Sunday 13 October 2019

Joker by Phillips & Silver

Joker is definitely a divisive movie. 

Three friends got in touch with me out of the blue saying how impressed they were and asking if I'd seen it. 

Another friend told me in no uncertain terms that she would not be going near it because of its depiction of mental illness.

I decided to see it and find out what the fuss is about.

Joker is shot like an archetypal movie of the 1970s (the era many believe to be Hollywood's finest) — its first image is the vintage Warner Bros logo from that period, which then gives way to a vision of a grungy New York (okay, I know it's Gotham City) that might have come from a classic Sidney Lumet film.

The movies that Joker really draws on, though, are two by Martin Scorsese — Taxi Driver for its unstable time bomb of a protagonist, and its vigilantism, and King of Comedy for its squirm-inducing portrait of a talentless nerd with huge dreams, stalking a celebrity.

(The presence of Robert De Niro as a talk show host really emphasises the King of Comedy connection.)

Joker also strongly calls to mind another recent film starring Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here, a powerful and memorable movie which again was influenced by Taxi Driver.

And comparing Phoenix's performance in You Were Never Really Here to his depiction of Arthur Fleck in the Joker is really quite shocking. 

In the earlier movie he was burly, almost obese. In the new one he is scarily stick-thin.

Joker is unquestionably  a striking movie. 

The cinematography is by Lawrence Sher and it has a powerful visual style which both offers a glittering, polished beauty, as in the scene where the train snakes along beside the river, and carries a violent emotional impact, as when the single-word title fills the entire frame.
I was also very impressed by the music. The score is by Hildur Gudnadóttir who often worked with the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson — she played solo cello on Sicario and went on to compose Sicario 2.

The cast is strong and memorable, especially Zazie Beetz as Sophie, Fleck's single parent neighbour, a flower growing amongst the rubble.

But the bottom line is that I didn't walk out of the cinema after seeing the Joker with the feeling of exhilaration I get from a great movie. 
I explained this to myself by reflecting that Joker is so relentlessly bleak and dark — it's emotional tone is unvarying and deeply negative.

Yet you could say the same thing about Taxi Driver, which is a great movie and did leave me with just that feeling of exhilaration. 
I guess the answer is that Taxi Driver is touched with genius in a way that Joker, for all its power and virtues simply isn't. 

Returning to the controversy surrounding the Joker, apparently a lot of people object to the use on the soundtrack of a song by Gary Glitter, a convicted sex offender.

Personally, I wasn't troubled by that. But what did offend me was the scene where Fleck takes what I believe to be a six shot revolver and fires about ten rounds without reloading. 

It may seem trivial, but for me the movie quite never recovered from that gun gaffe.

Not least because, in a film so haunted by fantasies and hallucinations, I wondered if this was supposed to be a clue that the scene had never really taken place...

(Image credits: a healthy selection of posters at ImpAwards.)

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