Making cents

A movie night with Leo and the Joker or: how a pun got lost in translation and has been bothering me ever since.

It’s the hot topic of late 2019, the second fashionable clown after Pennywise and despite its title serious business and no laughing matter: Todd Philipp’s [btw, if you read Todd, don’t you automatically think of Bojack’s? In my world, the director of THE movie of the year totally wears beanies and sounds like Aaron Paul] Joker is hitting box office records and people’s nerves. You love it or you hate it. There’s no inbetween. Like licorice. Or Marmite. Although the answer for those two is without any further debate: Both are disgusting. Anyway, if everybody on the world wide web gets to express their opinion on any of these three, you get to enjoy mine, too.

Hooray! And you know, I don’t throw that word around lightly.

{Todd Chavez, in: Bojack Horseman]

Mesmerizing master piece or pretentious piece of shit?

Long story short: master piece. Short story long: continue reading. I will not bore you with googable facts because you can – duh – just google them. And you probably already did. I’ll also assume you have already seen the movie by now because a) nobody’s ever hanging out here so if you are you are probably very bored and that means the option of watching Joker has already been exhausted and b) this is not fit as a teasing review, just some thoughts I’d like to get out so I can get on. If you haven’t, I got bad news for you: I won’t give you a timely warning in case of spoilers. The good news is: there is not much to spoil. I mean, yeah, there are crucial plot points but generally speaking, Joker has about the same plot-length-ratio as Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg. Up until about halfway through the movie nothing actually happens. It’s a character study, but a pretty intense and sensitive one. Very delicately the director of less delicate movies such as Hangover 1, 2, or 3 brings us closer to Arthur Fleck and carefully establishes him as the eponymous (anti)hero – brackets on purpose – who identifies as the Joker only towards the grande finale and thus only then has truly made the transition from sad, pathetic clown to the mocking grimace of a spoiled society. As a DC movie it is very atypical and has peaked a yet unprecedented level of interest in the public within that genre, specifically in regards of sympathy for the devil villain and how much this one might really be a hero – hence the brackets. It’s literally outstanding in the DC franchise not only because it exists on his own and is only loosely linked to the universe it origins in. Imho, it would work as well (if not even better) without the scenes connecting Arthur Fleck’s perfectly-on-its-own (mal)functioning world to the Wayne family. They felt too forced and uncalled for. I mean, yes, Arthur’s quest and pending question of Thomas Wayne being or not being his father – a question that remains unanswered btw – has crucial impact on Arthur Fleck’s state of mind and nourishes his ever growing mental illness. Thomas Wayne is Schroedinger’s Cat because the box doesn’t need to be opened. Both answers are equally valid and both would have maybe different but similar-in-effect consequences. What name that father figure bears, however, is irrelevant. Wayne interessiert’s?, as the German pun goes that was already old when I was young. Alas, let the fandom have their easter eggs. I frantically pointed out anything Whovian in Good Omens so who am I to judge?

Rise of the Phoenix

Pardon the pun. Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck is the Joker. Period. And this does in no way minimize Heath Ledger’s performance. Both Jokers have to be regarded as different characters, based on the same comic villain but otherwise related only in terms of similarly oustanding performances. Same goes for Jack Nicholson whose portrayal probably lives up most to the comic palette colour scheme. And let’s not forget poor Jared Leto, mocked and memed by the internet… Well, to be honest, I slept through most of Suicide Squat – sorry – so I can’t really say anything about him. Anyway, our spotlight is on Fleck (Get it? Because “Fleck” is German for spot. Hehehe. I’m so funny.). His Joker is an intense case study. So intense, that from the very beginning you are completely taken in and mesmerized. There is no actor, there is just Arthur Fleck and you believe it. He’s simply dead on. And the movie owes everything to him.

Smile, and the world smiles with you.

