Comments Off on Joker

I saw Todd Phillips’ film Joker (2019) on the same day that Martin Scorsese’s comments on the Marvel/Disney films really started to gain momentum in the press as celebrities began taking to social media to defend the franchise. This particular circumstance certainly colored my experience with Joker. I happen to agree with Scorsese that the Marvel films aren’t really cinema; they are a lot more like television in format and structure (though not very good television compared to programs like Unbelievable and When They See Us). So seeing Joker with these thoughts rattling around in my head really made me a hyper-aware viewer. I was actively looking for “the cinema” up on the screen and I found it.

Joker, for my money, is neither as good or as bad as people have been saying. It’s a competent pastiche, nothing more and nothing less. It sprinkles a little bit of Scorsese’s King Of Comedy (1982) in with Taxi Driver (1976) and Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer (1979) with no major effect or revelation. And if one were to approach the film from the perspective of Batman’s legacy in the media, the worst that could probably be said is that nothing about the film grounds it uniquely in Batman’s world. It’s pretty arbitrary that a few characters share their names with characters from the comics.

So why then, if Joker is nothing more than mediocre, do I consider it cinema? For starters the film doesn’t rush from major set piece to major set piece. Phillips and company take their time to introduce and curate characters in a milieu that is carefully structured and nuanced. Likewise the image complex of the film is carefully choreographed to perpetuate the suspense inherent to the narrative. In this way the camera and the players are both synchronized in the telling of the story for its greatest emotional effect.

Unlike Joker the Marvel films rush through characterization to get from major set piece to major set piece and don’t seem to bother with any unique aesthetic approach or sincere concern for how these films are structured visually. A good test of this is to think of a film in terms of its iconography. That is to say if one were to look at a still of Joaquin Phoenix in Joker would that image communicate different facets of his character and the narrative? Then, if one were to look at a still of Scarlett Johansson in Avengers: Endgame (2019) would one find that image as potent? In Phoenix’s case I think of the era of American cinema Joker evokes as well as the character’s sociopathic behavior, the manner in which the media makes this character a symbol, and where in the narrative do I remember this image coming from. With regards to Johansson I think of the unceremonious way that her character is killed off, how her hair keeps changing, that she never really developed, that she doesn’t sound Russian, that there are always so many shots of her breasts, and, finally, was her character’s death worth it? (I do think both actors did a really great job in their roles, despite whatever limitations or restrictions they came up against).

To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, the cinema is meant to be a series of symbols (images) that evoke history and project our ability to grapple with that history (socially, politically, aesthetically, philosophically). Now, Joker may not be totally adept at this, but it does succeed. Joker is a film, no matter how unoriginal or compelling, that does say something about our current political conservatism, the power of the media, the corruptibility of humanity’s morality, and the heritage of American cinema. The same just can’t be said for Avengers: Endgame.