Below are the remarks from the October 15, 2019 “Off the Couch” viewing of Joker with Alistair McKnight, PsyaD, LMHC, a Psychoanalyst Member at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Alistair McKnight is on the faculty of the Psychotherapy Training Program. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.
What a wonderful and disturbing movie! I thought I would share a few thoughts I had about the movie, and then I will open things up for discussion, and invite you to share any thoughts or reactions you had to this film.
I’d like to highlight a few of the main characters and themes, and then talk a little about how they interact. I also want to speak to the kinds of current cultural anxieties the movie seems to be addressing.
The film opens with a close up of Arthur’s face as he applies his makeup. You see anguish in his eyes as he seems to be trying to make himself smile. A tear mixes with blue face paint and trickles down his cheek – he is visibly struggling to hold himself together. In the background, a television anchor is heard talking about Gotham’s garbage problem. Garbage is building up, affecting everyone, regardless of where they live. The end of the problem is not in sight. As viewers we get the ominous sense of something dirty and unpleasant growing and growing, without anywhere to go. The super-rats are coming.
Arthur begins as a hapless meek figure, picked upon by a group of teens seeking to get their kicks, beaten up and left in the alley, liquid draining out of the clown flower in his lapel. We see his dejected figure slump up the long stairway home. He checks his mailbox but finds it empty – no one is addressing him.
Inside the apartment, we meet Arthur’s mother who voices her faithful belief in the goodness of Thomas Wayne. She describes Wayne as “an extraordinary [and] powerful man,” adding that “if Thomas Wayne saw how we were living it would make him sick.” She believes that Thomas Wayne actually cares about her well-being and in this way her character embodies the hope for, and fantasy of, a rich and powerful other who will take care of her. The hope for a benevolent social system with a welfare state in which all citizens are cared for and mutual dependency is accepted.
In Arthur’s mother’s mind, there appear to be two kinds of men. One is the figure of a powerful, self-sufficient man who she respects and who can help her. The other is her devalued, dependent son who is unable to “make something of himself.” She assures Arthur that Wayne will take care of them, implying that Arthur cannot. Arthur himself carries this psychological burden, of not being the kind of idealized man his mother values.
The character of Thomas Wayne epitomizes the neoliberal spirit. He says, “Those of us who have made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t as nothing but clowns.” He embodies the cultural fantasy of American individualism, that one can control one’s own destiny and failure to do this is reflective of personal inadequacy rather than systemic problems. Wayne also disavows his own dependency, projected onto the “clowns” who he grudgingly says he will “lift out of poverty and help makes their lives better.”
At the beginning of the movie, we could imagine Arthur’s psychological equilibrium being maintained by following his mother’s worldview. He should just work hard, smile, be happy, and trust that the powerful father figure will come through for him in the end.
When Arthur starts daydreaming about the other father figure, the TV host Murray Franklin, he imagines a warm man who praises him for being special and who tells Arthur that he would “trade it all in in a heartbeat to have a son like you.” This father figure welcomes Arthur’s dependency, recognizes him as a respectable subject, and even tells Arthur he too lived with his mother before he made something of himself. So we can imagine Arthur’s shame and impotent rage when later in the movie, live on TV, Murray Franklin makes fun of Arthur’s stand-up routine. The loving father turns out to be a heartless sadist.
After shooting the three men on the train, Arthur’s transformation gathers momentum. He walks with more of a swagger and begins to externalize some of his aggression, punching the clock on the way out of the office, and disobeying his mother’s edict to always smile when he changes the sign on the way out of the office from “Don’t forget to smile” into “Don’t smile.”
He says to his social worker, “For my whole life I didn’t know if I really existed but I do, and people are starting to notice.” Having felt invisible and unmirrored for his entire life, Arthur seems transfixed by others seeing him through his violence. He stares at the cover of a newspaper at the newsstand and seems both mystified and curious at the fierce clown face looking back at him.
His confrontation with Thomas Wayne in the bathroom, coupled with his trip to the records department in the hospital, leave Arthur unable to maintain the conscious fantasies that have previously held him together in society. The truth can no longer be repressed or dissociated from. His mother was ill and his father figures were absent, uncaring, and sadistic. He was horrendously neglected and abused as a child. He was abandoned. He is, and always has been, on his own. Nobody cares about him.
In his mother’s hospital room, he says, “I used to think I had a condition that there was something wrong with me…. There isn’t. It’s the real me.” Arthur kills his mother, literally and psychologically freeing himself from her inhibiting voice.
We see Arthur dancing freely down the steps and have the sense of witnessing someone who is feeling alive and embodied. His rhythm sensual and strong, in high contrast to the meek and gangly figure we saw in the opening scenes.
Back on the TV show, with Murray Franklin, Arthur says, “Have you seen what it is like out there, everyone yells and screams at each other. No one is civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it is like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what its like to be someone like me? They just think we will sit there and take it like good little boys. That we won’t werewolf and go wild.” … He turns to Murray and says “What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him like trash? … You get what you deserve.” Arthur shoots Franklin, the figurehead of a society that has abandoned him.
In the penultimate scene, we see Arthur lying bloodied on the hood of a police car, he rises like a phoenix and is met with adoring faces chanting his name, going wild at what he has done. He is a hero, dancing freely, very much alive.
I’d like to propose one possible reading of the movie, in how it speaks to some of the cultural anxieties at play in today’s neoliberal society. The disavowed and dissociated rage building up in our collective cultural spaces at the moment cannot be denied. People are on edge. The psychological super-rats are multiplying and collectively we are at a loss at for how it might be processed.
Viewing Arthur metaphorically as a representative citizen in our society, we might say that the arc of the movie follows an evolution from his initial acceptance of his place in the social order toward his later refusal to submit. At the beginning he tolerates the paltry care he gets from the state and the sometimes-demeaning work he can find as a clown, but is sustained by the fantasies that he will one day “make something of himself,” and will one day receive some kind of love and respect from society.
The twin illusions that have sustained his passivity collapse. The rich simply don’t care about the poor. Inequalities and unfairness persist. The state doesn’t care about him, and no matter how hard he works, he continues to be devalued by society.
All of this as the men who have “made something of themselves,” like Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin, look down on him. As the illusory nature of these fantasies are revealed, Arthur stops accepting the identity and position that society allots him. The hope of an equitable and respectful future dies. With nothing to lose he rises up, violently, and finds himself joined by many who share his situation.
We can wonder if this movie speaks to the disillusionment we are experiencing in our culture. Previously held fantasies about the benevolent and fair(ish) nature of our society and welfare state are collapsing, leading to the emergence of previously repressed and dissociated rage, with the “other” as its target.
We could also wonder what it is about this movie that sparked the controversy over whether the film should be shown at all. Perhaps it touches on aspects of our own individual rage that we keep at bay through participating in a system that rewards us enough to maintain our participation in it? Perhaps it speaks to the unconscious fear that our own internalized inhibitions and repressive systems will fail, and we too could get swept up in the violence and find ourselves wearing a clown mask? And what are we to make of those parts of ourselves identified with Arthur, maybe even cheering him on as he killed his Wall Street tormentors? It certainly leaves us with a lot to chew on.
Alistair McKnight, PsyaD, LMHC, is an advanced candidate at BPSI, and a graduate of BPSI’s Advanced Training Program in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. He is on the faculty of the psychotherapy training program at BPSI, and has a private practice in Cambridge, MA.
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