I went to see the film “Joker” by myself last Monday with the intention of walking out of the theater with some kind of hot take on the influence of violence in popular culture. I’m not a journalist, okay? I don’t know how you guys do things. I wanted to try something new. Plus, I’ve never been to the movies by myself before. The elbow-room was nice.
There has been a lot of controversy about “Joker” and if it will inspire violence from the antisocial types associated with mass shootings. I was very ready to agree with this stance. I know that studies have not shown a strong connection between violent behavior and viewing violent content, and I know it was debunked that the shooter from the 2012 showing of “The Dark Night Rises” in Aurora, Colorado told police he was the Joker. It still seemed like DC films was making an edgy, irresponsible mistake though. And finally, I agree that fiction is a reshaping of life, not a creation of life. This language is from an interview with Stanley Kubrick regarding “A Clockwork Orange” right after the director pulled it from theaters in Britain in 1971. The film was pulled due to accusations of prompting copycat incidents—the same fear audiences have for the film “Joker.” Kubrick articulately describes the influence of fiction this way: “Art consists of reshaping life but it does not create life, nor cause life… people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their nature.”
I see you, Kubrick and I agree. We do not find new identity by consuming fiction; we do not become violent by viewing violence. Rather, we find belonging and understanding in the parts of us that already existed. Despite knowing these things, I was still pretty sure I was going to sit down and write about how not all of the parts of us deserve a home within fiction—especially the parts of white men who use random violence to feel seen.
Now that I’ve seen the film, I really can’t find that perspective in me anymore. Joaquin Phoenix played a character who is completely defeated by his mental illness and failed by his family and the healthcare system. I knew the scenes of violence were not going to be glamorized, as director Todd Phillips would probably get cancelled if they were—but every act of violence portrayed was pathetic, and horrible, and only incited more violence.
Yes, the Joker is a poorly adjusted loner who finds notoriety after committing violence. He’s rejected by women, bullied by kids and is only able to gain power through violence. This information can be found in the trailer for the film. If the story were as simple as the trailer, I’d be worried, too, that the film would incite more violence from incels, or other antisocial types seeking power. It’s not.
The story transcends a simple glorification of violence by putting pressure on Arthur’s (the Joker) life with poverty, mental illness, domestic abuse and an unusual laughing disorder. The character Arthur doesn’t express a belief that killing people will create a support system for him. His acts of violence happen in quick moments of desperation and hopelessness, rather than the planning and execution shown by domestic terrorists. Although an individual capable of a mass shooting may share those feelings of desperation and hopelessness, Arthur is not a character to be inspired by. He doesn’t claim any political motivations, doesn’t make any linear plans, and even in that final moment of glory, when the protesters cheer him on for the murders he has committed, there is an emptiness to the scene—as it seems like a completely insane person happened to be put under the right pressure at the right time. There are no killing tactics that can be copied; the pathetic Joker is blessed with too many cinematic conveniences.
Kubrick points out how much easier it is for politicians to blame media for issues caused by deep social and economic problems. The art our society makes is simply a reflection of these problems.
It would be convenient if we could prevent violence by censoring movies and it would be comforting if Arthur’s character had a linear and satiable motive for killing people. In reality, the bloody outbursts of dissatisfaction in our society are sourced from systematic problems. They run deeper than movies. The film “Joker” does a phenomenal job of reflecting the impact of poverty, loneliness, mental illness and wealth disparity as a source of evil and violence.