What’s Joker’s Joke?

Edward Curtin

Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?”
Rodriguez, “Cause”

It’s not funny, that’s for sure.

When I went to see Joker, the new Todd Philips’ film, there were five other people in the theater in the liberal, up-scale tourist town populated by wealthy second-home owners, exiles for the most part from Gotham City (NYC).

When the cave’s wall lit up, there was a string of shadows projected onto it, advertisements looping repetitively for the town’s “advantages,” specifically “living and working in the same community,” something next to impossible in the town except for the affluent people who didn’t want to see Joker, the story of a guy in New York City whose penurious and fragile existence belies the false innocence of the wealthy elites who deny succor to the suffering poor, as the obscene gap between them grows apace.

It occurred to me that Joker, with his keen eye for the ironic hypocrisies of all that surrounds him, would get a laugh out of these preliminary promotions, for he himself has a bit of a problem and no advantages living and working in NYC.

And he would understand why the rich would shun his story, having no doubt heard that it was violent, since they are squeamish about violence directed toward their kind, but great supporters of violence directed toward the poor around the world by the American military and at home by the police, both of whom work for them.

Such official violence, of course, is something that they never have to see because they live in doll houses constructed out of a vast tapestry of lies and illusions, where the windows don’t open out onto the wider suffering world but reflect inward their self-absorbed lives where people like Joker are invisible.

The repetitive shadows on the wall in the theater were advertising local services. Real estate, landscaping, high-end jewelry and furniture, lifestyle companies, architects – all the amenities of the rich and famous.

Like those who absented themselves from the theater so as to avoid a painful confrontation with truth, I knew violence was on the horizon and had to laugh at the services being offered before Joker made his first appearance.

It was my last laugh. I imagined him laughing also.

Then he was there, big as life, Joker, a man emaciated like a Giacometti sculpture portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, who from the moment he appears, brilliantly makes you realize that a poor and suffering thin man exists and attention must be paid.

The viewer is mesmerized from the start as Joker, aka Arthur Fleck – fleck: a small particle, a stain – tells us that “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore,” despite the seven medications he takes to ease his pain.

This “stain” on the social illusion of fairness and decency is a guy with no money or jewels to believe in, no real estate, no amenities, a guy who has no grass to be cut or beautiful plants to be tended to in his sad concrete apartment where he barely exists with his ill and deeply depressed mother whom he cares for.

“I don’t believe in anything,” he tells us, ironically echoing the unacknowledged nihilism of the upper classes.

But he has good reasons, while theirs are rooted in their worship of power and money that undergirds the capitalist system of exploitation that creates suffering souls like Arthur, whose mental illness reflects a social system that is insane and violent to its core.

It is no joke.

As I watched his story unfold, I recalled the time frame of the movie, the late 1970s or early 1980s, when my wife and I lived in NYC, subletting various apartments.

When we first arrived in our old car, friends put us up at their apartment. We had little money, and the first night when we stayed with our friends, we parked on the street and left most of our suitcases with all our belongings in the car overnight.

In the morning, all the suitcases had been stolen. Welcome to Gotham City.

While it felt like a liberation to me, as if now I could start a new life, my wife felt otherwise, as might you. But it was our introduction to NYC. And while we were young and educated and had the wherewithal to get jobs to pay the rent and live reasonably well, unlike Arthur Fleck, our time there was a wearing one.

The city seemed dirty, unsafe, depressed, depressing, and teetering on the edge of some sort of death. Hope seemed to have died along with the radical dreams of the 1960s when I lived there. After moving from one apartment to another all around Manhattan and Brooklyn, we had our sublet on West 103rd street broken into in broad daylight.

We were worn down by it all, and when we took a walk one day along the Hudson River in Riverside Park, we saw ahead of us three very large cats cross the walkway and a woman scream in terror at the sight.

As we got closer, we realized the cats were rats, and we took it as a sign to make our exit, as if Camus’ plague were encroaching.

