EDITOR’S NOTE: This column will be discussing plot points from Joker in detail. Please consider this your SPOILER WARNING and proceed accordingly.
If you want to avoid an angry, venom fueled diatribe from the comic book fan in your life, you’d be advised not to bring up the name Roy Lichtenstein. Only Frederick Wertham and the quick-to-throw-out-their-kid’s-stuff mothers rank higher on most comic book fans’ list of hatred.
Lichtenstein, in case you don’t know, was a fine artist who was a prominent member of the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, along with artists such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Where Warhol worked with soup cans and celebrities as inspirations, Lichtenstein for a lower form of pop culture as his muse–comic book art.
He would take a panel from a comic book, usually one in the romance or war genres, and reproduce it on canvases hundreds of times their original size. He would change small thing in the transfer–a word balloon here, an article of clothing there–so you couldn’t call it an exact copy, but the composition and layouts of Lichtenstein’s paintings were the same as his source material, right down to dots that were part of the Ben Day process used to color the comics. His comic book borrowing made him a star on the gallery circuit and made him rich enough to afford houses in both Manhattan and in the Hamptons. The original artists were neither credited nor paid for these appropriations and lived their lives out in anonymity and struggling to make a living.
The medium he stole from, however, was going through some dire straits at the time. Comic books were less than ten years removed from the one-two punch of Dr. Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, both hitting in 1954, which painted the comic books as a dangerous influence on their target audience–children. The industry barely survived that hit to its public image. Over a dozen comic book publishers closed up shop for ever, and the ones that were left struggled to stay in business.
If there were any art critic who considered comic books a form of art, they consider them the lowest for of it. They’d consider it a disposable art form meant for children and slow-minded adults that didn’t deserve respect. However, and this is what rankles comic book fans, those same critics would hang laurel upon laurel on Lichtenstein, a man whose name was made on what he raided from comic books. Yeah, comic books are subject to scorn and ridicule but the human Xerox machine who stole from them is an icon.
But if you get into a conversation with an art aficionado about Lichtenstein, and, believe me, that is another conversation that you do not want to get into, they’ll defend him. They’ll say his minor changes are all that is needed to make the copies new art work. They’ll say his choice to ape comic book artists is an artistic choice in and of itself. And that Lichtenstein did us comic fans a service by raising the comic art to a level of fine art.
This is when we come to Joker, and its relationship with low and high art..
As you may well know, we are in the midst of a heated discussion as whether or not comic book films count as “cinema” or art. Incendiary comments by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and others have lit social media and sites like this one into a conflagration of opinions and confrontation.
At the center of the maelstrom is Joker. Finally, a comic book movie done with a cinematic sensibility. And it took Todd Phillips of Old School and The Hangover fame to, like Lichtenstein before him, reach into the muck and turn the inferior form of entertainment into high art.
Only one problem. Joker, like Lichtenstein’s artwork, isn’t very good. And the same flaw damn both forms of art to mediocrity.
As with Lichtenstein, Joker‘ derivative nature works against it. However, whereas the artist only copied one comic book artist at a time, Joker has a veritable bouillabaisse other other films and real life events that forms its narrative. Its Taxi Driver and King of Comedy influences are most prominent–you could spot them in the trailers. But it contains elements of other films like V For Vendetta, Psycho, Death Wish, A Beautiful Mind, The Purge and historical events such as the Bernie Goetz Subway Shooting, R. Budd Dwyer’s Suicide and Occupy Wall Street, to name a few.
Now, some might say expecting originality from film based on an established intellectual property is silly. But one of the main criticisms of comic book movies made by cinemaphiles is that they tell the same story over and over again. In that case, presenting a patchwork film consisting of homages to better films isn’t the best idea.
Another characteristic of fine art cinema is that it addresses and examines real issues that real people face. Does Joker do this? No, not exactly. It presents a bunch of issues for us but refuses to commit to a viewpoint or make a stand about any of them. Much like Lichtenstein’s artwork, it a vague cypher for smart people to make their own judgements about.
