WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
For the purpose of this article:
Clown (noun). just a downright fool (Source: Urban Dictionary)
Clown (noun). a comic entertainer, especially one in a circus, wearing a traditional costume and exaggerated make-up. (Source: Oxford Dictionary)
I watched Joker last weekend and here are my two cents, and maybe a few more, on the film. Please bare with me as I try to resolve the emotional disturbance and socioeconomic conflict that I am still experiencing as a result.
As a work of art, I loved the film! Todd Phillips has managed to create a cinematic masterpiece that not only moves you emotionally, but puts into question the functioning of the modern capitalist society. The film also challenges the long-held belief that no one could ever top Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 ‘The Dark Knight”, Joaquin Phoenix delivers to us Arthur Fletcher. The debate has just begun.
Arthur Fletcher is a representation of the modern man (or woman) who is depressed because of unresolved childhood trauma and the effects of a failed capitalist society, which can be observed in many parts of the world, including Gotham City; homelessness, unemployment, little public funding for mental health and the very poor provision of social services in general. At the beginning of the film it is brought to our attention that Gotham City is drowning in trash and later on, as a Joker fanboy brutally murders Thomas and Martha Wayne, one or two big rats are shown in the back shot, further indicating how bad the situation is.
And then I came across this tweet and had the awakening I needed.
Joaquin Phoenix’s character embodies the awakening of the exploited and humiliated proletariat of our time as he calls out Murray Franklin for making fun of him during his late night show because he was doing something he loves to do, something he had believed for a long time would be his gateway from poverty and into the social class in which Murray belongs to, more or less. In addition, this proletariat’s anger stems from the lack of sympathy from the bourgeoisie, embodied in the character Thomas Wayne, who denies Arthur the possibilities of being a member the upper class (remember that Arthur wasn’t after the Wayne fortune, just recognition by Mr. Wayne) by challenging Arthur’s claim that he is Thomas Wayne and Penny Fletcher’s lovechild. To top it all off, with little or no knowledge at all about the three murdered employees of Wayne Enterprises and the disgusting behavior they exhibited to the woman in the night train and Arthur who seemed “less than”, Mr. Wayne takes their side as soon as he is asked about the matter on television.
Arthur is like the rest of us. He is born into a system that is set up for him to fail and be driven to insanity. As he grows up and he gets pushed down by the system that won’t allow him to advance to anything more than a depressed clown. He reaches a point of maturity and comes to the realization that his failure is not entirely his fault (assuming he skipped school or made some bad choices), but largely because the system allowed him to get hurt, both physically and psychologically. The system includes his mother who was so incapable of taking care of her son that one of her boyfriends physically abused him in horrifying ways. The system is also the government that doesn’t ensure health care to its people, including mental health for its citizen and this goes as far as deciding to cut funding for Gotham’s counseling services, which Arthur depends on no matter how terrible they are. This whole tale peaks when Arthur, as the Joker, says to Murray Franklin while on air, “if it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me.”
The sad thing is that what Arthur said is true, not only in Gotham, but also in our own reality. Think about the millions of people whose lives have been destroyed because of senseless wars and we largely ignore them. Instead we choose to channel our sympathy and emotions to a lifeless object like the Notre Dame Cathedral because it symbolizes what most of us aspire to have or be a part of; western socioeconomic and cultural power. But the Arthurs of our world; Sudan, Kashmir, Cameroon, Syria, Yemen, Libya and others are left to rot on the sidewalk as the rain washes off their clown make up, because the people in these places were promised “world peace”.
Finally one key thing the film explores is Arthur’s failure to separate reality from fantasy. He fantasizes an intense romance with Sophie Dumond, Zazie Beetz’s character, a trip that comes to an end when she begs him to leave her apartment. This begs the question, did the quasi proletariat revolution of Gotham City really happen or was it just a passing thought in a disturbed mind of a man who, for a long time, had wished the odds would be in his favor?
Knowing the end of the the romance, could the awakening of the people of Gotham simply have been a false reality and consequently, a way of director Todd Phillips to tell us that yes, it would be something if people “woke up” and changed the oppressive system, BUT the system just won’t let you do that the same way reality didn’t let Arthur have his romance? Are we, the audience, just too stupid to get Arthur’s joke? At the very end of the film, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum asks Arthur if he would like to share what’s making him laugh and Arthur says to her “you wouldn’t get it”. And that’s the joke we didn’t catch. We are, indeed, all clowns.