JOKER and the Ridiculous Debate Around Cinema and Violence
Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead.
Even since before the release of the film, Joker (dir. Todd Phillips) has been mired in controversy for being championed by the incel community and potentially promoting violent acts in real life. This accusation is patently ridiculous, and any acts of violence seemingly promoted by the film are more emblematic of the psychologically turbulent nature of American society, a failed educational and healthcare system, easy access to firearms, and a fear mongering media landscape (all of which the film showcases) rather than the filmmaker’s morality.
The question of violence in cinema and its effect on the audience has been around essentially since cinema has been invented. Even millennia before, Aristotle and Plato had debated the role of theatrics and whether art should be moral. Plato believed theatrics to be an imitation of life which brings one further from the truth and could be dangerous as it presents a false reality. Aristotle believed that theatrics has great power for physical and psychological catharsis, as tragedy can take the viewer through the depths of darkness and back whilst being comfortably seated in the theatre. A pantheon of writers have debated the question since, but these two takes are essentially the major sides of the debate that still persist today.
Firstly, I want to point out that my opinion of the film has no bearing on the question of its morality, violence and the effects thereof. I had a great time watching the movie. It brought out a visceral reaction in me, but I also recognize that it is rather shallow and lacks in narrative finesse. I also want to point out that while I am making a case for Joker, I am not making one for Todd Phillips in particular, but any filmmaker who wishes to express themselves through the art form.
I am convinced that there are two reasons this film’s violence is getting flak. First, because it has been released under a Warner Bros.’ banner with a character as recognizable as The Joker. Had this movie been an independent movie marketed as a character study of a sociopath, none of this attention would exist. This was the case for Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy), a movie just as, if not more violent (as the violence is presented in an ultra-realistic fashion) and with just as nihilistic an ending as Joker.
If this movie was a novel or a comic, no one would bat an eye (see The Killing Joke). The only reason critics are concerned with the movie’s content is because it’s reaching a far wider audience than most socio/psychopath character study films do. This approach is rather condescending and parental. It negates the audience’s ability to understand and judge a movie themselves. It’s the same sort of parental approach that makes the Indian government put a “Smoking kills 70 lakh people every year” banner on the screen every time Arthur smokes a cigarette. As if we already didn’t know, mate. Critics’ apprehensions are simply an indication of their snobbish attitude towards cinema and audiences, nothing more.
The second reason the violence is getting so much attention is the lack of a redemptive ending for Arthur. Some believe that the film is a remix of Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorcese) but without the altruistic ending, and that this is promoting a dangerous plan of action to those in similar situations to Travis Bickle and Arthur Fleck. However, every critic that I’ve read has failed to recognize a fundamental difference between Travis and Arthur’s characters. Travis is a product of post-war trauma, social isolation, and sexual frustration. Arthur is a product of childhood abuse and trauma (and actual physical brain damage), something any psychologist will tell you is a lifelong debilitation and much more difficult, even impossible to overcome. It’s something that affects a person’s whole character, their way of life, their essence. There is no detaching Arthur Fleck from his trauma; there is no Arthur Fleck without his trauma.
Arthur is and always has been doomed. “I have not been happy for a minute in my life.” “All I have are negative thoughts.” It couldn’t be any clearer than day. Travis, on the other hand, can be redeemed. One can imagine him happy at some point before the film begins, just as we see him in some moments at the end of the movie. By stating that Arthur’s condition is purely a product of society, critics risk minimizing the horrific conditions that childhood trauma can cause. In essence, they are doing precisely what the film says the world does, particularly indicated by the psychologist’s character. They lack the same empathy and understanding that Arthur is sick at the world for lacking. “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
The lack of a redemptive ending makes some people think that the director has no morality, or is actively amoral. These are the same kinds of people that would’ve walked out of A Clockwork Orange (dir. Stanley Kubrick) and condemned it when it first came out but now hail it as a masterpiece. Of course, the artistic authority and philosophical depth of A Clockwork Orange is exponentially greater than that of Joker, but both are making a similar nihilistic philosophical point about psychologically disturbed individuals through their endings. Let’s not forget that A Clockwork Orange had “inspired” several acts of violence itself and had been withdrawn from release in the UK upon Kubrick’s request and was banned in Ireland for 26 years.
When American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron) came out, did more Wall Street bankers become serial killers? When We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay) came out, did more teenagers take a bow and arrow to their school gym and practice on their fellow classmates? When Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher) came out, were more women compelled to extract revenge on their husbands? And even if all these things were to have happened, can we attribute the responsibility to the film and the filmmaker? Journalists who thinks so haven’t learnt the simple rule of correlation =/= causation, and this mistake is graver than that which any artist could commit through their work.
On the flip side, Mark David Chapman was inspired by The Catcher in the Rye to kill John Lennon. Charles Manson’s ideology was inspired by The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Let’s put J.D. Salinger and the bloody Beatles on trial, shall we? Joker’s director, Todd Phillips referred to the John Wick franchise as being extremely violent yet not inspiring a ring of assassins galloping down Madison Avenue on horses or shooting up nightclubs. This is quite a bad comparison, and I agree with Alissa Wilkinson when she says that context is as important as content and so is the way a story is told. But sometimes even form fails to inform audiences, and people read into a movie whatever they wish. Even a highly stylized and removed from reality (quite literally) series such as The Matrix trilogy has “inspired” real life murders. Psychopaths could also take a lot of inspiration from the sadistic torture tactics of the medieval era. We should probably burn those illustrations.
“To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures,” - Stanley Kubrick.