So we did so shortly thereafter, borrowing a tent and heading to the country, never to return.

Poor Joker had no such option. He was trapped.

Fired from his day job as a clown at children’s parties and store closings, ridiculed and bullied by co-workers, friendless, he continues to dream of being a stand-up celebrity comic as he and his mother laugh at a late-night television talk show they are addicted to. They revere the host, and Arthur dreams of appearing on his show and making his breakthrough in comedy.

Laugh or cringe as we may, their reverence for the host, played by Robert DeNiro, reflects American’s dirty open secret: the adoration of celebrities and the wealthy.

Life goes from bad to worse for the two of them, becoming a total nightmare, and the viewer is drawn into its dream-like confusion, never being sure what is real and what are Arthur’s hallucinations.

Fact and fiction meld in a transmogrification that is film’s specialty. Like life today in a screen culture, one’s mind vacillates and one wanders through it – or is it Arthur’s mind – wondering if what is happening in society is actual or virtual.

The viewer feels like he is Arthur/Joker while observing him, a perfect experience of the schizophrenic state of American life today.

The suffering Arthur Fleck is abandoned by a cruel American society whose political order cares not a whit for its regular people, and in a penultimate scene when Arthur is appearing on a late-night television show where the snide and condescending host mocks him and his attempt at comedy, Joker says to the host:

Comedy is subjective, Murray. Isn’t that what they say? All of you, the system that knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong. The same way that you decide what’s funny or not.

In that quote lies our current fate, the relativistic dark night that has descended on our world since Nietzsche issued his warning about the encroaching nihilism.

The system that knows and controls so much decides human truth and what is good and evil, always of course, deciding in its own favor, even to suggest that all is woe and all hope is gone while heading to the bank with its ill-begotten lucre.

This is the void that frames the film, the nihilistic void that so many wish to avoid. To question. To ask themselves where their culpability lies and what is it, beyond creature comforts and social acceptance, that they truly believe. To understand why jokers like Arthur pop up everywhere.

But people like Arthur get pushed and pushed to the brink, and they look over and see nothing, not even their own reflections in the water, and conclude that that their only hope is to strike back at the people who personify the systemic violence that reduces them to non-entities.

After being tormented by three Wall St. types on the subway while in his clown costume, he finally strikes back and kills them. This gains him anonymous notoriety which he starts to relish.

“For my whole life I didn’t know I even really existed,” he says, “but I do. People are starting to notice.”

Of course they aren’t noticing Arthur, but the masked clown whom they now fear. For Joker is the ultimate ironist, a man without a face, the faceless modern, just as all those who hide behind their wealth and public performances are masked actors in a bad play, one they try to control but which sometimes gets out of hand.

For those who say the film encourages violence, I say no; it holds a mirror up to the violence that undergirds the system of economic and political exploitation that already exists.

Of course this too is ironic for a Hollywood movie.

Like the films that it echoes – Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Network – Joker, like all good works of art, is open to polysemous interpretations. It encourages introspection and extrospection.

It asks viewers to question themselves and their part in the social charade that passes for a just and equitable society. It asks viewers to contemplate Dr. Martin Luther King’s statement that is as true now as when he uttered it:

“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: My own government. I cannot be silent.”

The joker’s joke is no joke at all. It is deadly serious.

When Arthur Fleck says, “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy,” and unleashes his murderous violent rage with a Joker’s smile, he was turning into those he condemned as his oppressors. Their nihilism became his own; their violence his.

The film asks us to contemplate such a marriage of seeming opposites, its dialectic, and not turn away from the faces in the mirror.

Have you ever noticed that it is the most civilized gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers, to whom the Attilas and the Stenka Razins could not hold a candle, and if they are not so conspicuous as the Attilas and Stenka Razins it is simply because they are so often met with, are so ordinary and have become so familiar to us,”

….says Dostoevsky’s Underground man.

But where are the rats?
Quick, send in the rats.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

They have taken complete ownership of Gotham City.


