MOST OF THE MAIN PLOTS ARE DISCUSSED IN THIS ARTICLE
Back in October of this year, the UK cinemas were graced by the showing of Joker (2019). An origin story depicting the becoming of Batman’s arch nemesis the Joker. When I watched this film, it struck me as having the makings of a cult classic. The film intends to shine a sympathetic light by portraying the would be Joker as a victim of very grim and dire life circumstances.
If the postmodernists would have it, there would be near infinite ways of interpreting this film especially because it gives us many themes to work with. Its themes are mental health, suicide, class divisions between rich and poor, class war and revenge all mixed in and played out in Gotham city; a dystopian sh**hole if I ever saw one! Yes, the film does come with a generous helping of profanity.
This article is a review of the film peered through the lens of absurdism in which I’ll be drawing inspiration from the bible of absurdism; The Myth of Sisyphus.
Defining the absurd
To understand this article we must define absurdism. Absurdism is a philosophy that can be applied to a broad range of situations provided it meets this condition: as a confrontation between disproportional elements the absurd lies in neither of the elements compared, or to put in another way, the absurd lies not in man or the world but in the bond between their presence. ‘It is that divorce between the mind that desire and the world that disappoints’ as Camus said.
“If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd. But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intentions and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view” – Albert Camus
The relationship between humanity and the universe is what I call the grand absurd to distinguish from the wide application of the absurd. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition on the absurd which I found fitting:
“the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe. The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.” – Wikipedia entry on absurdism
The absurdity of the film
The conditions and situations of our protagonist, Arthur Fleck, encounters in his day-to-day life are f*cking dire: Arthur works a dead-end job as a clown promoting advertisements for a talents agency, while working wearing his clown get up Arthur is often taunted and laughed at by the public and on the same day the man gets beaten up on the job by a gang of youths. His condition causes him to laugh inappropriately often getting him into trouble and he takes seven medications to combat his mental illness.
He’s a struggling middle-aged man living with his sick mother Penny, who he must care for frequently when he comes back home from work with the consequence of sacrificing his leisure time. They both live in a rundown apartment in Gotham, the lifts often malfunction and the area is under threat from a plague of super rats and to top it all off all this is only the first part of the film!
Arthur loves to write down jokes, a one liner that is promoted often throughout the film is ‘I hope my death makes more cents than my life’ is this hinting at contemplations to commit suicide or just a reflection of his dark humour? As time carries on in his sub-illustrious life, Arthur has no choice but to carry it all with him because he chooses to carry on living for his ambitions.
In one scene, Arthur and his mother watch television of their favourite talk show host Murray Franklin.
Arthur begins day-dreaming as he’s watching Murray, he imagines himself in the audience eventually being asked to stand up and introduce himself by Murray. Murray is portrayed in the day-dream as genuinely sympathetic towards Arthur telling him ‘that there’s something special about you Arthur, I can tell’, not thinking less of him because he lives with his mother and upon break time tells him he’d give up show business to have a son like him. It’s obvious his role model is Murray Franklin.
In the same day-dream, Arthur reveals his ambitions, his meaning in life as just wanting to spread joy and laughter with aspirations for a shot at stand-up comedy.
But more unfortunate events strike Arthur when his performance entertaining kids at a children’s hospital goes down south because a concealed gun slips from his trousers; not only was it embarrassing but he was fired from his job!
Travelling home from work in the subway, Arthur comes across three yuppie youths who assault him because of his uncontrollable laughter. Arthur kills all three of them with his gun and their deaths are reported by the networks of Gotham; mourned by the elite and celebrated by the downtrodden.
We must pause and think here, our Arthur gets more disrespect than even Rodney Dangerfield plus a victim of physical assaults. That’s the story of his life! no respect at all! New miseries assail him before he’s freed himself of his immediate ones.
Despite these terrible circumstances, Arthur’s pursuit and performance in stand up comedy is his justification for carry on living and go along with what meagre means he has. As Nietzsche said ‘we have art in order not to die of the truth.’
“In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world.” – Albert Camus
Gradually awakening to the absurd.
After taking care of business, Arthur comes home to find his mother being rushed into an ambulance, he accompanies her to the hospital. While waiting by her side, Murray Franklin appears on the TV and plays Arthur’s excerpts from Pogo’s comedy club. Each of Arthur’s excerpts is ridiculed by Murray. Slowly Arthur realises that his hero, his imagined sympathetic role model is actually using him as material to be made fun of for all of Gotham to see. Looking up, staring into the screen we see in Arthur’s face a deep inner pain.
Later that night, we then see him bedridden coming to terms with this absurd realisation. Like Camus says about Sisyphus, he ‘knows the whole extent of his wretched condition.’ The same goes for our protagonist, he’s aware of all this misfortune happening to him which makes it all the more tragic but this accumulation of miseries and broken expectations contribute to his eventual awakening of the absurd.
Eventually Arthur gets a phone call and is invited to Murray’s show but before that, he sets out to find more out about his past by stealing the records from a clerk at Arkham state hospital. He finds out he’s adopted because he was abandoned and suffered beatings tied up to a radiator by Penny’s boyfriend as an infant. What he was lead to believe about his life was a lie, another turn of events making life intolerable.
He visits his fake mother at the hospital and proceeds to suffocate her with a pillow. Arthur finally delivers this absurdist punchline:
‘I used to think my life was a tragedy. But now, I realize, it’s a f-cking comedy.’
It was he, with the help of no one else, who awakened to the absurd and liberated himself in his own grim idiosyncratic way. What was liberated? his mind, because it was freed from the attachments clinging him to the past and his new radical attitude in perceiving the world.
