What’s Joker’s Joke?

“Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?”

– Rodriguez, “Cause”

It’s not funny, that’s for sure.

When I went to see Joker, the new Todd Philips’ film, there were five other people in the theater in the liberal, up-scale tourist town populated by wealthy second-home owners, exiles for the most part from Gotham City (NYC). When the cave’s wall lit up, there was a string of shadows projected onto it,  advertisements looping repetitively for the town’s “advantages,” specifically “living and working in the same community,” something next to impossible in the town except for the affluent people who didn’t want to see Joker, the story of a guy in New York City whose penurious and fragile existence belies the false innocence of the wealthy elites who deny succor to the suffering poor, as the obscene gap between them grows apace.

It occurred to me that Joker, with his keen eye for the ironic hypocrisies of all that surrounds him, would get a laugh out of these preliminary promotions, for he himself has a bit of a problem and no advantages living and working in NYC.  And he would understand why the rich would shun his story, having no doubt heard that it was violent, since they are squeamish about violence directed toward their kind, but great supporters of violence directed toward the poor around the world by the American military and at home by the police, both of whom work for them.  Such official violence, of course, is something that they never have to see because they live in doll houses constructed out of a vast tapestry of lies and illusions, where the windows don’t open out onto the wider suffering world but reflect inward their self-absorbed lives where people like Joker are invisible.

The repetitive shadows on the wall in the theater were advertising local services.  Real estate, landscaping, high-end jewelry and furniture, life style companies, architects – all the amenities of the rich and famous.  Like those who absented themselves from the theater so as to avoid a painful confrontation with truth, I knew violence was on the horizon and had to laugh at the services being offered before Joker made his first appearance.  It was my last laugh.  I imagined him laughing also.

Then he was there, big as life, Joker, a man emaciated like a Giacometti sculpture portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, who from the moment he appears, brilliantly makes you realize that a poor and suffering thin man exists and attention must be paid. The viewer is mesmerized from the start as Joker, aka Arthur Fleck – fleck: a small particle, a stain – tells us that “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore,” despite the seven medications he takes to ease his pain.  This “stain” on the social illusion of fairness and decency is a guy with no money or jewels to believe in, no real estate, no amenities, a guy who has no grass to be cut or beautiful plants to be tended to in his sad concrete apartment where he barely exists with his ill and deeply depressed mother whom he cares for. “I don’t believe in anything,” he tells us, ironically echoing the unacknowledged nihilism of the upper classes.  But he has good reasons, while theirs are rooted in their worship of power and money that undergirds the capitalist system of exploitation that creates suffering souls like Arthur, whose mental illness reflects a social system that is insane and violent to its core.  It is no joke.

As I watched his story unfold, I recalled the time frame of the movie, the late 1970s or early 1980s, when my wife and I lived in NYC, subletting various apartments.  When we first arrived in our old car, friends put us up at their apartment.  We had little money, and the first night when we stayed with our friends, we parked on the street and left most of our suitcases with all our belongings in the car overnight. In the morning, all the suitcases had been stolen.  Welcome to Gotham City.  While it felt like a liberation to me, as if now I could start a new life, my wife felt otherwise, as might you.  But it was our introduction to NYC.  And while we were young and educated and had the wherewithal to get jobs to pay the rent and live reasonably well, unlike Arthur Fleck, our time there was a wearing one.  The city seemed dirty, unsafe, depressed, depressing, and teetering on the edge of some sort of death.  Hope seemed to have died along with the radical dreams of the 1960s when I lived there.  After moving from one apartment to another all around Manhattan and Brooklyn, we had our sublet on West 103rd street broken into in broad daylight.  We were worn down by it all, and when we took a walk one day along the Hudson River in Riverside Park, we saw ahead of us three very large cats cross the walkway and a woman scream in terror at the sight.  As we got closer, we realized the cats were rats, and we took it as a sign to make our exit, as if Camus’ plague were encroaching. So we did so shortly thereafter, borrowing a tent and heading to the country, never to return.

Poor Joker had no such option.  He was trapped.  Fired from his day job as a clown at children’s parties and store closings, ridiculed and bullied by co-workers, friendless, he continues to dream of being a stand-up celebrity comic as he and his mother laugh at a late-night television talk show they are addicted to.  They revere the host, and Arthur dreams of appearing on his show and making his breakthrough in comedy.  Laugh or cringe as we may, their reverence for the host, played by Robert DeNiro, reflects American’s dirty open secret: the adoration of celebrities and the wealthy.

