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Joker: Cause Without a Rebel

Still from the Joker, Warner Bros. Pictures.

I generally found all the hype around the movie Joker to be overblown on all sides. The claim that a movie could end civility reflected the general hyperbole and panic in the Trump era. But the whining about woke culture and the left that came from the director were even more pathetic. All the people whining about cancel culture need to stop. If you’re whining, you haven’t been canceled.

The Joker director may be upset that some people are offended by violence but he is by no means censored. A movie like his will be made with a Hollywood budget every time because it has the two things all Hollywood movies need: violence and thoughtlessness. Or rather, a plot that is moved by violence instead of ideas. Not that you have to choose necessarily, but Joker did. Violence after all is for people who know they have lost the war of ideas.

A movie like Joker is made every time. The people who are canceled are those who challenge capitalism’s grip of death. When was the last mainstream communist movie? (Boots Riley’s brilliance as exception of course). When was the last movie that addressed climate change in a way that was pro-earth and pro-human? When was any movie that challenged the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the theft known as private property or the institution of marriage? When was such a film that dealt with the fossil fuel industry or the two-party duopoly?

And that is just cultural examples. Who is really canceled in our society? The poor who live in debt, are thrown in jail, work several jobs, can’t pay for child care, must drop out of school and live in communities of polluted air, water and food. If people really wanted second chances in our ruthless society how about we first start with the young black people targeted as children?

The only thing worse than Joker and its alt-right director were its liberal critics, who rightly noted that the film lacked a clear direction and was just confused cynicism. That it was, it was quite Trump-like that way and it, of course, attracted the typical liberal triggered response. The character of the Joker is at once severely brain-damaged and resentful of the entirety of society. There are a million excuses for his murdering spree but it seems impossible they could all exist at once. But the same is probably true for Trumpism. The country is a lot more stupid, but also a lot more racist, and a lot more poor, and all of these things can exist at once, but certainly aren’t correlated, as liberals want you to think.

Joker isn’t very well thought out. It has the singular gear of rage. But it is, like Trump, simply vomiting all its spare thoughts out. It does in some ways reflect an accurate depiction of someone in isolation who just circles the drain and therefore has no genuine populist connection. This, unfortunately, was just as much the movie maker’s dilemma as the characters. As a rich-hating mob of humorless loser clowns kill a rich guy we are meant to think: the socialists are coming, they are violent, they are crazy and they hate us for no reason.

There was perhaps a criticism of austerity in the movie as Joker lamented his drugs were being cut off because of cuts to state spending. I think this was a criticism of austerity, but perhaps Joker was supposed to be so unsympathetic that we weren’t supposed to take anything he says seriously. After all this guy is just really sad and really brain damaged. There is not a functioning citizen here, let alone a coherent political ideology. Liberals were right to point out this movie can’t be apolitical, as nothing is, but other than the movie not being made at all (a good idea), where was one to go with what this guy thought?

Brushed aside are the Incel fantasies of Joker as he relentlessly stalks his neighbor. Joker is supposed to be a hero so most of the movie we see his fantasy of the young woman loving the stalking. Such realism in the fantasies was confusing because of Joker’s mental illness. It made one think that it wasn’t Joker who was supposed to be fooled by his fantasy, but the audience. Needless to say, the resentment of women and the entitlement to their bodies was unaddressed in this apolitical vacuum.

I don’t think the director could argue I was spoiling the fun. This was the most self-serious and intense movie I’d seen in a long time. But this seemed to be his gripe about most of his critics.

Clearly this movie was a timely and opportunistic chance to try and explain vigilante violence and political unrest in the age of Trump. It was so sloppy, and intentionally so, that it combined all political ideologies into one big opposition tent. Along the way we were supposed to believe that everyone who feels lonely and defeated turns to violence and that we should not fear the rich, but the dark underbelly who resents them.

The New Yorker lamented that race was ignored in this movie, and it may have been. But what was The New Yorker looking for? A reason for Joker’s motives? The only merit of the film was that it was pointless. There could perhaps be meaning there. The liberal critics were clearly wanting to reference the racist mass shooters but weren’t there more glaring racial omissions?

The scene of the cops getting beat up by the mob, and everyone being happy about it seemed like such a blind interpretation of the present-day left, particularly Black Lives Matter which is explicitly a non-violent movement despite the relentless police violence against these communities.

But like individual police officers, wackos like Joker often are used by White America as scapegoats for white supremacy as liberals can only critique the excess of white supremacy, and never the root cause and mass appeal. It was entirely possible, even likely that Joker wasn’t racist, given his severe brain damage from the age of five. Unable to understand any social norms, it seems unlikely that he would have picked up the social norm of white supremacy. Of course, it was even less likely that he would start shooting everyone but the movie would have lasted about two minutes without this element.

