April 7, 2020 § Leave a comment
During my first week of lockdown, when I was still getting adjusted to being home all the time, my thoughts seized on “Room,” a movie so claustrophobic that I never want to watch it again. Mercifully, I soon started thinking of Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece “Safe,” which approximates the isolation and angst of our present moment better than any film that has come since. As others have noted, images of a masked, desperately ill Julianne Moore—so strange and otherworldly when “Safe” came out—appear almost normal in the midst of Covid19.
At the beginning of “Safe”, Moore’s character, Carol White, a 1980’s suburban housewife as bland as her name, circles through life like a goldfish in a bowl. Unhappily married but too passive to do anything about it, Carol is forced to change her existence when struck by a mysterious environmental illness. After conventional medicine fails her, she flees to a desert community where similarly afflicted people live under the rule of a cult-like leader. In the end, Carol is utterly alone in her suffering—and yet it’s clear she always was.
Four weeks into my Safer At Home life, the films I recall are all about other times and places. Before Covid19 brought the world to a halt, 2020 was going to mark my return to overseas travel, something I haven’t been able to do since being sidelined by surgery in 2017 and a recovery that lasted two years. After that financial constraints put far-flung destinations beyond my reach until this spring, when I planned to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season. When that trip became impossible I set my sights on Scotland this summer, but that too seems unlikely.
Marooned in my living room, I find myself thinking about movies in which travel is a major theme. Two of my favorites, “The Sheltering Sky” and “The English Patient,” are set in the same place and decade: North Africa in the 1940’s. Far from home, the expatriate characters of both movies regard the desert as an exotic refuge and adopted country. In “The Sheltering Sky,” the bohemian Kit and Port flee the dissatisfactions of post-WWII America for a culture whose dangers they fail to grasp. In “The English Patient”, an aristocratic Hungarian cartographer’s wartime affair with the wife of a British intelligence officer leads all three to separate, tragic fates.
Despite the attractiveness and complexity of these characters, the real star of both films is the Sahara. Vast, beautiful and unforgiving, the desert is beloved, fetishized and misunderstood by its foreign visitors, regardless of their origins or intentions. As Michael Ondaatje writes in the novel on which “The English Patient” is based:
The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscapes.
March 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
The last time I thought about writing a post, it was going to be about Harvey Weinstein, who had just been sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault. Seeing a rich, powerful man appropriately punished was novel and gratifying, but my story was personal: an account of my first, last and mercifully non-criminal encounter with Weinstein. But it can wait.
How quickly and dramatically the world has changed in the past couple of weeks, as the corona virus has gone from a terrifying overseas crisis to a terrifying domestic one. Although I may not have been among the earliest Californians to self-quarantine, I locked myself in a week before orders came from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Governor Newsom, after attending in short order a post-surgical physical therapy session in a packed facility, a lively restaurant dinner, and a crowded funeral reception. Unnerved by the amount of close physical contact I’d had between March 10th and 13th, I decided to stay home and see no one for two weeks.
Because I live alone and work at home, spending a hundred percent of my time alone didn’t strike me as dramatically different from my usual routine, but I soon realized it was. Though outside activities consumed perhaps twenty percent of my waking hours, running errands and seeing family and friends made a huge difference, and I missed it. By Day 4, I actually felt lonely—an emotion I’d previously felt only in the company of narcissists. When I complained on the phone to my son, who was days away from his own self-quarantine, he said, “You? But you’re a writer!” True, but I wasn’t a hermit until very recently.
Fortunately, by Day 6—the eve of the state-wide shelter-in-place order—I had turned a corner and no longer felt sad, or even particularly alone. Part of the reason was that housework, cooking, gardening, doing my own physical therapy and trying to write left me no time to think about loneliness, let alone wallow in it. The other reason, I suspect, is human adaptability: most people can get used to anything, however strange and unpleasant, and I am predisposed to adapt quickly.
This week, as I embraced my new life under Covid19, news surfaced that Harvey Weinstein, ensconced in a hospital on Riker’s Island, had tested positive for the corona virus. Although only three weeks had passed since his incarceration, Weinstein had become antique, a relic from the shiny world of restaurants, stores, concerts, movie theaters. Now that all the fun places were shuttered, he was irrelevant.
Next time: Movies that speak to our circumstances
February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.
Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.
Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.
After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”
Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.