Arthur is shown rehearsing in preparation for his upcoming debut on Murray’s show. His ‘rehearsal’ is a knock, knock joke followed by blowing his brains out with his gun, he plans to go out with a bang committing suicide on stage and live television.
“…killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.” – Albert Camus
The absurd laughing clown
In his realisation of the absurd nature of reality, I will call Arthur Joker interchangeably from now on.
‘From the moment absurdity is recognised, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all’ – Albert Camus
The Joker does not reject passion but embraces passion. His passion is personal freedom which came with an attitude of indifference to checks and consequences on his behavior. In the act of killing his adopted mother he severed the attachment anchoring him to his past and also he stops taking his medications. The severing of past attachments and commitments creates a void. This void created by his realisation of the absurd is his opportunity to reinvent himself; ‘a man defines himself by his make believe’.
Judging by his behaviour thereafter, he treats not just his life but existence itself as one great comedy, Camus quotes Oedipus: ‘I conclude that all is well’ and that was certainly what Joker’s disposition was as he jauntily dances down the public steps on his way to Murray Franklin’s show.
When Joker finally meets and greets Murray Franklin face to face Murray asks him ‘what’s with the face are you apart of the protest?’ to which Joker replies ‘no I don’t believe in any of that, I don’t believe in anything’
Subtle I know, but this drop confirms his fresh nihilistic outlook indicated by his relinquishment, not just from stand-up comedy and show business, but of everything; we believe in nothing Lebowski!
The time has come and all the studio cameras are rolling, Joker makes his entrance on stage and sits down with Murray. After a long pause Joker says ‘this is exactly how I imagined it’ probably the only real outcome that conformed to his expectations.
Eventually the knock, knock joke begins to be told and you’d expect from the rehearsals that he’ll pull out his gun to blow his brains out on live television… except that did not happen instead he told a dark joke which was not received well by Murray nor the audience. Shortly after, Joker admitted that it was he who killed those men in the subway. That’s when the tone of the atmosphere starts to change, Murray hopes that it’s a joke and there’s a punchline to it but Joker says there’s no punchline.
Murray asks why should we believe his claim to murder:
‘I have nothing left to lose, nothing can hurt me anymore, my life is nothing but a comedy.’
On stage and live television Joker tells Murray and everyone that he found killing those yuppies funny and was sick to pretend that it was not. The Joker is serious, he does not pretend when others tell him to be something that he’s not, Joker values his authenticity, his self authorship. Joker’s mind rebels against the conventional norms of society, he’s like a psychotic Diogenes of Sinope. In reviewing that whole incident, did he not kill the yuppies out of self-defence? that’s somehow not brought up.
Anyway, there was a part when Joker tells Murray that comedy is subjective, in his relativism, funny is whatever makes you laugh despite what the other guy thinks. In ancient Rome, people would have cried out with amusement and laughter at the spectacle of a lion tearing out the guts of a gladiator or the mauling of defenseless Christians.
Murray asks did he kill them for political reasons showing that he was not listening earlier when Joker stated ‘no I don’t believe in any of that, I don’t believe in anything’
He tells everyone the reason why he killed them was because they were awful, Joker’s passion rushes on Murray’s stage, his passion was that of indignation: ‘if it was me dying on the sidewalk you’d walk right over me’ Joker continues rambling on critiquing society.
Murray tells him not everyone is awful, Joker looks right into his once cherished icon’s eyes and tells him ‘you’re awful Murray’
Murray losing patience tells someone to call the police, Joker tells him one last joke which included blowing Murray’s brains out. In the ensuing chaos, we see the film zoom out from the TV studio’s backdrop, showing multiple TV screens reporting the breaking news from different broadcast networks amid the sound of distant police sirens.
The arrested Joker is saved when an ambulance crashes into the police car carrying Joker, the rioters free him. He then dances to a cheering crowd of rioters and looters; his real audience. Eventually he’s detained in Arkham Asylum and the film ends there.
The absurdity of the whole thing
Arthur craved fame through the path of established authenticity: by obeying the rules, working hard and currying favor from the top dogs. Now as the Joker, all that goes crashing out the window. He fears none of the consequences of arrest and incarceration but enjoys the freedom of just living; even amid chaos, unrest and utter anarchy.
No longer wishing for the transcendental purpose of becoming a famous stand up comedian. By killing Murray Franklin, he killed the living personification of his dead ambition.
Arthur imagined his life would turn out well once he finally gets his foot in the door and became a stand up comedian but when the events of his lived reality unfolded it never happened. The Joker is the result of Arthur’s absurdist awakening coming to terms with the reality that disappointed his dreams.
The future in an absurd universe is ever uncertain, Arthur could never have imagined that he’d end up hating and eventually killing Murray… but it did happen and instead of fame he got infamy.
Through his repeated failures and setbacks Joker found himself. Rather than trying to find a specific meaning or purpose out there in the world, the Joker finds his life and everything else as just a comedy. It was not just any comedy, but his own created comedy with himself being the sole audience; we’ll never get the joke because its an inside joke.
Arthur/Joker truly is the absurd man because in spite of his upbringing, ill-treatment, unfortunate turn of events, broken dreams he refused to end his life by suicide and instead came out smiling. It must have been one hell of a revolution going on in Arthur’s psyche over a short space of time to reinvent himself as a new man in his ideal authentic self, we all know that when he became Joker he never looked back.
As Camus said: ‘Goethe’s works in ten thousand years will be dust and his name forgotten’ so it is with everything in this universe. The Jokeresque absurdism can only but laugh at the spectacle of people’s pursuit for meaning in a universe bereft of any inherent objective meaning at all!
One must imagine Arthur happy; but no need to imagine Joker happy!