(Spoiler for one scene)
As most critics have noted, Todd Phillips’s Joker is a loose reboot of Martin Scorsese’s underrated 1983 film King of Comedy. The similarities, right down to the cameo by Robert De Niro, are hard to miss. For me, however, the film’s most revealing moment evokes, not Scorsese, or other “gritty” 1970s and 1980s New York films like Death Wish or The Warriors, but a much older, much better movie, the pre-code circus side show drama from 1932, “Freaks.”
Well into Joker, after Arthur Fleck, Joaquin Phoenix’s titular character, has become the main suspect in the murder of three young investment bankers on the NYC subway, he’s visited by two former coworkers, Randall, a bully who is partly responsible for his getting fired from his job, and Gary, a four foot tall “little person” and fellow victim of Randall’s “jokes.” Fleck, who at this point is now fully addicted to violence, brutally murders Randall in front of Gary. Gary, in turn, is terrified for his life, but also, to his credit, feels compassion for Randall, a man who’s always made his life miserable. To our surprise Fleck lets Gary live, even though he realizes he’s a witness who could send him to prison for the rest of his life, but not before toying with him. “Go ahead,” Fleck says. “You can go,” but to Gary’s horror, and our amusement, he’s too short to unlock the door. We half suspect that Fleck is going to murder him after all, but no. He gets up, unchains the door, and lets Gary out of his apartment. “You’re the only person who’s ever been nice to me,” he says as Gary flees for his life.
For Todd Browning, the writer and directer of Freaks, the worst crime you can commit is to betray a fellow misfit, to put yourself above your fellow circus side show performers. After Cleopatra, a beautiful trapeze artist learns that Hans, a “little person” and side show performer is about to inherit a large amount of money, she conspires with “Hercules,” the circus strongman, to seduce, marry, and then kill him. “We accept her,” the sideshow “freaks,” chant at the wedding, “one of us–gooble, gobble one of us.” After they learn of Cleopatra’s treachery, however, they fall into a collective rage, and murder both her and Hercules. Sadly, much of the best footage from Freaks was butchered by the studio and it counts partly as a “lost” film. Freaks destroyed Browning, who was riding high after his 1931 classic Dracula. His career never really recovered.
I seriously doubt that for all of the controversy surrounding Joker, Phillip’s is going to lack for work in the near future. The “woke” pundits outraged over the sympathetic portrayal of a misfit and an incel have unwittingly made themselves part of a marketing campaign. Really, who doesn’t hate the well-off, smug, professional managerial class and their pundits these days? In any event, Arthur Fleck’s treatment of Gary illustrates both Joker’s strengths and weaknesses. Joker is not Cleopatra, and yet he is. He lets Gary live, but not before psychologically torturing him, putting himself above the terrified little man for a cheap laugh. The brief scene embodies Joker’s contradictions in full. Joker is both a rebel, an avenging troll sticking it to the normies, killing investment bankers, and inspiring an “eat the rich” movement that comes out of the underclass of Gotham — 1970s New York obviously — and yet he’s also a false prophet who torments a fellow misfit and leads the working class in a violent, nihilist, and in the end fascist direction.
In her excellent essay for Dissent Magazine The End of Progressive Neoliberalism, New School Professor Nancy Fraser nails our current historical moment. The elitist “liberal” ideology of Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Emmanuel Macron, and Joker’s own Thomas Wayne has not only failed to address the problems that have emerged from the failures of capitalism, social isolation, civic breakdown, cuts in social services, violence, decaying cities, it has actively prevented an alternative from the left. Think specifically, for example, of the DNC’s theft of the 2016 Presidential nomination from the left populist Bernie Sanders. They Democratic Party not only lost the election to the clownish white supremacist Donald Trump, they drummed up a conspiracy theory about Russia and Vladimir Putin in order to prevent their grass roots rank and file from moving the party to the left. Having nowhere else to go, the American people turned to the fascist far right.
Sanders’s revolt was the parallel on the Democratic side to that of Trump. Even as Trump was upending the Republican establishment, Bernie came within a hair’s breadth of defeating Obama’s anointed successor, whose apparatchiks controlled every lever of power in the Democratic Party. Between them, Sanders and Trump galvanized a huge majority of American voters. But only Trump’s reactionary populism survived.
Unlike Bernie Sanders and the left, and like Trump and the populist far right, Arthur Fleck makes no attempt to organize his fellow misfits and outcasts into a movement that can challenge capitalism. He even says as much. “I’m not political,” he assures Robert De Niro’s “Murray Franklin,” who foolishly books him on his talk show in order to mock him. “I just want to make people laugh.” Fleck isn’t lying. He has no interest in socialism or proletarian revolution, in joining the “eat the rich” protest he inspired. Arthur Fleck, in other words, is the perfect anti-hero for the age of Trump. Revolution is all about him. We may rise up against our oppressors and march in the streets, but in the end the joke will be on all of us. Joker perfectly expresses my ambivalence about any movement that challenges the status quo. We Americans are far too mean, authoritarian, and spiritually sick to establish a better society. After we finally rise up against our corporate oligarchs and smash progressive neoliberalism for good, we’re likely to establish something much, much worse. In a time when socialism is impossible — our time — fascism is inevitable.