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The Joker Melodrama

Melodrama was an ultra-popular entertainment form of the Gilded Age. It seems fitting, then, that in 2019, we have returned to the genre in Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker. (Nike Tavernise / Warner Bros.)

By now there are a thousand different takes on Joker — I’ve read dozens, capping it off with “A Lacanian Reading of Joker, which seemed like a good time to quit. Such a wealth of varied responses indicate that this film is the Rorschach test of our day. But that’s a good thing. That means, love it or hate it, we have an interesting and relevant film on our hands for once that compels people to head to the theater, see it, and offer a public reaction.

What I haven’t seen discussed yet is Joker’s heavy emphasis on its chosen narrative genre, which, for most of the film’s running time, isn’t “comic book movie” at all but melodrama. Joker, born Arthur Fleck, is an endlessly abused victim of cruel familial and societal tyrannies whose suffering is finally recognized by the community that, in the end, celebrates him. This is a model melodramatic plot that would’ve been familiar to audiences as far back as silent cinema. Here, it’s made bleakly ironic because of the chaotic, violent means of its hero achieving recognition in the end. Fleck becomes Joker by refusing to play the part of melodrama’s innocent victim, who almost always upholds society’s professed values and is egregiously punished for it. It’s a good move on Fleck’s part, since the innocent victim often dies and is wept over by people who only learn to appreciate them posthumously.

In Joker, the title character repeatedly wonders what kind of story he’s caught in. The film opens with Arthur Fleck, in full clown makeup, using his fingers to push the corners of his mouth up to resemble the comedy mask and down to resemble the tragedy mask. Later, he says, at a crucial turning point of violence that changes him from Arthur to Joker, “I thought my life was a tragedy. But now I know it’s a comedy.”

Problem is, if it’s a comedy, no one’s laughing, not the audiences within or outside the film, if you rule out the nervous giggling at some screenings. Arthur/Joker as would-be stand-up comic tells “jokes” no one recognizes as jokes, and his last line acknowledges that he’s redefined the form for himself by thinking up an entirely private “joke” and then saying in menacing tones, both to his therapist in Arkham Asylum and to us in close-up, “You wouldn’t get it.”

The character’s creation back in 1940, and his alarming relationship to jokes, smiles, and laughs, were in part inspired by a 1928 silent film melodrama, The Man Who Laughs. Based on a Victor Hugo novel, it’s the story of one of King James II’s political enemies whose child is disfigured in punishment, his upper lip cut off to create a hideous permanent “smile” that condemns him to an adult life of displaying himself as a traveling carnival “freak.” He remains virtuous and saintly in spite of all ill-usage as he tries to win the love of a true-hearted and conveniently blind young woman.

For the film Joker, writer-director Todd Phillips has added another silent-era melodramatic influence, D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919). In it, Lillian Gish plays an impoverished waif living in the slums of London, where she’s routinely beaten by her drunken brute of a father, himself a victim of the oppressive horrors of poverty. The father sadistically forces her to “smile” through her tears of agony, and she has to use her fingers to push her mouth into a semblance of a smile, a gesture so poignant that it quickly became iconic. (Silent film comedian Buster Keaton, who relied on his stone-faced stoicism to increase laughs, parodied it right away in a comedy in which brutes terrorize him and demand that he “smile.”)

At the end of Joker, when he’s set off a revolution in the streets, he’ll repeat the Lillian Gish “smile,” his lips red with a mixture of clown paint and blood. But before he’s transformed fully into the title character who now gets the joke of trying to behave sanely in an insanely rigged society, Arthur Fleck begins the film as a slum waif, too. He’s been taught by his mother to “smile” regardless of his feelings, and of course his terrible laugh, a joyless, hacking, cawing bray supposedly caused by a “neurological condition,” is the darker manifestation of his false, involuntary expressions of happiness. His mother tells him he was born to “bring laughter and joy” to the world, and his ugly environment is emblazoned with signs saying things like, “DON’T FORGET TO SMILE,” which, in a moment of rage, he changes by inking over “FORGET TO” and creating a new sign that says, “DON’T SMILE.”

He’s the struggling victim of the world’s brutality whose suffering goes unrecognized, making him seem “invisible,” as Arthur puts it. “I hope my death makes more cents than my life,” he’s written plaintively in his journal, showing he intuits the class-based horror of his world. In melodrama, the community will finally recognize the victim’s suffering and virtue — and champion them in a sudden reversal at the end. Melodramas achieve their huge emotional effects through these reversals, their narrative structures like a fever chart of soaring highs and gut-punch lows, victory snatched from defeat, great moments of joy and triumph turning into total humiliation and despair. A good example of this in Joker is when Arthur sees his filmed routine from a local stand-up club being aired on his favorite TV show, seemingly celebrated by the comedian he reveres as a kind of father figure, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, playing out a skewed continuation of his Rupert Pupkin character in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy). It’s a dream come true until, at the moment of peak elation, Arthur realizes his failed routine is being mocked for cruel audience laughs.

