Joker and the Mask of Poverty

Caliban’s Revenge asks who is behind the Joker’s mask and who should be scared.

Joker (dir. Todd Phillips; USA 2019; 2h 2min)


For no reason other than an excuse to hang out, my comrade Neil Rogall and I went to see Joker on its opening night. Even as the closing credits were beginning to scroll, Neil made the observation, ‘Whatever else you say about this film, it shows the bourgeoisie is terrified of the poor.’

This is self-evidently true, and not only viscerally transmitted across the screen but in responses to the movie itself. Various pundits have been alarmed by the film’s potential to incite violence in the lonely and disaffected, the US military issued a warning of a ‘potential threat’ to service members posed by mass shootings at showings of the film. It is not clear from this message if the threat is to military personnel and their families, or from disenchanted veterans with access to firearms.

On social media, Michael Moore commented on reports that police officers are to attend screenings of Joker to discourage or prevent shootings inspired by the film. Unquestionably this is a society that is jumping at its own shadow. This precisely what the movie strives to represent: a world of seething resentment and frustration boiling over in a ‘growing hatred of the rich’. It’s for this reason that Moore’s response to the anxiety surrounding screenings of Joker is: ‘The greater danger to society may be if you DON’T go see this movie’.

Moore lauds the film for offering society a ‘mirror’, an opportunity to interrogate a civilisation that seems to be absurdly, irrationally hell bent on its own extinction. A society that breeds resentment of its elites in its alienated masses, who then take revenge against those elites by electing a narcissistic real estate tycoon with a gold toilet. A society in which countless black men are gunned down for being suspected of carrying firearms they don’t even own, while white supremacists march through the streets with AR15s slung over their shoulders, warning of civil war if the government tries to stop them buying another one. Could there be any image more apt to represent 21st century America than a failed clown who will probably kill you?

The thing about a ‘mirror’ though is that what it reflects depends very much on who is peering into it. Joker has quite a straightforward narrative, but it is thematically complex and draws on many different cultural threads. Still, while this is an extremely unconventional offering within the genre you really can’t avoid considering Joker in relation to other versions of Batman’s world. The obvious inclination is to compare Heath Ledger’s career-defining role to that of Joaquin Phoenix, but actually the film that immediately suggests itself to me is The Dark Knight Rises – by a long chalk the most reactionary superhero movie ever made.

Both of these films depict violent uprisings of the poor, but while Rises represents this from the perspective of a horribly beweaponed billionaire, this latest interpretation of the mythology seems to suggest the point of view of the disenfranchised themselves. The film is multi-layered and it’s a mistake to cleave too strongly to any one interpretation of what this means. Nonetheless it may help us to understand something about the western imagination under the conditions of late capitalism. In Joker we really see how terribly late that capitalism is. We see this particularly in how media now depicts two crucial aspects of the film: the condition of the poor and their rebellion against it.

Joker is dripping with cross-references: one prominent example is a scene where the Gotham elite enjoy a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. There are a million things one could say about this: the irony of the rich laughing at the struggles of the poor, the role of the clown in an unequal society, the way the characters watching a clip from a 1930s silent film themselves appear untethered in time and space. The crucial contrast, though, is between the figures of The Tramp and The Joker. The film suggests these characters are comparable visions of the anarchic poor struggling through a world that brutalises and alienates them in pursuit of an unattainable security and happiness. But the contrasting conceptions of the poor couldn’t be more polarised.

Chaplin’s character begins as an industrial worker who is chewed up by his industry and becomes an itinerant wanderer as a result. The Joker is from the beginning a completely alienated character, utterly unable to connect with anyone. The Tramp is crushed, quite literally, by the machine of production and the bosses that serve it. He is pushed out of sync with the world by its brutality, but he is always able to reach other human beings, to inspire them, to befriend them, to love them, to pity them.

The Joker is permanently out of sync with everyone around him, we see him in a comedy club taking notes, laughing out of beat with the other patrons. He is a peripheral, lonely, desperate figure who in his own words has ‘never been happy a single day’ in his life.
Now that isn’t to say this isn’t a compelling and important image of crushing economic and social poverty – the point is that it is the only image of poverty that it seems Hollywood is now able to conceive.

One of the great strengths of Joker is the profound sense of crisis it conveys, a city rife with social unrest where welfare programs are being cut, service workers are on strike and the poor are at last ‘sick’ of the rich, and in fact we see many examples of this physical illness in the film, many images of hospital wards and ambulances, their lights flashing as they rush to a perpetual emergency. This seems like a particularly powerful idea in the US where ‘universal healthcare’ has become synonymous with class struggle.

The sense is that something has broken, just as The Joker has broken – that the system has failed Arthur Peck and people like him. It has ‘crossed a mentally ill loner’, shattered him and put him out of sync with ‘normality’ – which is to say bourgeois normality. There is a warning here: fix the system before it is too late. Modern Times by contrast makes no such appeal: the system isn’t broken, it is doing precisely what it is structured to do.

The fascinating thing about Joker’s image of the terrifying, unhinged poor – the poor who are only desperate and lost and unhappy – is that this is the only way the poor can become visible on the screen. They only catch the attention of the rich when they become a monster, a faceless mob. The Joker make-up is analogous to the Anonymous mask and the black bloc balaclava, and reflects the amorphous, mysterious identity of the poor in revolt as perceived by the rich. The violence of the poor always appears to the establishment to come out of nowhere, just as in the Batman myth a faceless criminal steps out of the shadows and shoots Bruce Wayne’s parents completely without provocation. This film deserves an Oscar if for no other reason than defying this mythology.

Neil and I couldn’t agree on whether the film was disoriented in time or was pointing to a specific era. Neil described the film as ‘unanchored’, both structurally and in terms of its anachronism, unhinged just like The Joker himself.  But within that fuzzy historical lens it still clearly evoked for me the social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s in metropolitan America, and one has to assume it is indicating how such upheavals could be relevant today. But the striking thing about cinema in those periods was the way it managed to convey the sense of urgency and terror, the tension and threat of that unrest, but also the radical prospects for hope and change, of solidarity and sacrifice.

We need to begin to re-imagine the working class and the poor as something more terrifying to the ruling class than subaltern goblins who declare they ‘believe in nothing’ as they burn the mansions of our exploiters to the ground. And instead as human agents capable of solidarity and empathy and, crucially, actually burning the mansions of our exploiters to the ground. Broken people that can build the world anew. That may sound like a tired Trotskyist tag-line to put on a discussion of an interesting film that speaks to the never clear-cut concerns of our period in the never quite reducible voice of art. But I’ll never stop saying it, and here’s why.

Michael Moore suggested New York in the 1980s as an alternative time stamp, and in some ways that does make more sense. Because the picture of insurgency represented in Joker is not one in which we are winning. It is an unknown and unknowable mass exalting in a condition where they have been defeated. In which the political realm is entirely the possession of billionaires who could just as easily be Joe Biden as Donald Trump, who tell them, ‘I am their only hope’ – just like a superhero. Their response is to explode – they don’t seize anything but the street, don’t try anything but to start fires and who is behind the explosion no one knows.

As Neil put it, ‘They don’t know who is behind the mask,  Sanders people or Trump people’.

A great film doesn’t need to know the answer to that question, but we do. We have nothing to fear from the face behind the mask, and nothing to offer them but the world.


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