If you enjoy OffG's content, please help us make our monthly fund-raising goal and keep the site alive.

For other ways to donate, including direct-transfer bank details click HERE.

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jul 14, 2021 10:26 AM

One of the reasons for people to fear the “great evil” Joker, is not necessarily because of the times he bathed in Gotham’s blood or because he possesses a smile whose sound haunts the bones of the opposite person. The scariest thing is that this crazy clown forces people to face the darkest part of themselves. taming io

Brian Steere
Brian Steere
Nov 14, 2019 1:30 PM

Victim and victimiser are the split mind from which we meet and suffer a split world. Unless we see the Cast within ourself we must embody its script of the attempt to cast it out. I haven’t seen the film. It is possible to reveal truths in a context intended to undermine the consciousness of those who invest attention and involvement. In other words to condition the audience under plausible deniability. Because to reveal truths can set the teller in a position of framing them or framing a hidden agenda in them. I see that as pervasive to Hollywood Movies and a lot of it is ‘market driven’ in that once a meme is established it runs itself. The purpose in looking honestly at the loveless of hateful intent and hating receipt – is to undo it AS a foundation from which to live. This doesn’t occur to the wish… Read more »

Philip Roddis
Philip Roddis
Nov 13, 2019 9:19 AM

Outstanding as ever. Thanks Ed. I haven’t seen the film but will now make a point of doing so.

If it’s screening your side of the pond, I recommend the more microcosmic glimpse of capitalism’s casual heartlessness offered by Ken Loach’s, Sorry We Missed You.

Nov 11, 2019 5:08 PM

This must be the place for a real modern paychopaths quote I just read, cinematic reference too,

‘She left open the possibility of a presidential run in 2020. “I would have been a good president, so obviously that lives in the back of my head. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure we retire the current incumbent.” ‘

Nov 11, 2019 2:47 AM

Thank you Mr Curtin for such a deep and thoughtful review.

Nov 11, 2019 1:33 AM

I take it that like most other folk…..Mr Joker isn’t living in a small hut in the wilds, catching his own fish and for fun, reading omens in the clouds…..though perhaps he was, but at sometime somewhere up river they diverted the flow, all turned to dust and was reliant on aid drops, after losing most of his family in a coup , the only work he could find was at a copper-cobolt mine where he leaned that the car manufacturers wanted these precious minerals for battery power , so he earned enough to bribe a seamen and was smugled out of the country where on landing and telling his story, he was given asylum and found work in a factory that processed chicken for a well known fast food outlet, am not sure if he voted, or if he did who for, but he dreamed of bettering himself, a… Read more »

Nov 10, 2019 3:33 PM

What an excellent review.

Anonymous Bosch
Anonymous Bosch
Nov 10, 2019 9:37 PM
Reply to  lundiel

I agree !

Nov 10, 2019 9:52 PM

“anonymous bosch” good one. i used to use ironymous bosch 🙂

Anonymous Bosch
Anonymous Bosch
Nov 10, 2019 10:26 PM
Reply to  nomad

He lives on. . . . . .

Betrayed planet
Betrayed planet
Nov 10, 2019 1:57 PM

The ascent of the human animal was a dreadful mistake. Opposing thumbs and an aptitude for language along with an across the board higher IQs has made it possible for us to reach this ridiculous place. We are a deeply flawed greedy hedonistic species whose selfishness and greed have gotten us to this point of extinction. My personal opinion is that we will not be around too much longer, either climate change ( starvation) or nuclear war will finish us off and though this used to upset me greatly I now believe it would be a blessing. Suffering , cruelty and the utterly blind incomprehensible stupidity of the masses in the face of daily psychopathy is now becoming the main feature of our lives on the planet we have successfully destroyed. Glyphosate is now in every river, every stream, in our water, in our organs and those of every other… Read more »

An Aussie Joker
An Aussie Joker
Nov 10, 2019 7:12 PM

we do not have the integrity to survive.