January 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
Early January brings one of my favorite film events of the year: the Foreign Directors’ Symposium at the American Cinematheque, where the Golden Globes nominees talk, often illuminatingly, about their films and those of their fellow directors. Before the panel, there’s a reception where I like to to catch up with friends and meet a director or two. (Or, as last year, to complain about subtitles https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/kore-edas-shoplifters-what-was-lost-in-translation/ )
At this year’s reception I was waiting for a friend to arrive when Antonio Banderas sat down across from me with his lunch. This was a surprise not only because I had expected only Pedro Almodóvar to show up, but because it was our second encounter. The first was at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where “Desperado” launched him and Salma Hayek into international stardom.
Film festivals are a blur of screenings, meetings, press conferences, lunches, dinners and very little sleep, and none more than Cannes. Compounded by jet lag and sleep deprivation, the days and nights soon merge into one giant day and night, with predictable results. One minute you’re watching a movie; the next you’re standing on the beach with a glass of rosé in your hand, having already forgotten the walk from the Palais. And it’s only 11:30am. After lunch, two more screenings, cocktails, a premiere and dinner, things get really trippy.
Though I’ve forgotten most of the movies I watched and the people I met that year at Cannes, I remember the “Desperado” party vividly. It was a seated dinner near the Palais, and my table included the director Robert Rodriguez and his wife and Salma Hayek. After dinner everyone mingled, and that’s when I found myself standing next to Antonio Banderas. I knew him from the five Almodóvar films he’d made at that point, and was about to introduce myself when I noticed Melanie Griffith giving me an icy stare from across the room. From some Spaniards at the Festival I’d heard they were newly together, so I hesitated, unwilling to risk her ire. Then the speeches began, and the moment was lost.
They say you never have a second chance to make a first impression, but here we were at close range again, a quarter century later. Though I never would have approached Antonio, I decided it was time to speak up. “I met you 25 years ago at a party in Cannes,” I said. He lit up. “Oh no, did I say something bad?” “No, of course not!” I said in horror, unable to imagine him saying anything untoward, and told him how I had almost introduced myself at the “Desperado” party. Instantly we were chatting like old friends: about how quickly time had passed; “Pain and Glory”; his fateful heart attack two years ago; his having just seen Salma; his new theater, Teatro Soho, in his hometown, Málaga; and his new Spanish language production of “A Chorus Line,” bound for New York this spring. While we were talking, he got word on his phone that he had won that National Film Critics Circle Award. “Is that good?” he asked me. “It’s great; now you’re going to win everything, I said enthusiastically.
I was wrong about the Golden Globes, as it turns out, but the Globes are an unreliable predictor of the award for which he was later nominated, the Best Actor Oscar. It’s a prize Antonio richly deserves to win: his performance in “Pain and Glory” is peerless, both a career triumph and a sign of great work to come. Some of that work will be on the stage, where he was discovered by Almodóvar at the age of 21. “Leaving the theater for movies was like leaving a beautiful woman,” he charmingly told me, adding that his favorite American acting experience was on Broadway in “Nine”. Now, with his Teatro Soho and his arts school, Teatro Jóvenes Artistas Antonio Banderas, the stage is again his home. So is Spain, but the world is his oyster.
January 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
Three months after seeing “Pain and Glory,” it remains vivid in my mind, as movies seldom do these days. (Quite a few I’ve forgotten by the time I get home from the theater—which says something about both the quality and the quantity of films I’ve watched over the years.) Not so Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film.
The story of Salvador Mallo, an aging film director grappling with a cascade of physical ailments and the ghosts of his past, “Pain and Glory” is a triumphant summation of Almodóvar’s themes of art, love, childhood, passion, religion and suffering. But it’s also the high point of his work with his greatest male star, Antonio Banderas, who during the past thirty-eight years has been Almodóvar’s alter ego, leading man and muse.
Those who know Banderas only from American films will find him a revelation in the eight films he has made with Almodóvar–particularly if they understand Spanish. For though Banderas is a reliably strong actor in English, he’s always the exotic foreigner. In Spanish, however, he operates at an entirely different level: both funnier and darker, he delivers performances of great variety and complexity. The roles Banderas has played in Amodóvar’s previous films prove his range—and his gameness:
1982 “Labyrinth of Passion”: Sadec, a terrorist
1986 “Matador”: Ángel, student matador, failed rapist and false
confessor to two murders
1987 “Law of Desire”: Antonio, possessive gay lover of a film director
1988 “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”: Carlos, the previously unknown son of Carmen Maura’s character’s ex-lover
1990 “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down”: Ricky, a recently released mental patient who kidnaps a former porn star/B movie actress/recovering heroin addict with whom he had a one-night stand during an escape from the asylum
2011 “The Skin I Live In”: Psychopathic plastic surgeon
2013 “I’m So Excited”: Airport ground technician whose wife, a colleague, is played by Penélope Cruz
As good as Banderas was in these movies, his performance in “Pain and Glory” stands at an entirely different level, suffused with suffering, humor, self-knowledge and acceptance. In a role that could have been an exercise in scenery chewing, he is nuanced and restrained throughout, a feat of immense control.
