Warning: This post contains spoilers about the film
Smile though your heart is aching,
Smile even though it’s breaking,
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through,
Light up your face with gladness,
Hide every trace of sadness,
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying.
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile,
If you just smile,
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile,
If you just smile.
I was persuaded this week by my son to see Joker*, he thought that it might be my kind of film.
The hero is alienated and struggling to survive in the modern world, tries to live as a clown, is ground down by the economic machine, gets fired (and misuses a clocking on/off machine), fantasises about living with his girl (shown as scenes in the film), is on the run from the police, says that he craves the sanctuary of the institution, gets caught in a street riot and is mistaken for their leader, performs on stage in a way no one expects, has a breakdown and gets incarcerated. The song Smile is played during this story of an alienated, bullied, ridiculed and beleaguered outsider. This film is called Modern Times (1936) and was written by and starred Charlie Chaplin in his last outing as the Tramp (he composed the tune Smile for the film – the words were not written until 1954.).
Joker (2019) is Modern Times played as a tragedy. In the opening scene Arthur Fleck (who becomes Joker), is in his social worker’s office making a noise like a hyena with tears running down his face. Is he laughing or crying? He seems to have an affliction that makes him laugh maniacally and loudly whenever he is anxious. His random high pitched cackle disconcerts others – do you think this is funny? – and draws him into confrontation. He carries a laminated card on which it is printed ‘Forgive me I have a brain injury’ to hand out at moments of such tension. This is a man who seems to only laugh at the not-funny.
His ambition is to be a stand-up comedian. The fatal drawback is that he does not know what it is to make other people laugh. When he tells his infirm mother, with whom he lives, that he is going to be a stand-up she replies ‘but don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?’. He keeps a joke-book that contains the gag ‘I hope my death makes more cents than my life’. He has a job as a Clown-for-hire (called Carnival) and when he dons his costume he paints a red smile around his down-turned mouth. Notwithstanding that he suffered an abusive childhood and has been an inmate in the asylum, is surviving on meds, lives in a grotty apartment, loses his job and keeps being beaten up, his mother’s nickname for him (because she has misinterpreted his laughter as authentic) is ‘Happy’. When Arthur runs with the splayed-out feet of Chaplin’s floppy-toed tramp he is more pathetic than funny. Arthur exhibits the signs and trappings of comedy only he has no access to actual laughter. ‘Happy’ may be smiling without, but he is crying within.
When Arthur eventually makes it onto the stage at the Pogos comedy club he freezes, laughs maniacally, looks with blank desperation at his joke-book and stutters out one gag to an embarrassed, silent audience. The joke he manages (originally delivered by the English stand-up Bob Monkhouse) is: They laughed when I told them I wanted to be a comedian – well they’re not laughing now. It is at this point that the song Smile is played. This Joker’s smile certainly does not light up his face with gladness, nor hide any trace of sadness, nor will it make his life worthwhile. Irony inverts this song from hope to grotesque callousness. Smile in Modern Times is sentimental and uplifting, in Joker it is a bitter, savage irony. At the end of the film Arthur is asked by a psychiatrist for the cause of his laughter, he replies that she would not understand the joke.
The opening title to Modern Times reads Modern Times: a story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness. The film is a satire on the dehumanising alienation of the modern economic machine. Chaplin inventively makes the tramp outcast antic and his adventures ludic. When his tramp goes on stage as a singing waiter he has lost the cuffs on which he had pre-written his lyrics and so he improvises with a nonsense song. The tramp gets literally stuck as a cog in the machine: Chaplin is at his pantomimic, silent, inventive, clownish, impish, comedic best.
