I’m Not Locked In Here With You: Todd Phillips’ Joker

So I wrote an article for Joker on Sequart a little while ago now, but while they eventually will post it, I have some other more personal thoughts on some of the themes in the film: mainly why I like it, and why I relate to it.

I tend to call this Joker, or this earlier phase of him, the Arthur Fleck Joker. He isn’t the same as the Mark Hamill, the Heath Ledger, the Jack Nicholson, or the foolish Cesar Romero depictions. He isn’t even the comics Joker, any of them. This is the phase, the dress rehearsal, before the agent of chaos that we are going to get. I’ve always been fascinated, you see, with watching something in the process of being created, or creating itself. I find the best kinds of art, or artists, are those that you can see are constantly working on themselves. Mark Twain has a quote about knowing the details behind the creation of a miracle, and how it can take away from the simple joys of just experiencing it, yet I am someone who likes to — to borrow a phrase from Neil Gaiman — see the work backstage, and how it adds to the performance that we are given.

This Joker is a moment of realization in progress, of living two different lies at least, and then finding out who he actually is. That is what I took away from this film. Let me be clear about a few things though: I do not romanticize the Joker that kills people for amusement, or is an abuser. The one in this film is very different from those other depictions, though there are some similarities with regards to his more destructive actions.

But I really, like I said, love the process. We see Arthur wearing the clown makeup when he is at his gig helping a shop sell its wares, but a man wearing a clown costume does not a Joker make. Even the nervous, involuntary laughter doesn’t make the Joker. Not even the killing of those abusive rich men out of self-preservation, or the one out of a sense of street justice makes for the Clown Prince of Crime. The flirtation with this image, the sensuality of it in the restroom with blood-splattered on his face, his wig and clown nose gone, and his ragged elemental features at that point are a start. But he’s still Arthur. He still wants to be loved. He still wants to be a comedian, and to stop hurting.

Even the white makeup he has on when he kills the person who betrayed him isn’t quite there yet, and this after he discovers what he is — where he came from, how he was betrayed far worse before — and preparing for what he is going to do. He wants revenge, but he also wants the pain to stop: for the joke that is his life to finally end. That is the tipping point.

I would even say by the time he makes it to Murray’s show — to the man he used to look up as a father-figure before he publicly humiliated his non-neurotypical behaviour on television for laughs, and didn’t think anything of it — and when he decides to kill him instead of himself on national television, he’s still not Joker. But what started as practice in that restroom, and then choreograph when he danced down those flights of stairs, and then self-awareness by putting on a clown mask to hide in the discontent of Gotham’s lower class that made his actions against the rich into a memetic force, followed by one great bellow of selfish vengeance on a man and system that failed him … ends when he gets out of that car crash, and he uses the blood coming out of him to make a bloody smile on the costume whose lipstick had already faded. It was cheap and artificial. Now, the blood makes that twisted smile real.

Watchmen is bandied about a lot in terms of comics references. Hell, it even made it into the title of this Blog post. I don’t need it to sell Joker that’s already sold its own soul to the Devil of our collective imagination. But there is this idea in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work with the vigilante Rorschach. He starts out with a troubled past of childhood abuse as well, but that doesn’t make him Rorschach. It doesn’t make him Rorschach when Kitty Genovese is brutally raped and murdered publicly and her neighbours do nothing, and he vows to become a masked hero to stop other such incidents. He’s still just Walter Kovacs, an abused child taken to foster care, wearing the mask of Rorschach. Rorschach is still his alter-ego.

It isn’t until he hunts for a kidnapped baby, and finds out that the kidnapper fed the child to his dogs, and he burns the man alive that he isn’t Walter Kovacs anymore. He realizes he is Rorschach. And when he is hiding in plain sight as that Prophet of Doom in the background, Rorschach wears Walter Kovacs as his mask, just as the Joker wears Arthur Fleck’s face as a mask at the end of Todd Phillips’ film.

