Friday, March 13, 2020

The Joker is Wild

Yes, it’s Friday the 13th, and I’m not exactly in the best of spirits. (So say we all, I’d imagine.) With COVID-19 seemingly lurking around every corner—and even Tom Hanks afflicted!—it’s hard to feel perky. Which explains, of course, why I chose this time to finally catch up on Joker. Frankly, the problems of his Gotham, exemplified by a garbage crisis and a lot of morose people in clown masks, didn’t seem so bad in the face of current reality.

Not that I’ve ever had much affection for clowns. I’m one of those who consider them creepy rather than fun. The dual nature  of clowns—the painted-on smiling lips hiding the woebegone interior—has not escaped a number of theatre artists. There is, of course, Leoncavallo’s famous  1893 opera, Pagliacci, in which an actor must “put on the costume” (“Vesti la giubba”) of a comic character despite his real-life wife’s infidelity. In the world of cinema, Fellini was fascinated by clowns, as was Charlie Chaplin, who mastered the art of conveying heartbreak through comedy. It was Chaplin who wrote the music for “Smile” (“Smile, though your heart is aching” ), a long-popular song based on his score for Modern Times. This song, in the classic Jimmy Durante version, is one of those oldies cannily featured on the Joker soundtrack.

The Joker score won an Oscar for Hildur Guðnadóttir (no idea how you pronounce that), an Icelandic composer with a background in classical cello. Her ominous cello-heavy orchestral passages are certainly both appropriate and distinctive, and it’s marvelous to see—for the first time ever—a solo woman honored for her film music. But the tunes that stands out for me in Joker are the vintage pop ditties that serve as a counterpoint to Arthur Fleck’s morbid view of life. Along with “Smile” (and, apparently, a number of cues from Modern Times) these include Fred Astaire singing the lively “Slap That Bass” from Shall We Dance? as well as the cheerful kids’ perennial, “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” One of songs featured over the closing credits is the all too ironic “Send in the Clowns,” Frank Sinatra’s poignant version of the Stephen Sondheim classic. And popping up throughout the film is another song we generally associate with Sinatra, the wryly philosophical  “That’s Life.” It’s fully apt that Sinatra be part of this film: his Only the Lonely album, one that scored a 1959 Grammy for its cover design, featured a black-and-white image of the man himself in Harlequin makeup.

One reason for all the pop-culture nostalgia in this film seems to be that Arthur Fleck and his mother are suckers for the vibes of an earlier, and perhaps simpler, era. Their favorite home entertainment is a family-friendly TV talk show hosted by the avuncular Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro, of all people, as a cross between Johnny Carson and Oprah Winfrey.) It is Murray’s discovery of Arthur, and his airing of an embarrassing clip from Arthur’s attempt at a standup routine, that triggers the film’s climactic catastrophe. The fact that Arthur is so hungry for the sort of celebrity that a TV appearance can usher in says something about our societal determination to grab our fifteen minutes of fame. Not that Joker can be considered in any way a profound movie. Frankly, despite a gutsy and mesmerizing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, a lot of its ideas don’t particularly hang together. But in giving a backstory to Batman’s nemesis, filmmaker Todd Phillips smartly considers the way mass media (though, curiously, not comic books) shapes American lives.

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