When you’ve spent as many hours studying the effect of violent media on human behavior as I have, you cringe a little whenever people in power advocate for the censorship of popular entertainment. You cringe, because you understand that what’s on TV is but a cog in the overall wheel of socialization that determines how we process the world around us. You cringe, because you’ve witnessed the unintended consequences of public policy birthed from emotion rather than statistically significant evidence. And, finally, you cringe, because you can’t consciously support a philosophy that takes aim at an easy target while the real issues continue to simmer below the surface.
The reality is that we’re exposed to way too many words and images on a daily basis to lay all the blame on an industry whose intentions have more to do with financial gain than moral corruption. It’s a classic American tactic to either ban or declare war on something that is considered the next great crisis, but seldom is the ensuing plan executed in a way that suggests any thinking was done beyond the initial identification of the problem.
Which brings me to “Joker,” the film that has held the Internet hostage for a week and angered the hive mind more than any other film I’ve seen this year. Much has been written about its depiction of mental illness and how director Todd Phillips offers little insight into Arthur’s deteriorating condition, but I don’t feel as if Phillips has taken the mental health aspect any more or less seriously than the country at-large has in the past 50 years. The stigma is real and pretending that we’ve always been committed to treatment is a by-product of everything being viewed through a 2019 lens.
In fact, a massive wave of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s and 1980s actually led to mentally ill citizens being out on the streets without any community services to help them assimilate back into society. Jimmy Carter facilitated the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, but, by 1981, the year in which “Joker” is set, Reagan repealed the act, thus de-emphasizing the federal government’s role in formulating mental health policy. I’m not saying that help from the feds would have been up to par, but the move does say something about where the Reagan Administration’s priorities lied at that moment.
If we consider that context, watching Arthur wander aimlessly in search of a purpose appears to fit with how a lot of mentally ill Americans were treated during that time. He has no communal ties, no relationships beyond the gravitational pull of his mother, and no reason to believe that the system is built to include people like him in its success. His actions aren’t excused or condoned, but they aren’t all that far removed from what we’ve come to learn about certain mass shooters.
Whether you agree with the film’s vision or not, it’s hard to argue that Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t embody all of the anger, resentment, and frightening physicality of Arthur’s descent into madness brilliantly. He’s unhinged in a way that has led to numerous “Taxi Driver” comparisons, but, to me, he feels much more like DeNiro’s take on Max Cady in “Cape Fear” than Travis Bickle. Everything from his sinewy torso to the way he transitions from 0 to 100 with minimal provocation is mesmerizing and adds up to one of the finest performances of the year.
Some critics have accused Phillips of implying that all mentally ill people are violent or that the audience is supposed to sympathize with Arthur’s outbursts, but I don’t see it that way. The violence itself is jarring and Peckinpah-esque, which stands in direct contrast to how a lot of think pieces are making it sound. He’s telling an isolated story of a man whose illness left him susceptible to violent thoughts, so perhaps leaving the audience with a cold, unforgiving feeling upon exiting the theatre was the point all along.
Had this material been in the hands of a Scorsese or a Coppola, the expectation for a more penetrating macro-level examination would be appropriate, but that’s just not Phillips’ bag. He does what he does effectively and without a need to pander to the trolls who wish he would have never made the film in the first place. Phoenix himself has said that he wishes the film would have been titled “Arthur” instead of “Joker” and it’s easy to see why. The DC Universe brings with it a lot of fanboy bullshit that is vitriolic, destructive, and not worth the aggravation.
But that’s the reality of filmmaking in 2019. Social media has emboldened those with no tangible power to destroy anything that doesn’t jell with the hive’s idea of what acceptable entertainment should be. Sometimes, it feels like an awful lot of cultural criticism nowadays boils down to a bunch of writers trying to out-woke one another with their incessant hot takes, but I’m not interested in that. I encourage intellectual disagreement and don’t feel compelled to make others feel subhuman if they don’t share my worldview.
Jewish professor George Gerbner posited a theory called “Mean World Syndrome” in 1968 to describe how exposure to violent media didn’t necessarily make people more violent, but it did make them more fearful of being victimized due to seeing the world as a dangerous and frightening place. After seeing theatres beef up security and audiences initiate their own evacuations during weekend screenings of “Joker,” I can only imagine what the now-deceased Gerbner would have to say about where we’re at as a society.