Arthur’s physical suffering in the form of his spasmodic laugh is augmented by actor Joaquin Phoenix’s emaciated frame and ability to contort his body in painful-looking ways. It makes Arthur the grotesque equivalent of melodrama’s typical blind girl or deaf mute or pathetically limping Tiny Tim, that much more poignant and set apart as a martyr for capitalistic cruelties and the cosmic sins of an immoral world. The sheer abjection of Arthur’s situation in life is stressed to the point that Charles Dickens, master of melodrama, would’ve tipped his hat admiringly. Arthur works as a low-rent clown, the saddest clown in the world, and takes care of his pathetic invalid mother at home. Then there’s the sickening urban poverty, the terrible living and working conditions, the rogues’ gallery of exploiters of misery that emerge from such conditions, the atmosphere of diseased greenish and bluish miasmic light in slum dwellings where a mad repetition of abuse is heaped upon Arthur — not just one but two public beatings by multiple assailants that get him down on the ground so he can be kicked into total submission.

But it’s the backstory of Arthur/Joker’s life, in all its lurid plot reveals, that takes the purest form of melodrama. Initially, Arthur believes he and his ailing mother, Penny Fleck, are merely the unlucky poor, and Penny’s pitiful unanswered letters to her former employer, the wealthy mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce Wayne/Batman) are deluded because the rich never help the poor. That’s melodramatic enough in its built-in class critique, a big part of the popularity of melodrama, which has one foot in social realism and one foot in the epic, the excessive, the fantastical.

Then — spoiler alert — Penny tells Arthur he is actually the son of Thomas Wayne, who couldn’t marry her because of his lofty social position, which is why she had to leave Wayne’s employ.

Holy plot contrivance, Batman! This would mean Penny Fleck is the “ruined servant girl” of a thousand melodramatic plays, novels, and films, impregnated and cast away by a heartless man of wealth, practically driven “out, out into the storm” like Lillian Gish (again) in D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1915). And Arthur Fleck would be the son of wealth and privilege, abandoned to his fate in the streets unless he can be recognized and recovered, like Oliver Twist in the Dickens novel. And Arthur and Bruce Wayne are half brothers, one legitimate, one illegitimate, as in untold numbers of melodramatic plots about secret, shamefully hidden family relationships that come to light in emotionally over-the-top confrontations.

Arthur stages a very typical one in the men’s room of the fabulous gilt-edged theater where he confronts Thomas Wayne with Wayne’s supposedly guilty secret. There’s a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times going on, which is attended by about five hundred wealthy men, all in tuxedoes. Arthur sneaks in wearing an old-time theater usher’s uniform, which might as well have “Little Man of the Working Class” stitched on it, and he stands for a moment in the middle aisle surrounded by tuxedoes, watching the movie. A shot from behind frames and illuminates him against the screen so he becomes one with Chaplin’s famous “Little Tramp,” who’s always struggling and failing to keep a job and a place in the heartless modern world that inevitably casts him out in the end.

Chaplin’s comedy doesn’t age well for many contemporary viewers because his worldview was fundamentally melodramatic, as Dickensian as his own life had been as an impoverished London child orphaned young. His comedies are loaded with poor but beautiful girls of extreme virtue, sometimes blind, and pitiful mothers and grandmothers struggling to make ends meet, threatened by the landlord if they can’t make the mortgage, plus abandoned children and heart-tugging stray dogs. They’re all championed by the down-and-out but always game Little Tramp. He’s constantly set upon by the cruel forces of the ruling class, represented by vicious bosses and sadistic cops, almost always huge goons who tower over him. When not wringing tears out of this material, Chaplin got a lot of very funny comedy out of it.

As traumatic as it is to live the plot of an old-fashioned melodrama, Arthur suffers more from discovering that the story his mother’s tale doesn’t actually conform to one after all. He learns she was both abused and a mentally ill abuser herself, resulting in his “neurological condition” of spontaneous laughter. With the exploding of his mother’s melodramatic tale, Arthur begins his violent exit from the role of doomed innocent and starts exacting bloody revenge. Inadvertently, he inspires his suffering fellow citizens to rise up in protest against their wealthy oppressors and give them “what you deserve.” An ugly but fully justified class war results from the actions of a deranged man who doesn’t consciously understand it, though he finds the angry chaos “beautiful” after his long acquiescence to brutality.

The ending of the film has been frequently noted as its weakest part, which seems erratic and muddled. It’s possible that Phillips, who claims not to have wanted to clear up the “ambiguous” ending, wasn’t quite sure what kind of narrative he was heading into once he left key aspects of melodrama behind. It’s a form with a proud history, cohering in the eighteenth century when philosophers, writers, composers, and artists were grappling with radical new ideas that ultimately fostered the American and French revolutions, and centered on the cosmic significance of the ordinary citizen caught in familial and social traps. The extreme popularity of the form, especially in novels and plays, was taken up in early cinema, though starting in the 1930s it began to be rapidly devalued as it became associated with women writers, stars, and audiences. In the 1970s and ’80s Marxist and feminist film theorists began a reevaluation of the importance of melodrama in terms of its social criticism, especially in terms of class, gender, and race. But an endless stream of soap operas and hack plotting in movies and television have associated “melodrama” with “failed drama” in the public mind, and its more radical possibilities have been left unexplored in our era. At least Phillips indicates in this film that he recognizes those possibilities, and that’s promising.

A return to melodrama seems fitting at this time. It was, after all, an ultra-popular entertainment of the Gilded Age. Cinema itself arises at the end of this era and develops fully as the Gilded Age overlaps and partially gives way to the Progressive Era, when reformers attacked government corruption and finally began to enact policies aimed at ameliorating the gruesome social ills of class society. Looking at Joker for a kind of microcosmic version of melodrama giving way in the end to something better, however inchoate, is absolute wishful thinking. But like I said before — it’s the perfect Rorschach inkblot.