After being named Best Actor at Cannes and by the New York, LA and National Film Critics societies, this week Antonio Banderas was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Because of Joaquín Phoenix’s nomination for “Joker,” he is considered a dark horse, and the Academy is notorious for favoring what the late Heath Ledger called “the most acting, not the best acting.” But I hope Banderas will triumph, just as he did two weeks ago when he won the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Actor Award while we were talking at a pre-Golden Globes reception. More on our conversation next time.
January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
This post contains plot spoilers
Although I didn’t set out to see Céline Scíamma and Greta Gerwig’s new films back-to-back, I did last weekend, and was struck by their similarities. Both films are about women who struggle against the strictures of their times, and both feature women who–despite stiff odds–defy convention to become artists.
What’s surprising is that the two movies are set a century apart and in different cultures: “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” in France in the 1760s and “Little Women” in New England in the 1860s. Though I would have thought a Parisian portrait painter and an aristocratic maiden from 18th-century Brittany would face greater social obstacles than the daughters of a progressive, educated family in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, all the female characters grapple with the same problems: how to decide their own futures, including whether or not to marry, and how to earn a living that would enable their freedom.
Explicit in both stories is the role of art. Only because she is a talented artist (and the daughter of a successful painter whose ateliér and school she inherits) does Marianne (Noémi Merlant) in “Portrait” have a profession. Her income allows her to remain unmarried, and thus independent of domestic obligations. In contrast the noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose engagement portrait Marianne has been hired to paint surreptitiously, has no prospects but marriage: one arranged by her widowed mother, a countess eager to return to her native Milan. The countess, having lost her older daughter to suicide after she refused the same match, is determined to force Héloïse into an aristocratic marriage that will ensure her return to Milan and both their futures. Héloïse, after strong resistance and a brief affair with Marianne, submits to her mother’s wishes.
A century later in New England, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the second daughter of a progressive, educated family, is determined to become a writer. Her work is soon published, but because Father March (a minister, like many intellectuals of his day, though without a church position) is disinclined to hold a job, her earnings must support her family. For all their modern, egalitarian ideas, the Marches aren’t far removed from the countess in “Portrait”: they place their economic hopes on the marriage prospects of their prettiest daughter Amy, an aspiring painter. Amy obliges by accepting the proposal of Laurie, the neighborhood rich boy/dreamboat (Timothée Chalamet) previously rejected by Jo. This romantic coup is not without a price, however, as Amy must give up her artistic ambitions to become a wife and mother. Meanwhile Jo, who understands all too well that marriage would spell the end of her writing career, embarks on her glorious spinsterhood only to end up marry an admiring professor (dumpy and German in the book; smoldering and French in the movie) in the end. As Greta Gerwig makes clear, this plot twist was forced on Louisa May Alcott by her publisher and readers, for whom a happy ending required marriage. But Alcott herself never married, made a good living off her copyrights and, when asked why she remained single, stated “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
Both films share indelible images: longing glances across crowded theaters, musical performances, unrequited love, even skirts accidentally set on fire. But the strongest link between “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Little Women” is thematic: the struggle of young women for autonomy and artistic self-expression in societies that demand their conformity through marriage.
December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
Nearly eleven years ago, I began blogging at Under the Hollywood Sign to promote my documentaries and writing, and I appreciate your readership. Wouldn’t it be great if the hundreds of thousands of you who’ve read this blog would watch the films that inspired it, or read the eBooks that grew out of it? You could also give them as gifts.
All my documentaries are available for sale (via DVD or Vimeo download) or rent (via Vimeo); the eBooks are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other ebook sellers. All are linked through my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com
Under the Hollywood Sign
Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress
The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection
Jim Thompson, Silk King 2015 Edition–Remastered with DVD Extras
Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign
On Blade Runner: Four Essays
November 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
Before I came across her books in the Hollywood public library, I had never heard of Eve Babitz, who famously chronicled Los Angeles during its late-1960’s to mid-1970’s heyday. This was 1989 or 1990; I was new in town and eager to read about my new hometown. I checked out “LA Woman” and Slow Days, Fast Company, and was instantly drawn to her stories about musicians, actors, old Hollywood, hotels and the city itself, which she captured in all its jasmine-scented, smoggy glory. I read Sex and Rage, a roman á clef whose protagonist Jacaranda Levin, like Babitz herself, was born into a bohemian family in Hollywood in the early 40’s. Like her inventor, Jacaranda reached adulthood at a propitious time, and entered the burgeoning L.A. music scene by designing album covers and photographing musicians.
