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.

something Unplanned

On Friday, I saw Unplanned in Burbank.

Abby Johnson’s story is unique in that it gives insight into the thinking behind both sides of a supremely important debate over a uniquely crucial issue. It makes an appeal to the conscience of every human being about the value of life itself. Forming conscience correctly is essential: the stakes could not be higher.

Today, I’m not writing a review. Steven Greydanus has an insightful and balanced review over on his Decent Films site.

movie tickets for UnplannedThe movie was so compelling that I bought 7 tickets on my way out of the theater. I drove over to the nearby Burbank Planned Parenthood, and rang the door buzzer. I said I had seven tickets for the 7:20 pm show if they wanted them. The woman said they wouldn’t be interested. I said I thought maybe they would want to see it so they could be part of the conversation. She said they wouldn’t be interested. So I offered to leave them on the ledge outside the door, but she asked me not to do that. So I said I would offer them to people in the parking lot.

As it turns out, there weren’t many people in the lot, so I started entering other shops in the strip mall.

strip mallIn El Criollo Cuban Bar & Grill, I found four older men conversing in Spanish. I introduced myself and explained I had free tickets to a movie tonight just down the street. I explained it was about Planned Parenthood. They kind of lit up and said they would be happy to take them and get them in the hands of interested viewers.

Thank you, gentlemen. Well done.

Anyone else in? Please consider buying some tickets for your local Planned Parenthood clinic and offer them the chance to see the movie at no (financial) cost to them.* If they don’t want tickets, surely you know others that would. But start with the people that might benefit the most.

*Conscience sold separately

joy and sadness: a world turned Inside Out

Joy and SadnessI saw Inside Out last night. It is a remarkable work of cinematic art. I don’t have time at the moment to write the review I would like to, but Steven Greydanus has more than ably said many of the things I would want to mention, and some that had not occurred to me. As I began thinking about the movie’s themes this morning, a passage from Henri Nouwen came to mind, which I had written down in my journal some twenty-four years ago.

“I tell you most solemnly, you will be weeping and wailing while the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. A woman in childbirth suffers, because her time has come; but when she has given birth to the child she forgets the suffering in her joy that a man has been born into the world. So it is with you: you are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you.” (John 16:20-22)

Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of its limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.

Joy and sadness are as close to each other as the splendid colored leaves of a New England fall to the soberness of the barren trees. When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again. When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-covered ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same. Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you can’t find words to capture your complex emotions. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude, “In Expectation”

A few further thoughts: Toward the end of the movie, there are moments that, while not in the least didactic, are instructive not just for children, but for all of us who share the human condition. Our lives are constantly marked by the reality of being in statu viae — “on the way”… In this life, we are never at home in the sense of a place of final rest. Our lives are shaped continually by hellos and goodbyes of various kinds — with other people, with places, and with places within.

While this is true of all people without exception, we sometimes feel isolated, believing that, while we can celebrate the hellos together, we cannot grieve the losses together (even with those we love and who love us). Yet sadness expressed can be isolation overcome. Paradoxically, grief shared can become sadness transformed and touched by joy, because our greatest need as humans is not to experience unqualified and perpetual joy, but to experience life in communion with others. If we understood this, and lived this, our relationship to the sick, dying, poor and elderly might be transformed. And with those relationships transformed, our world could be turned inside out, in the best possible sense.

for greater glory

Two weeks ago, I saw an advance screening of the newly-released movie For Greater Glory. Here’s my take on the film:

Andy Garcia delivers a solid performance as a man transformed by the mission that he takes up. In its best moments, the complex story of the Mexican Civil War travels alongside the narrative of the film’s main characters with a decent balance of nuance and sense of purpose. The dialogue, on the other hand, is so heavy on purpose as to exclude nearly all subtext.