Ask anyone who saw the film or any critic what is the theme of the film, and you’ll get a number of different answers. Is it about how the mentally ill are ignored and forgotten about until they become dangerous? Is it about how easy it is for guns to fall into the hands of the wrong people? Is it that it is society’s obligation to take care of the less fortunate? Is it about how the system benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of poor and downtrodden? Is it about how child abuse leaves lasting scars that will never heal? Is it about the inherent rage that plagues our everyday lives? Is it saying that a class war is coming and it will be a violent one? All of the above? None of the above? One from column A and one from column B?
The answer to the above questions is yes. Joker is all of these themes without being any one of these particular themes. Because Joker is more of a character study than an actual film. Much like Phillips’ work with the gags on his The Hangover films, he creates it so all the themes are free-floating with little solid connection to one another other than what the viewer comes up with themselves. However, the film would be a much stronger–and better–movie if it tied all these elements into a more cohesive whole or focused on one theme instead of cramming so many in.
Case in in point: It is established early that Arthur Fleck has a mental disability. Near the mid-point of the film he is called into his government subsidized therapy session, where his social service worked tells him that due to budget cuts, he will not get the therapy or medication he needs to treat his illness. When this scene happened, I got excited. It is obviously the start of Arthur’s downward spiral into becoming the Joker, and the scene makes me think that the film will become a commentary on the fact that cutting social service to save the rich tax money will become costly in the long run. That would be a bold and daring statement.
But not only is that plot point not further examined, the film later says that Arthur is actually brain damaged from a savage beating his mother’s boyfriend gave him. This dilutes the original message I spoke of above and illustrates the “All-You-Can-Eat” approach the film has with its themes. You don’t like roast beef? Have the turkey. You don’t like budget cuts turning Arthur into a killer? Focus on the abuse he experienced as a child.
Some of you might say that the deliberate ambiguity of the film is what makes it brilliant. I’d say it makes for lazy filmmaking and to stop drinking the Kool-Aid. Joker, like Roy Lichtenstein’s artwork, exemplifies the “Emperor’s New Clothes” aspect of fine art.. They give you nothing but sell it so well that you think you are getting something deep and meaningful. For the record, the film’s inability to take a stand on anything isn’t the only its only problem. Robert DeNiro is woefully miscast, Frances Conroy is wasted and the whole plot point with his mother, being adopted and being abused is one of the clumsiest plot contrivances I have ever seen in a film, one that doesn’t make a lick of sense if you think about it more than a second.
But that doesn’t matter. Because people will still call Joker, a bad movie, fine art because it tried and failed. Just like people consider Roy Lichtenstein fine art even though all he is doing is creating larger yet incredibly less detailed copies of a lower form of art. But because both are vague enough so smart people can seem smarter by assigning themes to them, we all have to appreciate these examples of fine art and think of them as better than lower forms of art that are cohesive, entertaining and , yes, also have defined themes.
One of the differences between gallery-level fine art and cinematic fine art was the money they bring in. Masterpiece, the Roy Lichtenstein piece see above, was sold at auction in 2017 for $165 million. This is quite a increase from 30 years ago, when Lichtenstein’s Torpedoes…Los! sold at auction in 1989 for $5.5 million. However, cinematic fine art doesn’t really do that well at the box office. Typically, these types of films are made with shoestring budgets in order to make their money back, and then rely on Oscar nominations to boost their receipts. This is part of the reason why Scorsese’s comments come out as sour grapes. He’s complaining about superhero movies dominating the Hollywood landscape at the expense of the type of films he likes to make, when his real problem is that he had such a hard time to find a studio willing enough to fund his $130 million project, The Irishman.
Marty might not have such a hard time in the future, because, unfortunately, Joker might change all that. The film has made over $300 million at the domestic box office, which is enough to make the rumored $70 million movie a massive hit all by itself. However, when you add its more than $637 million take overseas, you have a film that has a very good chance to gross $1 billion worldwide. If it does hit that plateau, it would be only the 5th Warner Brothers film to do so.
You know what this means. It means that we will be seeing more “top name” cinema artists take more comic books characters to make them into fine art. To that, I’d say it’s not for me, thanks. My advice to anyone who wants to lift geek culture to the echelons of fine art would be to not bother. Not unless you are going to give us a piece of fine art that is actually good.