Life goes from bad to worse for the two of them, becoming a total nightmare, and the viewer is drawn into its dream-like confusion, never being sure what is real and what are Arthur’s hallucinations.  Fact and fiction meld in a transmogrification that is film’s specialty.  Like life today in a screen culture, one’s mind vacillates and one wanders through it – or is it Arthur’s mind – wondering if what is happening in society is actual or virtual.  The viewer feels like he is Arthur/Joker while observing him, a perfect experience of the schizophrenic state of American life today.

The suffering Arthur Fleck is abandoned by a cruel American society whose political order cares not a whit for its regular people, and in a penultimate scene when Arthur is appearing on a late-night television show where the snide and condescending host mocks him and his attempt at comedy, Joker says to the host:

Comedy is subjective, Murray. Isn’t that what they say? All of you, the system that knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong. The same way that you decide what’s funny or not.

In that quote lies our current fate, the relativistic dark night that has descended on our world since Nietzsche issued his warning about the encroaching nihilism. The system that knows and controls so much decides human truth and what is good and evil, always of course, deciding in its own favor, even to suggest that all is woe and all hope is gone while heading to the bank with its ill-begotten lucre.

This is the void that frames the film, the nihilistic void that so many wish to avoid. To question. To ask themselves where their culpability lies and what is it, beyond creature comforts and social acceptance, that they truly believe.  To understand why jokers like Arthur pop up everywhere.

But people like Arthur get pushed and pushed to the brink, and they look over and see nothing, not even their own reflections in the water, and conclude that that their only hope is to strike back at the people who personify the systemic violence that reduces them to non-entities.

After being tormented by three Wall St. types on the subway while in his clown costume, he finally strikes back and kills them after they sing “Send in the Clowns” to harass him. This gains him anonymous notoriety which he starts to relish.  “For my whole life I didn’t know I even really existed,” he says, “but I do.  People are starting to notice.”

Of course they aren’t noticing Arthur, but the masked clown whom they now fear. For Joker is the ultimate ironist, a man without a face, the faceless modern, just as all those who hide behind their wealth and public performances are masked actors in a bad play, one they try to control but which sometimes gets out of hand.

For those who say the film encourages violence, I say no; it holds a mirror up to the violence that undergirds the system of economic and political exploitation that already exists. Of course this too is ironic for a Hollywood movie.  Like the films that it echoes – Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, NetworkJoker, like all good works of art, is open to polysemous interpretations.  It encourages introspection and extrospection.  It asks viewers to question themselves and their part in the social charade that passes for a just and equitable society. It asks viewers to contemplate Dr. Martin Luther King’s statement that is as true now as when he uttered it: “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: My own government.  I cannot be silent.”

The joker’s joke is no joke at all.  It is deadly serious.

When Arthur Fleck says, “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy,” and unleashes his murderous violent rage with a Joker’s smile, he was turning into those he condemned as his oppressors.  Their nihilism became his own; their violence his.

The film asks us to contemplate such a marriage of seeming opposites, its dialectic, and not turn away from the faces in the mirror.

Have you ever noticed that it is the most civilized gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers, to whom the Attilas and the Stenka Razins could not hold a candle, and if they are not so conspicuous as the Attilas and Stenka Razins it is simply because they are so often met with, are so ordinary and have become so familiar to us.

Thus says Dostoevsky’s Underground man.

But where are the rats?
Quick, send in the rats.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

They have taken complete ownership of Gotham City.



14 thoughts on “What’s Joker’s Joke?”

