The Remarkable Absence of Emptiness in Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

© 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

People far smarter than me have had much to write on the problematic aspects of Joker, the surprising winner of this year’s Golden Lion for Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival. For once, however, I’ve get the chance to walk by the line of fire of Online Discourse while the last rhetorical bullets are still flying. There isn’t much I can add on those aspects related to a very specific subset of American issues, such as white-washing of hate crime, the austerity policy of 1980s NYC or the fragile ménage à trois between politics, citizens and billionaires (well, in that regard, Italy has notoriously been a forerunner). There are, however, narrative devices that thankfully transcend historical and socio-economic frameworks.

There is, for one, the puzzling relationship Arthur Fleck, the failed comedian who’ll turn into the mad clown, has with media. He regards television as a tool, with which he can attract the same kind of love he reserves for his comedy idols. Social media has brought parasocial relationships (the perception of media personalities as true friends), as well as the connection of self-worth with media success, at the center of contemporary sociology and artistic reflection.

But Joker is set in all but the right setting to explore such quintessentially digital topics. Unlike the Netflix miniseries Maniac, set in a confusingly modern version of the 1980s, there’s little to suggest the media landscape of Joker to be anything but the apex of exclusive, unreachable prestige that was classic TV. If Joker is meant to represent the corrupting power of self-immolation, of a nihilistic obsession for spectacle, of forging a toxic personal myth in a world where nothing matters, then there’s a remarkable absence of emptiness.

The soul-crushing void in which obsession can fester into radicalization is substituted by solid allegories of a vague but well-defined pyramid of power and prestige: money, media control, street violence, and corruption. In this context, the pornographic violence practiced by the mad clown doesn’t look too remarkable when considering the anarchic state of the information space. This grand symbol of anarchy (complementary to Batman’s obsession for law and order) needs to face his biggest challenge yet: a media diet capable of giving us both ISIS videos and Tik Tok shorts, often using the same basic memes.

In her illuminating essays on the media surrounding the Syrian Civil War, Donatella Della Porta argues that it’s the struggle to break through the daily noise that stimulates the worse forms of self-immolation and useless bloodshed. The constant self-depiction and desire for attention is not narcissism, but rather an attempt to discern what to bring to the altar of the Great Algorithms regulating our image bulimia.

Warner Brothers.

All of this can’t be captured by Joker. The setting, and implications of a heavily-top-down distribution of media-contents, hardly correspond to this idea. This plays into a larger struggle the film has in transforming Arthur Fleck’s delusion into careless games of the Joker. Arthur is systematically deceived, betrayed, and humiliated by reality; but how does this then slate onto a rather systemic failure of Gotham City’s ruling class. Mismanagement and budget cuts precipitate a fragile equilibrium into chaos, nevertheless leaving us guessing how the malaise was born into the first place. We’re invited to project our own assumptions over the bare-bone worldbuilding script, which cordially mimics real-life events (Wayne’s disparaging condemnation of Gotham as a city of clowns and Hilary Clintons’ basket of deplorables).

By outlining the (average) viewer’s environment, Joker quite obviously tries to put her into the villain’s shoes. The terrible events it throws against the protagonist surely evoke empathy, and there’s indeed something moving about Arthur’s note that “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t”. But all this pathos only results in the quite literal, righteous egotrip that leads Fleck the loser to becoming Joker the anarchic demagogue.

But Pathos, I suspect, is the opposite of empathy.  The first means to transfer one’s mind into a given situation it means to explore how the same harrowing despair would affect me, erode my sense of self, and crush my hopes. Pathos, on the other hand, is to understand the feelings of others, to suspend one’s own mind to fully see the world through someone else’s eyes. One is to gather all that’s necessary to proclaim judgment, the other to forgo it and fully understand the logic behind the truth proclaimed by another mind.

To borrow from Erich Fromm, Joker doesn’t want you to care for his protagonist because he’s a monster; it wants you to expand your ego and see yourself in him, to care despite him being a monster because you care about yourself. This may work in a setting where all the eyes are on the comedian, where a screen divides the world between performer and public. But this also misses the spirit of the uprisings, of the abandonment to violence and relief Joker reproduces without understanding.

Our digital age is one trading in empathy, where everybody is looking to be filled to the top with someone else’s ego, but where few are also able or willing to actually do it. Revolutions are lead by those who seem to give away their own identity, becoming eternal witnesses to others’ existence and one with the white noise of information flows, just as Arthur becomes one with his makeup. After all, we’re talking about clowns, people whose job it is to take pies to the face for the audience’s amusement.  But then again, it is clear that this joker is in it for himself, not the public.

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