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The Joke’s on You: Why Leviathan Needs Joker

October 15th, 2019 | 12 min read

By Michael Shindler

As men require a heaping dose of dreams to reconcile themselves to waking life, so too does the hulking Leviathan of society require its dreams—which are films. This fantastical notion—that films function as society’s dreams—was first heralded by a smattering of early 20th century French avant-garde theorists, but chiefly Jean Epstein, who famously characterized films as “the dream of the machine.” If this psychosocial paradigm has any validity, Joker is an extraordinarily fascinating, albeit disheartening specimen.

The general narrative of the film, which its final trailer largely encapsulates, is this: Arthur Fleck, a loner with a neurological laughing condition lives with his mother on the fringes of society. Initially, his aims are to escape his condition, to become a successful stand-up-comedian, have a romantic relationship, and so on. Yet, tragedy after tragedy ensues: Fleck is attacked, cut off from social services, betrayed, fired, scorned, and deceived. Thus, forsaken by his society, Fleck forsakes its prohibitions and lashes out against its elite stewards; in an unlikely-yet-plausible dramatic arc, Fleck becomes “Joker,” lays low his former idol and rouses a riot of “clowns” who regard him as their hero.

Mainstream critical responses to the film have thus far ranged from cautious praise, exemplified by Christina Newland’s review in The Guardian, which describes the film as “stylish,” but also “troubling,” to alarmist condemnation, exemplified by David Ehrlich’s review in IndieWire, which bluntly describes the film as “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels.” Many of the reviews, however, share a consensus that the film is, on one level or another, a perverse wish fulfillment fantasy. The wish being fulfilled, however, is generally not explicitly stated, but the gist seems to be that Joker depicts the reification of, for lack of a more vulgar phrase, “Incels Rise Up.”

That reviewers allege the film engages in wish fulfillment is significant, since it’s one of the most classical varieties of dream first articulated in Freud’s groundbreaking early work, The Interpretation of Dreams. In the book, when Freud proposes that dreams can possess such a function, he asks, “what is the cause of the peculiar and unfamiliar manner in which this fulfillment is expressed?” and contends that the often bizarre, exaggerated aspects of dreams are precisely the things which constitute their mechanics. Thus, the most dramatic aspects of Joker reveal its precise function.

Foremost among Joker’s dramatic aspects are the extreme social positions that Fleck occupies. For instance, Fleck is supremely alienated in a variety of ways: economically, romantically, paternally, physiognomically, et cetera. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) his alienation, Fleck’s desire—in typical Lacanian fashion—is the desire of recognition from the other. This desire manifests, for instance, in Fleck’s desire to be heard by pedestrians, his boss at Ha-Has, his romantic interest, his audience at the comedy club, his assumed father, and most of all Franklin Murray, a late night TV host whom Fleck along with his mother idolizes.

The first dint of true recognition that Fleck receives comes after he shoots three men in the subway and sees his deeds reported in the papers and on TV, especially in an interview with billionaire mayoral aspirant Thomas Wayne. Toward the middle of the film, Fleck learns from his mother that he is the son of Wayne. At long last, it seems as if Fleck has an opportunity to be fully recognized. But, as it turns out, Fleck learns in a confrontation at the Wayne household and later in a discussion with Wayne himself that his mother likely deceived him. After stealing his mother’s file from an asylum, this deception is confirmed and Fleck’s long sought after hope of recognition (which seemed as if it were about to come from his real father, no less!) proves to be mere delusion.

With the relation between Fleck and Wayne—and by extension the whole Gotham elite—severed, the legitimacy of their authority (which for Fleck had rested in their quality as a sort of paternal substitute) is quashed and Fleck has, as it were, permission to dethrone them. In the scenes that ensue, Fleck claims all the legitimizing accoutrements of the other: the news coverage, the late night talk show presence, and so on. In the orgiastic penultimate scene, Fleck stands atop a crashed cop car within which he’d lately been confined  (symbolizing his triumph over the former authority) while the faceless clown-masked masses stand around him cheering—identifying with him.

That this narrative arc functions at all, in the dramatic sense, is due precisely to the above-mentioned narrative extremes, which work in concert to exculpate Fleck from all the objections that audiences might make to his actions. For instance, were Fleck only somewhat alienated, his antisocial behavior would seem inexcusably rude; were Fleck less hopeless, his fantasies in relation to Murray’s show would seem arrogant; were the facts of Fleck’s relation to Wayne left more ambiguous, Wayne’s murder would seem less like climactic justice than prosaic tragedy, et cetera. In this fashion, Fleck’s story, which by normative standards should appall audiences, is rendered emotionally coherent.

