Set against an urban background, The Joker’s darkness never lets up. City lights dim under graffiti, under dark subways, under the feet of a man with crushed dreams of being a standup comedian, under an ailing, delusional mother writing letters to her son’s supposed father, Thomas Wayne who we know will become a victim of the Joker movement. The air in this dark place is always damp, the kind of dampness that encourages illness.
The city appears in all its squalor despite its high rise buildings, cars and rich. Humour is dark and unfunny. I suppose this is what the failure of humour means here, the standup comedian who is unable to reach the funny bone of his audience. There is not much to laugh about. Only when pain becomes excruciating, there is in fact nothing else to do, but laugh.
We establish early, that there is something uncommon about our main character. We find out that he is mentally unstable. A word of warning: if you are in a bad place mentally, this is not a movie for you. I couldn’t help but think back while looking at it, to Suzanne Mills' recent piece in the Express newspaper on her bipolar episode. I thought about the 2017 incident of the woman stripping naked and walking along Wrightson Road after crashing her vehicle into three other cars. I thought back to the first book I had ever read on bipolar disorder, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison, back in 2006.
The world zips past like the trains. From the passenger’s seat the colours on the platform are blurred. But the darkness in the subway remains dominant. The graffiti stand out for me. The mind associates it with violence more than art. It is in fact violent, this invention of art in spaces where it is illegal to do so. Perhaps the filmmakers were simply setting the film and graffiti is a part of the dross. But I thought it a stroke of genius. It is protest after all. It also marks boundaries. It magnifies. The Joker’s body in a sense merges with the city’s graffiti.
The Joker himself is a form of protest. The development of the character from Arthur Fleck to Joker is the creation of a system that does not support the mentally ill. First, his social worker goes because it makes no financial sense to the city’s administration, then he becomes a victim of bullying on two occasions, and finally fired. He is strange. Everyone agrees. Something cracks, as it would in anyone fighting systems, systems that dictate social behaviour.
Each time a crack occurs, Fleck gains a sense of self. We see an emergence. He ceases to be a victim. Critics call it glorifying crime. I see it a different way. I see this instead, a result of the crimes that education and privilege commit when they ill-prepare the society for accommodation. That even systems that should cater to the mentally ill are side-stepped to accommodate something of lesser social value but greater hierarchical one, like sky scrapers. The city in fact kills. Mills speaks about St Ann’s. We should listen.
The Joker becomes a metaphor for all that is wrong about the way we go about our lives. His body, lean and contorted in one scene seems to be trying to fit into a world that cannot accommodate him. He has to make his own. He creates a world that ends up crashing. His romance, his mother, all lies that he has conjured to endure the pain in his body. And when he finally cracks, there is a new awakening. The new character emerges, dressed in bright red suit, orange and green. The colours are a clown’s but his swagger is cutting edge, pardon the pun. This character is walking graffiti art. His bearing, his clothes, his face, unrecognisable because it is painted now, is protest. He is one with the underground but he is the other face of the city. This is not art created on the sly. He boldly walks out. This is not art created anymore by looking over his shoulder to see if there is a policeman around to arrest him with his spray can. This is art invited on to a live television show where he shoots the host that makes fun of him on national television. It is perhaps coincidence that the host is shot in the head but the head is the site of imagination and pain. Visions of the world are created and reside in the head.
This is not just Hollywood entertainment. Rather this reminds us that as advanced as we become, understanding the ‘other’, in whatever form that other presents itself, continues to remain a challenge.