Babitz was was funny, sexy and clever, with a knack for being everywhere at the right moment. She had a gift for friendship that gave her a large circle of allies, both male and female, and what she lacked as a novelist she more than compensated for in effervescence and nerve. In short, she was irresistible. How had I not heard of her before?
During the nineties, I began to notice Eve Babitz’s name in articles about Los Angeles. These pieces compared her, usually unfavorably, to Joan Didion, the other famous chronicler of Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 70’s, but although Babitz and Didion took on some of the same subjects and were friends, they had more differences than similarities. Didion was the consummate outsider, always observing her subjects at a safe, ironic distance. An anxious introvert from Sacramento, Didion never seemed at home anywhere and cannily used her outsider status to maximum advantage, peering through windows at the party within. Didion also differed from Babitz by writing about Los Angeles not for Angelenos or Californians generally, but for the New York literary world she aspired to enter. Didion’s Los Angeles was not home but a strange, exotic place, full of weirdos and existential danger. Long before the effects of climate change became apparent, she famously proclaimed, “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.” This statement was not for Californians but for Easterners who couldn’t imagine living in the state, and who probably hadn’t visited. Those of us who make our homes in Los Angeles owe Didion our thanks for repelling them.
In contrast Eve Babitz was a born insider, an “It” girl who observed everything—from the musician-packed bar at the Troubadour to the lobby of the Chateau Marmont to the set of “The Godfather, Part 2”–from its white-hot center. Her very first foray into public life was an exercise in high art: playing chess in the nude with a clothed Marcel Duchamp in a series of famous photographs by Julian Wasser. Only eighteen, Babitz became a Rubenesque sensation. Soon she knew every artist and musician in Los Angeles: not only her parents’ musician friends like Igor Stravinsky, who was also her godfather, but major visual artists like Ed Kienholtz, Billy Al Bangston and Ed Ruscha. While hanging around the Troubadour bar, she befriended Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther. Her lovers during that period included Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Harrison Ford, Paul Ruscha, Fred Roos and Walter Hopps. Though all these people became famous, Eve Babitz had the advantage of knowing them before they were.
Nothing illustrates the Babitz-Didion difference like their respective first encounters with Jim Morrison. Didion, dying of boredom in the recording studio where the Doors were painfully birthing “L.A. Woman,” writes:
It is a long while later. Morrison arrives. He has on his black vinyl pants, and he sits down on a leather couch in front of the four big blank speakers, and closes his eyes. The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival is this: No one acknowledges it by so much as a flicker of an eye….He lights a match. He studies the flame awhile and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowers it to the fly of his black vinyl pants. Manzarek watches him. The girl who is rubbing Manzarek’s shoulders does not look at anyone. There is a sense that no one is going to leave this room, ever. It will be some weeks before The Doors finish recording this album. I do not see it through.
Whereas Babitz remembers Morrison this way:
I met Jim early in ’66, when he’d just lost the weight and wore a suit made of grey suede, lashed together at the seams with lanyards and no shirt. It was the best outfit he ever had, and he was so cute that no woman was safe. He was 22, a few months younger than I. He had the freshness and humility of someone who’d been fat all his life, and was now suddenly a morning glory. I met Jim and propositioned him in three minutes, even before he so much as opened his mouth to sing….”Take me home,” I demurely offered when we were introduced.
From the 1970’s until the early 90’s, Eve Babitz wrote feature articles for glossy magazines such as Esquire, Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler. The last thing I remember reading of hers was an account of the L.A. Riots, which she missed entirely because she was holed up with a lover at the Bel Air Hotel. At that point Babitz, who was in her late 40s, seemed the girl who stayed too long at the fair, too fun-loving and oblivious for her own good.
After 1992’s Black Swans she published no other books, though it wasn’t until 2014 that I learned why. A freak 1997 accident set fire to her skirt and left her with third-degree burns on the lower half of her body that nearly killed her, along with her career. Babitz’s account of the disaster and its aftermath makes up the title essay of her new book, I Used To Be Charming. The only new piece in the collection, which otherwise consists of magazine articles, some of which have aged better than others, it’s worth the price of the book:
Here I was…over 50 years old, still so stupid that I was risking my life for a smoke….had I managed to avoid all the damage I’d done in my life up until that point, breaking hearts, being unreliable, only to hit that brick wall because of a match?
