Written by Shaan Khan (29/11/19)
Joker (2019) isn’t some film that latches onto the traditional story concepts we have become accustomed to in popular media. It isn’t one of your ‘run-of-the-mil’ experiences of an unworldly fiction that lets us escape our realities; neither is it merely a glimpse into an interesting part of real-life.
Joker (2019) is, in fact, a multi-faceted creative piece of art. It plays upon the DC Universe fantasy while combining it with realities of life, like chasing fictions—blurring the lines between what’s real, fake and sensationalised.
A unique moment that the film conveys for some was that somewhere down the line in the story, It had felt as if there was a mirror being held up at us—the audience.
This metaphor suggests that— ‘me and everyone attending the movie, in that time and place, wanting to watch an iconic character that lives a more ‘elaborate’ lifestyle than our own’—are all in fact, the living embodiments of the film’s story narrative.
As you see, the basic premise of the film, is that the protagonist is an ordinary guy stricken with hardships—turning to fictions and his imagination to escape from reality.
As many are aware, they’re endless amount of twists and turns in life—no matter what direction you take. Almost everyone has been exposed to the impurities of the world. And Yes, Joker (2019) isn’t one to shun from them even in their most horrid forms. From emaciated bodies to mental illness episodes and impoverish living conditions—it’s as grim as it gets.
A creative play on ‘Escapism’-
As the roller coaster of life gets daunting, entertainment and fiction can become our escapes and motivations. Now, watching John Wick might not inspire you to become the ‘greatest gunslinger ever known‘, but it might inspire you to pick up the confidence and fashions of the protagonist.
A movie like The Wolf of Wall Street is more likely to inspire you to become ‘The next big thing in trading penny stock‘, but the unfortunate truth for most of us is: it never happens.
These inspirations may linger in our thoughts and dreams for some while, or we even might pursue them objectively. Ultimately, many of us fall victim to the societal realities that crush our hopes and dreams and movies merely present themselves as ‘glamourised spectacles into a better and more enjoyable reality than our own’.
So, when looking back at the film ‘Joker (2019)‘, who is the main protagonist? Well, the man who eventually turns into the ‘Joker‘—Arthur Fleck, starts out as a guy trapped in introspection and held victim to melancholy; the fight with reality always succumbs to him escaping into his imaginative state of mind or latching onto comedic entertainment.
The use of symbolism-
Visual symbolism incorporated into the movie are cases of abstract storytelling; scenes represent Arthur’s character. The man that hides away in the cold refrigerator symbolises the escape from the heat; the pressures of reality. Or the fascinations with The Murray Show that ultimately leads to his ‘false conscious’ first comedic act; symbolising existential crisis as he plasters the pains with a false reality that is harvested from his obsessions with fantasies—a deluded imagination that covers up what is true or not.
Not only does this type of storytelling allow us to follow the sequential events of the story, but also, we take a glimpse into the psyche of the man turned monster, to better understand why things pan out the way they did.
It’s thought-provoking and emotionally captivating when it’s revealed that the glimpses of light shun upon Arthur’s bleak reality is nothing more than fiction; a catalyst to a happy ending; a proverbial outcome that aligns with the expectations of a mass audience.
Yet, this uncanny outcome does not limit the art form by going against the norm of ‘What just works‘, it instead, finds its flow through different pathways to convey a compelling narrative. It starts with the audience being brought along a ride through a fictional path—Arthur is set up as a ‘silent hero to the anarchists’, an upcoming comedian’ and a ‘guy in a newfound loving relationship with a girl’—sadly, all in which are false fodder of the mind.
Those with active imaginations can relate in a sense, our empathetical gaze heightens and to some; we take an unnerving glimpse into our own realities. We come to realise that this movie we are watching is no typical ‘escape from daily monotony and hardship‘ type film. Instead, it unforgivingly incorporates the personal into the story. It makes us latch onto Arthur as some ‘arbiter of hope’ that is put on the stage to guide us through this dark narrow archway, in which is that of the visual and narrative storytelling of the movie.
It truly is a marvel to see such a captivating storyline developed in light of such abstract minds that can incorporate symbolism impactfully. Here are a few other impeccable examples of the visual narrative that intuitively conveys the message of the storyline within its unique expression to adds extra layers of depth to the story at hand.
Symbolism of the ‘Stairway Scene’-
One such example is the infamous ‘stairway’ scene that is showcased multiple times throughout the movie and is presented in two particular fashions to execute a symbolic interplay. The initial representation is the most prominently featured scene which highlights Arthur’s monotonous commute up the steps; this scene is reintroduced a few times in unison to the build-up of issues that occur in Arthur’s life. This on-going scene begins to symbolically suggest hopelessness in light of daily struggle as the outcome of sadness remains the same as does the walk up the gruelling stairway despite the differentiating issues—struggles.
As we become familiar with this harrowing scene that continuously exacerbates the life of Arthur through a visual narrative, we are finally met with a newfound light upon the stairway which strongly alludes to the fact that the stairway is the symbolic representation of Arthur’s life—as everything eventually comes full circle.
Before Arthur’s transition into the Joker, the stairway scenes were slapped on with grey undertones and gloomy weather. The Joker—cold and wet, with a reserved and isolating body-language as he looks down to the ground with a tired face; feeling crushed by his bleak reality.
