Populist Panic at the Movies

 

For a while last fall, people seemed to be bracing themselves for outbreaks of violence after the release of Joker, unsettled by fears of young white males inspired by the film’s alleged celebration of nihilistic shooters, racist vigilantes, and woman-hating “incels.” But the controversy over director Todd Phillips’s dark, violent, R-rated movie lost much of its intensity after it opened wide in October to both blockbuster receipts and the nonoccurrence of violence inspired by its titular supervillain.

The anticipatory outrage was a striking example of the way many cultural gatekeepers had aligned themselves with a certain narrative promoted by anxious political elites across the West. On this account, the societies these elites govern have become increasingly uncontrollable, peopled by individuals who not only prefer dangerous “populist” outsiders to their rightful political leaders but whose dark impulses are like a tinderbox, easily sparked into violence if the wrong message is sent to them from above—whether by the White House or from a movie revelling in “white male rage” like Joker.

The angst about Joker recalls a similar controversy a little over a quarter-century ago. Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down was released in early 1993 to claims that it irresponsibly portrayed its violent protagonist—Michael Douglas, playing an apparently “ordinary Joe” who cracks and goes on a rampage across Los Angeles on a hot summer day—in a sympathetic vein. Both controversies shed light on the political moments in which the pictures were released.

The earlier film’s plot follows William “D-FENS” Foster from the point when he abandons his car in a morning rush hour traffic jam and sets off on foot across L.A. gangland to try to reunite with his estranged wife (Barbara Hershey) and daughter. He encounters a range of caricatures of the frustrations and dangers of modern urban life, from annoyingly rigid Korean American shopkeepers and aggressive Latino gangbangers to supercilious fast-food store managers and psychopathic neo-Nazis. Meanwhile, a beaten-down veteran cop on the verge of retirement, Prendergast (Robert Duvall), rediscovers his own sense of agency after he realizes that one man is responsible for the trail of violent incidents across the city and tries to track him down before anyone else is hurt.

Audiences reportedly cheered Douglas as his character exacted revenge on all-too-familiar stereotypes. That the movie came out less than a year after L.A.’s riots, which followed the acquittal of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King, added to worries about its social impact.

But Duvall’s character gives the film a moral core while taking away none of the power of Douglas’s empathetic portrayal of the gunman. When D-FENS is shocked that Prendergast sees him as “the bad guy”—because he blames a system that has reneged on its promises of employment and happiness—the grizzled cop skewers his anti-social response, asking him: “Is that what this is about? You’re angry because you got lied to? Is that why my chicken dinner is drying out in the oven? Hey, they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish. But that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.”

Joker, for its part, tracks the downward spiral of Arthur Fleck, a disturbed, down-on-his-luck, aspiring comedian—played with bravura and Oscar-winning ferocity by Joaquin Phoenix—who lives in a slum tenement with his elderly mother and works as a clown-for-hire. The film is set in the Gotham City of 1981, modeled on the crime-ridden, decaying, and politically paralysed New York City of the 1970s and 1980s that was featured in the Martin Scorsese pictures Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, both of which serve as inspirations and points of reference here.

In the opening sequence, a wiry, nervy, pathologically introverted Fleck is beaten up by a gang of kids while working in his clown suit, an experience that convinces him to start carrying a gun—which soon costs him his job. He and his mother love watching late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whom Arthur dreams of working alongside and emulating. He meets and falls for a black single mother who lives down the hall (Zazie Beetz), meanwhile trying to manage his mother’s obsession with her former employer, the billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who is not only the father of future Batman Bruce Wayne but also running for office as a tough guy promising to clean up the city. In the midst of all this, funding cuts mean that Arthur loses regular counselling and medications for his mental health condition.

