So my friend Mher wanted my review of Joker. The movie has got me thinking and rethinking the definition of art versus propaganda. I’ve long held and still hold that art and politics are separate modes. Art is the explication of an irrational human truth. Politics is about the negotiation of power among interest groups, and it has an agenda. Art has no agenda, though it can be marshaled for political use. Repeat: art has no agenda. A creative product is art to the extent that it approaches human emotional truth. Guillermo del Toro said that art is disobedience, and this strikes me as correct. Insofar as art is received as obedience, either as avoiding political incitement or indulging in it, it fails. If someone tells you what the correct political stance is for an artist, tell them to get lost. I know of at least one famous artist who holds that the best art is political. Nah. The best art is subversive. As a political weapon, it is treacherous — unless your political opponents really are unapologetic liars.
However, the political context _can_ help illuminate art, as a part of the story.
So, Joker, and its context. The movie is popular. People are hungry for the truth, even if it’s unpleasant, and it puts a lot of truth on the screen. My father was director of day mental health at Providence in Portland, serving the chronically mentally ill. I remember going to visit his office, meeting the chain-smoking outpatients, people with odd tics, lucid one minute and disassociating the next. My father was a firm, compassionate figure to them. Their plight stirred his pity and broke his heart. When his staff would bitch about their petty issues, he would come down on them, recalling them to their duty to serve and to appreciation for their sanity. My father confided in me that he would rather die of cancer than undergo the hell that many of his schizophrenic patients suffered. Well, you know what they say about getting what you wish for.
Arthur could have been one of my dad’s patients. Joaquin Phoenix thoroughly convinced me.
In the late seventies, the Carter administration legislated de-institutionalization for a huge number of mentally ill. Many people think that it was Reagan, but no, it was Carter. What the Reagan administration did was pull the funding for treatment and subsidized housing needed to make it work. No doubt the Democrats thought they’d scored a coup: no way our countrymen will put up with armies of muttering psychotics stranded homeless and helpless on the streets of their major cities. The Republicans will suffer for this betrayal. We’re better than that!
No, we weren’t. And no, we aren’t.
The best art speaks loudest in its caesura. The silence between the notes. It sets up the emotional experience. You, the viewer, complete it. Some critics have called Joker cynical and nihilistic. But that’s their experience. I found it moving. The most cogent review I’ve read so far states that Joker is profoundly moral. It tells a dismaying truth, and it relies on you to fill its silences with an internal plea for more kindness and understanding in Arthur’s world. None of the grim violence is gratuitous.
The vast majority of my father’s patients, like most of the mentally ill, were peaceful. But I remember one woman who was committed to the state hospital and to his therapy who had killed both her parents. They had been psychotic and abusive. The inconsistent attention, the arbitrary reward and abuse, warps a kid. Children of psychotic parents tend to become borderlines. Their normative environment is insane, and a personality disorder is their accommodation to it. Arthur’s mother failed to shield him from physical and probably sexual abuse (I didn’t catch all the material shown from her case file). Whether she actually was the mistress of Thomas Wayne was irrelevant ultimately, both to her culpability and Wayne’s failure to engage Arthur with compassion. They both — the “sane” rich man and the troubled mom — allowed him to bear the cost of their moral failure.
Wayne, Arthur, and his mother are all guilty. Joker is not some polemic about how society made Arthur what he is. It’s just a convincing tragedy about a man who is cruelly isolated, and thwarted in his attempts to assert his human dignity through means other than violence. And Arthur has dignity and dreams, for all that he’s a deplorable monster too.
The movie doesn’t seem to have incited the violence that pundits feared it would. Having seen it, I’m not surprised. Maybe it has actually forestalled some violence. A dose of compassion and truth can do that. I’ve engaged people across the political spectrum who take a different view: “No,” they say, “we shouldn’t talk about that issue. It gives comfort to the enemy. It emboldens the heathens or incels. We should hound them and de-platform them.” Maybe. I’m usually not circumspect enough. It’s good to be cautious. But fear gets in the way of kindness and understanding. Only you know what you need. Me, I needed this.