The Problem with Joker


I don’t write about movies often. On the occasions I do, it’s likely because something bothered me.

Joker really bothered me.

I can’t deny the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. He is a gifted actor. He gave a masterful depiction of a troubled, anguished, sick character.

That only makes my criticism more severe.

I’m also not going to argue against First Amendment expression. The creators have an inalienable right to make and distribute this work, for profit or otherwise.

That simply makes them guilty of intellectual laziness at best, and self-serving irresponsibility at worst. I think both have occurred, and I am deeply troubled by this because of the film’s enormous audience reach. Its success makes the laziness and irresponsibility all the more pernicious. They could have done better. They deliberately elected not to do so.

I’m going to tell you why I think this movie is psychologically problematic, but first, let me warn you, this will be one of the worst spoilers ever. Do not read a sentence further if you intend to see the movie and don’t want the ending ruined.

Okay, if you’ve seen it or don’t care to see it but want to know why I’m upset, please read on.

It is important to remember that the core source material for this literary work is a comic book. I read comic books a lot as a kid, and in fact I was about as big a fan of Batman as they come. That was in the escapist pages of a comic book.

The character portrayal in this onscreen depiction seems to me evolved from the school of naturalism, extending the realm of realism to a more interpretive form of social commentary. The extreme portrayal seems less a form of entertainment than it is a comment on cruelty and its origin. The clown makeup does not separate the storytelling from the gritty suffering in the streets. The imagery throughout could appear as hyperrealism, as Stanley Kubrick approached similar territory in A Clockwork Orange, but that would have required artistic choices that aren’t evident in Joker.

There can be obvious real-world consequences to confusing the worlds of fantasy and framing souped-up slice-of-life imagery as somehow predictive or inevitable.

The ending for me is what matters when an artist seeks to claim the high ground of unconventional storytelling, purposeful inclusion of uncomfortable scenarios, or violence that is meant to disturb us in order to reboot our thinking.

It is precisely the ending of Joker that is the biggest problem for me.

Even deeper than the ending is the punchline, which snaps into place so conveniently because the unmasked Arthur Fleck aspires to be a comedian. The irony in that kind of payoff could have been emotionally rich and telling. Instead, it’s simply exploitative because it’s enunciated as instructional.

Here’s the punchline: “You get what you f*ing deserve.”

I was almost okay with the movie until that line was uttered. That’s when I believe the writers, producers, and director abandoned moral ground and just went for accelerated shock value.

I guess it’s the writer in me that feels a churn in my stomach when fellow creatives let hope for commercial success undermine their better judgment. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about pride in authorship, embracing the seriousness of disciplined expression. There are consequences to our craft worthy of foresight.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to craft a satisfying ending to any story. The more outlandish the story, the more difficult it is to structure an acceptable conclusion. By acceptable I mean an ending that doesn’t waste an audience’s time and reflects the values of those who create it. No creative team wants to be embarrassed by an ending that ruins all that comes before it, but the true test of an ending is time. How we feel when we create something is one thing. How history treats it or how we feel about it decades after its creation are entirely different benchmarks.

My immediate sense is that there are at least two distinct, conscientious ways to think about resolving a work of popular fiction as the creatives involved start working toward an ending. There’s poetic justice and there’s existentialism.

If the intention is poetic justice, a wrong should be avenged. It should be made clear that evil will not triumph over good, and though any world is imperfect, the arc of our commonality ought to bend toward justice.

If the intention is existential—nature in its own social element—no moral summation is required; the world depicted is exact, unforgiving, and unapologetic. Yet here a storyteller with something to say may bravely suggest an observation of irony or social critique. The observed criminality may not be a tool pointing toward redemption, but it can be a window of material reflection.

Neither of these occurs in Joker, and that is where the bad is enshrined.

When late in the movie Arthur is invited on “The Murray Franklin Show,” he shoots his idol dead and utters the words: “You get what you f*ing deserve.”

It’s a carefully plotted moment and among the worst forms of premeditated murder imaginable, celebrated live on television before a presumably horrified viewing audience.