  1. The world is a vampire, sent to drain
    Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames
    And what do I get, for my pain?
    Betrayed desires, and a piece of the game
    Even though I know–I suppose I’ll show
    All my cool and cold-like old job
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Then someone will say what is lost can never be saved
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Now I’m naked, nothing but an animal
    But can you fake it, for just one more show?
    And what do you want? I want to change
    And what have you got?
    When you feel the same
    Even though I know–I suppose I’ll show
    All my cool and cold-like old job
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Then someone will say what is lost can never be saved
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Tell me I’m the only one, tell me there’s no other one
    Jesus was an only son
    Tell me I’m the chosen one
    Jesus was an only son for you
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Then someone will say what is lost can never be saved
    Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage
    Tell me I’m the only one, tell me there’s no other one
    Jesus was an only son
    And I still believe that I cannot be saved
    And I still believe that I cannot be saved
    And I still believe that I cannot be saved
    And I still believe that I cannot be saved

    Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins…

  2. When I wrote “The loathing for billionairs is directly proportional to the desire to become one”, I should have added, “If this were not so, we would smilingly accept them the same as any other collectors”.
    I readily accept, and indeed trust, that we here do NOT loathe them nor want to be one.
    I hoped to suggest what a “billionaire’s” significance or “power” rests on.

  3. I appreciate all of what you wrote, but comment here on two phrases about worship of power and money and adoration of celebrities and the wealthy. I recall my dread at the debut of People Magazine, rolled out by Time Inc. several months before the end of Nixon’s presidency (I just looked it up). That dread was akin to my father’s at the rise of television two decades before. Now television and People rule.

    Donald Trump’s election is an obvious 21st-century upshot of both television and People (of course, pre-People, JFK’s election can be attributed in significant part to his family’s personal wealth and power as well as to TV; and after decades of People, George W. Bush’s political assent owes a lot to TV and People — think of the relatively dour Al Gore).

    What’s next?

  4. and the solution is what ed? socialism? i.e. communism
    how did that work out for the folks under stalin and mao?
    150 million dead.
    life is not fair and we are not equal as humans.
    are you equal to an amoral or an immoral fellow human.
    are you equal to someone lazy, on drugs, obese, depressed etc….
    should you be forced to pay them for their plight from your actual hard work?
    there are indeed superior humans who create wealth and who created western civilization.. trying to pretend otherwise is folly and the death of actual freedom. I appreciate your writing but I reject the perpetuation of victimization. Its a big bad world out there and thats reality.

    1. Tim,
      I know that life’s not fair and you can be sure that I am not promoting some form of totalitarianism or mass killing. And surely not victimization, since I have written extensively about existential freedom and people’s need to free themselves from social controls and take responsibility for their lives. I consider myself a Christian existentialist and personal freedom my highest value. (That would take at least an article to explain.) But I don’t consider those who create wealth superior to others. For if I did, I would have to consider myself an abject failure and a lesser human being. I am not opposed to people earning money and living comfortably as they choose. Good and bad acting people come in all shapes and sizes. I agree that no one should force anyone to pay others for their plight, but in a world of caring humans, wealth should be used to create a loving world, so I think. I am a product of western civilization at its finest, and of course appreciate that; believe in it as very valuable. Yes, it’s a big bad world out there, and I am just trying in a small way to make it a bit better, knowing that it’s a drop in the ocean of cruelty. Thanks a lot for your thoughts.

      1. Got ya. I enjoy reading your writings and wish you wrote more often!
        For me the solution lies in the study of psychology and not in politics.
        It lies in the individual and certainly not the crowd (the greatest form of evil that exists)…
        Consciousness awakening comes from the shadow work of feeling (which as Jung said most people avoid at all costs) and not from the intellect. Until humanity wakes up to that reality I’m afraid there are dark and terrible events ahead from which we may never recover never returning to the imperfect yet amazing decades I was fortunate enough to live in… created by Western civilization of primarily white, males….yep..to say that today is soon to become a crime.
        People today want something for nothing.
        I have met millionaires who are some of the sweetest and generous people imaginable and I’ve seen my share of penniless assholes who will kill you for your sneakers or because their french fries were served cold.
        It all comes down to the individual.
        The rulers of this planet know this and they know what makes us tick… and thats why our only hope is through individual shadow work and the avoidance of the “crowd”
        Much respect.

  5. I am not normally interested in promotional critiques of Hollywood productions, but I suppose all art is only the expression of an interpretation of something. My interpretation of the crux here, is –
    “The loathing for billionaires is directly proportional to the desire to become one.”

    1. That’s a great insight! and, putting it a little more generally: One’s loathing for the system is directly proportional to the frustration one feels over not getting something from it that you wanted and then you focus that loathing on those at the system’s top. This does not mean that the system is not worthy of loathing and in need of some serious adjustment, and that those at the top do not need to take responsibility as the captains of the ship. In fact, as history shows repeatedly, their failure to recognize the problems and frustrations of others below them will be their own and maybe even the entire system’s downfall.

