Joker

(Possible spoilers ahead)

You were never really here is what the Joker thinks the world is telling him. It is also the title of the film I was most reminded of watching Joker, nevertheless reminiscent of several other works whose influence it carries lightly. In Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 thriller, Joaquin Phoenix played Joe, a traumatized war vet living in a New York apartment with his eccentric mother. In trying to clean up the rotten system ruling the city, Joe also struggled against an inheritance of malady, a violent disposition that might already be running through his veins. Explicitly channelling Taxi Driver, Ramsay’s film was a meditation on violence and masculinity that offered a critical distance to events Scorsese’s film denied. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro feature in Todd Philips’ new film, but masculinity is hardly the pressing question here, for Joker is the story of a subjectivity reduced to dust.

When we first see Arthur Fleck alias Happy alias Joker, he’s in front of a mirror putting on clown makeup. He’ll be in front of mirrors two more times in the film, but he’ll look at his own image on the newspaper and television all through. There’s a split between Arthur’s external and internal selves that Philips and Phoenix emphasize through a range of formal choices. Arthur is a social outcast, and in the opening passages of Joker, he alternatingly comes across as a threat and a victim. The melodramatic scenes depict him being ridiculed and bullied, while his interactions with decent people forebode an outward aggression. Moreover, Arthur has a medical condition—he laughs uncontrollably in stressful situations—which makes those around him suspect he’s being funny, even though he’s feeling the opposite in reality. Arthur’s behaviour belies the conventional equation of laughter with comfort and control. And Phoenix does a phenomenal job of embodying this duality.

This split perspective of Arthur as a comic and a tragic figure suspends the viewer in an uneasy relation with the character. Scenes of Arthur’s debasement prompt us to sympathize with him and expect retribution, but it’s far from liberating when he does get back at his tormentors. Part of the reason for this is that Philips and co-writer Scott Silver remove the character from the mythos of the comic world and plant him within a realistic discourse around mental health. Arthur is admittedly deranged and acts of vengeance aren’t gratifying or cool; for the most part, they are untimely and disproportionate. Philips, in fact, distances his revenge from any sense of poetic justice. The first time Arthur hits back is in a subway where three Wall Street types are beating him wild. Arthur kills them with the gun he’s carrying, but Philips composes the sequence as though it were an accidental happening. The first bullet goes off during a scuffle under flickering light and Phoenix plays the scene like a survival attempt.

Arthur tries uneasily to comply to social codes, but he’s always laughing at the wrong lines. His internal life, on the other hand, is tenuously held together by a handful of relations: his self-deluding mother living in the past, the man she says is his father, the woman next door he grows close to and De Niro’s comic talk show host Murray Franklin whom he takes to be a father figure. When these relations are proven to be lies one by one, Arthur’s inner life collapses and he becomes a purely external being, a public image without connotation. Joker traces in these disappearing connections to the reality the seeds of the character’s nihilism. With all narratives about himself falsified, Arthur becomes a being without history or future, and the universe emptied of import. The money-burning, neutral chaos that the Joker stands for corresponds to a loss of internal signification. The anarchy he witnesses at the end of the film, consequently, is a pure spectacle without meaning.

When asked about his motivations, the Joker maintains that he’s apolitical and that he has nothing to do with the anti-rich movement his subway murders have initiated all over Gotham city. It’s the world around him that ascribes a political meaning to his actions. To be sure, the Gotham city of Joker is not a morally neutral space. The garbage flooding the town is as much moral as physical—a detail that is established in the first scene in which a teenage gang harasses and beats up a hapless Arthur. The head of the Wayne corporation, Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) is a neoliberal figure running for mayor’s office who thinks that the city needs to be cleaned of its super rats and that vigilantes like the Joker are losers hiding behind a mask. Funding for social welfare and healthcare is being cut down—Arthur’s medical visits are forced to end—and resentment about inequality is in the air.

Arthur too shares the sense of disenfranchisement the Blacks around him experience. But the Joker is no Bane. For him, the sight of protesters donning clown masks and taking to the streets has no political weight; it’s a show to be enjoyed. Even though the protesters appear to take him as a figurehead, he doesn’t represent any community and religion is wholly absent in this world. There’s no feeling of injustice (to him or to his mother) fuelling Arthur’s actions, which are merely reactions to an environment trying to erase his existence. Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly nihilistic act. That’s why the film’s climactic passage doesn’t wholly cohere: when Arthur (now self-christened Joker) is invited to Murray’s show to be humiliated, he launches into a screed about how the world is indecent and malevolent—hardly the words of a person who sees no meaning to things. What the harangue does is to provide a cri de coeur for someone who has been proven to be hollow.