Imagine if Todd Phillips had introduced a hopeful and moralistic ending for the movie. Do we really want the guy who made Old School and The Hangover trilogy to show us the righteous path? Would that not be self-aggrandizing on the filmmaker’s part, a Green Book (dir. Peter Farrelly) sort of cop out? What the director is trying to do with this movie is hold a mirror up to society. You can’t be mad at the person holding the mirror for not liking what you see. Yes, maybe you think that he wasn’t holding it exactly straight, and didn’t clean the mirror properly, and even that the mirror is cracked, but the reflection remains the same. The final scene suggests a certain ambiguity about the morality and reality of the events in the film. What a viewer takes from it is more a reflection on them than the filmmaker.
Like a decent nurse, Todd Phillips has read the diagnosis report of the tumors that plague America today, but he is certainly not a licensed surgeon that can extract the tumors, nor is he a doctor that can prescribe the right medication. The issues illustrated in the film are so grand that one individual cannot pretend to have all the solutions. They cut deep into the core of American society, and to the dark side of human nature and psychology. One does not have simple answers to these problems, because there are no simple answers to these problems. “Goodnight and always remember, that’s life!” Ultimately, what the film calls for is a bit of civility and empathy in the world—something I think we can all get behind.
The real culprit for the fetishization of incel-type mass shooters is the grueling media cycle that follows a mass shooting. Pictures of the shooter, pages from his manifesto, details of his background, everything is explored by the media. It’s that sort of attention that bolsters a community such as the incels—rather than being called what they are, i.e. domestic terrorists, they’re made into heroes . Unlike most viewers who watch such stories with horror and disgust, incels are probably watching proudly and in celebration. It’s the same sort of reaction Hindu nationalists had while watching the demolition of the Babri Masjid on the news, or ISIS fighters in Iraq would have watching news of an ISIS inspired terrorist attack. Fanaticism is fanaticism is fanaticism.
Each time a controversial film such as Joker comes out, the media goes crazy over potential acts of violence in its name (See The Purge’s controversy. Many in the mainstream liberal media even supported the violence in the movie because the film’s morality supported their agenda). The way they do it is almost inviting to a community such as incels. And why wouldn’t the media act this way? It’s profitable for them regardless. If a violent act is perpetrated, they say with noses in the air, “We told you so!” And if one isn’t committed, they can say, “See! Our reporting helped make the police and people be on guard and scare away potential threats.” It’s irresponsible journalism like this that can be more directly linked to violent acts. This is real fucking life. Not a movie. There is, in fact, no empirical evidence to support the claim that violent movies cause violent acts. Rather, access to firearms is directly linked to gun related deaths, but most of the media will not report stories in such a manner because of vested financial interests. It’s time the media took some damn responsibility for their own words.
Joker points in this direction too, albeit quite superficially. The panoply of television sets showcasing reporting on Arthur’s murder of Murray Franklin is a direct reference to today’s media cycle. “I hope my death make more cents than my life.” But one major criticism of Joker is also linked to this phenomenon. The movie fails to recognize that the studio behind it is part of the large machinery that perpetuates this media cycle. Warner Bros. is a Warner Media company, which is in turn owned by AT&T. AT&T also owns CNN, a major contributor to this toxic news cycle. It was the first US news network to provide 24 hour news coverage, one of the main reasons for today’s churnalistic, hypersensitive news culture.
The network in the movie that hosts Murray’s talk show is NCB, a blatant parody of NBC, part of NBCUniversal, which is a subsidiary of Comcast—a direct competitor of AT&T in many markets. It’s possible Todd Phillips parodied NBC to refer to a real life talk show host at the time, but I cannot find this connection. Including a parody of CNN would’ve introduced some much needed self-awareness, recognition of context, and subtlety in the movie. Instead, Phillips went for the joke, I think. I didn’t get it.
Now let’s look at this issue from a broader perspective. Imagine a world in which every film is moralistic and hopeful. The French, Danes, and Germans would go mad! A world without nihilistic and morally ambiguous cinema? “Mon Dieu!” Some of the best cinema in the world would have to be forgotten. Somehow, questioning humanity and exploring the messed up nature of human psychology in literature is equated to intellect and art. In films, it’s amoral and potentially dangerous. Why is the author’s intention considered different than the auteur’s?
There is a dichotomy in how we approach literature versus cinema. We are primed to think that when we are reading, we are engaging in an intellectual act, one that requires constant use of our mind. In comparison, we often turn on a movie when we want to shut our minds off. The day you watch a movie in school is considered a fun one, while the day you read a book is boring. There have been an infinite number of examples to prove cinema to be capable of being the highest of art. Contrastingly, some of the best selling books of the past decade have been, for lack of a better word, absolute trash and have promoted distorted perceptions of reality in their own right (see 50 Shades of Grey). Form doesn’t dictate depth, the writer does.
What is necessary is the promotion of active viewing from a very young age. In school itself, movies should be considered art and taught to be watched critically and analytically. And for those who wish to watch mind numbing entertainment, there’s always the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But be careful, no movie is ever just entertainment. Every filmmaker has something to say, otherwise they wouldn’t want to be filmmakers. Under the guise of entertainment, ideology hides in a cloak (just rewatch some of your favorite childhood cartoons and you’ll understand). It creeps closer and closer until it envelops you without you even realizing. It cannot alter one’s nature, but it can inform how one thinks about the world.
The truth is, there lives a child within us all. It’s the same child that runs out of the movie theater with his fist thrusting after watching a superhero film, or mock kicking the air after watching a martial arts film. Often we watch cinema not knowing what this child may take from it and what it may leave. This is not bad. It is a consequence of being human. The child is just a more innocent and naive version of ourselves. But what is necessary is a recognition of this child by the adult. To have the child be influenced by cinema is a beautiful thing, but the adult’s responsibility is to try and understand films on a deeper level, and instruct the child on what to take and what to leave from them. Many of us already do this, otherwise, we would all be kids—kicking and punching the air, fighting make-believe enemies.