Getting the Joke
It’s the police ma’m, your son has been hit by a drunk driver. He’s dead.
Whoever came up with this for the movie Joker was probably trying to think of the worst joke ever.
Why do we laugh? What makes anything funny? There is a big rule that says mothers should love their children. We know that it is a rule because you do not make fun of a mother’s love. Yet isn’t transgression what makes something funny, going against the rules somehow harmlessly, innocently, wisely?
Surely different people find different things funny because they have a different relationship to society’s rules. The sexy comedians that Arthur hopelessly seeks to emulate would definitely not laugh at this joke, as doesn’t the great Murray Franklin. Arthur finds it hilarious. He has written the joke in his diary and ended up reading it in front of millions just before blowing off the head of all those who disagree.
Still, mothers have Freudian reasons to hate their children, even to want them dead, and laughing is always better than acting out. There certainly is enough suffering in the world to turn cries into pathological laughter. So, maybe, if we could find some sympathy for this terrible joke, we would not have societies that fail time and time again, societies so insane that make the psychopath look sane. Children, young and old, would be loved not because you’ll be punished in hell for not loving them, but because you’re allowed to love them. Because they exist.
Todd Phillips has said that the only time Arthur laughs genuinely is right at the end of the movie. He exists. We are shown the birth of Batman, a phallic picture of little Bruce who stands motionless, emotionless, rising above Father and Mother’s dead bodies. In this case, what’s funny seems to be that the parents have gotten what they deserve; and rather than telling this joke to his therapist, who ‘wouldn’t get it’, Arthur lives the more realistic dream of murdering this mother figure too, celebrating, dancing to Frank Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’, mimicking a sexual conquest, and teasing the mental hospital staff. That’s the end of the movie or where we are at as a species.
Joker is apolitical because it is amoral. The point is obviously not the death of anyone in particular, but the death of these symbols, the moral basis for an all-too-human suffering, enslavement and existential despair. Thomas Wayne summarises it on TV in a self-defeating speech about this ‘one family’ that is Gotham. Fathers don’t really want to be Batman, always serious, working to save society from an infestation of ‘super rats’. Mothers don’t really want to be Joker, always smiling, and pumping out children for Batman, the playboy hero. Likewise, a part of your parents doesn’t want you, just as you don’t want them. And a part of you wants to die — perhaps run over by a drunk driver — because you are horrified at this comedy.
The movie seems clear that traditional parenting is a joke. Arthur’s mother seems young and seductive enough to be his lover instead, and Bruce’s parents too old to be his real parents. No real parents means no romance. It means none of the classical hero’s journeys were ever true, only the product of a traumatised imagination. Batman is a masked hero, but his legitimate father declares on TV that hiding behind a mask is abject cowardice. Indeed, from all the confusion around his affair with Penny, we can only conclude that Thomas Wayne himself has been hiding behind a mask, that of a parent, together with this woman who calls her battered child Happy.
Who wouldn’t want to kill her. Who wouldn’t want to die if they were her. Arthur does it, so he frees both. He turns around and looks into the light of the sun, relieved.
This could well be the film’s resolution. But he has to become Joker. He has to descend into the darkness and continue killing mothers and fathers for the sake of our inner narcissists. He is close to killing his ‘girlfriend’ because she didn’t really love him as he ‘loved her’, because he had imagined it all. But all this frustration is is another reminder of how men marry their mothers. Thus, rather than giving this substitute (single) mother the killer kiss, he gives it to the old grandma real horror show.
We find him lying on his bed, motherless, one hand groping his genitals, the other one holding a cigarette, when he receives the invitation to be Murray’s guest. Many a youth these days await their success in this way, looking at porn. People are getting tired of having to be someone because they see that it all comes down to sex. They’re tired of being rich or poor, straight or gay, male or fe-male, good or bad, dad or mum. Recall the dream come true that we see at the beginning, when Arthur is really loved by someone who could be his father but isn’t. Murray defends him against society’s vitriol, which masquerades as humour:
Okay. Hold on. Hold on. There’s nothing funny about that. I lived with my mother before I made it. Just me and her. I’m that kid whose father went out for a pack of cigarettes, and he never came back.
Arthur is finally on stage but safe from the eyes of the world. He has all the success he will ever need:
But, you know, this stuff, the lights, the show, the audience, all that stuff, I’d give it all up in a heartbeat to have a kid like you.
Murray defends what is human about Arthur’s relationship with this person who is or isn’t his mother — who cares.
In ‘reality’, though, he is betrayed. All happens inside this madman’s head anyway, who bangs it in two occasions — one in the ‘real’ mental hospital, another one when stealing the ‘unreal’ hospital records of his crazy mother — as if to suggest that people go mad because they discover that they have been utterly lied to by parents.
Society is an effect of the family. This movie is about the organic reasons why there are mass shootings, mental illness and psychopathy — let alone politics. Things are clearly improving, though, otherwise we wouldn’t have this in cinemas and being so widely acclaimed. This movie is ‘about empathy and the lack thereof in society’, in the words of the author. It is not about fighting or committing crime.
All the people who leave in the middle of the picture, and many who have not even watched it, are raging because politics involves living in the world of comic. Like politicians, they are in denial of the personal issues this film is retrieving for them. They cannot (don’t want to) see that both the rich and the poor die, or that the white man actually wants to be loved by a black woman, who represents a good-enough parent. They cannot see that chaos and evil are just glorified in a world of fantasy that nobody really wants. Indeed, this is the sort of movie-making that prevents war and madness in the real world, and that helps us to feel our way into a better future.
Some research I have done into this topic: