My first reaction to Joker was to its qualities as a story — specifically as a Greek tragedy. This, I think, is the primary and best face of the film.
However, there are undeniable social, cultural, political, and psychological dimensions to the story and these dimensions are pretty deep. They follow you out of the theater like sharp burrs in your socks. They don’t go away, and it’s hard not to itch.
Dwelling too much on dark subject matter always leaves a mark on the mood. Insanity, child-abuse, and existential despair are all very dark subjects. It can put a dark shade on your own outlook.
But in the aftermath of this dark film, I found myself with a song stuck in my head. The song I had stuck was not from the film, though the score was excellent and the Joker character himself had a certain musicality. The song in my head was from another movie, released almost 20 years ago, called Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. The song was a piano instrumental called “the Name of Life.” It is a beautiful piece — perhaps my favorite on the piano — and is a song that evokes love, sadness, tenderness, and nostalgia. In hindsight, I guess it was kind of the emotional antithesis of Joker.
I think this reaction is related to the plots and themes of these two very different but related stories.
Both Joker and Spirited Away are stories about insanity coming after a cultural takeover. Both films depict insanity as both invisibility and violent and terrifying excess.
But they depict different reactions to the cultural takeover which is believed to be responsible for the insanity. Spirited Away, I think, gives something of a clue to the cure for the darkness of Joker.
Spirited Away begins with the protagonist — a young girl named Chihiro — in transit with her family to their new house. They are moving and Chihiro is not happy about it. She is in-between homes, a liminal state that is a prelude to a more metaphorical liminal state that she and her parents find themselves in after stopping to explore an apparently abandoned carnival. In reality, the carnival is a bridge between the real world and the spirit world.
The Japanese title Spirited Away is actually 千と千尋の神隠し — Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, or “Sen and Chihiro’s Kamikakushi.” Kamikakushi is itself a combination of kami, or “spirits,” and kakushi, which means “mysterious disappearance.” Kamikakushi is an interesting and very old word, often literally translated as “being hidden by a deity,” but hidden from what? Taken away from what? Chihiro has already been taken away from her old home. The disappearance into the spirit world is disappearance from the world Chihiro knew, and taken into an experience of foreignness, emotion, and mysterious powers. It is a loss of “presence” in this world. The person who is physically there, but mentally and emotionally far away, has been spirited away.
Returning to the plot: Chihiro’s parents sit down to eat food that has been left out. When Chihiro returns from exploring after seeing spirits, she finds her parents have transformed into pigs, and are still eating. Her parents have lost their identity as humans, thanks to their gluttony.
This theme of losing one’s identity in pursuit of materialism is repeated twice more.
First, Chihiro becomes trapped and begins to fade in the spirit world, but is saved by a river spirit named Haku. He tells her that she will be fine, but that she must find work. She must talk to Yubaba, the witch who runs the bath-house (of which the carnival was a kind of extension) and demand a job.
After Chihiro does this, Yubaba eventually relents and gives Chihiro work, but makes her sign a contract, changing her name from “Chihiro” to “Sen.” She almost forgets her real name with terrifying speed, and has to be reminded by Haku that her name is Chihiro, and told that she must never forget it, or else she will forever be controlled by Yubaba.
Later, a strange spirit referred to as “no-face” appears at the bath-house. A black shade with a simple mask for a face, this creature has the ability to create gold, and after some time, develops the desire to eat everything, even the other spirits working at the bath-house. It becomes a kind of monster. Without an identity — a “face” — all the spirit has is consumption.
And by contract, it seems that everyone at the bath-house has been denied their old identity. No-face’s monstrous form is a product of its new environment, literally taking on the greed and even the frog-like legs of the spirit workers it has devoured.
Sen feeds the monstrous no-face a vomit-inducing pill, and the creature wretches out everything it has been eating, seeming to chase after her.
But when the two of them leave the bathhouse, no-face is no longer a monster. It is back to its former, somewhat formless and mild affect. As Sen and no-face leave the bathhouse together, Sen tells the spirit “this place makes people crazy!” She knew no-face wasn’t really a monster. It was just getting ahead of the curve.
Let me jump back to “Joker.”
In the story of Gotham’s Joker, the culture-clash has already occurred, somewhere in the past. I am interpolating slightly, but I think it’s simple, explanatory, true, and relevant. The takeover has been so complete that there is almost no hint at what the old world might have been. Arthur Fleck lives in a post-clash world, and the only reason we know this is that it doesn’t work. That which cannot continue won’t, and the world of Gotham is full of lies and contradictions and craziness and stupidity and corruption and filth and bullshit and everyone knows it. But they pretend not to. Such a world could not have existed for very long.
