Thursday, August 22, 2019

Cinematic Greasepainting

Speaking of movies about the Joker...

The forthcoming Joaquin Phoenix film will probably be great.  Everyone involved seems good at their trade, JP's acting chops are unquestionable, and it seems so far to be rich and well thought out.

It's almost too bad it's not about the Joker.

Alternative interpretations of a character are fine; they are part of what makes a character mythic rather than merely literary.  I am not one of those people to complain "The REAL Joker would use more conditioner on his hair!"  Although that's probably true; he's rather vain.  

It's important to remember that these two pictures are of the same character.

But when an interpretation seems so entirely off-base that it lacks the character's central elements that make him recognizable, then I start to frown.  And that's the case with Joker.

The film tells the story of hard-luck stand-up comic Arthur Fleck in 1980s New York (even if they call it "Gotham") City.  After being dealt one too many bad hands by life, he cracks and becomes a clown-like public menace.  

The elements of this that miss the mark are pretty clear.  The Joker has a name, and a (tragic) backstory; he's a character for whom we will feel sympathy.  It's not surprising for a Hollywood film: these are near essentials for most cinematic storytelling, of course. They aren't a story so much as basic requirements for a protagonist. 

But those are elements that the character of the Joker, from a mythic perspective, LACKS and always has. It's part of the character's appeal--well, let's call it 'genius' or 'schtick', rather than appeal.  The fact that some characters (such as the Joker or the Phantom Stranger) do not have proper names, backgrounds and origins isn't some kind of oversight, a convenient lacuna that a later creator can "helpfully" back fill to suit their tastes.  It's an essential part of the character. Something that Dan Didio doesn't get, by the way.

"This" = Dan Didio

These characters aren't PEOPLE as much as they are concepts; the Evil Clown or the Mysterious Stranger. Much of their mythic power comes from that abstraction; if you rob them of that, there is little reason use to them. Unless they are just greasepaint to make your otherwise hard-to-sell movie suddenly salable, which the creators of Joker have nearly explicitly said it is what they are doing:

"[Director Todd} Phillips said it does not "follow anything from the comic books... That's what was interesting to me. We're not even doing Joker, but the story of becoming Joker." Rather, he used elements of the Joker lore to produce an original story." [Courtesy of Wikipedia.]

THAT is literary greasepainting. That's the kind of approach that turns the Phantom Stranger into one of Jesus's disciples or gives you Halle Berry's Catwoman.  You can focus on whether the results are good or not (Joker is likely to be a better film than Catwoman, for example), but don't ignore the role the 'greasepaint' method has in that and the longer term effects.  If the film is bad or flops, an opportunity was wasted and comic book movies take it on the chin.  If the film is good and succeeds, you are training creators that the key to using comic books as sources is to ignore as much of the original material as you can, except perhaps for the character's general appearance.

Not only does greasepainting happen with 'comic book movies', it's happening in comic books (writer Tom King's run on Batman isn't so much issues of Batman as is it Tom King's issues) and movies (Ari Aster's execrable work putting on a monster mask to pass as 'horror' rather than merely horrible). You could make the case that Bob Haney's body of work is almost entirely greasepainting.

Batman wants to live.
That's why he regularly jumps off tall buildings and gets himself put in a deathtrap every week,
same bat-time, same bat-channel.

In the case of Joker, Alan Moore is, of course, partly to blame for not getting the Joker right and in the vicious and crappy Killing Joke, convincing a generation of readers that the Joker is a tragic victim, the product of the world's callousness, and that at one time he was just like you and me. And if you don't believe my condemnation of what Alan Moore did with the Joker, maybe you'll believe Alan Moore himself:

"I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it. It was too nasty, it was too physically violent. There were some good things about it, but in terms of my writing, it’s not one of my favorite pieces.  
"I was naively hoping that there’d be a rush of fresh and original work by people coming up with their own. But, as I said, it [my work] was meant to be something that would liberate comics. Instead, it became this massive stumbling block that comics can’t even really seem to get around to this day. They’ve lost a lot of their original innocence, and they can’t get that back. And, they’re stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend."
putting more melodramatic weight on a character than appropriate and
 being stuck in a kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis.

It IS an interesting story, it's just not the JOKER's story. It's much more like Harvey "Two-Face" Dent's story (normal guy cracks under the pressure of a hard knock and turns against society).  In fact, most of my criticism of the Dark Knight's plot would vanish if the entire plot had been Two-Face's story with no Joker to be seen.  Meticulous planning to manipulate both sides of the law?  Dismantling the mobs by stealing their money AND catching them on RICO charges?  Pitting a boatload of good citizens against a boatload of bad criminals in a "Prisoner's Dilemma" to make a point about the arbitrary distinctions between good and evil?  Really, what could be more Two-Face-y than that? Why is the Joker in Two-Face's movie at all?

The Joker's original origin (in the idiotic "Man Behind the Red Hood", Detective Comics #148, 1951) at least knew well enough to preserve several essential elements of the Joker (with the efficiency typical of Golden Age comics stories, I might add):


  • you don't get to know his name;
  • you don't get to see his face before he becomes the Joker;
  • he was already a crook and terrible person BEFORE his accident;
  • he was a schemer and inventor (he designed the red hood device to allow him to enter inhospitable environments like chemical plants)
  • he was goal-oriented ("I will steal $X and then retire!")
  • he had style and showmanship (really, even in Gotham, who dons a tuxedo to rob a chemical plant off-hours?);
  • he was opportunistic ("I'll use this to my advantage!"); and
  • he was thematically-oriented and brand conscious ("Ooo, the Joker is a much better schtick than the Red Hood!")