In light of all this, it might seem as if the film’s detractors are quite justified—that Joker is the sort of stuff that’ll surely enkindle a few shootings, massacres, and perhaps even a small revolt. Yet, if that’s so, it’s curious that that such eventualities didn’t stop executives at Warner Bros, DC films, and other firms, from lavishing roughly $120 million on the film’s marketing and $60 million on its production. Moreover, if the film is so subversive, it’s odd that the film’s writers are not, as might be expected, outré incel radicals.

Rather, they’re Todd Phillips of The Hangover fame and Scott Silver, a lesser known screenwriter notable for co-writing The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, which is as patriotic as it is bland. Strangely, it seems, the folks responsible for Joker are demographically a lot less like Fleck and a lot more like the executives he shot on the subway. Why this is so may at first seem like a conundrum, but with the slightest analysis, it becomes evident that the film’s origins are in accord with its psychosocial function.

In a colorful passage of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes:

“There is, for example, a dream which I can cause as often as I like, as it were experimentally. If in the evening I eat anchovies, olives, or other strongly salted foods, I become thirsty at night, whereupon I waken. The awakening, however, is preceded by a dream, which each time has the same content, namely, that I am drinking […] and then I awake and have an actual desire to drink. The occasion for this dream is thirst […] If I succeed in assuaging my thirst by means of the dream that I am drinking, I need not wake up in order to satisfy it. It is thus a dream of convenience. The dream substitutes itself for action.”

Thus, Freud finds, there are at least two varieties of wish fulfilling dreams: those of inspiration and those of substitution. In that vein, Freud relates a story concerning his daughter Anna, whom after vomiting on one occasion (according to her nurse, due to overindulgence of strawberries) was denied food for the rest of the day. Freud reports, “During the night which followed upon this day of hunger, she was heard to call excitedly in her sleep: ‘Anna Feud, strawberry, huckleberry, omelette, pap!’” Lacan, discussing this account in Seminar II, writes,

“We don’t notice one fine detail, which is that when the child wanted cherries [Lacan, owing to a translation error, mistakes the berry in question] during the day, she doesn’t dream only of cherries […] just as the person starving to death doesn’t dream of the hunk of bread and glass of water which would sate him, rather he dreams of Pantagreulian meals […] The desire at issue, even the one that is said to be distorted, is already beyond the coaptation of need.”

In this way, Lacan argues, fantasy functions to safeguard desire. As Lacan writes in Ecrits, “in its fundamental use, fantasy is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire, vanishing inasmuch as the very satisfaction of demand deprives him of his object.” To wit, whereas Freud merely maintained that fantasy functioned as a substitute for desire, fantasy, by extravagantly distending the original desire, not only substitutes itself for the original desire, but safeguards the hungry man from fulfilling it by placing it further outside the bounds of practicality: Whereas a hungry man craving a hunk of bread can satisfy his desire easily, the same man fantasizing over a feast cannot—thus his desire maintains itself at the expense of his demand.

In the case of fantastical wish fulfilling dreams, the same principle applies and it is precisely in such a fashion that the various desires of waking life, especially those that have no socially acceptable outlets for fulfillment, are sated: The would-be brute, by dreaming of medieval bloodbaths, finds himself uninterested in mere parking lot brawls and the would-be lothario, by dreaming of Sadean spoilations, loses his interest in venturing so mild a thing as an unsolicited kiss. In this way, dreams offer us all those things which our lives deny and by their extravagance, dull our daily denials.

The implications of all this regarding Joker are clear. In our age of exceptional sociopolitical inequality and ideological parceling, the health of Leviathan is precarious. In some corner of its psyche, there lurks what might be politely described as repressed, starved elements. Just as a necktie salesman occasionally plagued by urges to strangle his customers duly has dreams of being a gruesome hangman (which render him workready in the morning)—so too does Leviathan have its unreconciled elements and correspondent dreams. The function of these dreams, which are generously financed and produced by the dominant elements of society, are to render the Flecks of the world into meek somnambulists. Far from being a celebration of or inspiration for an alienated underclass, Joker is but a glorious, cruel and sumptuous drug, which like opium deadens the very same people who praise it.

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