You can learn a lot about a culture from its belief system.
Not so long ago, life used to be hard, full of pain, and sometimes really short. Death could come at any time – from a fever, an infection, or even a cough.
For people back then, there was an almost universally held belief that the afterlife would be beautiful, peaceful and pain-free.
Our society has almost flipped the fantasy on its head.
We live in an age of unprecedented comfort, security, and longevity. Our curious response is to pretend that the end is horrifying and near.
We are teaching children that they have a 50-50 chance of witnessing an armed attack on their school this year instead of reassuring scared students that the real chance is less than 1%. And if they manage to survive that, we are telling children it hardly matters because a sharknado tsunami caused by Climate Change will wipe them all out within a decade.
In the olden days, people had real villains to fear: polio, cholera, and tuberculosis.
In a world without villains, we are eager to make them up for ourselves. And we love doing it.
“Joker” is the R-rated hit of the season. First it won top prize at the Venice Film Festival. Then it grabbed headlines and hype when communities expressed fear that showing the film would inspire copy-cat violence.
That is all giving “Joker” too much credit. It is just a half-baked character study. Writer/director Todd Phillips is a master of the R-rated comedy (“The Hangover,” “Old School”), but when it comes to drama he’s still learning the ropes.
The only thing that’s really amazing about “Joker” is the setting. Todd Phillips’s Gotham is a sprawling, poor, dingy 1980s New York City. You feel the smoke and the grease and the tension of oppressed people ready to explode.
The problem is: there’s nothing like this in today’s America. If Phillips thinks people can relate to his dystopian Gotham, he’s dreaming about a horrible, lawless USA that simply doesn’t exist.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is as brutally unhappy as any character I’ve ever seen in a blockbuster movie. It feels totally believable and appropriate when he turns to violence.
The problem is, Todd Phillips tries awkwardly to find meaning in his violence.
At first it felt like Phillips was showing us the loveless misery and delusional self-importance of a white guy who becomes a mass shooter.
But if that’s true, why did Phillips make Arthur so sympathetic? How are we supposed to totally root against a guy who developed a mental illness by being neglected by his mom and beaten by her boyfriend? And if Arthur is the bad guy, how come Phillips made all of the men he kills more vile than he is?
Arthur Fleck’s killing spree inspires a street protest movement that Phillips is basing on Occupy Wall Street. But Phillips is too intellectually unfocused or too cowardly to make any statement about Occupy or Leftist Populism.
The protestors hold up signs saying “Kill the Rich.” But it is not clear whether we are supposed to sympathize with them or fear them. It IS clear that Todd Phillips thinks we are close to seeing Kill the Rich riots in today’s America. Fortunately we are not. We are close to electing a president who will try and fail to enact a Wealth Tax.
Don’t believe the gloomy hype: we live in a wonderfully peaceful and prosperous era of history. Most of the kids at Union Elementary School will live to a ripe old age and never witness an act of violence. And don’t believe the movie hype: “Joker” is just a mediocre drama, nothing more.