Even in this crappy throwaway detective story, Golden Age writers knew not to mess with the character's core.  Even Golden Age writers, the creators who gave us penny-themed villains and stories about milk racketeers, even THOSE people would have laughed at the foolishness of positing that the Joker, Batman's archenemy an all-around threat to society, was some poor schlubby hack who just had a bad day that somehow magically turned him into a criminal genius.  How can modern creators and readers have less common sense than the people who put giant props in every commercial property in Gotham City?!

This movie SHOULD have been Joaquin Phoenix as JOE COYNE, THE PENNY PLUNDERER.
Because THAT would have been awesome. That would have been ART.

The Joker is:

  • not a tragic figure; he's a figure who finds comedy in bringing tragedy to others;
  • not someone undone by his accident, he's someone who turned it to his advantage;
  • not normal or average;
  • not good or sympathetic;
  • not poor or pathetic.

The Joker is not society's victim; he victimizes society.  It may not be fashionable any longer to believe anything OTHER than the idea that society creates its own victimizers.... but that's not the Joker's story.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Jimmy Foal-son

I don't know about you, but Whinny Olsen was EXACTLY what I needed today.
Thank you, Matt Fraction (and comics in general).

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

No, I do NOT like Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, thanks for asking.

Recently, the Rotten Tomatoes-eating public voted Heath Ledger's entrance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, the most memorable cinematic moment in the last 21 years.  This, of course, is patently absurd, since most viewers would AT BEST be able to quote the line "I kill the bus-driver" and be unable to describe much of anything else done or said in the scene.

It goes without saying that this says MUCH more about the cinematic habits and discernment of the average movie-goer than it does about Ledger's performance.   I mean, really now.  Need I remind you that THIS scene from Deep Blue Sea (1999) also occurred within in the last 21 years...

Related image

If you have seen both films, there is no way you remember the Joker's entrance in The Dark Knight MORE than you remember Samuel L. Jackson suddenly getting eaten by a shark in Deep Blue Sea in mid-sentence during a Standard Rousing Bad-Ass Speech.

It also says a lot about how Fanboys Be Representing when such things arise, since their are a lot more Batman/ Joker/ Dark Knight fanfolk than there are DeepBlueSea-fanatics. ARE there Deep Blue Sea Fanatics?  I'm not sure I want to know.

And it says a lot about people's ability or willingness to follow instructions; clearly, people voted based on whether they LIKED a moment, not how memorable it was.

Heck, Ledger's entrance as The Joker in The Dark Knight wasn't even as memorable as the one it was based on: Cesar Romero's first entrance as The Joker on Batman'66:

The difference, as Megamind would say, is presentation.  NOBODY makes an entrance like Cesar Romero's Joker.

Now, THAT is an entrance. No bus driver required.

I know that many people revere Ledger's performance as The Joker but for most part it seems like boilerplate adoration, without much critical analysis.  Look, Ledger certainly did a better job than anyone had a right to expect, especially since much of his past movie work wasn't all that... deep.  Hat's off to him for proving that he was more than just a pretty face while he was with us.

Very pretty, in fact.

But Ledger's Joker, while admittedly intense, was also clearly ... not genuine.  There was little sense that this was an actual crazy person or an evil genius with a wicked sense of humor.  Ledger's Joker was an act, a put-on, a disillusioned man putting on a crazy act to convince others, and himself, that he didn't care about anything. But he did care; he was a nihilistic ideologue DESPERATE to prove his point to others, and painfully needy.  He didn't leave chaos in his wake; everything he did was painstakingly choreographed.  He seemed like a sad clown, eager for approval by the audience; a tough guy, eager to show much he didn't care; a tragically realistic man, eager to come off as a lunatic.  Ledger's Joker was... just a terrorist.  Because I guess that's what scares current-day audiences.

The script is to blame, of course, but Ledger didn't help.  Most viewers were just impressed that Ledger's Joker seemed menacing, because the Joker can seem pretty silly and nonthreatening if done wrong.  And Ledger's Joker was menacing... because both the character and the actor were obviously working really hard to MENACE.  The Joker shouldn't work hard at being menacing, he shouldn't have to try to seem crazy, and he shouldn't really care what you think.  I can't believe I saying this (because I didn't like Jack Nicholson's Joker all that much) but... Jack Nicholson got all of that. Nicholson's Joker had no idea anything was wrong with him, had fun during his schemes, and certainly didn't care whether you got the joke or agreed with his worldview.

And, as you can see, he's a lot happier.

Cesar Romero's Joker never tried to seem threatening... but was deadly all the same; that was part of the point of his performance.  His Joker actually just thought it was really funny to feed you to a giant clam.

Never forget.

Ledger's neurotic tics and slimy speech patterns were clearly affectations of both the actor and the character, suitable more to that homeless guy you avoid in the park than Batman's archenemy.  To top it all off... Ledger couldn't laugh.  There are thousands of people in the world who can do a Joker laugh; why can't Hollywood ever find someone who can?

Even THAT guy could probably do a better job at it!