We can go into how in Star Wars Darth Sidious was the real self of the man who wore the mask of the politician Palpatine, or how Batman’s secret identity is Bruce Wayne — though that last is highly debatable, though appropriate given that this article deals a great deal with his arch-nemesis. What I’m trying to illustrate is that none of these alter-egos becoming true identities happened overnight, or had always been their true selves. Parts of these personalities, these culmination of experiences, were there but there were other circumstances, and reactions to those events that precipitated the processes that made these happen.

That is how I understand a lot of what I’ve been going through this particular year. I don’t romanticize these characters. I think there are aspects of them, as archetypes, that are really fascinating and relatable, but they are not heroes. The Joker is not a good person, even if there are parts of him — of this one, and even his “burn everything bad to the ground” or “watch this flawed, disgusting world burn” attitude that my Id can sympathize with.

I guess the best way to describe it is that 2019 has been a different year for me. I’ve new people. I’ve had some new experiences, or explored them in a whole other way. I’ve been angry, and scared, and frustrated. I’ve delved into that fear. I’ve confronted it. I’ve pushed my comfort zone. I’ve worn my makeup and my masks. But I’ve realized that identities, especially those that we associate with things and events, are fluid. They change. And trauma in particular is a massive force behind some of those changes. There are ways to explore that power — trauma — in controlled environments with calculation and experimentation. Writing is one of those outlets, and the confines of the imagination. But sometimes it’s also trading stories and interactions with like-minded people. Sometimes it’s putting old selves behind you. Sometimes it’s realizing you are angry, and accepting it, and knowing that you are changing.

I think the most painful thing is trying to hold onto the person that you were, with all those experiences — good or bad — to stay in the past, because you will never be that person again. You will keep changing. That’s part of your nature. Some core tenets will remain the same, of course. But you will not have the same experiences again. We hold on out of fear, or resentment, or a genuine sense of overwhelming purposelessness. Where do we go from here? What do we do? And why is it I have this inclination to know where I can go, or what I can do, but not quite get there before … something? Right?

This year, I felt myself let go of a lot of attachments and realize some things are gone. And that they, most likely, needed to be gone. I still have to deal with more of these due to logistics, but I now understand that I don’t feel the same about them as I did. I don’t feel the way I used to, because very naturally I’m no longer that person. And that’s not a bad thing. I can still feel sad about it, even angry, but it doesn’t change anything beyond whatever it is I do next.

I’ve been busy, confronting those parts, dealing with the anxiety. I have fascinating friends and explorations. And I’m lucky. I felt my old self beginning to wane, to fade, but to also be subsumed by my new choices, and activities. It’s sad and you mourn it, but there is no other way to go on: even if you do need to remember to pace yourself. Imagine being Arthur Fleck, though, and realizing that your old self never really existed to begin with. Maybe it’s not that different, as nothing is permanent. It’s not a science, but I will argue with you that it can be art.

And that’s what I’m making. Even if I don’t write as much as I used to, or stay indoors as much in front of my computer, I am still expressing myself, and thus making art. I might have been wearing masks, but they are closer to being who I am now than where I was. And even despite that, masks aren’t false things. They are organic and we are all different people in different situations.

The New Year is coming up. I actually had myself made up as the Joker a while ago, and this great, rumbling laugh came from my chest. I’ve dressed as the Crow, but as people like to quote from that movie and perhaps even the comic from which it came “it can’t rain all the time.” The Crow isn’t supposed to smile, apparently. But I laugh. I love to laugh. But I also like to be between states, and know how the meat is made, or destroyed. I like to hide in plain sight, and plan things out. But sometimes, when I can get past the fear I just go with it accordingly.

I’ve actually liked 2019. It’s so far been a good, but challenging year. I will keep shedding more of the old as I go on, and it won’t be easy. But we all know that “laughter” has an extra letter in front of it sometimes. And it isn’t so much that I’m trapped here with my challenges.

It’s that they are trapped here with me. And, when I can, I intend to have my fun.

About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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