As these words are written the streets of Santiago, Chile and Beirut, Lebanon are ablaze with the fury of thousands of voices raging against an irrational economic system. It is a world of tremors at the moment, with riots serving as a conduit for the general mood of vast communities. Significant is the fact that we are also living through a moment devoid of political vision or revolutionary alternatives. The old icons have receded in the public consciousness. Who are the thinkers of our time brushing away the old world? The cost of living hurtles upwards and an economically stable life becomes elusive for the young. Who speaks for them? Within the current void the masses instead lose themselves in the comfort of fantasy and caricatures that symbolize their despair.
Emerging through the smoke of the riots in Beirut and Chile are faces painted like the Joker. Not just the general villain out of the Batman comics, but the current incarnation of urban madness portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s nihilistic Joker. Now in the age of Trump, where even more despair is sensed among the restless societies of the world, it is fitting that characters which embody an utter sense of hopelessness take center stage. Joker, the latest from Phillips who is best known for the raunch fest The Hangover, is a film memorable as a work of nihilistic aesthetic. Visually it captures the mood of millennials and others caught in an uncomfortable generational shift where good jobs are scarce, questions of identity dominate contemporary discourse and mental health stands center stage as a near-public health crisis (as anyone living in Los Angeles can attest).
The film’s protagonist, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), is a lonely soul working as a clown for an agency in 1980s Gotham City, which feels more like New York. One day he’s jumped without reason by some local kids who steal his sign and beat him down. He takes a co-worker’s advice and gets a gun. His evenings are spent in a rundown apartment with his ailing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who babbles endlessly about seeking financial help from local billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who she claims to have known years before. Arthur would like to get closer to his neighbor, the nice Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but he’s a loner dreaming of becoming a standup comic even though he’s never hit the stage. It doesn’t help that he has an unidentified mental condition which provokes sudden, spontaneous laughter. Then events begin to spiral out of Arthur’s control. One night on the subway he shoots a group of Wall Street jerks who were harassing a female passenger before turning on Arthur. When he finally gives standup a try at a local club he bombs, only to have a tape of his performance be used for laughs on a show hosted by the Johnny Carson-like Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s fragile psyche can only take so much, and it’s not long before he snaps.
Arthur is a man without ideology, in fact he has no visible connection to any kind of socio-political consciousness, he is simply another denizen of a decaying American urban world. The only suggestion of the dominant ideology of the time is when Arthur is informed his benefits have been cut, which means therapy sessions and medication will no longer be available. It is a veiled reference to the neoliberal economic reforms of the Ronald Reagan era. It should be noted that within this same time period Chile was still undergoing the economic reforms imposed by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship following the bloody overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973. Lebanon was itself embroiled in the duel inferno of an Israeli invasion and civil war. Both societies emerged from the decade with specific class and social systems. For example, in Chile a highly privatized economy led to both a rise in capitalist gains and massive inequality, in Lebanon inequality combined with a sectarian political system divided between Shia, Sunni and Christian factions. It is fitting both these countries have grabbed headlines as centers of popular discontent. They bridge the east and west as examples of societal fractures now coming to a head.
In a wider context, Millennials born in the 80s, 90s and very early 2000s have now come of age in a post-Cold War reality devoid of romantic slogans or icons where the reigning system has been the ongoing neoliberal one which dismisses previous social contracts. For the masses popular culture and social media have replaced ideology, identity politics class warfare, which had defined the pre-neoliberal era. Even the Joker himself as a fictional character has made a transition in the way he is represented over the last decade. In the 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight, by Christopher Nolan, the posthumous-Oscar-winning turn by Hedge Ledger gave us a feral, anarchic Joker determined to demolish Gotham City’s sense of order to make an example of and mock authority. “Everything burns,” uttered the loon while setting alight a mountain of mob cash. Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the character touches a new nerve in the zeitgeist, namely the feel of a generation staring into a void. When he finally makes his way onto Murray Franklin’s show, dressed in the now famous crimson suit and yellow vest, Arthur snaps and announces that he doesn’t believe in anything. Meanwhile his murder of the Wall Street suits on the train inspires crowds of the socially enraged to don clown masks and riot, not with revolutionary aims, but with the ferocity of wanting destruction for its own sake.
The phenomenon of protesters in the real world painting their faces to evoke Phoenix’s performance is testament to the power of cinematic images as aesthetic, putting aside any explicit political aims of which Joker has none. The masses are drinking in images and the images crystalize their feelings. In Joker, what stands out over the rather shallow script are the shots of Arthur laughing uncontrollably and alone on a bus, contorting himself in his apartment then later famously dancing down city steps to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part II,” blowing cigarette smoke like a man who has lost all care for being a social animal. Arthur’s acts of violence throughout the film, from shooting the Wall Street suits to a later attack in his apartment, to a final, public murder near the movie’s end are unplanned and grotesquely spontaneous. There are no slick bank robberies as in The Dark Knight or designed acts of terrorism. Arthur is a lonely soul in meltdown, an outcast of the capitalist system.
