Can a film become a public health problem?

Blog 30 Oct 2019
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Joker, the new stand-alone film from Warner Brothers documenting the origin of Batman’s most notorious nemesis, was released last week to polarising reviews. The Venice Film Festival in August saw it take home the grand prize; receiving rapturous applause and consequently, rave reviews from critics. The hype was effectively built for its wide cinema release. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the joker has created significant Oscar buzz, but the debate over the film has now turned to a concern, the Joker’s life could inspire real-world violence. Numerous news outlets (including the Twittersphere - it pretty much counts as ‘news’ these days) have denounced the film as a bleak character study of a frustrated and ignored man driven to violence as a result of his own narcism. Parallels have been drawn with real-world shootings, the social ideologies represented in the film easily appealing to the isolated with the violent desire to finally be understood.

There’s no doubt the film humanises the super villain. In between caring for his housebound mother in their dingy flat and lusting over his beautiful neighbour (who struggles to make eye contact with him, let alone hold a conversation), Arthur Fleck works for a clown company hoping to “bring joy to Gotham”. The opening scene depicts Arthur cheerfully twirling a business sign in full clown regalia, when a group of teenage boys steal the prop and after chase, viscously assault him. The misfortune doesn’t stop there. In the beginning of the film we learn he attends therapy sessions and takes seven types of medications to stay mentally stable. However, we find out that the state has cut funding to mental health services therefore, removing him from the system capable of keeping him in check. Later, a proposed father figure rejects his proposal of paternity, his colleagues ridicule him for ‘being a creep’, and a late night comedy host (shown to be one of his heroes) humiliates him by mocking his awkward stand up attempt at a local venue. It’s hard not to have sympathy for the joker. The character is metaphorically and literally beaten down again and again. The reasons for his resulting madness are obvious.

The film delivers a devastating commentary about the world we live in today. In the UK, government cuts have decimated our mental health system. In a recent survey 62% of mental health trusts reported a cut in income from the year 2011/2012 to 2016/2017. Our unelected PM during his campaign trail championed tax cuts for those earning in over £100,000. Although recently increased, the turn out of young people to vote is appallingly low, many exhausted and apathetic about the childish games Westminster tries to play with their future. The parallels are obvious.

Joker’s first act of violence is to kill three Wall Street investment bankers, inspiring a protest movement visually not dissimilar to the real world group Anonymous. Disenfranchised and disillusioned young men don clown masks and riot, powered by the desire to ‘take back control’ (rings a bell?) from Gotham’s elite. The film idolises the Joker as an outcasted idol for the disposed masses which makes the real world comparisons to those who commit mass shootings even more painful.

Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair wrote a scathing review of Joker when it was released in Venice. He criticised the film for “being too sympathetic to white men who create heinous crimes” arguing that the jokers ideologies are “evils more easily identifiable to people who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world”. The families of those killed in the 2012 Aurora movie theatre shooting have shared their concerns and have written a letter to Warner Brothers accusing the film of endorsing real world violence. Twelve people died and over seventy were injured when a man with dyed red hair who called himself ‘Joker’ sprayed bullets in to the audience of The Dark Knight Rises film. The cinema has refused to screen the new film which is understandable. I can’t help but think the shooter would see the Joker as ‘aspirational’.

So whose responsibility is this? The writer/director, Todd Phillips? When asked about the controversy during a Q&A at the New York film festival he responded ‘“I mean, its a complicated movie…I think it’s okay that it sparks conversations and that there are debates around it..It’s great to talk about it, but it’s much more helpful if you’ve seen it”. It’s the kind of ‘non-answer’ you’d receive from politicians. But what can we expect from the man who now only directs drama because “woke culture has killed comedy”?

The star of the film, Joaquin Phoenix, isn’t keen to address the controversy either. When asked by Robbie Collin interviewing for the telegraph whether the film could incite violence, he excused himself because he ‘wasn’t prepared for the question’. WB have skirting around the issue too. On receiving the aforementioned letter from the families of the Aurora cinema shooting, they responded saying the studio has “a long history of donating to victims of violence”. They insisted that the film was not an endorsement of real world violence, and the filmmakers do not hold this character up as a hero. Already memos have been release to the FBI warning them of potential attacks on cinemas screening this film.

So can a film become a public health problem? Is Joker a dark, original story about a character we all know? Is it a cautionary tale regarding the isolation of mental health sufferers? Or is it an unhinged, bleak film empathising with the downtrodden who ‘just haven’t had enough love’? Or is it just a good film? For one thing, it’s reignited the debate of gun control which given that 334 mass shootings have occurred in 2019 is a good thing. Mostly it needs to decide the message it send across - famed supervillian we all recognise or sick man with the potential seen as the patron saint of anarchy? It can’t have both.