Just Joking

I’m not sure when I’ll ever get back into a movie theater, given that our government plans to do nothing about Covid-19.  Still, I recently watched Joker for the first time.  In an eerily prescient move, Todd Phillips envisions the character as tapping into public dissatisfaction with the exploitative and unfeeling power of the rich, who often lead, through their greed, to outbreaks of public unrest.  The character of the vigilante clown coalesces the oppressed of Gotham and leads to riots in the streets.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the film since I’d only briefly heard of it secondhand.  It is one of the most uninterrupted stretches of darkness that I can recall seeing in a movie, which, in some respects, makes it believable.

Comic book character films have taken on a life of their own.  Joker explore the backstory of mental illness in a culture that is bent on cutting care for those in need.  Not only that, the movie doesn’t let you think anyone is good.  All the heroes are flawed, and most of them fatally so.  Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, of course, solidifies the story and make the Joker sympathetic.  And there’s a fair amount of truth to the way that a capitalistic society is driven to hold down the many who need to be exploited for the system to work.  Although it is dark and gritty there’s a strong social commentary here.  It doesn’t surprise me that it was the highest grossing film of last year.  You don’t have to be a comic book fan to be drawn in.

Not too many other major films since One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest have attempted to stare unwaveringly at mental illness.  It is an extremely common condition, especially if we consider the number of people who require antidepressant, anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety drugs.  The culture we’ve created isn’t healthy for our mental development.  It’s often cruel and uncaring.  It never helps when people lie to us.  Joker addresses these  realities, exploring the “perfect storm” of factors that might lead to a psychopathic crime lord.  Of course, living through the Trump administration, led by an unfeeling, money-driven “president,” it’s obvious that we’ve set up a system that refuses to confront those who have no business making important decisions.  A system that could conceivably set up such pathological “leaders.”  None of the privileged people in the film cares for anyone beyond themselves.  And they wonder why violence erupts in the streets.  I think I have some recommended viewing to suggest to them.

Which Shaman?

It’s a strange kind of vindication when you see someone argue your ideas independently.  Even if they understand those ideas in a different way.  I suppose it’s necessary to say that in academia those who have university posts are assumed to be more authoritative than those of us who don’t. That’s not sour grapes, it’s simply a fact.  Some years ago, after having first seen Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I wrote a post on this blog suggesting that the Joker functioned as a shaman in that movie.  Being a blog by a non-university academic, the post had a few readers, but it is not peer-reviewed and therefore, officially just a matter of opinion.  I have studied religion professionally for decades now, however, and I would still stand by my assessment.

Recently I came across an article that argued Batman was a shamanic figure in that same movie.  It was affirming that another academic had come to a similar conclusion, however, we differ in our interpretation of who bears shamanistic characteristics.  It doesn’t help, I suspect, that shamanism isn’t well understood, and even the name is a bit of a misnomer.  We don’t really have a word for non-major religious practitioners of indigenous populations who may have little in common, so we call them shamans.  Their religious systems are too specific—“granular” is the favored business word these days—to categorize them easily.  And the reason for this is that we think of religions in the light of the large, organized conglomerations that arose in western Asia a couple millennia ago.  It’s difficult to make room for smaller exemplars.

Something larger religions have done is distorted the idea of religion as a local phenomenon.  Communities used to reflect the religious experience those who lived in them knew.  Catholicism divided the world into parishes and even tolerated some differences between them.  Protestantism gave Europeans (and their New World descendants) a set of choices, and towns in America often sport many steeples not because religion draws a community together but rather because it generally tears it apart.  Hierarchical religions are about as opposite of shamanism as Batman is different from the Joker.  They may have similar ends in mind, but their methods are quite different.  The shaman is a figure that leads to spiritual wholeness for the community.  Their methods seem questionable to larger, highly structured religions.  And the unaffiliated trickster may accomplish more than an establishment figure in a local setting.