After the Aurora, Colorado theatre shooting in 2012, it was hard to go to the movies in the US. Even now, attending film screening brings with it a pinch of fear. That must be extra true for the family members of the folks who died as a result of that shooting. The movie was The Dark Knight Rises and at issue now is another film in the Batman saga. Families and loved ones left behind in Aurora have banded together to denounce the new movie Joker. The reason? It’s violent, and the titled villain, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has a sympathetic backstory.
Concerned citizens of Aurora brought their complaint to Warner Bros., asking them to “end political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform… Use your political clout and leverage in Congress to actively lobby for gun reform. [and] help fund survivor funds and gun violence intervention programs to help survivors of gun violence and to reduce every-day gun violence in the communities you serve.”
But film critic Robbie Collin from the Telegraph took his grievance straight to the source of the art in an interview with Phoenix. “Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian who still lives with his elderly mother, is the horribly familiar enemy within. If the film hadn’t been set in the ‘80s he could easily be the latest online message-board extremist to take his grievances murderously viral. Yet Phoenix doesn’t seem to have considered this kind of question at all. So when I put it to him—aren’t you worried that this film might perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results?”
Joaquin Phoenix walked away from the interview after he was asked to justify the “problematic” nature of his new film. This was a much different reaction than the nearly 10-minutes-long standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival or the talk of a best actor Oscar nomination. Instead, it was an attack on his having done the role at all.
It brings up the question of exactly what the responsibility of art, artists, and entertainment is today. There is a persistent push for artists to be more than creatively minded, but to also infuse their work with the appropriate messages.
Later on, Phoenix spoke out and said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality!” And, of course, he’s right. But we’ve reached a point in our culture where our cultural commentators are more interested in policing behaviour than consuming or critiquing actual culture.
The question of whether actors should be held accountable for the character of the roles they play has been coming up quite a bit in the wake of all the post-mortem cancellings. Lillian Gish had her name removed from a theatre she donated money for at Bowling Green State University because of her role in Birth of a Nation. But if actors are afraid to take roles for fear they will be held accountable for having portrayed a bad guy, or someone who has unfavourable opinions, or acts in ways the actor otherwise would not, where are all our great antagonists going to come from? Are we going to have movies where everyone agrees and pats each other on the back for being so upstanding?
Is every work of fiction going to be held to the standard of what audiences should aspire to in real life? Are audiences so stupid that they need every character portrayed on-screen to be representative of some kind of ideal figure that we should all wish to be? No, audiences are not stupid. They know the differences between morality plays and dramas or comedies plays for entertainment.
What have we come to that the villains in our narratives must be framed as virtuous or at least woke-adjacent? The Joker is a baddie. He is meant to think, say, and do bad things. That’s how villains work. Sure, some people may relate to the Joker in his loneliness, but people relate to bad guys all the time. We have recently gone through a renaissance of anti-heroes, of which The Joker surely is one. He’s not a good guy, he doesn’t have a heart of gold, instead, he’s had a rough time. Audiences are smart enough to know that having had a rough time is not justification for mass violence. The real question is why do film critics think so little of audiences?
The Aurora families have the right to express their concerns, but Phoenix was right to walk out of the interview. The question was insulting. Further, Phoenix was right to speak out in defence of his art. Insisting that culture adheres to a social justice agenda is a surefire way to kill art. And indeed, we are living in an era where art is very quickly dying.