Sadly, that is just a setup use of the punchline. The truer horror is to follow.

A few minutes later, the wealthy Thomas Wayne and his wife are shot dead in the street by a rioting supporter of the savage clown. He echoes the same phrase: “You get what you f*cking deserve.”

Arthur uses his punchline to justify the act of homicide. That allows the stranger to justify his act of homicide.

This is an act of parroting. This is an act of emulation. In the story, both teaching and learning have occurred. Unfortunately, the lessons are abhorrent.

The moment the elder Waynes are slaughtered is without discussion or reflection specifically because it is integral to the larger epic of Batman. The child, Bruce Wayne, watches the brutal murder of his parents, which sets him on his life’s path to become The Dark Knight who will commit his adult life to avenging this wrong.

I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. That implied forward arc is not responsible storytelling. An act this vicious must be resolved in its own context or it is no more than isolated, exploitative horror.

Again, why am I so bothered?

Think of all the unconscionable violence around us. Think of the common occurrence of mass killings, of widespread gun violence too often triggered by mentally troubled individuals who have lost any sense of a moral compass.

Presume a tiny segment of the population watching this movie and these unnerving scenes are themselves abandoned victims of social cruelty. Might they see their own suffering in Arthur’s eyes? Might they also be in any way mentally disturbed as the film’s protagonist?

What message is this movie sending them? Is it a moment of necessary caution or claimed victory? Is it a moment of hesitancy or reinforcement of their unapplied curb on self-control?

What the hell is the purpose of this punchline beyond its catchy shock value? Was this two-beat mimicry necessary to secure the film’s blockbuster potential?

My answer is that the filmmakers could have done so much better if they’d wanted something better. They could have had their cake and eaten it. All they had to do was worry as much about the possible byproducts of the film’s success as achieving financial gain. It’s not that hard to care about what you’re saying directly or inadvertently. It just has to matter to those at the helm.

If you want to tell difficult stories, you work harder to create difficult endings. Don’t walk away from the problems you frame just because you can. You have the right, but doing it isn’t right.

Joker isn’t right.

_______________

Photo: Warner Bros Gallery

Standing Your Ground

How do you know when it’s time to stand firm on a point and when it’s time to cave in and go with the flow?

The answer is obvious: You never know, not for sure.

The hardest calls are the ones you make alone. You listen intently, gather data, think about the situation, seek counsel from close advisors, but in the end if you decide to take a stand, consider yourself alone.

Values, ethics, morals — all of them seem clear on paper when you are reading about someone else’s lapse. That’s called history. You read it in hindsight with reflection. You wonder in amazement at how something so rotten could have been advanced.

Looking forward is another problem entirely.

If you think making a decision on principle is easy, you probably haven’t yet made a hard one. If you have put yourself on the line for a heartfelt conviction, you know that courage is not something usually acknowledged in the present tense. It is awarded upon completion of a task, win or lose, based on context.

In the present you might be called something else entirely: difficult.

Difficult people tend to get a bad rap, and being difficult just to be difficult is not likely to lead you to the corner office. Some of the questions we face in staring down adversity include:

  • Whether we have thoroughly thought through an objection to the more genially accepted plan we oppose.
  • Whether dissension without triumph creates any intrinsic value of its own.
  • Whether the cost of standing in isolation is worth it.

Let’s think about those three filters as we ponder a few hypothetical but easily applicable real-world examples of standing your ground in the corporate world.

Someone Getting Fired Unjustly. Suppose a colleague of yours, Charlie, has somehow become the fall guy for a project that has spiraled wildly off schedule and budget. The project team has found an easy out because your department VP is already known to dislike Charlie, so all the group has to do is subtly throw Charlie under the bus and the clock resets to zero. You don’t particularly like Charlie, but you know he is no more innocent or guilty than anyone else on the wayward team. When you suggest a defense of Charlie to the group, it becomes clear that if you go to bat for the loser, you will be ostracized, And hey, everyone knows the VP has been looking for a way to get rid of Charlie for years, so how are you going to talk her out of it?