Arthur Fleck on the other hand desperately tries to access his inner comedy, but is unable – he is in a film from which the carnivalesque has been ripped out from its heart. Joker is set in the early 1980s in a grimy Gotham City suffering a garbage collection strike. Thomas Wayne (a billionaire, and Bruce’s father) is running for mayor and says on TV ‘Those of us who have made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t and see nothing but clowns’. While Wayne and his wealthy chums thrive there are city-wide cuts to social work and health care. Both the fat rats and the fat cats are flourishing in this town. When three Wall Street young bucks beat up Arthur (dressed as a clown) on the subway (one of them while singing the Sondheim tune Send in the Clowns), he shoots two in self defence and murders the third. The reaction next day by most of the residents of Gotham is to applaud. The down-trodden begin demonstrating, and rioting, in clown masks. When Arthur goes to confront Thomas Wayne at a society fund raiser, about the treatment that was meted out to Arthur’s mother some years before, row upon row of self-satisfied burghers are laughing uproariously at a screening of Modern Times. These capitalists condemn the alienated man on the street while laughing with him on the screen.
The song My Name is Carnival by Jackson C. Frank plays when Arthur is packing up his bag after being unjustly fired (the fat woman frowns/at screaming frightened clowns). Laughing by The Guess Who is heard (I should laugh, but I cry/I didn’t realise that you were laughing). Meanwhile a video of Arthur’s catastrophic stand-up routine has made its way to the late-night host Murray Franklin who plays it to his audience who laugh at not with Arthur. Bob Monkhouse’s family were not laughing any more because Monkhouse made it as a comedian. Arthur Fleck’s audience were not laughing because he was not funny. Franklin’s audience were laughing at Arthur only to abuse and mock. Invited onto the show Arthur walks on, as the house band play Chaplin’s Smile, and shoots Franklin dead.
Superhero movies (of which happily this is not one) stand for the good over the bad. Here we troublingly travel with a murderer, with whom we empathise, but who’s actions become detestable. Is he a victim or victimiser? Is he the spokesman for the downtrodden or a serial killer? Arthur both absorbs and inflicts pain. When he suffocates with a pillow his hospitalised mother is he putting her out of her misery or enacting revenge? He kills her with the words ‘I used to think my life was a tragedy, now I realise it’s a comedy’.
In Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs (1869) a young boy in seventeenth century England called Gwynplaine undergoes a surgical operation which sculpts his face into a laughing rictus. He is sold to a group of travellers and as an adult he travels as a freak with the circus – his static face is highly lucrative ‘every one who saw Gwynplaine held his side; he spoke, and they rolled on the ground’. He displays the permanent mask of mirth and this appearance of laughter contagiously prompts the laughter of others. The audience come and stamp their feet and clap their hands and laugh ‘it seemed almost an epidemic’. He has a blind girlfriend who by touching his facial smiling deformity concludes he is perpetually happy and loves him. But Gwynplaine never laughs in the novel. He is the laughing man rendered unhappy by the laughter he triggers. Gwynplaine is the perpetual laughter-inducing sad man. Arthur Fleck is the perpetual sadness-inducing laughing man. The Man Who Laughs was made into a silent film in 1928 by the German Expressionist Paul Leni and the part of Gwynplaine was played by Conrad Veidt. In 1994 Bob Kane said in an interview that he, Jerry Robinson and Bill Finger had created the look for The Joker (in the original DC comics) from a photograph of the face of Conrad Veidt with his artificial smile as the Man Who Laughs.
Joker is a film in which the accessories of comedy are present: smiles, laughter, comedians, clowns but nothing is funny. This is a film with no play or pleasure, never festive or ludic. The whole film involves inverting the comic and the brutal and reversing the happy and the sad. This is a joker without jokes, a clown without clowning, a laugher without laughs, a comedian that is not funny, a sad man called Happy. The opposite of comedy is earnestness with its grounded props of morality, order, reason and meaning. But Arthur is striving instead for that domain of chaos and disruption called comedy. Unable to access it he turns instead to another type of disorder and nihilism called violence. As he cannot be the agent of chaos through comedy he becomes the agent of chaos though killing. The film adds an ‘s’ to laughter and makes slaughter. The tragedy of the film is that had Arthur been able to tell some jokes all things may have been put to right.
At the Venice Film Festival Joker scooped the top prize Golden Lion. In America the film’s critical reception has been one of revilement and misunderstanding. But my son was spot on – I loved it.
Send in the Clowns.
*Joker (2019) Warner Bros. Dir. by Todd Phillips, written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Francis Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Nero. The film also borrows heavily for its aesthetic and ideas from two Martin Scorsese films – Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, but I’m less interested in that aspect.