The movie didn’t do a skilful job of letting the audience know whose story it was and why we should care in the first 30 minutes. There isn’t much work for the viewer to do — there’s a lot more telling than showing — other than the challenge of establishing who the minor characters are and how they relate to the rest of the cast. Many scenes feel more like set pieces for the stage than cinematic — quite a few scenes started too soon and lasted too long — and the over-long second act meanders without a strong narrative through-line. With some disciplined editing, it’s a story that could have been more compelling at 100 minutes than at its present 137.

That said, the movie does gain steam in the last 40 minutes as we finally know and care enough about the characters to feel authentically moved by the movie’s climax. A beautiful score by James Horner dominates most scenes, but its over-use means that, ultimately, it seems less purposeful and theme-driven than it might have otherwise.

I think the movie is definitely worth seeing for its presentation of an unfamiliar piece of Mexican-American history not far removed from our own day in either time or relevance.

It was better than There Be Dragons, and in a totally different league from Facing the Giants. In the moments when it wasn’t beautiful, it made me long for beauty. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder.) But enough of the back-handed praise….

I should probably see For Greater Glory again with consideration of its moral depth in mind, but as I think back on the narrative, I don’t think there was much complexity in it. Some of the conflicts were far too easily resolved; one that comes to mind is a scene between Peter O’Toole, who plays an elderly foreign-born priest, and the young protagonist. O’Toole’s character quickly determines what his role will be vis-a-vis the conflict without much deliberation or any kind of struggle. Even from a cinematic point-of-view, the lack of conflict becomes problematic. I felt carried along by the narrative, rather passively, without engaging difficult questions.

Especially in the early moments of the film, there were moments that were supposed to be emotionally engaging, but because one didn’t know the characters well enough, or what was at stake for them, I experienced something I can only call an emotional Doppler effect: one only understood the significance of the moments after they had passed. The audience wasn’t allowed into the fray of the moral dilemmas, but left a spectator… and the drama of history carried the story forward without really inviting the audience in. I’m not describing it well, but it was a story problem, to my way of thinking.

Also, the antagonists in the film were broadly drawn scapegoats, with little sense of their motivation (with the exception, perhaps, of Calles himself at certain moments).

In my mind, it is at once the most opportune and inopportune time for this movie’s message about religious freedom. Having listened to the objections of many people to religious freedom concerns vis-a-vis public policy in recent months, I can safely say that the movie does not answer any of the objections, which in a sense is no fault of its own, since it was produced long before the battle lines of the present year had really been drawn. But it adds nothing really thoughtful to that conversation.

I am ready to admit I wanted too much from this movie. Given the hostility to religious liberty currently on display in America, by many in the culture, and no small number of Catholics (including the Secretary of Health and Human Services), I wanted something that would trouble people out of their complacency… I wanted an awakening for those most glib about the need for religion to go back behind its closed doors and stop bothering the secularist vision of progress. I just don’t think that anyone without sympathies for the cause of religious liberty would come out of the theater with anything resembling a change of heart on this issue. Instead, people could come away feeling even more smug about the destructive power of religious fervor.

The movie does not so much carry a theme as it does a bumper sticker. A bumper sticker is a cheer raised on behalf of a cause it already believes in. A theme is something that has to be argued, and makes an appeal to the mind to work through a paradox and thus can speak to both the believer and the doubtful, along lines that are truly universal. And so, in that sense, I think the movie has limited audience. Although the action sequences (and in particular the sound design… bullets never sounded so good passing from one ear to the other) may cover a multitude of other considerations for audiences already primed to cheer.

Bumper sticker: Religious freedom is good.

Theme: Religious freedom protects the deepest core of what it means to be human.

For Greater Glory offered the bumper sticker, but wasn’t prepared for the hard work of delivering the theme. And so the glory of this film will not be so great: it will not be able to earn artistic credibility with the non-convinced. (See this review, for instance.)

Any Catholic defenders of religious liberty who might interpret this half-hearted review as a sign that I am a traitor to the cause of religious liberty, I will ask you this: Will you please spare an hour sometime to watch this YouTube presentation  by Barbara Nicolosi? Many thanks.