Because dystopia begins at home

Updated: Oct 09, 2019, 07:19 IST | Mayank Shekhar |

Here's how, I think, the lowbrow Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips pulled off the bleak zeitgeist with Joker

Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Joker; (inset) Todd Phillips, the director of the film
Joaquin Phoenix in a still from Joker; (inset) Todd Phillips, the director of the film

Mayank ShekharSurely the world's been rightly blown away by Joaquin (pronounced Waa-keen) Phoenix as Joker in Todd Phillips's 2019 masterpiece of the same name. Comparisons with Heath Ledger's equally delirious, "why so serious" turn in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) are inevitable. Let alone Jack Nicholson's popular rendition of the same part in Tim Burton's Batman (1989), which was closer to the comic book.

That said, The Dark Knight, in all its adult, dystopian bleakness, hinged on stark realism, was still very much "DC". How does one accurately place Phillips's Joker in the family-tree of films? One is tempted to draw up a mini-syllabus for a moviegoer. And, I say this having revised the material myself—the past couple of days since being hit by Joker; and further by its equally dark inspirations. To a point that I need help myself!

The first clue, of course, is Robert De Niro in Joker. If you look at it one way, he's the movie's hero. For, why else would one of America's finest working actors willingly pick up, or even be offered, a three/four-scene role in a two-hour film from a multi-million comic book universe? Because, latently, he is the movie's muse. In the same way, that he was Martin Scorsese's—for a considerable part of the director's career.

At any rate, he was, for Scorcese's Taxi Driver (1976; available on Amazon Prime Video)—about a lonely, depressed, directionless cabbie, Travis Bickle (De Niro), who finds a disturbing modicum of meaning in life (or lack thereof), through the course of a neo-noir psychological thriller. That film pretty much shook up the public.

And yet Bickle, as a character, was far less unsettling than De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese's The King Of Comedy (1983; also on Amazon Prime)—Taxi Driver's sequel (in spirit). The distressingly delusional Pupkin, fairly normal on the surface, like Phoenix's Joker nee Arthur Fleck, is a wannabe stand-up comedian.

Basically, you mash up Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy, amp up the scale, bloat up the existentialist angst centred on a lead character that the world cares for as little as he begins to in return—you get Joker, similarly set in the '70s/'80s, in Scorsese's street-level Manhattan, that's effectively a front for DC's Gotham City.

Few films have polarised critics over glorification of violence, without redemption, and its likely impact on copy-cat crimes, as Joker. This is what forced Stanley Kubrick to pull back prints of The Clockwork Orange (1971) from British theatres in 1973. The problem with the argument is it doesn't adequately recognise that a movie is a movie! Two, just because it deeply explores a phenomenon, meditates on an idea, doesn't implicitly imply that it condones it, let alone celebrates it. The impulses could be purely journalistic.

And, director Phillips—known to all as the super-hit filmmaker of the (relatively) low-brow The Hangover trilogy, Due Date, Starsky & Hutch remake, etc—is a solid reporter. He's chronicled low-life White America, through two documentaries (both available on YouTube), that'll hit you in ways that you'll find hard to instantly recover from.

With Frathouse (1998), Phillips zooms-in on fraternity (hostel) life, and initiation/hazing (ragging) culture in East Coast US campuses—as we terrifyingly observe the lengths to which college-kids will go "to fit in". Nitesh Tiwary's Chhichhore (2019) was child's play compared to this Caucasian-American reality.

Phillips made his directorial debut with the documentary, Hated: GG Allin And The Murder Junkies (1993), diving deep into the hate-filled, deranged, perennially naked, punk-rocker GG Allin's life. Which, like his concert tours, involved defecating in public/stage, eating and smearing himself with the same gunk; being pissed on, puking, when not directing physical violence against his audiences.

Unaware of his early works, I met/interviewed Phillips much after he'd won an Oscar nomination for co-writing the comedy Borat (2006). Which, he argued, had worked—because the joke was on Borat. Unlike Bruno—Borat's sequel, that he had nothing to do with—where the joke was on everyone else. In another interview on YouTube, I find Phillips calling his debut, Hated: GG Allin, as an intended comedy!

At the core of GG Allin's appeal, which becomes clear with one of the sound-bytes to the effect, is that "he was doing things that a lot of people wished they had the balls to!" Phillips funded the film, thanks to a painting/poster he got Allin's serial-killer friend JW Gacy to make, and that he sold for thousands of dollars. Because it seemed "creepy cool" to own one, back in the day.

What's common between the deeply aggressive, deranged, dangerously violent GG Allin, and Joker; and to extremely varying extents, the White Frat-boys, Travis Bickle, or Rupert Pupkin? 'Incel' (Involuntary celibacy), or sexual frustration; social isolation; toxic masculinity; mental diseases… All kinds of possible diagnoses.

None of which we afford brown-folk holding a gun, in the Middle-Eastern sun, willing to die for religion, hoping for life, yes; but not this one. Try making a film from the perspective of that guy. Watch the uproar!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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