The accident turned Babitz into a recluse, but it wasn’t her final act. Rediscovered by Vanity Fair editor Lili Anolik and new admirers like Lena Dunham, she has recently emerged, phoenix-like, to promote the new book. Outliving many of the friends and lovers she wrote about is accomplishment enough, but Babitz–unlike Dorothy Parker, the writer she most resembles–didn’t succumb to a bitter, alcoholic old age, nor did she flee Los Angeles. Now 76, battered but unbroken, Eve Babitz is finally getting the respect she deserves.
October 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
The last movie I saw, Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” was inflated by many into a treatise on our winner-take-all economic system (though not by me). This week “Parasite,” the 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, accomplishes that aim, and brilliantly. Unlike “Joker,” “Parasite” not a superhero backstory. It’s not even American. But the Korean director Joon-ho Bong, who co-wrote the script, has made a brilliant, universal black comedy that says everything about the cruelty of class inequality.
It starts with four-member Kim family, long on smarts but short on cash, barely surviving in a dank basement apartment in a poor neighborhood in Seoul. In spite of their work and academic credentials, all the Parks are unemployed until a stroke of luck lands the college-age son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), a lucrative job tutoring the high-school age daughter of a rich tech executive named Park (Sun-kyung Lee). Soon Ki-Woo’s sister, Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park), a talented graphic designer, is teaching art to the Park’s son, in the guise of her brother’s acquaintance. Realizing the pot of gold they’ve discovered in the naive, vacuous Park family, the Kim parents then get themselves hired as the family’s chauffeur and housekeeper, again as unrelated workers.The Kims’ brilliant plan proceeds without a hitch until the discovery of a disturbing secret in the bowels of the lavish modernist Park home. Then, just as quickly as it succeeded, their clever scheme unravels. In the film’s shockingly violent denouement, neither family escapes unharmed or unchanged. What emerges from the catastrophe is a stark truth: economic inequality is a disaster for rich and poor alike.
“Parasite” owes a debt not to incoherent movies like “Joker” but to last year’s Kore-eda film “Shoplifters.” Like the Shibatas, Kore-eda’s family of unrelated but caring grifters, the Kims are economic losers living at the margins of a rich, uncaring society. But unlike the Shibatas, the Kims are ruthless in their pursuit of money and position, and not above using violence to achieve their aims. In “Parasite” the Kims emerge bloodied but scrappy, while their victims the Parks are vanquished. This reversal of fortunes cries out for a sequel, and I hope Bong makes it.
October 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
Not wanting to fight the crowds, I skipped the opening weekend of “Joker” in favor of one of last night’s shows at ArcLight Hollywood. While not sold out, the theater was unusually full for a Monday. Despite media and government (!) warnings of danger, my audience was well-behaved throughout, watching attentively and applauding respectfully at the end. If my experience sounds anti-climactic, it’s because it was.
I like dark films, and “Joker” is unrelenting in that regard. Gotham is bleak and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) leads a bleak life in its bleakest parts, spending his days as a clown-for-hire and his nights as his barmy mother’s caretaker. Friendless, poor, mentally unsound and marginalized, Arthur is a punching bag for everyone, from street kids to drunken office bros on the subway. It’s only a matter of time before this sad clown snaps, and when he does he starts killing with gusto.
At that point “Joker” makes perfect sense: as a revenge movie enacted by a bottled-up loner, and the latest installment in a grand cinematic tradition. Better still, it satisfyingly conjures up the glorious films that influenced the director, Todd Phillips, (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver): “Taxi Driver”, “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club”, among others. Unfortunately, logic grinds to a halt when Phillips tries to equate Arthur Fleck’s myriad troubles to those of society at large, and his lonely search for a scapegoat to class struggle.
As soon as Arthur discovers revenge, he unleashes a movement of violent, clown-mask wearing malcontents who wreak havoc on Gotham and its elites. What’s missing from this uprising is a goal apart from mayhem. Lacking both leadership and a set of demands, the clown mob is purely nihilistic. And, like Arthur Fleck, its members embrace violence not as a means but an end.
I found a lot to like about “Joker”: Joaquin Phoenix’s electrifying and kinetic performance; the saturated colors of his clothes and the interiors; the dank Bronx locations that simutaneously evoke the past and future of urban life. Todd Phillips, previously best known for his “Hangover” series, never wavers from this gloomy esthetic, and as a result “Joker” seems like a much better film than it is. But the over-the-top violence makes it a snuff film at times, and Arthur’s killing spree makes sympathy impossible. When I left the theater (along with an audience that seemed even politer than before), I knew that one viewing would last me a lifetime. What I did want to watch again were the films “Joker” pays homage too, though I’ve seen them all multiple times. “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club” all have a coherence that “Joker” aims for and misses. But for a comic book origin movie, it’s first-rate.