On Wednesday night I attended the New York Film Festival and witnessed a cinematic masterpiece, the film that last month won the top prize as the Best Film of the Venice International Film Festival. It’s called “Joker” — and all we Americans have heard about this movie is that we should fear it and stay away from it. We’ve been told it’s violent and sick and morally corrupt — an incitement and celebration of murder. We’ve been told that police will be at every screening this weekend in case of “trouble.” Our country is in deep despair, our constitution is in shreds, a rogue maniac from Queens has access to the nuclear codes — but for some reason, it’s a movie we should be afraid of.
I would suggest the opposite: The greater danger to society may be if you DON’T go see this movie. Because the story it tells and the issues it raises are so profound, so necessary, that if you look away from the genius of this work of art, you will miss the gift of the mirror it is offering us. Yes, there’s a disturbed clown in that mirror, but he’s not alone — we’re standing right there beside him.
“Joker” is no superhero or supervillain or comic book movie. The film is set somewhere in the ‘70s or ‘80s in Gotham City – and the filmmakers make no attempt to disguise it for anything other than what it is: New York City, the headquarters of all evil: the rich who rule us, the banks and corporations for whom we serve, the media which feeds us a daily diet “news” they think we should absorb. This past week, a week when a sitting President indicted himself because, in true Joker style, he was laughing himself silly at Mueller’s and the Dems’ inability to stop him, so he just quadrupled down and handed them everything they needed. But even then, after ten days of his flaunting his guilt, he was still sitting with his KFC grease-stained nuclear codes in the Oval Office, so he told Captain Sketchy to fire up the helicopter, the sound of its blades revving up, meant only to alert the reporters to scurry outside for the daily “press conference” — Trump walks outside into the deafening cacophony of the whirlybird and publicly and feloniously asks the Peoples Republic of China to interfere in our 2020 election by sending him dirt on the Bidens. He and his magic carpet of hair then walked away and, other than the citizen howls of “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?!”, nothing happened. As “Joker” opens this weekend, Joker, Jr. Is still still sitting at John F. Kennedy’s desk in the Oval Office on the days he shows up to work, dreaming of his next conquest and debauchery.
But this movie is not about Trump. It’s about the America that gave us Trump — the America which feels no need to help the outcast, the destitute. The America where the filthy rich just get richer and filthier.
Except in this story a discomfiting question is posed: What if one day the dispossessed decide to fight back? And I don’t mean with a clipboard registering people to vote. People are worried this movie may be too violent for them. Really? Considering everything we’re living through in real life? You allow your school to conduct “active shooter drills” with your children, permanently, emotionally damaging them as we show these little ones that this is the life we’ve created for them. “Joker” makes it clear we don’t really want to get to the bottom of this, or to try to understand why innocent people turn in to Jokers after they can no longer keep it together. No one wants to ask why two smart boys skipped their 4th-hour AP French Philosophy class at Columbine High to slaughter 12 students and a teacher. Who would dare ask why the son of a vice-president of General Electric would go into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT and blow the tiny bodies apart of 20 first-graders. Or why did 53% of White women vote for the presidential candidate who, on tape, revelled in his talent as a sexual predator?
The fear and outcry over “Joker” is a ruse. It’s a distraction so that we don’t look at the real violence tearing up our fellow human beings — 30 million Americans who don’t have health insurance is an act of violence. Millions of abused women and children living in fear is an act of violence. Cramming 59 students like worthless sardines into classrooms in Detroit is an act of violence.
As the news media stands by for the next mass shooting, you and your neighbors and co-workers have already been shot numerous times, shot straight through all of your hearts and hopes and dreams. Your pension is long gone. You’re in debt for the next 30 years because you committed the crime of wanting an education. You have actually thought about not having children because you don’t have the heart to bring them onto a dying planet where they are given a 20-year death-by-climate-change sentence at birth. The violence in “Joker”? Stop! Most of the violence in the movie is perpetrated on the Joker himself, a person in need of help, someone trying to survive on the margins of a greedy society. His crime is that he can’t get help. His crime is that he is the butt of a joke played on HIM by the rich and famous. When the Joker decides he can no longer take it — yes, you will feel awful. Not because of the (minimal) blood on the screen, but because deep down, you were cheering him on – and if you’re honest when that happens, you will thank this movie for connecting you to a new desire — not to run to the nearest exit to save your own ass but rather to stand and fight and focus your attention on the nonviolent power you hold in your hands every single day.
Thank you Joaquin Phoenix, Todd Phillips, Warner Bros. and all who made this important movie for this important time. I loved this film’s multiple homages to Taxi Driver, Network, The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon. How long has it been since we’ve seen a movie aspire to the level of Stanley Kubrick?
Go see this film. Take your teens. Take your resolve.