The Aussie Joker, for instance, is chicken salt muncher who submissively cowers in front of the TV waiting for $500 bribe every three years, being gradually stripped from empathy, stripped from the power to speak, willingly or unwillingly? abandoning all forms of true self-expression.

Gezzah Potts
Gezzah Potts
Nov 10, 2019 9:16 AM

Over 5 years ago, I sat in a cinema in Adelaide watching John Pilger’s important film Utopia; about the treatment of the Aboriginal people in their own country, about their disenfranchisement, and about the attitudes of Australians to their plight. Three of us sat in that cinema. 3. I was dumbfounded, and asked a lady near me ‘where is everyone, why arn’t more people here’? She replied: “they don’t care, and they don’t want to know, because it’d be too confronting for them to know”. I walked out of that cinema into the main shopping strip in Adelaide. Literally thousands of people, all loaded down with 3 or 4 shopping bags from all the nearby ritzy Boutiques. All these people – even walking straight past a couple of homeless people begging. Completely oblivious or pretending not to see. I’ll never forget that. Edward – again, a great article. Was also… Read more »

Anonymous Bosch
Anonymous Bosch
Nov 10, 2019 10:31 PM
Reply to  Gezzah Potts

It’s a wonder that Pilger is not currently banged up in some “correctional” institute – along with the likes of Aaron Mate and Max Blumenthal , our John is one of a rare bread – a journalist and true progressive.

Anonymous Bosch
Anonymous Bosch
Nov 10, 2019 10:32 PM

typo there – should read “rare breed”

Gezzah Potts
Gezzah Potts
Nov 10, 2019 10:57 PM

True AB. Look at the recent cyber attacks on this very site. Look at the attacks on other independent sites, the suspension or banning of Twitter and FB accounts, the censorship of YouTube videos, the outright smearing of people like Eva Bartlett, and even John Pilger here in Aussie. The psychopaths are trying to maintain control of the narrative. They want to scare people into silence.
Went to a meeting in support of Julian Assange yesterday. It was pointed out how Pinochet was treated when he was in the UK, juxtaposed with how Julian Assange has been treated.
The contrast couldn’t be more stark.

Anonymous Bosch
Anonymous Bosch
Nov 11, 2019 1:35 AM
Reply to  Gezzah Potts

Julian Assange – Prisoner A9379AY – HMP Belmarsh – Western Way – London SE28 0EB – letters must be handwritten with no enclosures – whether he will get to read it is another matter though. . . . . .

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum
Nov 10, 2019 6:46 AM

For the vast majority of Americans the ‘American dream’ remains exactly that, a dream.
They have been hoodwinked.

Heathen Tinker
Heathen Tinker
Nov 10, 2019 11:54 AM
Reply to  Fair dinkum

As the late great George Carlin said, it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it

Zoran Aleksic
Zoran Aleksic
Nov 11, 2019 9:08 PM
Reply to  Fair dinkum

But what is the American dream? A pursuit of bettering oneself intellectually or morally, enriching ones’ spirituality? For most of my countymen driving trucks in the US, the dream is alive and well. Maybe the definition of the dream needs revision.

Nov 10, 2019 4:10 AM

Current and past dystopias are nothing to what is coming. You cannot have third world demographics and first world standards. The level of inequality already exceeds by far that of the Gilded Age, even that of Dickensian times. The coastal Uber Rich will continue business as usual for some time to come in their gated and guarded compounds. But even they can see the writing on the wall, and have already organised their bolt holes and funk holes in New Zealand. For the rest, an ever expanding archipelago of Chris Hedges sacrifice zones, full of the homeless, destitute and hopeless, knee deep in human excrement, full of tapeworm and TB, drugs and guns. In short, Trump’s sh**holes. Welcome to the Third World States of America, sort of like Cairo or Islamabad, but without the sunshine. Not much different from Third World London or Third World France, or Third World Germany,… Read more »