While critics saw Joker as unrealistic because he was a rebel without a cause, perhaps the greater problem for the critics is that their cause has no rebels. One of the misconceptions of Sigmund Freud is that Freudian slips only happen occasionally. For Freud, these slips happen constantly. Trump is one big Freudian slip of what America believes, was founded on, was built on, and what it relies upon.

What the media attempts to blame on individual actors are dynamics they know they are responsible for throughout society. Across the world soldiers and policemen are spread to protect the private property of rich white families. This property can be expressed through countries, through individual ownership but also more crucially through the protection of currency. No one is interested in seeing the violence necessary to maintain this hierarchy but it is clearly there. Now the ironic liberal complaint is that Joker did not express this ideology clearly. They didn’t like this because now Joker can no longer be the one who takes the blame for white supremacy. Instead, it just sits there as the elephant in the room.

Joker rather was just acting without any cause. He somehow knew it was all fucked up. It was here where the director’s imagination failed to create a response beyond the most predictable and regressive, and one would have to assume he failed to even imagine his liberal foil, as much joy as it may have given him.

Joker was a horrible experience. It exhausted the viewer with relentless violence and the only point of it seemed to be that people who are mentally ill are dangerous. And so are poor people, who are also probably mentally ill. It flirted with an interesting “why” for the danger, but it mostly failed to understand, which makes sense seeing that the assumption of the poor being a mob of self-pity was equally delusional. It clearly failed to understand the human condition and the variety of responses to despair. Instead, the rich Hollywood think thank just expressed its greatest fear: angry poor people—without much reflection on how these people would actually act. Much of the tension here on both sides has to do with the climate catastrophe, as it always does.

But why did the critics hate it? Probably because the critics had the same fear of the poor, and this movie was so utterly perplexing that it just left the viewer holding the bag of fear. But why be scared of the poor in the first place unless you have stolen something from them? It is in this way that the Trump hysteria has still not been seriously discussed. The Trump hysteria has nothing to do with Trump. It has much more to do with the guilt of a failed system that has lost control of itself. Rather than tear it all up we are desperately trying to repair capitalist democracy. That includes the wealth distribution musical chairs of Bernie and Warren.

What critics looked for was an easy answer out of Joker. But it had no answers. It wasn’t that kind of movie, if that kind of movie exists at all anymore. It lost the reigns of its own expression and ended up being an incoherent ego grab for director and star alike (Joaquin Phoenix is good, but lost himself here). Now as liberals grasp for someone to blame for this all this anger perhaps one shouldn’t be looking to that mob of discontent.

Rather, one should address the necessity of the twin pillars of Western society to maintain itself. These pillars are of course violence and thoughtlessness. It is only by a conceited educational and cultural apparatus that the elites learn of supposed sociological causes for societal chaos. These sociological reasons attempt to explain humanity through a series of victim-blaming diagnoses and individualized grievances.

Left to the side is that the reason for all migration, war, jail, poverty and even despair and mental collapse have to do with the theft of wages and property by the rich and powerful. It is only through top-down, fascist organized forms of violence—causes without rebels—that such wealth is protected. It is only through thoughtlessness and blindness to the obvious that the middle class defends such values. Joker was such a swing and a miss that it failed to follow through on the scapegoats it intended. This left the liberal frustrated and in need of someone to blame.

While resentment of the rich and powerful may be alive, its over-emphasis among Hollywood and other propaganda institutions reflect the narcissism of the rich and powerful making this propaganda. The rich would rather think the poor want to be like them than have their money. One condition of human suffering, not addressed in this film that was supposed to capture it, is that petty grievances are left behind when we suffer and meaning begins to form, whether in despair or joy.

So it seems less likely that Joker wanted to be funny because even the comedian he admired lacked humor—he was just a bully with an audience. What Joker may have wanted, if he was real, would be to gain a life of dignity and community away from his dingy apartment. But Joker was just a figment of rich people’s imagination and therefore his character was completely flat and devoid of any real motivation beyond resentment of his creators. Unfortunately for the rich the real motivations for hatred of them may be more straight forward: you stole our shit and now we are hungry.

That takes away almost all the drama of Joker—which wanted so badly to be important and authentic and most importantly non-political. The ultimate failure of liberalism is that it fails to address the fundamental need for the rich to defend their property, either by force or ideology. The right uses force and is ruthless in its cynicism about human nature. Joker reflects the failure of the right to even have a conversation outside of violence at this perilous time that endangers both the rule of law and the admirable values liberalism has brought us.

It is however also true that the ideology of liberalism effectively shifts the blame away from the control of the property to distinctly human causes. Joker is so abysmally non-human it leaves the door open for an embrace of communism simply because the various forms of individual diagnosis need at least an ideological structure to give them merit, which in turn needs a middle class, which America no longer has. This could go one of two ways but likely neither will involve a clown mob.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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