The turning point comes when Fleck kills three (young, male, and white) Wall Street types who are harassing him on the subway, seemingly inspiring a clown-mask-wearing protest movement of the have-nots against the privileged. Further blows come with revelations about his mother and Wayne, and when Franklin broadcasts humiliating footage of Arthur’s inept attempt at stand-up at a local club. As Arthur’s behavior grows ever more violent, he gets a slot on Franklin’s show, notoriety that sates his grandiose and completely unrealistic hunger for fame and leads to the film’s murderous conclusion, in which a supervillain is born.

Demonizing the White Working Classes

Between the time when Joker debuted (and won the top prize) at the Venice Film Festival and its full release, its detractors in the media suggested—among other things—that it portrays mass shooters sympathetically, that it glamorizes violent “incels” (“involuntary celibates,” young men enraged by being denied their absolute right to have sex with women), and that it “champions” Arthur’s crimes. Even some who thought Joker a great film fretted that it might be dangerous, as when The Telegraph’s critic Robbie Collin warned, “This is a film that is going to stir up trouble—in the consciences of everyone who watches it, and almost certainly in the outside world as well.” With a previous Batman-universe film—The Dark Knight Rises, which didn’t feature the Joker—having been unfairly associated with violence after a gunman killed twelve people and wounded many others at a screening in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012 (the shooter had simply chosen a packed cinema to attack), undercover cops were deployed at some screenings of Joker in case someone went on a rampage.

What unites Falling Down and Joker—and the reactions to them—is that they came out in the midst of two distinct stages in the unravelling of the postwar political order, one that had previously survived significant realignments forced on both Democrats and Republicans by the end of segregation, the turmoil over the Vietnam War, and the end of a sustained economic boom.

By 1993 not only was there no longer a Cold War providing ideological coordinates through which society’s problems could be understood, but the collapse of communism had also opened the door to the restructuring of defense-related industries and the ending of many “jobs for life,” like the one D-FENS loses before losing his grip on reality in Falling Down. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” was rapidly followed by a nasty recession across the U.S. and much of the West, not only tanking George H. W. Bush’s reelection chances but also driving growth in social inequality and opening the door for Ross Perot’s unexpectedly disruptive challenge to the two-party system.

Falling Down was an easy target for those liberals eager to demonize the white working-class voters who’d been abandoning the Democrats’ New Deal coalition since the 1960s. Perhaps most blatant was David Gates’s Newsweek article “White Male Paranoia,” accompanied with a shot of D-FENS in close-up, glaring menacingly at readers from the magazine’s cover. Rather than confront why the party had lost its grip on many traditional supporters, Gates instead painted a section of those voters as part of a reactionary backlash to the social progress the incoming Clinton administration allegedly represented: “White males voted 62 to 37 percent against Clinton (40 percent for Bush, 22 for Perot), partly out of fear that his multicultural ecofeminist storm troopers would take away their guns, steaks, cigarettes, V-8 engines—and jobs.”

The film was also attacked as “the howl of a scared, white, urban middle-class man” (Peter Reiner, Los Angeles Times) and “the last big Bush-era movie, custom-made for the rabidly conservative Rush Limbaugh crowd that sees social blight as proof that America is lost in a liberal wilderness” (Caryn James, New York Times). Yet such views ultimately had limited traction, making up only a fraction of the critical response to Falling Down, in large part because Bill Clinton’s victory came from identity-based appeals to a diverse “rainbow coalition” alongside an economic populist message that won back white workers who’d defected to the GOP under Reagan.

In 2019, however, hysteria about the traditional white working class was virtually ubiquitous within political circles. The breaking point for many politicos, pundits, and academics had been the twin shocks of 2016: the “Leave” result in the U.K.’s Brexit referendum in June and Donald Trump’s victory in November’s presidential election, both blamed, across national boundaries, on that voter demographic.

In the months before Trump won, Hillary Clinton outlined the elements of a narrative that would come to dominate political thinking. In September she told an elite LGBT fundraiser that half of Trump supporters were part of a “basket of deplorables”—“racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it”—while the other half had been “let down” by the economy and government, making them so “desperate for change” that they would countenance voting for the celebrity billionaire. A month later she warned the New York Times, “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.”