Bonus Calculations Are Manipulated. You work under a sales leader who is a notorious sandbagger (someone who asserts a goal is a Hail Mary when it’s an underhand toss), but smooth talker that he is, his forecasts go through every year and your team receives handsome bonuses. This year he sets a revenue goal that your team has already achieved with existing repeat business. His plan is approved. This year’s goal is in the bag before the starting gun is even fired, so bonuses will be flowing like water. Then you attend a company meeting and hear the CEO say in earnest that the company is having some critical financial issues this year and will probably lose money unless everyone digs deep for a better outcome. You approach your sales leader and suggest he increases the sales goal so bonuses aren’t paid out of losses. He tells you that you don’t understand the CEO’s game, and if you so much as mention taking up the goal again, you will certainly need to find another sales team, and possibly a new employer.

Confidential Information Is Compromised. After months of going in circles and failing to make progress on a design problem, the senior engineer on your team circulates a breakthrough project plan. Your company has been losing market share to a competitor for the last year on inferior feature design at high cost, but at last that is behind you. Late one night when you are building out your portion of the specification, you overhear a conversation where the senior engineer jokes that it only cost him a few thousand dollars cash to hack the competitor’s database and extract the secret sauce that has been causing your company to lose. You approach the senior engineer and tell him you are uncomfortable with what you overheard. He tells you he was just bragging, it was open-source code he found and modified, and he would appreciate it if you didn’t broadcast that because open-source solutions are frowned upon in the company. Is he lying about open-source vs. hacking? Either way, if you speak up you’re going to be responsible for stalling the turnaround.

On first blush I’m sure most people considering these scenarios think they would do the right thing, because we all like to believe when faced with a crisis of values, ethical people will choose to act with ethical intent. Now ask yourself this: Do you know someone working beside you who has faced a similar situation and not acted in the appropriate ethical manner? If you do, why haven’t you confronted them? If you have confronted them and they have brushed you off, how far were you willing to pursue the compromise in judgment? Why are you willing to work in an environment where a person like that can get away with something so wrong?

Courage is a word that is tossed about without nearly enough care, but understand that in your time on the job you will have multiple opportunities to act courageously or not. Are you ready to put yourself to the test? Are you willing to stand your ground and take what comes with that decision when the consequences may not be reversible? If you want courage to be a descriptor of what your life is about, you’ll need to embrace the notion that poetic justice is much more present in literary fiction than it is in real life. Situational ethics may be a useful convenience, but they aren’t likely to do much for your self-esteem. You only win by doing what is right if your definition of winning is more about who you are than the outcomes you direct.

Courage is at the heart of a true leader. It can be costly in the short term, but it will always reflect your character. Standing your ground is not a question of options; it is the challenge of identity.

 

Not Amused by the Dolled Up Wolf

As I have been out discussing my debut novel, This is Rage, over the past few months in bookstore readings and radio interviews, the question often comes up as to whether it is similar to the latest high-profile motion picture from Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street. My answer is no for three reasons. First, my story is purely fiction, and Wolf is based on a memoir. Second, my story is exaggerated for the literary purpose of satire, and Wolf appears to be exaggerated (or not) for spectacle. Third, my story depicts a cast of amoral characters on a collision course with poetic justice and renders a series of life lessons and impacts offered for discussion, while Wolf has no moral center and crudely celebrates the life of a scumbag. Fair warning, more eye-opening spoilers ahead.

wolf-of-wall-streetI usually quite like Martin Scorsese pictures, but I really despise this one. I don’t think he set out to make a movie that glorified the inexcusable crimes of Jordan Belfort, but that’s what’s on the screen, and now that people are crying out against the film, Scorsese and his cast are left with few options but to defend their work as creative expression. I don’t dispute their right to produce the film or make money from the enterprise, I simply wonder why it was necessary, especially for such an accomplished company of actors led by no less than Leonardo DiCaprio. You see, while some of us see through the veneer of statements proclaiming the indictment of Belfort as a cautionary tale, the literature simply isn’t there to support the defense. An extremely simple fix would have gone a long way to offset the damage caused by this movie in showing the devastation caused to the victims of the penny scam swindling. We never, ever see anyone get hurt by the incessant wave of fraud that takes money from the pockets of innocents and hands it for abuse to criminals. Not once, anywhere in the film, do we see the pain created when a garbage stock is sold to an ignorant or unsuspecting victim at 50% markup. Would it have been that hard to show that white-collar crime is not victimless? Do people still not understand that when sycophants like Belfort (and Bernie Madoff) lie to clients and empty their pockets, entire livelihoods–and futures–are wiped out?

