By Inderjit Badhwar
Saw the Todd Phillips-Bradley Cooper blockbuster starring Joaquin Phoenix in IMAX. It is running simultaneously in a dozen Delhi multiplexes to packed middle class audiences glued to their seats. I wondered how most of them, never having lived there, could possibly understand the symbolisms and idioms and the multiple facets of metaphoric America. It’s already grossed more than half a billion big bucks in the US.
It has shades of European film making … Jean-Luc Godard, Bergman, Polanski, also DW Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. It is an American neo-classic. Works at several levels … DC Comics American folklore, Batman Redux (Joker always escapes as he may have done in this one to allow for a sequel)… John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, shades of Nelson Algren’s Depression era tragi-comic Dove Linkhorn, Burlesque, Broadway… Hitchcock.. Scorsese…..A quintessentially American movie mixing metaphors unashamedly and adeptly, deftly converting a reality talk show into a hideously gruesome pantomime… and succeeding in getting the audience to blur the distinctions between fantasy and reality. Ultimately, the film is a haunting, unapologetic medley. Phoenix is superb. Here comes the Oscar. His dancing is hideously evil and sinuously ethereal.
During an interview last year at Cannes, Godard was asked: You once said that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order. Do you stand by that? Godard replied: “I said that quite some time ago to go against Spielberg and others, who said there has to be a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Of course, I didn’t make this a real hobby horse, but once I drew a parallel: it was an equation, x + 1. A child in primary school can easily understand that equation: if x + 3 = 1, x = -2. And when you produce an image, be it of the past, the present or the future, you have to do away with two images each time to find one really good one. It’s like the equation. That’s the key to cinema, to a good film. But when you talk about the key, you can’t forget the lock as well.”
He was talking in another context, and way before Joker hit the multiplexes, but I think Godard describes Joker’s genre in his words better than most critics who appear baffled and confused. I am frightened, however, that the audience sympathy which the Joker evokes is a bit like the furious hero worship and violent class hatred that Trump (also an unrepentant Joker) inspires in his base of core supporters.