Joker reminds me of….

Resonance is a function of history, right? You’ll pick up allusions and associations depending on what you usually see.

So of course it’s no wonder Todd Phillips’ 2019 film Joker reminds me of Wozzeck as someone who’s more likely to see an opera than a first-run film.


Peter Mattei in Wozzeck at the Met. (Photo: Paola Kudacki/Met Opera)

I only caught Joker this week in the immediate lead-up to the Oscars, a film with multiple nominations. While poverty and wealth disparities are central to the story, I don’t feel any connection between this violent superhero spinoff with its tenuous and understated connections to the Batman franchise, and either Porgy & Bess that I saw on Saturday or Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel that I will be seeing later this week from the COC.

Why Wozzeck?

Both stories concern protagonists clinging tenaciously to their sanity, feeling betrayed & oppressed, violated, mocked & finally provoked to violence.

Both incorporate elements of comedy into a story with elements of tragedy & social satire, so much so that we get messed up about what is and isn’t comedy.

Both are very dark.

And Joker makes me think of Karl Marx, who thought –erroneously –that the proletariat would rise up in western societies. Revolutionary uprisings are a fantasy by and large, unlikely in America. Gotham looks a lot like NY: until we start seeing something like a social uprising. Sorry Todd, you’re making the same mistake Marx made. Earlier today I was looking at pictures of armed men walking into a legislature in Frankfort Kentucky, outraged at the possible erosion of their rights under the Constitution, just as we saw earlier in Virginia. So long as they get to keep their guns? They’re happy.

NY (the place that is represented by Gotham City)? Nope. It’s gentrified and heavily policed. I don’t see uprisings happening there unless someone takes their Starbucks away, even in a week when many on social media at least were lamenting the end of democracy.

I wish I were joking.

This is so different than Little Women. If the Academy Awards ceremony were in some sense a bellwether for the upcoming election, Joker winning, with its ugly reflection of an unhappy country furious with its leadership, might seem to predict the fantasy of Democrats stopping Trump’s re-election: except as the video above might suggest, they’ve misread the mood in America.

And of course they’re just films and November is a long way off.

I can’t help thinking of other previous films, possibly reminded by the presence of Robert de Niro.

There’s that film from 1982 about an ambitious comedian. I can’t help remembering Scorsese’s King of Comedy that starred De Niro in the role that’s analogous to what Joaquin Phoenix plays in Joker. It’s remarkable how similar the plots are. A failed comedian living with his mother has an encounter with a talk-show host.  There’s a criminal edge underlying the story that could be the seed of Joker.

And there’s also Scorsese’s Taxi Driver from 1975, starring De Niro again.

If it were 1990, they’d pitch Joker as a comic-book King of Comedy with some dark Taxi Driver energy. I know some people might think that the difference in 2019 is that the times are so dark that film-makers have to go for your jugular or risk being accused of being soft.  And of course comic franchises are so big in 2020 that no one even seems to remember the two Scorsese films.

Does Phoenix deserve an Oscar? You’re asking the wrong person. I dislike competitions & awards, because you can’t tell me that you can really compare them. By all means, celebrate excellence and applaud all of the nominees. But don’t try to persuade me that one is better than the others, especially when the choices are political.  Now of course the Academy messed up in not giving him the award for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in the 2005 film Walk the Line. I can’t help remembering that Phoenix stopped acting for a little while, maybe because of a serious car accident, possibly for other reasons. This award would seem to be the climax of a comeback, a kind of vindication. I’m happy if there’s a story arc of redemption. But he was already a great actor years ago, for instance in Gladiator.

I wonder if this is also the beginning of a different franchise, a new way to explore Batman via the super-villain? Given Joker‘s success, we can expect a sequel.

This entry was posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Popular music & culture, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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