A movie I never intended to see

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

A discussion of the movie “Joker” came along at my dinner table the other night, and up to that point, I had to intention of seeing it. “Downton Abbey” is more up my alley.

But the cogent argument of a political friend altered my viewpoint.

“It is the movie of our time,” J said.

I know my whole face revealed my doubt.

He explained: “It is important to watch because it is metaphor for the present times.”
J is a movie buff. He’s seen all of the Joker movies.

“What makes this film interesting,” he said, “is that it poses the question: ‘Is the bad guy really a bad guy if his victims are also inferred as bad guys?’ I say this because I see this movie as a subtle indictment of the moral lens than we currently use.”

After I’d seen the movie, I realized I didn’t feel bad when Arthur Fleck, the fellow in the movie who became the Joker, killed three drunk young Wall Street types. They were throwing French fries at a girl on the subway. She was too scared to tell them to get lost; she fled into another car. So, they began making fun of Fleck, the only other person around. He had witnessed the bullying as he sat there, still in costume from his job as a clown. The young men’s ridicule and bullying increased, and suddenly Fleck pulled out a gun given to him by a co-worker, and to the privileged young men’s surprise, he shot them all.

I don’t like war movies, prison movies, cowboy movies – violence hurts people and it hurts to watch it. And yet, I watched this violence in the “Joker.” I flinched, but I never turned away, shut my eyes or left. Somewhere in me I was feeling satisfaction that the three well-dressed rich boys asked for it.

After the fact, when my friend and I discussed our acceptance of the violence, I thought about another movie I’d seen decades ago where I was happy to see three dead guys. Gary Cooper in “High Noon” shot and killed three bad men.

However, Cooper was the sheriff; lawmen can kill, citizens can’t.

The latest Joker is shown dancing (beautifully, almost ballet) and memorizing jokes as he deteriorates before us because of a lot of bad things and very few good things happening in his life: he is tripped and tormented by a gang of nicely dressed teenagers who kick him and break his clown sign. He is charged for the loss of his sign by his boss, who won’t let him sit down when called to the office. His co-workers disdain him because of his inappropriate laughing – and they’re all clowns! A woman on the bus tells him to quit talking to the child sitting next to her.

At home, he takes good care of his mother – feeding her, bathing her, listening to her stories until he learns that she allowed his abuse by boyfriends when he was little, which might explain his reactive laughing at things not funny. His shrink doesn’t listen and eventually has to tell him that her social service has been unfunded: he definitely doesn’t make enough money to buy the prescriptions that keep his synapses balanced.

We moviegoers are being led down the path along with the fellow we have come to like and have sympathy for – Arthur Fleck, clown, is going to have to crack because of these obvious truths in Gotham that are systematically disempowering him: income inequality, celebrity worship, political corruption, TV, government bureaucracy and a general growing lack of civility everywhere he goes.

The thing about “Joker” 2019 version that surprised me is that I was riveted to my seat, did not want to leave, did not want to talk to my companion. Though we had entered the theater telling each other that if we didn’t like it, we could leave, neither of us moved during the two-hour and one-minute movie.

“Joker” won the Venice Film Fest top prize this past summer. It has since been reviewed by everyone who reviews, including the New York Times movie reviewer A.O. Scott, who wrote, “Are you kidding?” (He didn’t like it.) and Roger Ebert, who called it “pernicious garbage.” But Simon Gallagher of WhatCulture pronounced it “A very good movie. In fact…profound.”

My friend J had a couple more things to say: “What makes it such a good performance is the slow pace of his decline. At any time during this slow evolution/devolution into the Joker, the smallest degree of empathy or unexpected kindness would have derailed this ascent/descent. But, alas, this did not occur, and the Joker was born.”

As my friend and I left the theater, she said, “It is an unforgettable movie. But nor for the slight of heart.” Including the two of us, there were four people in the theater when we saw “Joker.”

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