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.

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Photo: Warner Bros Gallery

Politically Incorrect Is Harder Than You Think

Lenny BruceThere’s something eerie about the Facebook world-view, which challenges us to live publicly out loud, to reveal ourselves globally and without filters, as we communicate in real-time our every thought and action, trivial or serious.

Mark Zuckerberg, at a relatively young age, has suggested the world will be a better place if we live more open lives, if we have no fears about what is private and what is public about us.

That’s quite a counterintuitive notion given our past, and one that has made him enormously wealthy in its adoption at various levels among a billion or so human beings across every settled zone of Planet Earth. Curiously, I find the thundering rhetoric around the U.S. Presidential Election has taken some of that “openness ideal” into the still largely uncharted territory of political correctness.

Here are two opposing views in the argument:

Am I being unnaturally confined if I allow myself to be restricted by a set of language norms accepted broadly as being politically correct?

*** or ***

Am I a more authentic person for saying whatever is on my mind absent artificially imposed rules somehow intended to protect the feelings of others but violating my first amendment rights?

Now consider the underlying question: Are these two viewpoints in fact diametrically opposed? Is someone a hypocrite if in public he speaks politely and without offensive language, yet out of the public eye makes racist slurs among friendlies? Or is that individual living more candidly by saying whatever is on his mind via stream of consciousness as long as his expressions align with his actual belief sets?

Said another way, if someone isn’t particularly sympathetic to embracing social diversity, are we as a society better off with that potentially upsetting speech articulated or kept silent? Those trying to stomp out political correctness might suggest we all are better off saying whatever is on our minds, but I am going to suggest that this has nothing whatsoever to do with political correctness. Bigotry is bigotry. Political correctness does not ensure civility when it is unwillingly imposed; it simply masks a dangerous expression from public view in the name of conflict avoidance.

Of course all of us have the ultimate hypocritical alternative: to speak cordially in public bound by understood norms of political correctness but then go hog-wild and say what we want anonymously online no matter how vile it is, convincing ourselves that hiding in the shadows as we spew is further entitlement in our right to free speech. To his credit, Zuckerberg mostly solved this by requiring Facebook posts to be signed under true identities, but, as we know, if you want to spew, Facebook is not the only game in town.

If you believe a wall should be built between the U.S. and Mexico, then go ahead and say it, but don’t think you have beaten political correctness by blurting that out. I don’t think the wall should be built. I feel in no way restricted by political correctness. I am comfortable saying what’s on my mind and I also find it pretty easy not to be offensive or threatening in my remarks. If you think the wall should be built but are filtering your public opinion because of the chokehold political correctness has around your vocabulary, you are deceiving yourself. Political correctness is not your problem. Your unwillingness to come clean publicly on your controversial stance is your problem. No one can liberate you by removing the filter. You are what you stand for, no matter what you say, and when you say what you stand for, you are no better than what you are saying.

Perhaps we are we missing the point of why political correctness was challenged in the first place. Being politically incorrect and saying whatever flows from your lips no matter how hurtful it might be are not the same thing, not even close. It is critical that we put in context where the modern politically incorrect movement began, long before it was labeled. It was a reaction by comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor to exposing the hypocrisy of what was said behind your back, not in front of your face. To twist that into an intolerant free-for-all that justifies hurtful speech or even hate speech, is the opposite of what these language pioneers set out to accomplish.

There was a time in this nation, largely the second half of the 20th century, when it was brave to say the unsayable because someone was trying to discourage hate, not justify it. Here’s what Lenny said:

“Every group every system has a set of values and morals, and when you get outside those, then the alarms ring. I was politically incorrect to 95% of the country; luckily my 5% had the bread to come see me.”

Lenny also said:

“Freedom of speech is a two-way street, man. You have a right to say whatever you want and the Boss has a right to tell people to arrest you.”

Compare that to the recent words of Presidential candidate Trump:

“I don’t frankly have time for political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico, both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

And more recently from Trump:

“And I ask you this, I ask you this — crime, all of the problems — to the African-Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out. I’ll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?”

Is it fair to compare a groundbreaking stand-up comic from a half century ago with the current GOP candidate for President of the United States? Probably not, but if you don’t see a difference in how each of them applies the need to speak freely to make a point, we probably aren’t going to agree on when it is justified and makes sense. In Lenny’s case, he is embracing irony to open our eyes to self-awareness. In Trump’s case, he is playing to disenfranchisement to stir up resentment.

Bill Maher called his original show Politically Incorrect to make a point about the absurdities of covering up hypocrisy with language. He has offended many, and he is anything but always right in his opinions, but his intention is to make us think harder about what we say and do. If you have a point to make in the name of a lightning rod that takes us to better thinking  like Lenny, like George, like Richard — have at it, but be ready to suffer the consequences of being misunderstood if your point is not clear. Samantha Bee is doing an amazing job carrying the torch now. She is hugely politically incorrect and a beacon of light, afraid of nothing. All of these people carry a core message of love. If you carry a core message of love and have something to say that makes me work harder at understanding my failings, have at it, but don’t think you’re doing me any favors by calling me one name behind my back and being polite when we meet face to face. If that’s political correctness, we have failed at diversity. If you’re a bigot, we’ll know.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Lenny Bruce. Let’s keep his torch burning brightly by proving we know the difference between stepping beyond the bounds of political correctness to make a point and blathering on insensitively about how we wish we could say what was on our mind but somehow feel repressed. If you have something to say, say it, then stand by it. If it makes the world a better place, you’ll have said the right thing no matter whom you may offend in the short-term. I’m guessing if what you have to say really matters, it won’t be offensive in the least.

