Saturday, November 09, 2019


US 2019.
    PC: Warner Bros. Pictures / DC Films / Joint Effort. P: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
    D: Todd Phillips. SC: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver. Based on characters by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson at DC Comics.
    DP: Lawrence Sher – source format: ARRIRAW 3.4K, 4.5K, 5.1K – digital intermediate 4K – released on 35 mm, 70 mm, D-Cinema.
    AD: Laura Ballinger. Set dec: Kris Moran. Cost: Mark Bridges. Makeup: Nicki Ledermann. Hair: Kay Georgiou. M: Hildur Guðnadóttir. S: Alan Robert Murray. ED: Jeff Groth. Casting: Shayna Markowitz. Soundtrack credits include:
– "Temptation Rag" (Henry Lodge, 1909), perf. Claude Bolling.
– "Slap That Bass" (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) from Shall We Dance (1937) with Fred Astaire
– "Smile" (Charles Chaplin, John Turner, Geoffrey Parsons) from Modern Times (1936), lyrics 1954, perf. Jimmy Durante 1965.
– "That's Life" (Dean Kay, Kelly Gordon, 1963) perf. Frank Sinatra 1966.
– "Rock 'n' Roll (Part 2)" (Gary Glitter, Mike Leander) perf. Gary Glitter 1972.
– "White Room" (Jack Bruce, Pete Brown) perf. Cream 1968.
– "Send In the Clowns" (Stephen Sondheim 1973 for A Little Night Music based on Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night) perf. Frank Sinatra 1973.
    C: Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck), Robert De Niro (Murray Franklin), Zazie Beetz (Sophie Dumond), Frances Conroy (Penny Fleck), Brett Cullen (Thomas Wayne), Douglas Hodge (Alfred Pennyworth), Dante Pereira-Olson (Bruce Wayne), Glenn Fleshler (Randall the clown), Leigh Gill (Gary the clown), Bill Camp (detective, Gotham City Police Department), Shea Whigham (detective, Gotham City Police Department), Marc Mahon (Gene Ufland, producer on Franklin's show), Josh Pais (Hoyt Vaughn, Arthur's agent), Brian Tyree Henry (a clerk at Arkham State Hospital), Ben Warheit (Wall Street banker murdered by Arthur on the subway platform).
    Loc: New York City, New Jersey.
    122 min
    Festival premiere: 31 Aug 2019 Venice Film Festival.
    US premiere: 28 Sep 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 4 Oct 2019, released by SF Studios, Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Timo Porri / Janne Staffans.
    DCP viewed at Tennispalatsi 2, Helsinki, 9 Nov 2019.

Synopsis (Venice 2019): "Joker centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night... but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study."

Director’s Statement (Venice 2019): "I was always intrigued by the complexity of Joker and felt his origin would be worth exploring since nobody had really attempted that before. In fact, part of his lore was that he didn’t have a definitive origin, so Scott Silver and I sat down to write a version of how he may have come to be. We included certain elements from the canon and set it in a broken-down Gotham City sometime in the late 1970s-early 1980s, partly because that harkens back to an era of some of the great character studies in film that I’ve always loved. We wrote it with Joaquin Phoenix in mind, because he’s always so transformative in his work and he never goes half-way. Our hope was to create a character that you really feel for, even root for, up until the point that you just can’t anymore." (Todd Phillips)

AA: The joker and the clown have been popular in the cinema since the early days. Recently I was thinking about Ingmar Bergman and his clown obsession from Gycklarnas afton (1953, literally: The Night of the Clowns) till In the Presence of a Clown (1997). His fascination had been fuelled by the writer Hjalmar Bergman (no relation, author of the novel Jac the Clown) who was obsessed with the theme of humiliation, as was Victor Sjöström, who had often worked together with Hjalmar Bergman before becoming the director of the first film produced by MGM, He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chaney as the clown. The figure of the clown was even more important for Bergman's friend Federico Fellini; the circus concept was the key to his Weltanschauung. He also co-wrote Rossellini's Francisco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God's Jester, 1950). Fellini also quipped that "Today's clowns do not make anybody laugh. Rather they make you cry".

The heyday of the cinema's clown / circus / variety obsession was in the 1920s, culminating in Germany's first sound film The Blue Angel (1930) in which a mighty teacher played by Emil Jannings is reduced to a clown in the cinema's most harrowing account of humiliation. There was an exodus of Weimar talent to Hollywood, and at Universal studios Paul Leni directed a film adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel The Man Who Laughs (1928) starring another Weimar genius, Conrad Veidt, as Gwynplaine.

The permanent grimace carved on Gwynplaine's face was the inspiration for Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson in creating the Joker in the debut issue of Batman for DC Comics in 1940. The Joker character has returned to moving images in several incarnations, and somehow the original Weimar, Hjalmar Bergman, Victor Sjöström, Lon Chaney and Conrad Veidt affinities have remained alive whether consciously or not (probably not).

Alan Napier's Joker interpretation in the spoof Batman television series of the 1960s was trivial, but in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman reboot Jack Nicholson created a memorably deranged interpretation, with bizarre touches such as carving grimaces to masterpieces at the Gotham Museum of Art. His was one of the cinema's most unforgettable monsters, but in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) Heath Ledger topped him in an even more shocking performance.

Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger's monster interpretations may be impossible to top, and Todd Phillips has opened a completely different route, based on social and psychological realism. Also he and his brilliant star Joaquin Phoenix go all the way but this time without flamboyant excess or turbocharged action spectacle.

Like in the films of Burton and Nolan, the nightmare mode is compelling, and also in this way the Weimar affinity is alive. Joker, although vaguely set in the early 1980s, is a dream reflection of major topical turbulences: the reverberations of 2008, the new Gilded Age, the downfall of social security, child neglect and abuse, budget cuts in mental health services, medicalization, laxity in gun regulation, Occupy Wall Street, and mass demonstrations of young people around the world, often wearing masks.

The disturbing figure of the clown resonates in a perverted way with the cast of contemporary world leaders including Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, all of whom became famous as clownish television personalities. Not forgetting that there are further world leaders who remind us of villains in Batman and Bond movies.

P.S. I cannot explain why I'm thinking about it, but one of my favourite clown interpretations in the cinema is by Ivan Mosjoukine in La Maison du mystère VII: Les Caprices du destin (1923).

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