Laugh like Fleck and it’s creepy. His laugh and his grin and his smile are all dreadful and almost painful to watch. A uniquely human expression of joy and happiness is perverted into a physical condition that surfaces at the most inappropriate times. A natural symbol of happiness is put ad absurdum. It’s almost unbearable to watch Fleck break out into laughter, immediately followed by a tortured grimace. We feel the pain he suffers from his psychosomatic condition. We hear the pathological laughter and we cringe. We feel repulsion and pity at the same time. And sometimes we can’t help but laugh about it anyway and immediately feel repelled by ourselves because don’t we at that moment represent exactly that society the movie teaches us to despise? Which is all JPs doing because he delivers. Plessner once defined laughing and crying as the borderline symptoms of humanity. When Arthur Fleck laughs, we experience both. And inbetween there’s a smile. A smile that could be all or nothing. Arthur Fleck is philosophy’s laughing animal at the mercy of a corrupt and capitalistic society that does not have any mercy for the weak or unfitting. A society where smiles can only be worn as a mask and a clown’s face, the ridicule of exactly that becomes the symbol of rebellion. And you’ll be humming that tune forever.

Where there’s music, there’s dancing and Fleck does a lot of it. Dancing puts him in some sort of trance, into a state of therapeutic and tranquilizing effect. And then there’s the famous staircase dance, where Fleck dances off the chains of a deranged society and breaks free. It is so liberating, you feel like cheering for him (and generally you feel very often like siding for him) and then you feel bad because you remember you shouldn’t because isn’t he supposed to be the bad guy? (Aaand so we’re back to the whole villain-hero discussion. Which I will not get into here and now). However, and you should absolutely read out loud the following sentence, because in case you didn’t know this and didn’t notice so far: I like to play with sounds and words and so when we are a-staring at Fleck Fred Astairing down a staircase, that’s the crucial scene right there, that’s Fleck’s defining moment and I think it’s fair to say, already cinematic history.

Right. One more thing before getting to THE pun and thus ending this and about exactly that: endings. Leo and I agree the movie could have ended just in the TV studio:

  1. When he’s in the studio, pulling the gun. We all know what he practiced to do. And we all know what happened instead. Wouldn’t it have been perfect though if we never knew whom he’d shot?
  2. Even before, the very second he dances out onto the stage in the studio. We would never know if he was actually there or dreaming it all up as he had done before. (There are also theories that the whole movie didn’t happen, that Fleck made it all up and was in the asylum all along. But that’s open for discussion)

Both scenarios would have made for a rather unresolved but artistically wise ending. What do you think?

And now to the one thing that has burdened me for so long: that pun. Fairly towards the beginning, Arthur Fleck’s social worker and drug prescriber reads out from his notebook/diary:

I hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Boom. Simple existential crisis that, by the use of homophones get transformed into something else, and is put onto a whole different level, making a person’s life (or death) a capitalistic good, putting a prize on humanity and an individual’s existence, and aren’t we all li-ving in a material world? (and I am a material girl). Anyway, German subs translated it as “Ich hoffe mein Tod macht mehr Sinn als mein Leben”. Sinn. Sense. Not cents. Nonsense!! Which makes it a pretty standard depressive lamentation but ignores the fact that first of all he is, indeed, a joker, and this is a joke, and secondly the implications of such a monetary reinterpretation. Not very centsitive, I must say. I was truly upset. And for two and a half men days I should remain ever so, contemplating the flawed German subtitle system and wondering what could be done about it. And then I found the answer. Ummünzen, verb, German: to take something and give it a new purpose/meaning in a different context/environment; derives from German Münze = coin. Booyah. Could have been perfectly implemented in the story. I imagine the previously mentioned social worker and drug prescriber reading out that sentence from Fleck’s diary, pausing, looking him deep in the eye, and commenting: “Sie haben Sinn umgemünzt auf eine kapitalistische Lesart.” Oh. So satisfactory. Makes so much more sense. Aren’t I amazing?

Lucky Leo next to me had no idea what I was going through in that scene and was completely oblivious to the whole sub(ti)tle dilemma. I was so glad she was there with me though. Joker is not a movie I’d be able to watch on my own. Throughout, I felt physically so uncomfortable, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, writhing and squirming and trying to shake off that feeling of uneasiness. It certainly helped to know her beside me and let us endure it each for ourselves but together. Great woman, that one. The uneasiness did not come from the amount of violence in the movie, even though that was one of the biggest concern of the Sittenwächter (in English “guardians of the public moral” which is such a typical complicated compound translation and sounds like another Chris Pratt space movie), amount of violence was not what created that feeling. There actually isn’t that much. We’ve seen worse and we’ve seen worse in lesser restricted/non R-rated movies. But how violence is displayed is plain and cold and brutal and I had to look away a lot. The uneasiness stems from something completely different though: it feels wrong to watch this.

But I’d definitely watch it again.

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