Cinema this afternoon.

The film is the subject of intense debate, sparking outrage and fascination. Normally, I might skip a movie that is described as being so dark and brutal. But I need to see this one. The Joker is important to me.

Some say the movie is exploiting and encourage violence, others say it is, as it should, only reflecting and portraying violence that is already there.

I’ve been following the Joker for half a century or more, he was always a favorite character of mine, a truly creative and haunting creation. Jack Nicholson was my favorite Joker, the evil clown with the perpetual and unmoveable smile is an irresistible subject for writers and moviemakers.

As a character, he is a great work of imagination.

The Nicholson Joker and most of the others never stopped laughing at themselves, and the ironies of life, even as they were also crying.

But he was always a cartoon for me, a caricature of evil, not a faithful and realistic portrayal of it. He was a safe evil fantasy character, I never imagined running into him on the street – or in a Church.

Critics say this character in this new Joker is clearly and disturbingly modeled after the disturbed young men who massacre innocent people in churches and synagogues and schools, not a caricature.

So I need to go and see for myself and share with you what I feel and see.

Journalists have no use for history, so they keep presenting our political crisis as the darkest time in our country’s history, but people who read history books know this isn’t true.

This is not Armageddon, but it is ugly and serious. And it casts a could over all of us, left or right.

Are people swayed by hysterical media reporting, or is it really that bad out there? I guess it depends who you ask, the Hedge Fund managers or the 65,000 people living on the streets of L.A. The economy can’t be that great, can it?

It is very much the truth that this is the best of times and the worst of times for our country.

It is a remarkable curious and disturbing time. Crime is low, but slaughter and the murder of innocents are commonplace.

Are we supposed to feel safe when any of us could be gunned down shopping at a Wal-Mart or going to elementary school or dancing at a nightclub?

Unemployment is at a historic low, yet almost no one but the rich feel secure and optimistic and more than a third of all Americans don’t have $400 in the bank for emergencies. “All I do is fall behind,” says my neighbor, who works two jobs and is always broke.

The economy is said to be booming, the income gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider.

The Internet is a rage factory spawning polarization, hatred, and argument – a nightmare perversion of what we thought and hoped it would be back when I was writing for Wired Magazine and Rolling Stone.

Our political system is a shambles, the country is tense and divided, and the irony for me is that we have our own Joker in the White House and a greedy and lawless and cruel one. An outrageously scheming leader with no ethics or restraint used to be almost everyone’s great fear, and that was always the hallmark of the Joker.

This week, the people swore to defend our constitution claim deception as a virtue.

Like the original Joker, this one, our national Joker,  can’t shoot straight. He can’t even extort things from foreign leaders quietly or cover up his harassment of women, or his hush money to prostitutes.

Christian Evangelicals love him and see him as their savior. I’m dizzy half the time.

Why wouldn’t a filmmaker see the Joker in a new and different way?

Lying is standard practice and greed is our national ethic. So yes, I guess it is a dark time.

There is no consensus at the moment about what good and evil are. Everything divides us. Cynics and conspiracists are everywhere.

That sounds like the themes in all of the Joker movies that I have seen, the Gotham City of comics and films, the Joker’s turf. So I’m excited and a bit wary to see this one.

There’s a reason why some books and films become controversial. Usually, it’s because they are telling too much truth, and failing to disguise or soften it. Maybe that’s the case here.

I’m going to clear my hand and step back a bit and put on my critic’s hat and try to make sense out of what I see, and share it with you.

Later.

9 October

Podcast: Joker

by Jon Katz

Our newest podcast is all about Joker the movie.

Maria came with me to see Joker for the second time on Tuesday, and we had this mesmerizing conversation about it on the ride home. The movie knocked me for a loop when I first saw it earlier, and I wanted to see it again to do it (and my readers) justice.

After we walked, I said to Maria: “wow, this conversation should be a podcast.

So it is. We both felt Joker to be an important, transitional and transformative movie, gorgeous and unnerving and powerful, a mirror and reflection of our extraordinary times.

We are still talking about it – an important sign of a great movie – and as always, we decided to share what we are thinking.

I am fortunate to be married to someone with whom I cans share so much, and who is so smart and thoughtful.

You are invited to come and listen for yourself. Thanks for supporting our podcasts.

8 October

Tuesday: Mansion, Joker, Prep For Class

by Jon Katz

A chock full Tuesday. I got up, blogged, went to the Mansion at 1 p.m. for my weekly story reading to the residents. I bought a Beats blue tooth speaker and fed some stories from a website on my iPhone, the residents loved listening in that way, I played two stories for them, a fairy tale and a story about a girl and a magic wand.

I also read two stories aloud, the speaker saved my voice a bit and the stories were enchanting. I can access 3,000 recorded stories that way. On the way out, Fate and I stopped to check on the Secret Garden posse. They were happy.

Which makes me happy, I like to see them all bundled up, puffing away and happy.

I brought them some DVDs they wanted – the Godfather series, My Fair Lady, and Gigi.  When they’re not out yakking and smoking, they’re in the Great Room, watching tv on the big screen we got for them.

They were happy, they aid they had everything they needed. They were dressed warmly, and when it got cold and they went inside they had the new movies to watch. Georgianna says I’m going to heave for sure (a way of asking for cigarettes, I think.)

I talked with Bishop Maginn’s new Drama Teacher Erica Macleod, she is directing the first play the school has done in years. The kids will build it, but they need materials from Home Depot.

Erica asked if the Army of Good could help buy materials for the school’s first stage set ever.  I’ll get the details next week. She will need $1,000. I said I would sure try to raise the money.

I can contribute about $400 myself, this is a project close to my heart. People who wish can contribute via Paypal, jon@bedlamfarm.com, or by check, Jon Katz, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. If I can’t raise the money, we’ll consider a Wish List.

But I think I can. This is a very worthy cause, please help if you can.

I’m meeting Erica and the actors soon and will take photos and get more information. That’s a joyous task for sure.

I stopped and did a food shop and picked up the books I’m assigning for my class.

This afternoon, I’m heading out to see the Joker for the second time. As I described the movie to Maria, she said she’d like to come with me.

I need a second look to get some clarity on this complex and powerful and unnerving movie.

I’ll write the final word about the Joker tonight. I have to do some preparation for my Writing Workshop at Bishop Maginn, it begins tomorrow. I’m bringing books, notebooks, pens. I’m excited.

Time to go.

Later.

Bedlam Farm