October 11, 2019

WANG | Joker & Performing Mental Health

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Last Friday, I finally sucked it up and watched Joker with another friend. Joker, styled in bold, strained yellow as the film’s title card, is exactly the kind of film it has been marketed as so far. Replete with jagged violence, moody lighting and an inimitable Joaquin Phoenix performance, the movie thrives on concocting shock and rage to drag out a visceral reaction from its audience. “Holy Shit,” someone muttered next to me, in what I turned out to only be the movie’s fourth or fifth most disturbing moment. It was just that kind of film.

The movie, audiences theorize, is a uniquely dangerous strain designed to infect the minds of those disturbed and set them off in the wrong direction. And while I don’t deny there will be certain deranged people who will treat the Joker as some enthralling figure, I instead found the interpretation of him much more damaging in a different way.

There’s been an ugly reaction to Joker before and after its premiere. Arthur Fleck, who eventually morphs into the Joker, is unwell and unwanted. His job as clown only sets him up to be the punchline, while his advances on his neighbor are born out of desperate delusion. He’s seen as an obvious allusion to the violent incel community by reviewers, who describe him as a loser, pushed and shoved and spit upon until he erupts into a storm of violence.

Arthur Fleck is obviously mentally ill. He hallucinates about his neighbor, suffers from a nervous laughing condition and begins to lose grip on his sanity as the world descends on him in a cruel series of events. The city around him is a ghoulish blend of Lovecraftian horror — super rats roam around the city like cop patrols — and a serious infection of assholes. His counselor barely acknowledges him; a group of kids abuse him early on in the movie; a trio of bankers, looking like the drunk men you’d see at 2 a.m. in Collegetown, wallop him right before he snaps. The events nudge him over the edge; he goes on a killing spree. And he doesn’t stop. By the end, Gotham tilts into the chaos inspired by him. And it’s that connection — from mentally ill to ill-conceived terrorist — that’s feels a little too derivative to be interesting.

Over the past few years, as college has continuously numbed me, I’ve turned to horror to just feel something. I picked up the Lovecraft anthology, containing stories that focus on cosmic horror, regarded as so influential that it’s made his name is an adverb; “Lovecraftian” refers to any horror that is unknowable. I watched flicks such as Psycho, The Shining and Halloween, all films considered iconic in the genre. I started Until Dawn, a massively successful interactive horror video game that has you play as characters, often to their gruesome, well deserved ends.

But in each film, the instigating factor is a mentally unstable individual. Norman Bates ( Psycho) suffers from a dissociative personality order, and is the original American Horror Story; Jack Torrance (Shining) has cabin fever and ends with his face memed into oblivion after rampaging against his family; and Josh (Until Dawn), beset with schizophrenia and psychosis, dresses up as a psycho to torment his friends until he can’t string together coherent sentences.  And in Joker, the main character is a mere mix of these classic characters, even if the premise of the film — Bruce Wayne? Super Rats? Dwarf jokes? — isn’t.

It can’t be helpful to our society to have that much pop culture dedicated to the demonification of the mentally ill. The public will tell you that those with mental health issues are more likely to be criminals or violent, have poor hygiene and share the same common symptoms. In fact, none of that is true. Those with poor mental health have lower crime rates than the general population; dressing poorly is not a mental illness; psychosis and schizophrenia are the most commonly shown on the screen. But it’s depression that far outnumbers the others.

Hollywood, of course, isn’t terribly interested in handing out millions of dollars for a documentary on quiet suffering. It has run the gamut because the extremities of mental ailing are far more entertaining for America to watch than tales of ordinary lives. The performance of mental illness has become high art, but the stigma it created keeps those who need to seek help self conscious enough to pass on it.

It’s the quieter moments of the assault on our mental health that deserve acknowledgement. If acting requires the actor to shift from their mind to another — to want to be someone else so badly — then the fight for our mental health is to be someone we desperately don’t want to be. To slip out of bed is to audition. To smile is to win the part.

So in a movie where murder is the punchline, it’s a scene of absolutely nothing that stuck with me far longer. In a soft pan over Joker’s journal, populated with ill advised jokes and unsettling drawings, a highlighted phrase offers a portal into his mind. It’s a moment you’d never think about twice unless you’d been there already.

“The worst part about having a mental illness,” it simply states, “is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower runs every other Monday this semester.