    2. Some loathing of the rich and powerful can surely be described this way, the frustration of those who desperately want to be among the privileged few but can’t. I haven’t seen the movie, so this might be an entirely accurate interpretation of its particular message, but there is a long and deep thread in history that sources such loathing in a polar opposite place: the loathing of riches and power in and of themselves. Were the Hebrew prophets (including Jesus), for example, secretly lusting after material things and the power over others they bring? Was Henry Thoreau or Karl Marx or Edward Bellamy, etc.? Or were they loathing the corruption of mind and soul and society that so often, if not always, accompany single-minded focus on (and relentless pursuit of) wealth and power? This old and ailing recluse doesn’t go to movies anymore, but perhaps my wife and I will eventually watch this one at home to see whether it touches upon that alternative source of antipathy–as Ed, in this typically excellent review, suggests it does.

    3. Tom, I surely don’t want to become a billionaire nor does Arthur Fleck in the film. He just wants to be not as poor as he and his mother are. But even more, he wants to be recognized as a worthwhile person, to have his existence affirmed. What Newton says is true. Pax, Ed

      1. For me, the gist of what Tom says is true, but it’s not the case that all of us want to be billionaires, though a lot more of us do than would probably want to admit it in today’s cultural milieu that’s turning a bit toward Robin Hood. There are many different things (not wanting to be quite so poor and wanting some positive social feedback) that many people want and cannot obtain within the system and this creates a lot of frustration out there…some get more strongly frustrated and act out more strongly than others. Some of that turns into the reaction of Aesop’s fox when he couldn’t reach those grapes…the things we wanted from the system were no good anyway (maybe that’s along newton’s train of thought?), and some of it concludes that the grapes were OK, but it was the status quo elite holding them up so high that they couldn’t be reached. A funny thing too is that if any one of us proles were in the place of those billionaires, we’d most likely want to stay there too and keep others from getting our grapes.

        It sure would great, a beautiful dream that’s been out there for millennia, if we could all have more empathy going both ways, a deep sense of “Common Humanity” and then: Take a look at the entire system itself to get it overhauled so that it doesn’t self-destruct and doesn’t dehumanize like the others that have preceded it in history.

        At this point, we are entering the phase of blaming other humans, hating sinners instead of sins, and that’s never gotten us anywhere before. It also looks like we’re not going to get a system overhaul unless we first get a system collapse, and then will we rebuild something different that actually works, and then not fail to perform proper upgrades and maintenance on that?

        So, here we are caught in the same old cycles of history yet again…must be in our genes, but don’t worry: Genetic engineering’s on its way (DO worry, be very worried about that and AI, surveillance techs, etc…).

        I wish I could be more positive, but I do think that Ted Kaczynski had it pretty much nailed on ultimate root causes, though not on making effective responses:


        In sum, we’ve made a Faustian bargain with technology, starting all the way back, as Jared Diamond reminds, to when we transitioned to food production from hunting & gathering. The system however is too strong and all of us depend too much upon it, so it really can’t be and shouldn’t be destroyed. It may however self-destruct soon enough by social-economic stresses and/or earth-resource-ecosystem collapses, or just by its shear over-complexity (Tainter’s ideas)? Then what?

        For now, it’s Hamlet’s question that echoes again, “To be, or not be?…to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them…” In the end, how did things turn out for poor Hamlet, and yet what if he hadn’t decided to take up arms and fight? So, I’ll say we need to keep on fightin’! (for system overhaul before it’s too late).

        Part of that means: Please, Ed Curtin, keep up the great work of pointing out what the system’s problems (points of needed overhaul) are and trying to make people think and be empathetic!

        Salam, Greg

        1. Greg,
          Thanks for all your true thoughts. I don’t understand why anyone would want to be a billionaire or very rich. We all need a basic amount of money to survive and thrive, and wanting that makes perfect sense to me. But a billion, no. If somehow one came into such wealth, I can only imagine using it for good and getting rid of most of it. Anyway, your analysis is accurate and I have no great solution. Does anyone? My only “solution” is embedded in my writing, trying through the way I write to convey the joy and mystery of our lives through the creating of beauty. Pax, Ed

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