With the elite consensus about the impossibility of Trump’s winning in tatters, the Washington political class and its media allies became increasingly heated in their attacks on the degenerate and bigoted voters who’d visited the End of Days on them. It was claimed not only that Trump was leading a fascist-style movement (with his raucous campaign rallies seen as harbingers of mob violence); he was also “emboldening” a rapidly growing far right and creating a toxic atmosphere that was inspiring politically motivated, right-wing mass shooters.

That these narratives were contradicted by reality didn’t matter. After all, despite the far right’s pretensions to be rising under Trump, it was exposed as incapable of bringing together more than a few hundred activists at its national convergence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017. The “movement” then quickly went into free fall after one of the white nationalists murdered a left-wing activist during the protests. And while there has been a small uptick in mass shootings (defined as at least four killed apart from the shooter) during the Trump years, they remain extremely rare events, making up only about 1 percent of all gun murders.

Yet narratives about a rising tide of hate serve to recast the political establishment’s loss of control over voters into a vision of a degraded, angry, and dangerous public, perpetually on the verge of exploding if the wrong ideas are released into society. The reality is the inverse: what we have witnessed is a civil society that has become more tolerant and, yes, civil over the last half-century, while the political sphere has become more polarized and unstable. Trump won not because voters became more reactionary but because he was able to capitalize on the declining authority of the major parties.

The Elites’ Mental Health

Strikingly, it’s the left that has tended to lead the culture war against a public (and a working class) that fails to live up to its expectations. Whereas the left once saw itself as the champion of ordinary people against an unjust social order, it is now more often keen to label regular voters as the problem, a reactionary mass that gets in the way of its “progressive” political goals.

One hostile 1993 review of Falling Down contended that the film “evades the fundamental question: Was the main character always crazy, or did society make him snap?” The same issue seems to have frustrated many critics of Joker. But part of the film’s genius is in being an intense character study of a deeply paranoid individual, one that only allows glimpses of alternative ­viewpoints—and even these have to be decoded because they are filtered through Arthur Fleck’s skewed perceptions. Indeed, while the characters of Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin are often read as unsympathetic symbols of a heartless society, their criticism of Arthur’s externalization of blame serves the same function as Prendergast’s reality check for D-FENS at the end of Falling Down. Unlike the earlier picture, however, in a supervillain origin story, the bad guy has to “win” in the end.

As the hysteria about Joker receded after people actually saw the film, for some on the left it came instead to be seen as a powerful indictment of how austerity robs people of essential mental-health care, as well as an implicit case for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. For others, the “true villain” of the film was not Arthur Fleck but “neoliberalism” or “gangster capitalism.” A politically reductive panic had suddenly given way to equally politically reductive defenses of the film, which sometimes even edged toward sympathy for the appalling individual and mob behavior it depicted.

Too many of Joker’s detractors and supporters missed its nuance in grappling with complex questions and instead focused on what political positions they believed the film took (or should take) on those questions. In today’s culture, where—in the words of author Bret Easton Ellis—“ideology trumps aesthetics” in evaluating art, the possibility that a work of art might not come to political conclusions is anathema. This made Joker an ideal Rorschach test for the preoccupations of the politically engaged.

At least in 1993, most film critics were willing to see the ambiguities in Falling Down and treat it on its merits despite the incendiary themes it broached. But back then the political establishment still seemed to be in control, even if it had been forced to weather saome major blows, and the fear of white males was peripheral, even in progressive circles.

Today the postwar liberal democratic order is teetering, with popular distrust of politicians and politics at record levels. That might seem an opportune moment for a work of popular art like Joker to look at society more deeply than through a polarized partisan lens. Yet the gatekeepers of the culture seem keener than ever to reduce all art to how well it lines up with political coordinates whose relevance to society has never been more tenuous. ♦

Tad Tietze is an Australian psychiatrist who runs the political blog Left Flank and whose book The Great Derangement, on the rise of anti-politics, is forthcoming from Verso.


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