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.

Prejudices of the Time

When my daughter was in middle and high school, I made an effort to read every book she was assigned for her English classes.  This gave us something to talk about during the years when many teens grow laconic and uncommunicative.  Some of the books I’d read before, but one frightened me off.  Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest pressed the wrong buttons.  You have to understand that I saw the movie for a class in college.  It disturbed me.  Even before encountering H. P. Lovecraft, one of my deepest phobias was insanity.  Children of alcoholics sometimes fear those who are out of control, and mental patients had become, in my head, associated with the non-rational behavior of my father that frightened me so.  During a clown ministry event we visited the local state hospital for mental patients.  I trembled for about a week after we left.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in many ways a sixties novel.  One reflection of that is the fact that the religious imagery in the novel is presented in the form of punishment.  Everyone knows the narrative of R. P. McMurphy’s battle of the wills against Nurse Ratched.  The latter uses electroshock therapy as punishment and she tries to wear McMurphy down by using it repeatedly after the fight in the shower.  The electroshock table is described as a cross.  The metal headset is a crown of thorns.  Indeed, one of the patients is described as being crucified to the wall of the ward where he hangs throughout the novel.  The sixties frequently saw religion—especially the staid, conservative evangelicalism of the 1950s—as a form of punishment.  That’s pretty clear here.

Although the novel celebrates the freedom of the sixties, it also reflects the prejudices of the times.  The African-American attendees on the ward aren’t portrayed sympathetically.  The women—nurses and prostitutes alike—are there for the pleasure of the male patients’ gaze, exemplified in the leering laugh of McMurphy.  Still, there’s a kind of catharsis to this tale.  The Chief, from whose point-of-view the story’s told, is arguably cured by the antics and special attention McMurphy shows him.  Beneath the callous, self-serving conman there is a human decency that “the system” fails to find.  Indeed, McMurphy is a kind of Christ figure.  A fallen savior, no doubt, but a liberator nonetheless.  This was a difficult novel to read.  I couldn’t make myself pick it up half-a-decade ago, but I suspect somewhere beneath the surface I’m glad I’ve finally read it.  It didn’t cure any of my phobias but it made me think.

Of Cuckoos and Kings

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Having a life-long phobia of mental institutions, I shy away from situations that refuse to make sense. Some have attributed this to my having had an alcoholic father and responding with an über-rational expectation of analyzing how other people would likely act. Whatever its cause, the fear is real. So thirty years ago, when I watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I assumed it would be the last time. It was a relatively recent movie at the time, and it was required viewing for one of my college courses. With my phobia I really couldn’t get beyond the heebie-jeebies to consider what was going on beneath the surface, which is to say, most of the movie. Well, a few decades will cure many ills and I sat down to watch the movie again and my own experiences of asylum-like, heartless institutions in the intervening years had indeed hardened me a bit. I noticed much that I’d missed the first time around. For one thing the story of King David kept coming to mind.

For those who read the Bible somewhat objectively, David is a player, and not always the most admirable character. He has a subtle charm that wins the reader of the books of Samuel back time and again. He steps into a situation where his ambition is held back by a kind of Nurse Ratched named King Saul. So what does David do? He pretends to be insane and runs off to join the Philistines. He gathers a band of miscreants about him and goes to towns taking what isn’t his. He even brings a forbidden woman into his house. As R. P. McMurphy goes through these same shenanigans, he comes to really love young Billy (Saul’s son Jonathan). In the course of the movie our ersatz David takes a suffering nation and heals it. There, however, the parallels end and Ken Kesey’s story takes over.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Kesey intentionally drew on the story of David—that would be crazy talk—but I do often wonder about the aphorism attributed to his son Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun. There were those who felt that Solomon had lost touch with reality as he sat down to write Ecclesiastes. The great stories, in some sense, have already been told. But not all. Those of us who write seek new truths, and sometimes use ancient sources to do it. David is remembered as one of the great biblical characters. One of the reasons, undoubtedly, is that he is so fallibly human—he’s not impossibly pious like Moses, or unfailingly sad like Jeremiah. He is a good man with peccadilloes for which we are willing to forgive him just for the pleasure of watching him go on. No, Kesey may not have had the Bible in his hand as he dreamed up the character of R. P. McMurphy, but he produced a true representation nevertheless. Of course, I might just be insane myself.