Film Review: Some Cultural and Philosophical Notes on Joker

I watched Joker last night. I do not wish to give away spoilers, except to warn you not to take children to watch the movie, as it contains difficult imagery and themes. This is not the only sinister clown film this year: the sequel to It also came out, but as I am not particularly a fan of the horror genre, it never caught my interest.

This arch-villain contains two main archetypal images: the fool (or clown) and the victim. I will discuss a bit about both.

Clowns: a Brief History

Our modern clown is based on the medieval court jesters, who were based on the rustic fool character of ancient Greek and Roman theater. However, it’s possible that the classical fool was based on an even older archetype, as there is hieroglyphic evidence from 2,400 BCE that shows that clown characters entertained the Fifth dynasty of Egypt.

According to clowns.com,

Several North American native tribes used clowns to play a sacred function, often revealing the truth about a given situation in a comical way. Some tribes thought laughter opened up their spirits to the Gods.

As a side note, Nietzsche in his Thus Spake Zarathustra also accentuates the importance of laughter for our existential health and in the creation of meaning.

The Renaissance clown was also based on the Italian zanni character of the commedia dell’arte:

 … Zanni’s survival instinct is the strongest. Zanni is also always hungry which leads to a vision of Utopia where “everything is comestible, reminiscent of the followers of gluttony in carnival processions”. A Zanni also has an animistic view of the world in that he senses a spirit in everything, so it could be eaten. Zanni is ignorant, loutish, and has no self-awareness. The simple act of thinking does not seem to be natural to Zanni. He is a very faithful individual who prefers to live in the present day e.g. with stoic and samadhi presence. Zanni never looks for a place to sleep it just seems to happen to him often in situations where it shouldn’t, like a drunkard. Lastly, all of his reactions are completely emotional.

The above description will remind us of the ancient cynics. Now, Joker is a movie and it’s meant to entertain. It’s not intended as a philosophical or nihilist manifesto or treatise. But Joker does remind us of both the ancient cynics (marginal and rejected, and who also rejected societal mores–think of “Diogenes the Dog” living inside a barrel, masturbating and defecating in public), and the more modern existentialists who focus on the absurdity of life. The Joker is, ironically, a tragic nay-saying character.

Just as the rustic clowns of antiquity were often based on migrant workers who were uneducated, in the US, the clown’s origins are tied to the hobo and the tramp, who are tragic migrant workers. According to Wikipedia,

The Hobo: Migratory and finds work where he travels. Down on his luck but maintains a positive attitude.

The Tramp: Migratory and does not work where he travels. Down on his luck and depressed about his situation.

And so the clown archetype appears at times to fit within the tradition of the laughing philosophers insofar as he reveals “the truth about a given situation in a comical way“. He’s also a commentary on marginalization. He dwells at the margins of society (a migrant, a peasant worker) and is an unfortunate man according to conventional societal standards. Being rustic and uneducated, he also seems to reveal something about man in his natural state, as he only awkwardly adapts to cultural expectations.

The Joker

Joaquin Phoenix’s 2019 Joker is, thus far, the darkest and most dangerous avatar of this character. He also elaborates the psychological and personal history of the character like never before. In some scenes, he retains a bit of the campy effeminacy of the Joker from the 70’s, which was played by Cesar Romero and set the prototype for the character.

This film’s deeper look at him shows us the uglier side of the archetypal victim. The victim must be sacrificed to a higher ideal or god in order to be dignified through this sacrifice. If the victim’s sacrifice does not lead to a higher good (in Epicurean terms, if the pains we suffer do not yield higher pleasures and pass hedonic calculus), then his victimhood is pointless, meaningless, and this is the most hurtful wound of the archetype. The Joker was never able to dignify his suffering, and his victimhood ended up renouncing the possibility of redemption, and turned into a lethal weapon.

In history there have been other unredeemed, bitter victims of this sort. We’ve seen it in ancient Jews (who escaped slavery in Egypt only to massacre entire nations in Canaan in order to steal their land, punishing the innocent for their oppression in a foreign land) and in modern Palestinians (who, pushed into corners, have turned to terrorism), in women under Boko Haram in northern Nigeria (whose life is so insufferable that they at times choose to engage in suicide attacks). There are many other groups and individuals–often terrorists and mass murderers through gun violence–who sought to justify their vulgar levels of violence as piety, or through some other intellectualization, after being unredeemed victims.

We see greater degrees of violence in poor communities, where there are higher degrees of hopelessness. There are many Robin Hoods in many ghettos who believe that stealing from the rich to give to the poor is justified–and in some cases of extreme despondence, it’s true that they have few other options. Victimizing individuals and groups may have dangerous repercussions for the rest of society. If state and societal mechanisms that are supposed to exist to protect vulnerable people fail to do their job, it seems to some people fair to resort to unconventional, vigilante, violent models of justice. A society that fails to be just, must be ready to bear this burden.

I do not think Joker is saying that vengeful bursts are necessarily justified when one is victimized in a senseless manner. It’s possible that the film isn’t really saying ANYTHING: that’s the point, that it’s pointless. Joker is, to some extent, a nihilist art piece–it’s raw, although it’s not without its criticism of many aspects of modern society. But if it IS saying something, it is echoing that–as the existentialists say–life can be absurd and that, for some people in particular, it can be very difficult to find or create meaning.

“I Ain’t Got Nobody”

The song That’s Life features prominently in the Joker soundtrack. The movie, however, is set in the early 80’s in order to match the timeline where Bruce Wayne grows up to become Batman. For this reason, the version that we hear is Frank Sinatra’s. David Lee Roth recorded what, in my opinion, is a much better version in the late 80’s, and he as an entertainer embodied the Joker and clown archetypes much better than Sinatra ever did.

Further Reading:

George Carlin: in memory of a Laughing Philosopher

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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