Is Arthur Flack more relatable than Norman Bates?
As Joker UK box office started breaking records week after week -- it grossed £54.3m in six weeks --, and I kept reading some comments on social media of people refusing to watch it, I became curious about this phenomenon. Initially, as a comic book adaptation, I tended to be by the side of people who were not interested in it. On the other hand, Joachin Phoenix never disappointed me as an actor; on the contrary, his choices kept captivating me.
Arthur Flack, the man behind Joker's make-up, is not by any means a new card in the deck. Likewise, other killers who suffered mental illness were immortalised on the big screen. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins in Psycho), Travis (Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver) and even John Doe (Kevin Spacey in Se7en) are classic portrays of deranged minds. So what is to rethink from a movie such as Joker?
This article invites you to reflect on how Hollywood sees the pain of others. What has changed from Psycho, launched in 1960, to 2019?
Good storytelling isn’t about shocking and awing your audience constantly. Knowing when to keep your story bland can be a great way to trick your audience into believing that they know what is about to happen. In Psycho, Hitchcock purposefully kept the beginning of the movie bland so that, when the killer is introduced halfway into the film, the audience is completely unprepared for it and the scare is maximized. Hitchcock also made use of black and white because he thought that some of the scenes in Psycho would have been too much for his audience if they had been done in color.
When Hitchcock presented marginal characters they were killers, they had to be arrested, detained, and possibly no one in the audience would relate to them. (Possibly, I repeat.) Norman Bates is despicable, a sexual pervert. The thought of preventing the audience from seeing colorful horrifying scenes is not common praxis anymore. Susan Sontag writes: "the excruciations of war -- thanks to television -- have devolved into a nightly banality. Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb."
That is precisely what intrigued me in Joker. And maybe it explains the box office records. Have we lost our capacity for indignation?
The French nouvelle vague changed how the cinema perceived the borderliners. The lead roles not necessarily had to have a strict moral code. In Breathless by Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel, a young criminal who steals a car, kills a cop and hides out in Paris with his girlfriend. With the nouvelle vague, the audience learns that the life of an outlaw is more complex than the life of cowboys and sheriffs in American westerns. And compassion was highlighted. The war in Vietnam and the Hiroshima bomb affected a whole generation, and it was expected that the cinema translated pain somehow.
Needless to say that Scorsese was deeply influenced by the French new wave and that the way Scorsese understands filmmaking, in its turn, influenced Todd Philipps in Joker. Travis (Taxi Driver) has lots of things in common with Arthur Flack. They share traumas. It is not by accident that De Niro was cast for the role of Murray Franklin in Joker. It is also significant that the Joker kills Murray Franklin; it is a meaningful killing, son murder father (or father figure), in a reference to the Greek myth of Cronus and Zeus. After that killing, the Joker becomes more and more powerful and uncontrollable.
The difference, though, is that Travis, Norman Bates and Michel aren't Marvel characters. They won't have to fight with superheroes. But the Joker will. There are significant passages in the movie that relate to Batman and his family.
The rise of Marvel films must have its roots in the fact that nowadays it is hard to believe in heroes. The horror spread in media with the constant blows of violent images -- much more than the 400 blows by Truffaut -- requires a certain intensity of awareness. The effect is the opposite. Modern life has turned us into restless and bored human beings. Thus it is easier to rely on superheroes. Only non-human characters are capable of stopping men from committing more errors.