But as a new man is born within and his eyes have finally opened up to happiness, he is now wired to colours—as he aggressively slaps on all the vibrant colours he can find onto his face and body; the transformation into the Joker, a man with no remorse or moral quarrels. He will go against the rules and forcefully capture his happiness as it’s the only way he feels that he can.
And no scene can perfectly capture this ‘change of person’ than the stairway used to represent the Joker’s life. As the Joker is born, the stairway is used in a final scene that has given it a whole new life. Vibrant colours that pop as much as Joker’s outfit, his suit flaps around freely as much as his movement. He flaunts around, head held high as he transcends down the stairs with full control and little care in the world—representing the new life he has grasped onto.
The ‘finer’details which makes it great-
Body language, subtle actions and gestures are all strong points to include when analysing the symbolism of change. Some changes include Arthur’s incontrollable laugh–to the Joker’s ironic use of the laugh for deception. The timid interactions–to the Joker’s callous approach to scandalous communication that shocks the norm. From the shy and rigid movements with his hunched posture–to the Joker’s dance of harmony as it solicits his newly gained ‘smooth flow through life’ perspective—a freeing sensation from the concubine which was that of his depression and anxiety.
Within the film industry, we have become accustomed to movie scenes that simply forward a story along. But with ‘Joker (2019)‘, you notice the efforts in production to give certain scenes like that in which I’ve mentioned—more character, profound meaning and impact to the story, as they connect to form stronger purpose.
Introducing the various subtilties founded in the symbolic actions, we become heavily immersed into the life of Arthur as the movie puts effort into capturing the realities of living that we can relate to. This only further fluctuates an emotional rise out of us when the symbolic changes are executed. We grew close to the protagonist and seeing the changes that relinquished him from his depressive state, in a sense, brought us out of that immersive pit of misery in which the production team had crafted for us to all endure.
From the erratic camera jerks as intense moments pan out, to the background noises of the violin that fits the flow of life on display and doesn’t distract you from it—these are all points I believe applied the necessary quality to convey such a rich storyline of this calibre.
The success of a ‘daring’ movie-
It’s not your typical movie by any means, and I’m glad Paramount Studios went against the grain and brought this artform into existence within contemporary culture. A film that shares an impactful message that makes us reflect on societal issues such as mental illness and inequality. I’m also happy to hear that it was the top-grossing R-rated movie of all time—making a billion dollars in total. Setting itself as an example that not all film producers need to take the PG friendly route like the Marvel brand.
I do hope there is a continuing trend of producing this genre of mature content, just as we have seen recently in the gaming industry with Call Of Duty’s new title ‘Modern Warfare (2019)‘. It presents a similarly visceral and shock worthy storyline in its single-player campaign that highlights parts of real-world problems while applying light fiction to the story. In fact, Modern Warfare (2019) was the best-sold opening game than any of the other COD titles to date on the current-gen consoles; grossing $600 million worldwide in only three days of its release. So, it goes to show that creative liberty not suppressed by censorship and corporate trends are very much capable of being rewarded with great success.
What did the ending ‘really’ mean?-
Finally, I must give credit to the creative decision for the Joker’s (2019) ending scene, that stays true to this weird construction of the story that blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s not. This was especially taken up a notch at the ending, as you begin to question if everything you believed was real, is in fact, all apart of Arthur Fleck’s imagination? It makes for good table talk post-movie, allowing people to form their own conclusions on what the ending suggests about the story. Segueing into my final point, two theories that I’m personally holding onto about the ending and what it indicates about the overall story:
My first and most optimistic theory is that Arthur’s transition into the Joker and all the events that transpire after that point were real. After eventually becoming the hero to the anarchists and breaking out the cop car, he ultimately led a life reminiscent to the previous Joker characters we have seen throughout popular culture—carrying out crime and unleashing mayhem on Gotham. The final scene of the Joker being cooped up in a mental institution, was a glimpse into a near-future, touching on a common theme of the cultural character to where he is captured by law enforcement, which only leads to his inevitable escape due to his sharp wits—as was showcased in the final scene.
The second theory that fits in line with the darker and more realistic elements of the movie makes me believe that Arthur Fleck never really transitioned into the Joker after killing his mother. He instead, grew more obsessed with becoming someone he was not, his false conscious thoughts only increased and led Arthur to become more out of touch with reality; ever deluding himself as his issues with life kept racking up.
This possibly reached to Arthur’s breaking point and instead of becoming this articulately conniving character of the Joker—rather instead, he got caught making a human error; possibly him killing his mother. Leading him to be institutionalised just like his mother was—as foreshadowed in a previous scene to where along the lines, he states ‘I think I belong here’ referring to the mental asylum that he visited to acquire documents on his mother.
However, this theory makes me caught up on whether he killed the therapist or not in the final scene. If he did, then that’s when I believe he turns into Joker from that point on after having dealt with so much failure. Alternatively, him killing the therapist was a part of his imagination, since this is what he’s commonly known for doing throughout the story.
But there is so many ways you can twist how the story pans out based on your own imagination and bias—all thanks to the way the ending was constructed. All-in-all Joker (2019) is truly a thought-provoking movie that sits with you after the experience; it sets itself aside from a regular DC movie. It gives more depth to a villains backstory then what we’re used to—that is outside of the typical ‘vengeful’ or ‘money and power-hungry ‘ clichés.