Arthur Fleck works as a clown. A mid-30s to early-40s man, he lives with his sick mother, taking care of her as he tries to break into stand-up comedy. He appears to have no friends, and he isn’t very funny. He suffers from pseudobulbar affect — sudden onsets of uncontrollable laughter — among a number of other undescribed disorders. One of them is undoubtedly severe depression.
At the beginning of the film, Arthur gets beaten up by some kids, which kicks off a tragicomic chain of events. A coworker gives him a gun to protect himself. The gun falls out of his pants while he performs in a children’s hospital. He is immediately fired. On the subway home from getting fired, three yuppies mock and begin to abuse him. He shoots them, and, after a moment of panic, he begins to dance.
The Joker has emerged.
What is the Joker, exactly?
We can’t answer that without looking at the world which created Joker.
In the world of Arthur Fleck, there is no real place for anyone. It is not a home. It is full of trash and rats and crime and greed and carelessness. Arthur is invisible, unsure if he even exists or not. We learn from the protests he accidentally inspires that he isn’t alone in this feeling. He has no history, no face, no acknowledgment, no identity. Such people are wandering, untethered, perhaps even crazy. Like no-face.
But there is an extra spice of cruelty to Gotham.
The most powerful and prominent men — men like Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin — mock the unsuccessful as failures and as “clowns.” There is no foundation to build on, and if you fail to build anything, you are mercilessly stomped into the ground, emotionally and even physically. In other words, the rootless, homeless spirits like Arthur are expected to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, and to fail in this endeavor is a personal fault, worthy of mockery. People like Batman can thrive thanks to the legacy they inherited from their parents, but those without a legacy are kicked to the curb.
Joker is the man with no past, no real name (“Fleck” belongs to his adopted mother, and is therefore not his “real” name), and no face — hiding his own face behind a clown’s make-up: a mask. He has no identity, but he embraces this lack of identity, because his one, great desire is to force everyone to see and admit the ridiculous nature of their world. The arbitrariness of their rules. The flimsiness of “justice.” The insanity of what is considered “well-adjusted.”
Humor is difficult to define, but it almost always has something to do with unexpected incongruities. A man goes to the restroom, accidentally walks into the ladies’ room. Runs into another man inside. This scenario is funny to the audience because the initial encounter is the opposite of what one would expect, and it creates dramatic irony: both the men see each other, reinforcing the mutual belief that they are both in the men’s room. The audience knows this is not true. This irony is its own incongruity, and it makes us laugh.
The Joker’s “jokes” are demonstrations of incongruity in the world of Gotham. They are amusing to him because he sees the incongruity in the beliefs and attitudes of his city. And we can see this in some of his character’s more memorable quotes in “The Dark Knight:”
See their morals, their “code,” it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these “civilized” people, they’ll eat each other.
The mob has plans. The cops have plans. Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.
I just did what I do best: I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan,” even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang-banger will get shot, or a truck-load of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Fleck’s dance in the bathroom was a dance of amusement.
He had just shot three young on the subway, something his society would call “bad” (which he knows well enough to flee the scene after the killings). But these men were aggressive assholes and abusive bullies who were beating him up for laughing, and Fleck, by all accounts, was a victim who was justified in defending himself — something society would say was “good.” When the third man of the group tried to run away, Fleck pursued him to make sure that all his attackers were punished for hurting him, and here, society called this “bad.” Arthur Fleck saw the many contradictions — it’s good to defend yourself but not to finish the deed, it’s bad to kill your attackers but it’s ok if the state is the one doing it — he saw these incongruities and he was amused.
And so he danced.
The slow, almost cautious, ballet-like nature of that dance made it appear to be a dance of discovery. The shootings were Fleck’s eye-opening first perception, his first noticing of the incongruity, and tepidly stepping into the enjoyment of it like a swimmer dipping their toes to test the water.
But as Fleck becomes more comfortable with the humor of the contradictions and hypocrisy, he becomes less cautious and more natural in his demeanor. He becomes more charismatic, more confident and more self-possessed. And his dancing becomes less careful. More carefree.
This is what the Joker is. He is a kind of spirit of cynical criticism, a hunter of hypocrisy and seeker of the destruction of everything. He is an “agent of chaos,” because with enough effort, contradiction can be found in every form of order. The world he existed in was so full of incongruities and pain created by these incongruities that the only way to cope was with jokes. Destructive, violent jokes. Nothing cannot be mocked into oblivion. It is a clever inversion of the behavior of those Arthur Fleck was ridiculed by — people like Murray Franklin. He becomes society’s mirror, but more “fair” in the application of ridicule, and less hypocritical.
