O pensador

No museu do Brennand, na cidade do Recife, encontra-se uma réplica da escultura O Pensador, de Auguste Rodin. A figura é esculpida em bronze, tem no total 1,86cm de altura e mostra a forma de um…

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Wanna Hear a Joke?

This weekend I went to see “Joker” at my nearby artsy theater, because they have better popcorn. My stepson was in town for the weekend from college, and though I don’t really care much for the superhero genre, it was something fun to do with him. As we walked in, I noted a police flirting with pretty rich girls in the courtyard, each peacocking in their own rite way, and as I entered the theater lobby I spied yet another cop milling around. I started filtering through typical possibilities why there would be police on a sunny Saturday, at a snooty silicon valley mall, and quickly round-filed my curiosity, for focusing my attention on the perfect butter layering artistry of my popcorn, by my concessions technician. You know, the important things.

After being drug through a dozen coming attractions, the main feature started by presenting me with a Warner Bros logo from the 1970’s in an orange that has since been banned from color palettes the world over. I was instantly intrigued. By five minutes into getting to know Arthur Fleck, I realized that I wasn’t going to be watching a typical “explosions, clever zingers, snappy costumes, and mass murders, whitewashed in the guise of altruism” feature that I’d come to expect from superhero stories. Nope, Todd Phillips’ version of Gotham was going to take me on a real-talk ride through New York City, pre-Rudy Giuliani. I settled myself in, consciously dilating to soak in as much as I could of an aesthetic that is one of my favorite storytelling backdrops, and a character study that promised to be trickier than black and white hats.

What I got was maybe the most terrifying piece of cinematic art I’ve ever seen, for one very good reason; it wasn’t the origin story of a comic book Super villain — it was a ride along with a fragile man desperately grasping, drowning, choking, flailing, and reaching for any kind of life preserver to connect with people, and largely being rejected, dismissed, ignored, abused or ridiculed at his every attempt. Finally, in an act of self defense and survival he breaks from any more attempts to be accepted.

And we call him “evil”.

The mother who raised me, was among other things, a professional clown. She did gigs for 40 years. She was also clinically depressed for most of my life, and for most of her considerably longer life. I came to know, after I’d left home, that ma had been physically tortured as a child. Shuffled between relatives, and convents in the 1930’s. That understanding placed her hesitant, maudlin, grand, sweet, mean-spirited personality into perspective. From that moment forward I worked toward championing the woman who’d told me I was lying when I rushed in and told her I had been violently sexually attacked, when I was a young child. I had hated her with everything available to a four year old, and made her pay emotionally for years. But my own evolution made it possible for me to understand that she couldn’t face my attack, because she couldn’t face her own.

Most of my mother’s friends were clowns. They were all misfits. All had their idiosyncrasies. They were close, forming decades long bonds, because they “saw” each other. They held one another’s pain. When I watch Arthur Fleck spinning a sign in Times Square, making faces with a kid on a bus, or doing sing-a-long’s with sick kids in a hospital, I understand completely what he’s doing — he’s offering and experiencing love in the only safe way he knows.

I have known people with traumatic brain injuries who laughed or cried in socially unacceptable ways. I have known many, many people who were dropped from their insurance for arbitrary, impersonal reasons who killed themselves and others, because treatment was suddenly or chronically inaccessible, or they simply fell through the cracks into homelessness and desperation. Most of us are one or two bad breaks, and no safety net away from being in the same position.

I tracked down my birth family, and met a sister who had grown up knowing about a mythical older brother. When I watch Arthur do clever things to be able to meet his brother, I am watching myself. What Arthur saw in Bruce was his own loneliness, a kinship. My sister and I had very different lives growing up. And she was very much the same as me. We both knew it. She was murdered six months later trying to leave the life I’d escaped.

Arthur wasn’t “evil”. He was broken in very plausible, horrible, real ways that you and I have seen or experienced. “Evil” is a label people offer up when we don’t dare look deeper at our own culpability, our own apathy, our own damage.

People who hated “Joker”, or thought it was stupid, or lame were missing its point entirely. It was the easier thing to do; to complain about it being a lousy superhero story. It’s reassuring, compared to admitting that the thing they hated about it was that it burst their bubble, and erased the comfy suspension of disbelief that allows us to be demigods commanding superhuman feats, vanquishing garish villains, snarking clever one-liners, and ascending to be adored heroes killing dozens of people who needed it for two hours, to right the wrongs we perceive in our own lives. They’re mad because “Joker” tricked them into seeing themselves; victim, bully, apathetic, cruel, faking, suffering, desperately pretending to keep a life they barely understand, and making deals with their duct taped, baling wired heart for something close to affection.

The difference between Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker and Jack Nicholson’s Joker, is the difference between Grimm’s Cinderella, and Disney’s. You and I were raised on the fantasy version, where the Prince slips a shoe onto a worthy foot and the evil stepsisters are punished, The End. We weren’t ready for the version where the stepsisters cut off their own toes and heels to fit the slipper, and later had their eyes pecked out by birds.

Joker gave us a tangible roadmap for how we got to thousands of murders a year, hundreds of mass shootings, and hundreds of thousands of homeless. Those cops were in that theater because the odds of a Joker who’s broken from reality, might be seeing himself on that screen, and could find himself and say “fuck it”, the same way thousands of Gotham “nobodies” saw themselves in the clown that killed three stockbrokers who were beating the shit out of him for kicks.

The jokes on you and I, because we don’t dare look behind their mask, or our own, to understand how we keep creating Jokers. We just call them “evil” and move on until the next time we’re saddened and shocked that it happened again.

All because we’re so married to the belief that we are the hero in our own story, that we forget to notice that our enemies are the heroes in theirs.

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