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.

fifteen years

wake in other waters

9/23/04
3:40 am
Hope, Idaho

Dad made his passage to the next life at 1:18 am this morning, with Mom, Katy & Jeff & I present. It was a peaceful, awe-inspiring time. His breaths became shorter and less pronounced, in the way that the lapping waves on the shore — after the wake of a passing ship — become less pronounced and then fade entirely. His ship is now creating a wake in other waters.

Related posts:
learning to fear the right things
remembering Pops
on the passage through life
in gratitude for my Dad
the upset of Easter, and the last things

young goodman brown

I wrote this poem as part of my senior thesis in 1992, shortly after reading Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

It was an exploration of Puritanism as it manifests itself in modern life… which was on my brain because of a paper I had written for the course American Literature to 1865. The instructor mentioned in one lecture about the perennial legacy of Puritanism (and, on the other extreme, hedonism) in American life.

See also: a post I wrote back in 2008 on the RCIA Hollywood blog.

***

Striking a match,
he lit up,
then gave a light to Steve and Dan.
Between puffs, Steve turned on the stereo.

The only lamp was in the corner,
but still I could see the smoke,
rising between my face and theirs.
They drew regularly,
even Dan —
especially Dan,
on the couch,
with his toes gripping the edge
of the coffee table.
I emptied my glass of water
and excused myself to get another,
while the music pounded the glories of rebellion,
chaos, libido, anger —

I returned.
Steve, on the floor,
relaxed as ever, leaned back against the wall,
crossed his legs,
and bowed his head slightly to draw.

They talked about the music,
I think.
I couldn’t hear too well —
I wasn’t really listening.
I was watching the faces,
glassy-eyed,
complacent, smiling,
with lips drawn to cigarettes;
faces for the first time grey in my mind
and the smoke has left them grey —

What childishness to see them any other way…
why should they be less grey than I?
An inner voice cries:
Goodman Brown, go home.
Go home, young Goodman Brown.
Purify yourself
of your puritan mind.

Those grey faces
grey mouths
drawing on their cigarettes and smiling —
I know them as my own.
And I love them still
I love them sorely
and perhaps that is
the only way to love them truly.

on the underground to Heathrow

First Light & No One In Sight

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www.flickr.com/photos/paulshears/

Monday, August 30, 1993
6:01 AM

First light
ashen grey —
travel alarms stoke the coals
and the first sparks emerge,
buy tickets and descend spiral stairs
to the electric pipe with its capsules,
and are swallowed through the London earth.

We are leaving London.

Soon we emerge from under.
We see the streets darkly,
and the yellow electric torches
in the neighborhoods,
as they rush past us
on their way
to where they are.

We sit still,
staying in order to arrive elsewhere,
far elsewhere
through the air elsewhere.

We sit, and few talk
as the tracks pound an echoed rhythm
down the tube cars:
“we move, you move,
we move, you move,”
says the rhythm-track.

Dimness fades into suburbs
in South Ealing
and the pealing
of imaginary bells
tells us it is morning.
And in the morning we will fly,
fly elsewhere,
to land,
still on Time’s underground
and we will stay on it
until we arrive at the tube stop of Eternity.

People will ride with us for a while,
then alight and make connections
with another tube —
yet all will arrive
at the same stop.
Only we must take our own routes
to arrive.

Our ride is ever-new,
forging our way toward eternity —
the momentless moment
and the light there will be a light
no ordinary dawn or day
can approximate.

We arrive in Heathrow in twelve minutes.

In anticipation,
we approximate our moments
as we travel toward eternity.