It’s not funny. It’s not the stuff of sardonic humor. It’s too real. Horrific acts need to be condemned without ambiguity, or at the very least illustrated through juxtaposition to depict thought-provoking irony. The justice system failed to cause Belfort to endure fair punishment; he did 22 months soft time and now he is a celebrity. How about that, a bona-fide celebrity for publicly exposing that he lived a putrid life and is now selling his salesmanship skills as legitimate in pay-to-attend seminars, further brought to visibility by a Hollywood movie deemed worthy of frothy awards. The movie shows everything that goes against the grain of humility and equality, but let’s send up flares and say it’s a tour de force.

You know what else isn’t funny?

Sniffing cocaine off the rear end of a hooker, all paid for with piles of your stolen cash. Nyuck nyuck.

Driving a Lamborghini on public streets under the severe influence of quaaludes and endangering the lives of people around you. Nyuck nyuck.

Getting oral sex in a glass elevator from a co-worker while the rest of your company watches from the trading floor. Nyuck nyuck.

Laughing yet? No, apology not accepted. How about when a crowd of Wall Street insiders gathered for a screening of the film in Battery Park and cheered at its most lascivious moments, essentially endorsing the behavior of Belfort and his punk posse, making it clear that generating big money was laudable, and spending it lavishly even more laudable. Yeah, it happened. You remember these guys, they were the ones our federal government bailed out when the great recession was at its worst. Now they are the same guys who think it is time for Washington to back off on regulation, since everything is “back to normal.” Yep, welcome to the new normal.

No, I’m not indicting all of Wall Street; quite the contrary. I believe in the fundamental strength of our economy, and that trust in investment is the backbone of financial advancement. We put our money into stocks and bonds long-term to see our free market assets grow collectively over time–capitalism for the long haul, compounding legitimately for the greater good. It’s not meant to be a con man’s game. It’s not meant to be a fixed casino. So why portray it that way, and why would anyone who makes his or her living off the public trust applaud such despicable behavior? Starting to wonder if the 1% and the 99% are separated by more than just wealth?

Here’s something else that’s not funny, and the core of what caused my emotional reaction to this vile portrayal of a pathetic American life: It’s an open letter from Christina McDowell published in the LA Weekly. Ms. McDowell’s father was one of the pukes that Belfort threw under the bus to arrange for his reduced sentence, and her life in the ashes that followed was emblematic of the very discord that Belfort created. Because her father was also a criminal, she does not make excuses for the suffering brought on her by the loss of her family’s affluence, after which she sank into poverty as a result of her father’s lying and conniving. Instead she writes with immense empathy for the victims of both her father and Belfort, wondering as I do why these victims show up nowhere in the film, instead remaining faceless and invisible, as if nothing tangible was really taken and incinerated. This passage the day after Christmas left me especially disturbed:

So here’s the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

Nope, not funny. Not entertaining. No moral center. No poetic justice. So as the actors and technicians and storytellers and creative journeyman who crafted this epic adaptation make their way to the stage to accept their trophies this season and deliver all sorts of silly speeches about the role of art in society, think about what they did and what they could have done. Art and entertainment can be a stylized mirror, or a refracting lens, or a pastiche of temporal mores, or a slice life that causes us to interpret the actions of characters and ideas of creators. Or it can just sit there like a lump and take our money for nothing, no different from the scoundrels depicted. Two stacked wrongs don’t make this right. Don’t get fooled again. Hold the Oscars, hose this one down with a power-steam cleaning and let it dribble down the gutter where it best can dissolve from future memory.