Chihiro faces a similar world with the coming of the bathhouse. This itself can be taken as a metaphor for the Western incursion into traditional Japanese culture. Chihiro and Haku losing their names represent Japan losing its identity in a global marketplace… a marketplace that often rewards the caricature and mockery of Japan. The tradition is ridiculed, and through ridicule, the identity that was preserved by tradition is eroded and simply fades away, or else erupts into a terrifying and monstrous version of itself; a reaction against the derisive outside world.
Where the plots diverge, of course, is the path the protagonists take in such a world. Chihiro tries to return to her home. For her, it is an uphill battle, but with the will to turn down golden temptations and to remember herself, Chihiro succeeds in returning home.
Joker, on the other hand, has no home to return to, and so decides to go on the offense. By this interpretation, it’s hard to see Joker as immoral. Indeed, there’s something almost noble in his mission.
There is still a problem with Joker. I don’t think it’s helpful to think of the problem as moral in nature, because in many ways, he is simply reflecting back the morals of his world, revealing their corruption. We could think of his problem as “meta-moral,” or “spiritual.” In his attempt to undo the upside-down world he hates, he becomes a kind satirical version of it; a mirror, trying to reflect back the insanity. But this makes him crazy too, and it doesn’t make him happy. His smile is never from joy, but from malicious glee in his monomaniacal work — which is simply to send a message: Everything is upside down. Everything is crazy. Stop pretending it’s fine.
But suppose he is successful in getting his message across. What then? Will the old “home” be magically remembered and brought back?
Of course not. But even if it did return, he has already become something that cannot survive in the world he ostensibly would prefer to live in. Perhaps for this reason, the Joker can never truly love who he is. He can never be happy. Only darkly amused.
So this leaves one question: if you have no world left to return to, is there another option than to become Joker? Could one instead re-start the world, and create a home outside of the hellscape?
According to Spirited Away, that answer is yes. That’s what happens with no-face; he stays with Yubaba’s more kindly twin sister, learning to spin on her magical little farm in the countryside. He makes a new home and a new life — a life he can enjoy — and become someone that he likes. With his new home, he has a new identity. A new face.
All of this relates to our current world in a political fashion. In America, the culture of non-identity, of extravagant wealth, of transience and consumption, of hypocrisy and corruption has arrived. Perhaps we created it.
Our true roots as a nation were in England and in the Puritans. They were in the wilderness, and in the willingness to choose the wilderness of an unsettled continent over familiar civilization, if that was the price of freedom. But we have so deeply re-woven the values of the current world into the story of the old one that it is difficult to remember the true origin. The old world is difficult to differentiate from fabrication. If we could find it, it still might not feel real.
So will Americans choose to become Joker, aggressively and gleefully pointing out the flaws of modernity? Will they become the mirror of what they oppose?
Or will they follow the path of Chihiro and no-face, finding their way back home or making one for themselves?
The temptation is always to say “I would just make my own home, but they won’t let me.”
There are some cases of the powers that be coming in and sabotaging attempts to create or recreate independent cultures and lifestyles with divergent values from the global bathhouse, where one is expected to work, consume, and forget one’s identity. But these direct interventions are relatively rare. The person who says they cannot pursue “home” because they won’t allow it is like the man who refuses to be a “sucker” and get married because sometimes people get divorced, and men (often) bear the heavier share of the risk, at least financially. In world-building and in marriage (and what is marriage if not world-building?), there are precautions you can take. And there is no hypothetical scenario in which risk is completely averted.
‘They are keeping me down!’ is an excuse not to try. It is a rationalization for avoiding the responsibility of building anything. That’s what the Joker and his intellectual movement — post-modernism — represent. They are reactive and critical, shifting both the orientation and the responsibility for their lives away from themselves. If some outside force plausibly prevents you from trying to make something, then your fully actualized self rests safely in the immaterial world, unchallenged and therefore perfect. But if you try and fail, you only have yourself to blame. The illusion of excellence might be shattered.
It is better to be something than to be nothing. But you cannot be something if you have dedicated yourself to tearing down everyone else.
This, I think, is the problem with the Joker. It is not his violence or his callousness or his unpredictability. These are reactions to the moral failings of his society, and could even appear defensible. Rather, it is a kind of existential cowardice, of looking critically at what other people build, but never attempting to build something of your own that might be criticized. This is cowardice is “bad,” in a sense that we can describe as moral beyond the contextual morality of the upside-down society he lives in.
But the Joker’s moral failure goes beyond “bad.” He may be the best literary distillation of moral Evil: the destruction of all standards by which good could emerge.