Serious firetrucking Joker

BC Pires
BC Pires


MARTIN SCORSESE, the great American filmmaker, a friend told me, dismissed the new Todd Phillip/Joaquin Phoenix film, Joker, as “not cinema.”

“That,” I thought, “is a sure sign that senility has set in.”

There’s hope for Scorsese’s mind, though, because he didn’t actually say that; my friend applied, too liberally, Scorsese’s dismissal of Marvel movies generally as visual “theme parks.”

“It isn’t the cinema,” Scorsese said, “of human beings trying to convey emotional psychological experiences to another human being.”

I’ll stick my neck out and say Scorsese hasn’t seen Joker because I don’t think anyone who knows anything about cinema – far less one who knows so much – can watch Joker with an open mind and dismiss it; indeed, I’d bet my own money that Scorsese would love Joker.

Joker is not just cinema, Marty, but Art, with a capital A.

The most important test of cinema, to me, remains the complete loss of self, so caught up does the viewer get in the otherworld created by the filmmaker; Joker aces that test, in spades. For it’s full 122-minute runtime, the audience is transported to a Gotham City that has never been so – well, splendidly – realised in all its sordidness. No Batman film, not even the Christopher Nolan ones, comes close in mood.

Joker, it turns out, is rather closer to cerebral than visceral. The most valid criticism of director and co-writer Phillips might be that he borrows too heavily from other films, including A Clockwork Orange and Scorsese’s own King of Comedy and his magnum opus, Taxi Driver; but tilt your head and imitation becomes homage and, done this well, is a celebration, not a desecration.

(Phillips, though, might perhaps properly be accused of taking virtual homage not a step but two literal steps too far by including, in Joker, two actual staircases made famous in other movies: the titular Joker dances on the same steps the priest dies on in The Exorcist and shoots a man crawling up subway steps in the back just like in The French Connection.)

But Joker does more than enough on its own to show that, cinematically, it stands on its own legs. To give one example, there is one piece of visual storytelling, as stunning as it is subtle, in which the camera tracks back from the “hero” sitting at a kitchen table in his mother’s small apartment to the kitchen doorway, which lights up, drawing attention to the fact that no one comes to help.

This man is cracking up all by himself.

And don’t we all?

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the lead role may well divide couples on the drive home. Like the film itself, Phoenix’s acting requires multiple viewings to assess properly. The third time you see it, you will take away, perhaps, something different from the first viewing; and it may be that those who love it, at first, may love it a little, or a lot, less on fifth viewing – but what makes Joker both genuine “cinema” and real “art” is that it does indeed require several viewings, unlike almost all the movies in what is, apparently unironically, called “the Marvel universe.”

Halfway in, my wife whispered, “Okay, we get the point, this guy is not well.”

“Have patience,” I whispered back, “this isn’t accidental; they’re laying the groundwork for something you’ll never forget.”

Only one of us could be right.

It was me.

The violence in Joker is measured as a percentage of a percentage point of the total runtime; but it will stay with you forever, like, “red rum” in The Shining and “one shot” in The Deer Hunter.

Joker will be panned by thinking, discerning, informed critics – and elevated by others like them; and you will have to decide for yourself whether you like or dislike this art – but art it is and will remain.

Almost by way of lagniappe, Joker tosses in, near its end, a golden moment in cinema: the insane man standing on the hood of the car, himself a hood and a sinner, arms stretched out before an ignorant mob, who hail him as the Messiah, although he plainly offers only destruction, not salvation; swap the clown masks for MAGA caps and the allusion is complete.

The most rational viewers in the world will shiver watching this film.

The mentally ill men currently sitting – no, squatting – in the most powerful political offices on either side of the Atlantic are likely to grin, as they do, every day, about the worlds and the lives they destroy.

You see the Joker every day.

And his joke is always on us.

BC Pires is a joker but not The Joker. Happy Bir’day, Ben. Read a longer version of this column at on Saturday


"Serious firetrucking Joker"

More in this section