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 the title serious business 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, since anyone and everyone in the world wide web gets to express their opinion on any of these topics, 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. And read through the imdb database. I’ll also assume you have already seen the movie i. e. no spoiler warnings because a) if you’ are ‘re reading this you’re probably very bored and that means the option of watching Joker has already been exhausted and b) my blog, my rules, and in any case not a step by step review. Just some thoughts I’d like to get out so I can get on. Also, 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 that created him. For a DC movie it quite 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 be a hero after all. 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 forced and unnecessary. 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. Meh, 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

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. Oh, and there’s this other guy, Jared Leto, mocked and memed by the internet… Well, to be honest, I slept through most of Suicide Squat so not sure what to say about his joker. Anyway, our spotlight is on Fleck (“spot”, btw can be translated as “Fleck” so spotlight on spot, hehe). His Joker is a character and case study. From the very beginning I was mesmerized. There is no actor, there is Arthur Fleck and you believe it. He’s dead on. He owns the movie.

Smile, and the world smiles with you.

Laugh like Fleck and it’s creepy. His laugh and his grin and his smile are equally cringe and 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 this grimace of torture. I for my part felt his suffering. I felt repulsed and pity at the same time. Plessner once defined laughing and crying as the borderline symptoms of humanity. When Arthur Fleck laughs, there’s 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 with no mercy for the weak or unfit(ting). A society where smiles are worn as masks and a clown’s face, the ridicule of the smile, becomes a symbol of rebellion. Oh, and after that movie, you’ll be humming this tune forever. Not cool, king.

Where there’s music, there’s dancing and Fleck, for one, dances. A lot. He dances himself into some sort of trance that transforms him, soothes him. Dancing is his catharsis. And of course there’s the famous staircase dance, where Fleck dances off the chains of a deranged society and breaks free. Such a liberating scene and you can’t but help cheer for him, cheer him on, and then you feel bad because you remember you shouldn’t because wasn’t he supposed to be the bad guy?

And so when we are a-staring at Fleck Fred-Astairing down a staircase, that’s where everything changes. And the audience feels confused wether to sympathize or not, because let’s be real: it is so easy to relate. My actions would be less violent, probably, but the motivation? All too familiar.

Right. One more thing before getting to THE pun that bothers me: the end. I would have loved for the movie to end in the TV studio scene. Two scenes come to mind:

  1. When he’s in the studio, pulling the gun. We all know what he wanted to do. What he practiced and trained for. 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. (I’m aware there is the theory/rumour out there that the whole plot didn’t happen, that Fleck made it all up and has been in an asylum all along. I’ll let you decide for yourself how you like that interpretation.)

Both scenarios would have made for a rather unresolved but artistically wise ending. Let me know what 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 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. And a very smart sentence, if I may say so.

My friend 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 she’s right beside me so we could endure it each for ourselves but together nonetheless. “Endure” not because it is a bad movie. I guess you got that. Endure not because it’s full of violence, 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). There have been worse acts of violence in movies, even in lesser restricted/non R-rated ones. The coldness, the plainness with which it is shown, though, that’s brutal. It feels wrong to watch. And that makes it so uncomfortable.

And I most definitely wanna watch it again.

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