Pin It
Favorite

Joker's House of Mirrors 

click to enlarge When the beat drops at Dell'Arte.

Joker

When the beat drops at Dell'Arte.

JOKER. I am aware of the ex post facto politicization of Joker but I have not — will not — wade into that swamp. All art is a product of its time and place, of course, and this is a dark movie borne of dark times. To ascribe intent, though, to allow context to subsume the art itself or to transfer responsibility for the actions of individuals to a work of art by which they may have been influenced, is ignorant, often malicious and, especially in this age of diminished onus, increasingly dangerous. Art is a reflection of culture; one can hardly blame a mirror for the image one sees in it.

The complicating factor in all of this would seem to be the entry of comic book mythology into the contemporary canon. Comics exist in their own space and speak their own language. But in this moment, they have displaced the classics from which they draw their themes and tropes. Comics have become the classics: a mirror image of a mirror image of a mirror image made new as sacred text. And the characters therein have become archetypes themselves, the Joker as perhaps foremost example.

Where the smiling sociopath once represented a foil for the Batman, albeit a more complex and essential one than most, he has now become a canvas for examinations of villainy, and of notions of cause and effect.

Batman (1989), written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and directed by Tim Burton — and one of the most formative cinematic experiences of my youth — presents a Joker origin story, albeit a very brief one: Rakish ne'er-do-well Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), found philandering and double-crossed by his boss, is baptized in a chemical bath and reborn as a tyrannical clown. Nicholson takes great and obvious pleasure in the transformation, gleefully gnawing the exquisite scenery from behind his pancake makeup. But the transition, from mid-level thug to super-villain, is a precipitous one and serves mainly to move the story along. And despite the brilliance of Nicholson's performance, the character is dimensionally limited. He's a hoodlum with no remorse who hits the bad-guy lottery.

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), probably the most revered of a triptych that has become, to many, the definitive take on the Batman character, defines the Joker (Heath Ledger) by ambiguity and negative space. Ledger's version of the character is as much a cypher as a psycho: A preening menace, he constantly reinvents his own origin story, in his own words, grooming it for maximum psychological devastation in his victims. The movie itself leaves far more questions about the character asked than answered, though Ledger's subsequent self-medication death might indicate that he (and Nolan) had plumbed the darkness in getting at the unseen truth of the character.

(I think a discussion of Cesar Romero's portrayal on the Batman TV series from 1966 from 68 might belong elsewhere, as much as I love the show).

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips from a screenplay he co-wrote with Scott Silver, moves the character's arc back in time, both in the setting and its relationship to the Batman origin story, imagining Gotham City as a sort of Hell's Kitchen become whole city become suppurating garbage pile. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is not well: Malnourished, constantly smoking, he cares for his homebound mother Penny (Frances Conroy) but there no one cares for him. His near-catastrophic mental illness is subdued by a panoply of psychiatric drugs, at least until the city cuts funding to its mental health department. He's not particularly well suited to his job as a party clown, as evidenced by his carrying and subsequently dropping of a revolver as a children's hospital gig. His dream of becoming a stand-up comedian and appearing on Murray Franklin's (Robert DeNiro) late night talk show seems like it might only come true as a waking nightmare. Arthur's mental state declines — or crystallizes, depending on perspective — in concert with the dissolution of his personal and professional life, just as the city visits him with increasing violence. It's a pressure cooker and Arthur cum Joker is the relief valve.

Phillips, known mainly for making often hilarious, deceptively well-constructed dumb comedies, has really done something here cinematically. Joker has a distinct, immersive, fetid, gorgeous aesthetic. It plays out in a constructed world of exceptional depth and detail, suffused with decay and seething with barely restrained brutality. The lighting and camera moves (credit to director of photography Lawrence Sher and to production designer Mark Friedberg) add to the atmosphere of claustrophobia and enervation masterfully. The movie is undeniably beautiful to look at.

Phoenix, reinforcing my hypothesis that he may be one of the modern geniuses of physical comedy, lost a seemingly impossible amount of weight for this role, making himself over as an upholstered skeleton possessed of remarkable corporeal grace. He dances through as many scenes as he cries, his moves punctuated by terrible, involuntary, wheezing, staccato laughter.

The greatest significance of the Joker narrative lies in its nuance and deliberate ambiguity: Arthur blames society — do I hear echoes of that Repo Man speech? — for his lot in life and for his actions, and he is not wrong. Of course, he's not right either; the truth is in those contradictory notions held simultaneously. R. 121M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.

See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.

Opening

THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Your goth role models return in animated form. Starring Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron. PG. 87M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

BECOMING NOBODY. Director Jamie Catto's biographical documentary about spiritual teacher Ram Dass. NR. 81M. MINOR.

GEMINI MAN. Will Smith plays a killer pursued by his younger clone. in this action movie directed by Ang Lee. PG13. 117M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

GREMLINS (1984). Honestly, pretty dark for a Christmas movie . PG. 106M. BROADWAY.

JEXI. A smartphone-addicted loner (Adam Devine) has his life hijacked by the Christine of AI apps. With Rose Byrne. R. 84M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

SAILOR MOON R: THE MOVIE (1993). Bust out your bows, cosplayers. TV14. 61M. MINOR.

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). Quid pro quo, Clarice. R. 118M. MINOR.

RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS. Documentary about the Texas political journalist and raiser of said hell. NR. 93M. MINIPLEX.

Continuing

ABOMINABLE. A girl (Chloe Bennett) and her friends (Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor) help a yeti with magical powers find its way from Beijing back to the mountains. PG. 97M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

AD ASTRA. James Gray's film about father and son astronauts is an action movie with feeling and intellect exploring loyalty, family, futility and hope, even while a lunar rover chase keeps us on the edge of our seats. Beautifully filmed with Brad Pitt at his best. PG13. 124M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

DOWNTON ABBEY. Shhh. There's no Boris Johnson, only Maggie Smith throwing shade and sipping tea. PG. 122M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.

GOOD BOYS. A raunchy, funny, surprisingly gentle coming-of-age movie about a trio of pre-teen besties trying to get to a party while beset by angry teen girls. Jacob Trembley, Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon. R. 89M. BROADWAY.

HUSTLERS. Jennifer Lopez stars with Constance Wu in a reality-inspired drama about strippers who conned their wildly unsympathetic Wall Street clientele. It's entertaining and a little dangerous, but shies away from harsher aspects of the story. R. 109M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

IT CHAPTER TWO. Despite welcome flashbacks and excellent turns by Bill Hader and the terrifying Bill Skarsgård, the resolution of the Stephen King's clown horror is overloaded with exhausting jump scares and iffy subplotting. R. 169M. BROADWAY.

THE LION KING. An impressive CG remake with a star-studded cast, but all the technical achievements and orchestrated moments lack a little life. Starring Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Beyoncé (please don't tell her we didn't love it). PG. 118M. BROADWAY.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD. Whatever the original may have had to say about the struggle of warriors returning from war is lost in the false bravado, fantasy indulgence and queasy politics of this weird turn toward battling a cartel. R. 95M. FORTUNA.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Pin It
Favorite

Related Locations

Speaking of...

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

About The Author

John J. Bennett

more from the author

Latest in Filmland

Readers also liked…

  • Stylish Monsters

    A Simple Favor and The Predator
    • Sep 20, 2018

© 2019 North Coast Journal

Website powered by Foundation