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Another Good Year for The Good Men Project

CallForBloggersI have just finished my third full year on the board of directors and as strategic advisor to The Good Men Project. It’s hard to believe that much time went by so quickly. On the other hand, it is amazing to see how far we have come in such a short amount of time. Every day we publish no fewer than thirty new stories, and every day we learn something about ourselves and each other. It truly is a remarkable journey. If you haven’t joined us yet, please stop by the site for a read. I’m pretty convinced one visit will not be enough. Like the three to five million people we reach each month, you’ll be back.

If you’re not yet familiar with The Good Men Project, we are an editorial site that focuses on men’s issues in the 21st Century. We call our electronic publication, “The Conversation No One Else Is Having.” What sets us apart and makes us unique is that we are a site with the word “Men” in the title above the masthead, while only half our audience is male. Likewise, we are a site where half our writers are women. In the many comments that follow our stories, men and women discuss difficult issues about marriage, parenting, work-life balance, career stress, family stress, health, sex, romance, relationships, dating, splitting up, advice, confessions, sports, ethics, faith, discrimination in all its forms, justice, growing old, staying young, entertainment, the arts, and pretty much any other human issue you can imagine. We demand high quality writing, respectful commentary, and a firm commitment to dig a little deeper emotionally than you otherwise might expect in high volume editorial. Beyond that, we are an experiment in progress, and we welcome the creativity of every voice that joins us.

This past year has been particularly exciting for us, because our endlessly devoted CEO, Lisa Hickey, relocated to the west coast and set up shop in Pasadena, California. We are now in a fabulous shared workspace environment where any of our writers or editors can stop by and have a cup of coffee with Lisa. Our team of three executive editors, over thirty section editors, and more than 2000 regular contributors around the globe generate topical as well as perennial stories with precision teamwork. We have almost 500,000 Facebook fans, up from about 60,000 the last time I summarized our business for you in early 2014. Something is definitely going right at The Good Men Project. I get the sense you are all heavily into this conversation. Don’t worry, we’re still just getting started.

One of our editors recently asked me in a comment string on another site what I thought was working well at The Good Men Project, and what could be learned and applied to other endeavors similar in aspiration. Well, the number one thing that’s working here is the people — the readers, the writers, the commentors, the staff — all of you are what make this thing matter. Beyond that, I offered three themes that Lisa and I pledged way back would be core to our focus and that we try very hard to make real. Here is what I wrote:

1) Our platform is meant to be a dialogue, not a diatribe. The brand does not define what being a good man is, it poses that question to the community to sensibly discuss in a conversation that never ends. We don’t name a good man of the year, because if we did, the chances he would be unveiled as flawed a minute after we did are 99%. We discuss goodness, we don’t cement a model of good.

2) Diversity to us is air. Because good is so hard to understand, we see the whole of our contribution base as vastly more important than one dominating voice. We are The Good MEN project with half our writers women and half our readers women, so men and women can discuss important things with each other, not at each other. Ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, we cast the widest net we can, so we can learn from each other.

3) We demand good behavior without imposing political correctness. You can disagree with a point of view, but you can’t attack a contributor. We encourage articulate contribution over invective. Again, it’s meant to be a conversation, which means there are rules of civility, but not so many that they curtail free exchange of voice.

Lisa and I spend a lot of time thinking about our brand, the promise we make to all of you and to each other, and my sense is if we are true to these three core values, we will keep growing on a steady trajectory. Like I also say, because we tread on creatively dangerous terrain, it is inevitable that we will step in poo now in again. When we do, we go back to our values, and that’s how we hope to get unstuck.

In the coming year you will see some forward strides at The Good Men Project, where we are now investing the limited but stable financial resources we can forecast.

First, you are going to see a much-needed and long overdue redesign that prioritizes mobile in a way we haven’t before. We know you tolerate our templates with “pinch to expand” dexterity, and that’s not fair in a world gone mobile. Both a responsive site and an app are on the way. Both a responsive site and an app are on the way.

Second, we will be expanding our sponsorship model, where we work with relevant brands to produce content that helps tell their stories in ways that align with our values, but also lets us grow our business. We have always been careful about this, but we have also become quite good at it. When our phone rings with a great sponsorship opportunity, we want to connect the right writer with that message. That writer could be you!

Third, you will see more emphasis on our premium product, where we ask a modest annual membership fee to help support our efforts in a world where advertising can not be our only business model. By the way, if you write for us, you are entitled to a free bronze level subscription badge, so if you don’t have it, email lisa@goodmenproject.com and she will set you up.

Finally, we are going to be experimenting more with video, and we will have some production days in our office for pilot shorts we want to test. If you have ideas or original videos you want to share, don’t be a stranger.

We also plan to increase our coverage of the Presidential Election with unique perspectives on the meaning of campaign verbiage. We will continue to collect far-ranging points of view on movie favorites both current and classic. We will also stay on top of breaking news stories and events, not so much with added mainstream reporting, but with analysis and interpretation of the implications and underlying meaning in mainstream reporting. All in all, we have quite an ambitious agenda, as you would expect of us.

I personally want to thank you for embracing The Good Men Project, where I am not only a business guy, I am a regular contributor. Not surprisingly, I write mostly about business, where I try to focus on the human side of creativity, innovation, overcoming obstacles, and taking on big challenges. It is a joy to share my words with you, and it is a joy to share this space with you. Keep the good words coming, keep us honest and on our toes, and we promise to continue The Conversation No One Else Is Having.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo Image: Courtesy of Good Men Media, Inc.