The origins of the Joker as a character already have roots in a vision of social despair and class injustice. Created in 1940 for the Batman comic strip by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, the visual concept of the persona was very much inspired by the fictional Gwynplaine of Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs, in particular by Conrad Veidt’s performance of the character in Paul Leni’s 1928 film adaptation. Set in the 1680s, the story deals with Gwynplaine. The son of a political enemy of King James II who is sentenced to death, Gwynplaine is sentenced to be permanently disfigured in the form of a carved out smile, this in order to mock forever the fate of his father. Eventually the poor soul becomes a circus attraction before attempting to re-enter the halls of high society. From its beginnings, the idea of a morbid smile as a counter to oppressive forces out of one’s control have defined the idea of the Joker. Phillips’s film comes closest in re-casting the aesthetic of the Joker as a man trapped by cruel fate. This is how one could possibly describe the downtrodden of the world at the moment.
Joker’s Arthur is the non-hero icon waves of protesters identify with because they too have lost hope in the old slogans about either revolutionary movements or guaranteed middle class success if the proper life course is charted. Consider that in Chile liberal Michelle Bachelet and right-winger Sebastian Pinera have both served two terms each, one after the other, without carrying out any profound, significant social change. In Lebanon years of a pre-determined power sharing system among factions have left the working class of all sects abandoned. In Hong Kong, Iraq and the U.S., the distressed have no clear vision of what to replace ossified systems with, they just want them wiped away, and in those countries too it is now common to see graffiti and face paint modeled after Phoenix’s nihilistic persona. Some have already taken to re-interpreting the aesthetic of the character in violently subversive terms. In Lebanon the artists group Ashekm have produced a graffiti mural of Phoenix as Joker holding a Molotov cocktail. In earlier decades images of figures such as Che Guevara would be more prominent in zones of social discontent, and while Che is indeed still spotted here and there on placards and banners, he is quickly being pushed aside by figures out of pop phantasmagorias.
Since 2005, when V for Vendetta made the Guy Fawkes mask a staple of protests everywhere, there has been a trend in using movie imagery to express discontent. Maybe it has something to do with the political neutrality of such images. While V for Vendetta, both the movie and more so the original Alan Moore comic, is a clarion call for a vague form of anarchism, it is not an explicitly partisan work. It does not openly call for socialism or workers’ control of industries, but simply for the utter destruction of the fascist state. In his black cape, hat and mustached mask V, the film’s hero, feigns conducting the explosion of the British Parliament. To be replaced with what? That’s up to the viewer. It was a powerful enough aesthetic that the Fawkes mask instantly became present wherever crowds gathered to rail against the system. Whether in anti-austerity protests in Greece, Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, the Fawkes mask could be shared by dissidents of all persuasions. Most famously, the hacker collective Anonymous would issue comminques using the mask in transmissions aping a famous scene in the movie where V hijacks a TV signal to directly address the British people.
Joker isn’t even a particularly joyful film. It has the tone of a cinematic requiem. Its most effective moments are not violent but sad, as when Arthur fantasizes of rushing into an apartment to kiss Sophie with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s screeching, metallic music score creating the sensation of a mournful hallucination. There’s no hope in this film but instead a profound loneliness, which is precisely why superficially it strikes a chord even when the movie itself has no clear voice, or anything serious to say about mental illness. Phillips, a veteran of raunchy comedies that move at quick paces, makes the material commercially accessible by combining slick cinematography with energetic editing. Joker has a cosmetic, dark energy that makes viewers feel it is taking off their shoulders the mood of the times, almost like some German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, except tailored in this era of comic book movies. Worldwide audiences accustomed now to superhero films respond viscerally to a comic book character turned into a nihilist toting a gun and cackling at an unfair system of which there is no escape. Even moral questions are brushed aside. It is the power of the image that matters.
Maybe an audience tired of doublespeak from the elite want such clear characterizations onscreen, which is not a hard conclusion to draw when considering that Joker is now the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time. This is not to even begin to compare Phillips with Bunuel, but to emphasize how Joker seems to have accidentally stepped into being an example of cinema’s lasting potential to connect with audiences in a way that seems to mirror for them their reality. The Bronx stairs which Phoenix dances on have now become a major tourist attraction, with the film barely in theaters for less than a month. In China it is reported the film will most likely not be released, lest the ruling system allow its movie-going populace feel its sense of despair.
Protesters globally taking on the look of Arthur signals how even media outlets have been slow to feel the pulse of the general masses. Before it premiered Joker’s theme of an alienated white man sparked fears that a different sort of misinterpretation would take place. Fears of angry “incels” and other subgroups utilizing the film to channel their own disturbed psyches ran wild. The last two decades have seen the U.S. dominated by the fear of hopeless individuals unleashing terrible violence via mass shootings wherever crowds gather. Thus the Joker also takes on the embodiment of uncontrollable madness as defined by these incidents. While there are darker shadows within the film’s frames that link with the more pathological members of an audience, Joker has tapped into larger frustrations. Viewers identify with its downtrodden clown, because they feel the ruling system has played a joke on them. They paint their faces as a message, because to them the real madmen are already sitting in the highest offices of the land.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.