Joker: films V movies


Jok­er is a deeply depress­ing work that dis­ap­points on numer­ous lev­els. But the most dispir­it­ing aspect about the whole, yawn, phe­nom­e­non, is how will­ing­ly so many peo­ple have been led by the nose to duti­ful­ly sit down and watch it. And then, despite hav­ing seen it, how obe­di­ent­ly they then insist on telling the world how thrilled they were with it, describ­ing it, even, and aston­ish­ing­ly, as dar­ing.

Remark­ably, this malaise went so far as to infect the jury at the tra­di­tion­al­ly reli­able Venice Film Fes­ti­val, where it won their top prize.

We all know the broad out­line of the sto­ry. A pro­fes­sion­al clown and would-be come­di­an feels so unloved and under-appre­ci­at­ed that he decides to take his revenge on a soci­ety gone wrong, by turn­ing to ran­dom vio­lence. What Jok­er does do more than any­thing else is to high­light the dif­fer­ence between films and movies.

De Nero as The King of Comedy.

It could, had it cho­sen to, have been a small, inde­pen­dent film that explored the plight of an ordi­nary indi­vid­ual, as he strug­gles to come to terms with a soci­ety that seems to have degen­er­at­ed so com­plete­ly, that try­ing to live in it, to mere­ly exist, has become more than his crushed spir­it can bear. And his only means of cop­ing is to blur the real­i­ty of the world that he lives in, and the world of his imag­i­na­tion, so com­plete­ly, that they merge into one. 

That was the film that Mar­tin Scors­ese made with Taxi Dri­ver (’76), and then with The King of Comedy (’83), both of which are minor mas­ter­pieces — Rag­ing Bull (’80) is his unqual­i­fied tri­umph. And both of which starred Robert de Nero, who also reap­pears here in the Jer­ry Lewis role. 

Taxi Dri­ver.

As a mat­ter of fact, Jok­er has almost every sin­gle ele­ment that went into the mak­ing of those two films, except for one thing; ideas. It makes absolute­ly no attempt to in any way explore those ele­ments or to inves­ti­gate the world it presents. 

Well okay, then, so it’s not a small, thought-pro­vok­ing por­trait of a small man with big dreams find­ing it increas­ing­ly hard to cope. We’re in the world of com­ic book heroes, and we should have known that from the title. So we’re deal­ing with one-dimen­sion­al arche­types, and this is just the back-sto­ry for a fig­ure who will become one of Batman’s arch ene­mies. But if that’s what it’s sup­posed to be, then it fails abjectly. 

It’s so grim, and humour­less, and mean-spir­it­ed, and just plain nasty. Com­ic book films, when they work, have an ener­gy and a joie de vivre that at the very least diverts and on occa­sion thrills. Jok­er is just so unremit­ting­ly unpleas­ant that all it ends up being is un-watch­ably dull. So it fails as much as a movie as it does as a film.

As Sam Fuller so mem­o­rably opined in Godard’s Pier­rot Le Fou (’65), films, more than any­thing else, are about emo­tion*. The rea­son the stakes are so ter­ri­bly high in the cin­e­ma is because it deals with real, live, flesh and blood human beings. Because they are the things we get emo­tion­al about. That’s what Scors­ese was get­ting at when he made those com­ments about Mar­vel movies that so irri­tat­ed the rabble: 

It isn’t the cin­e­ma of human beings.” 

How could it be? They are not, by def­i­n­i­tion, human. They’re super heroes. That’s their whole point. And that’s why so many of us find it impos­si­ble to care one way or the oth­er what ever hap­pens to them. 

But that doesn’t mat­ter, because movies aren’t about emo­tion. They are sole­ly con­cerned with per­cent­age points, gross, ter­ri­to­ries, plat­forms, out­lay, merch, net prof­its and all the oth­er ele­ments that go to make up the world of mar­ket­ing. And that’s the lev­el, and the only lev­el that Jok­er suc­ceeds on. But that’s the only thing that any­one involved with the project was evi­dent­ly inter­est­ed in.

*What he actu­al­ly says, if you watch the clip here, is emo­tions, which seri­ous­ly under­cuts what ought to have been his point. But that’s a whole oth­er blog post in of itself.

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