treating human life like a Joker

Joker movieI saw the movie Joker yesterday. This is possibly the most satanic film I’ve seen since Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I’m referring to its vision of the human person, and its insistence on a world without forgiveness, and thus a world without hope.

It is dark in a way that is more extreme than the truth, and political in a way that is even more polarizing than our current climate.

And then there is the gratuitous, intimate on-screen violence.

I predict it will leaven the culture in a very bad way. Two thumbs down.

I’m reminded of a quote from Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book titled Image of Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi:

Amorality is worse than immorality. The immoral man can repent his moral failure, he can turn back to his depth, whereas the amoral man has condemned himself to the periphery and finds no way back, when he has committed something objectively immoral.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight had a moral compass I could accept.

But the Joker truly is the hero in this new film, convinced as he is of humanity’s total depravity. Nothing in this movie ultimately proves him wrong. I’m not a Calvinist, so I find that problematic.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck (aka Joker) is very compelling. However, I thought the character study was quite uneven… at times nuanced and thoughtful, and at other times, as hyperbolic and binary as a two-year-old in the throes of a temper tantrum. I suppose one could argue that faithfully reflects a certain sort of mental illness; I don’t know.

The movie never suggests that the evil that overtakes Arthur Fleck is anything more than of human origin; it never makes a nod to the supernatural (either divine or demonic), which is another reason I consider this movie satanic in character.

As a result, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the movie is willing to — at least partially — scapegoat those who suffer from mental illness. And our culture needs that right now like a hole in the head.

On the other hand: I felt the movie consistently allowed the Joker to claim victim status, without ever really holding him to account… It was more interested in shaming the aggressors than in recognizing that the Joker had choices.  For instance, the talk show host played by Robert De Niro was portrayed as a hypocritical scold. In this sense, Joker rather reminded me of Mystic River; my review of that movie can be found here.

I do think the story touches on several wounds in our culture: among others, our fascination with posturing, shaming and scapegoating (three catalysts of the phenomenon of social media); the modern tendency to descend into narcissism and solipsism; and the insistence on denying transcendence, which reveals itself in the myth of self-manufacture, most especially through gender ideology.

One story problem — something shared by many films today — was the lack of an ending. At a certain point in the film, after one of Arthur Fleck’s unmitigated victories, the screen just went dark, after throwing up a stylized title screen with “The End” on it.

Maybe the audience was supposed to feel like the Joker’s next victim at the end: lights out, so to speak. We, too, had been victimized, or at least robbed. The Joker is on us:

There are a lot of mirrors in Joker—many shots of Fleck looking at himself, his clown makeup smeared by blood and tears. But the ghastly images of Fleck are less disturbing than what the film reflects back to us: a society strangely intoxicated by macabre spectacles but oddly resistant to confronting the realities of evil, least of all in our own hearts.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers may be laughing all the way to the bank. Joker has broken box office records for October, raking in $93 million on opening weekend, with a $55 million budget. If the filmmakers had any reservations about what they created, that kind of windfall is sure to anesthetize their consciences. I do hope they set aside some of the profit to pay for support for those left behind after the next mass shooting; it’s not a question of if, but only a question of when.

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 26

The movie has nothing beneficial to say to us; it is devoid of what Pope Benedict XVI once described to educators in the United States as “intellectual charity”:

Within… a relativistic horizon the goals of education are inevitably curtailed. Slowly, a lowering of standards occurs. We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom. We witness an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. And particularly disturbing, is the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk’, bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.

How might Christian educators respond? These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call “intellectual charity”. This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience “in what” and “in whom” it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.

Lately, I’ve been listening with great interest to Eric Weinstein’s new podcast, The Portal. I find it fascinating as an analysis of the conversations we are not having as a culture because of a de rigueur climate of political correctness and shaming which inhibits the free expression of ideas. He describes a global phenomenon of preference falsification, with the 2016 US presidential election as an example of how disastrous it is when people no longer express their political opinions in the open, but save them for the ballot box alone. The idea of preference falsification is one I think it would be valuable to explore, and a Joker movie could provide a powerful dramatic way to examine the theme. But this movie had nothing meaningful to offer in this regard. Alas, it was too much to hope for from Hollywood.

I do recommend The Portal podcast. The topic of preference falsification is discussed most thoroughly in episode 4: Timur Kuran: The Economics of Revolution and Mass Deception.

“What if everything we are taught in economics 101 is not only wrong, but may even be setting us up for populism, dictatorship or revolution? On this episode of the Portal, Eric is joined by renegade Economist Professor Timur Kuran whose theory of Preference Falsification appears to explain the world wide surge towards populism, and is now threatening to rewrite the core tenets of modern economics.”

Eric Weinstein

Last night, after wasting 150 minutes on Joker, I spent 15 minutes watching Rabbi Sacks. Very clarifying:

For a slightly different take, see the review by friend and fellow Act One alumnus Carl Kozlowski: Sympathy for the Devil.

Also: Steven Greydanus critiques the film in his characteristically thoughtful and nuanced style; he mentions a dimension of the film that I omitted, and does so in a way that includes no spoilers (kudos, Steven):

Arthur’s descent into violence seems to have a liberating, empowering effect on him. By making spectacular use of a gun, he gets the attention and even apparently the celebration that all mass shooters desire.

Or does he? One can choose, not unreasonably, to regard some or all of the denouement as a self-gratifying delusion. (I know where I would draw the line between reality and fantasy.) Regardless, though, Joker does nothing to cross-examine the Joker’s experience of triumph. On some level the film offers a mass-shooter fantasy fulfilled.

You can read his full review in the National Catholic Register.

3 thoughts on “treating human life like a Joker

  1. Instead of seeing Joker this weekend, I’d far more highly recommend you watch Martin Scorsese’s two masterpieces Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. These are films that have something to say about societal ills, toxic masculinity, nihilistic violence, and abusive childhoods leading to dangerous ideas fostered in awful environs. But Joker attempts to capture these kinds of messages without any true breakthroughs or insight on them. And Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is showy rather than effortless, demanding attention rather than introspection, and the movie only shines in scenes with him acting opposite the master, Mr. Robert De Niro (and star of those two former, superior films). Lastly, it’s not entirely clear that Joker wishes audiences to walk away knowing he’s a villain (and make NO mistake—he IS a villain). In the full theatre in which I viewed the movie, there were a smattering of attendees who downright reveled in his victorious ending moments with literal fist pumps in the air as if to nod at him saying: “Yes! You’re the real hero!” The Joker character is not a misunderstood victim hero/savior; he’s an agent of chaos, and moreover, he is unequivocally “the bad guy.” No amount of explanatory “mommy issues,” failures at normal interpersonal relationships, or mental health problems can justify his wretched actions. Todd Phillips’s film does not necessarily seem to think so, and that is a very dangerous message to put out into the world.

  2. Thank you for such a thorough, thoughtful commentary on this film! This piece is but a detailed reflection on the truth of your tagline “Our every encounter leads someone toward beatitude or away from it.” We would all do well to re-read “The Weight of Glory” every few months and understand how serious our every encounter with another is. I haven’t seen this film (can’t see everything and I rely on blogs like yours to help me select and reflect) but I feel the diagnosis you’re making in my bones. I even see it in the little ones I work with, some of whom have been shooting up digital humans (in both good and bad guise) since before they were five. This film is telling us what we already know is true about who we are becoming without God.

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