This last scene also underscores the film’s starkly non-mythical bent. Though the Joker might be nihilist, the film is anything but. In trying to understand the origins of Joker’s anarchism, the film exhibits the sort of empathy and insight-creation that’s usually the reserve of realist cinema. Given the industrial context of superhero franchises and cinematic universes, which depend on fan loyalty and familiarity for their signification, I think it’s also commendable that Joker offers a self-contained work that uses the Batman mythos only as a remote backdrop, like the way, say, Ben Hur uses the Bible. Compare the film’s sustained engagement with Arthur’s experience to the third-act shift in The Dark Knight Rises, which few viewers outside of fans could find interesting. The result comes close to the semi-independent cinema of the seventies. Philips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher balance warm and cool colours in almost every shot—reflecting Arthur’s split image—to produce textures that, to my eyes at least, resemble 16mm. Their 1.85:1 ratio Gotham city seems painstakingly reconstructed from archival documents of Manhattan. Phoenix, in an evidently virtuoso performance, walks its sordid streets, going up and down staircases, looking up and down television images, contorting his emaciated body in a combination of ballet and tai chi. Thankfully, the film does justice to him.

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Goodfellas (1990)
English
Martin Scorsese

Goodfellas (1990) is one Scorsese film that made it big with both the audience and the critics. Its worm’s eye view of the underworld places it apart from all the films in the genre that still cling to the top level of the hierarchy.

Check this sequence in the film that takes place at a party club called Copacabana. The scene just shows Henry reaching his table with his girlfriend starting from the entrance. Though it’s a scene that is quite light on the minds and introduces us to the vital characters of the plot, the execution of the scene is so solemn and so thought over. The whole scene is captured in a single uninterrupted shot. The camera snakes in and out of thin paths, narrowly avoids collisions and tries to squeeze out into the destination. The way to the table is also too serpentine and access to it seems like a Herculean task, very much like the underworld that the film depicts.

Take a look:

Michael Ballhaus employs the camera like his eyes. Instead of using it as a tool for documentation, he gives it life and makes it an invisible character in the film. He makes it look at events, he makes it empathize and he transfers it onto the viewers. This effect is more pronounced in his earlier collaborations with German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose setups not only imposed physical restrictions on the movement of the camera, but also evoked a sense of claustrophobia that often reflected the characters’ own. The same period gave rise to his characteristic Ballhaus shot (or the 360 degree shot), again, testifying his opinion on the medium.

Though a lot of films off late have used the long snaky shot to gain unwarranted appreciation, none of them gels with the film as effectively as the Copacabana shot.

P.S: Sorry for another Scorsese scene. But what to do, he is one of the best scene composers alive!

Raging Bull (1980)
English
Martin Scorsese

Raging Bull (1980) is my favorite Scorsese for many reasons apart from the extraordinary performance Robert De Niro as the troubled boxer Jake La Motta who was deservedly honoured by the Academy next year. The mutually reinforcing Cinematography (thanks to Michael Chapman) and the spectacular editing by Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker match the intensity of the lead’s performance.

In the final scene of the movie, a slightly overweight Jake La Motta is sitting in his dressing room staring at his mirror (a la Taxi Driver) just before his stand up show (a la The King Of Comedy!). He is smoking a cigar and moves into a monologue:

Jake: Some people aren’t that lucky… like the one Brando played in “On the Waterfront“, a down-and-outer. Remember the scene in the car with his brother Charlie? It went like this. It wasn’t him, Charlie. It was you. Remember that night you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. “We’re going for the price on Wilson”. “This ain’t your night.” My night. I could’ve taken Wilson apart. So what happens? He gets a title shot. I get a one-way ticket to Palookaville. I was no good after that, Charlie. You reach a peak, then it’s downhill. It was you, Charlie. You was my brother. You should’ve looked out for me just a little bit. You should’ve taken care of me… instead of making me take dives for short-end money. You don’t understand. I could’ve had class. I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody instead of a bum. Let’s face it. It was you, Charlie. It was you.
(Enter the event manager)
Manager: How you doin’, champ? Everything OK?
Jake: Yeah.
Manager: Ready?
Jake: Five minutes.
Manager: OK. Need anything?
Jake: No.
Manager: You sure?
Jake: I’m sure. Lot of people out there?
Manager: It’s crowded.
(Exit manager)
Jake: Go get ’em, champ. I’m the boss. I’m the boss. I’m the boss. I’m the boss.

Jake warms up and starts shadow-boxing as he leaves for the stage. THe screen fades to black. The following text from the Bible appears before the credits roll on:

So, for the second time, the Pharisees
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,”
The man replied.
“All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see.”

– John IX, 24-26
the New English Bible

The video is given here:

Scorsese, being a cinema enthusiast himself, uses a classic scene from the Brando vehicle On The Waterfront (1954) where Terry (Brando) regrets his spoilt career and what he has become to his brother. Jake La Motta, contrite of all his mistakes that have brought sorrow to himself and many around him, quotes those lines verbatim. The scene does not involve verbalization or melodrama as many directors would be tempted to employ. Rather Scorsese simply asks his character to repeat the already famous lines and leaves the rest to the viewer to interpret. La Motta, as suggested by the biblical passage, has “woke up” and goes towards his new life with the same vigour and passion as entering his boxing matches as The Raging Bull.