If Todd Phillips’s Joker has proven one thing, it’s that the most important film of 2019 is Network.
Joker is ambitious. That’s not just because it indulges in long shots of Joaquin Phoenix cry-laughing, but because it tries to condense some truth about our cultural moment into a little over two hours. The film has left many people divided: some say it promotes violence, while others call it a distillation of our ugly zeitgeist. But what is it actually trying to say, and why am I trying to dredge up a 30-year-old film?
The primary message of Joker seems to explore the concept of recognition. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles with mental illness and feels invisible to the world. His social worker doesn’t listen to him, and then budget cuts preclude the possibility that any social worker will ever listen to him. Cut off from social services, Arthur’s worst crimes begin once he is left invisible to the world. The most attention he ever receives generally comes in the form of bullying. He dreams of being recognized by his comedy idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). When he finally meets his idol, he fittingly says, “you don’t notice me,” before eventually shooting him.
But recognition is threaded throughout the movie in more subtle ways. A group of what I will loosely call “finance bros” maliciously demand recognition from a female passenger on the subway as they throw french fries at her. Arthur’s mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) goes ignored by her former employer Thomas Wayne (Douglas Hodge), despite the fact that the mogul calls his business a “family.” She is also homebound and cut off from the world. Her only public visibility, we learn, is from a series of newspaper articles written about her being a neglectful mother during Arthur’s childhood. Like her son, her only avenue to public recognition is through infamy.
The social movement Arthur spawns also speaks to the theme of recognition: Gotham’s everyday residents are left to rot, while people like Thomas Wayne live behind closed gates with personal butlers — blissfully disconnected from the misery. The protestors’ demands are vague, but could be summarized as a mix between “eat the rich,” and “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore” — but we’ll get to that later. In one scene, Gotham’s well-to-do watch Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times at a black tie event. Ironically, the silent film, about the dehumanizing nature of factory work, is being happily enjoyed by the people who probably own those factories, or at least, inherited the profits.
Criticisms of the film have implicitly taken up this logic of recognition, drawing a connection to people like Elliot Rodger, who killed 6 people after citing romantic rejection by women as grounds for his revenge. For people like Rodger, or some school shooters, attention to their crimes is part of their motive: they want their act of supposed retribution to be seen in the public eye. The prevalence of manifestos left by people like Rodger also furthers the narrative that, for these people, violence is, unfortunately, a means for their voice to be heard.
While Phillips may or may not be intentionally talking about this kind of violence, it’s hard to argue that he endorses it. Through the film’s pacing, Arthur’s violent crimes are both shocking and horrifying. Most of the film is bereft of violence (aside from Arthur’s subway murders), so his decision to kill his mother, his coworker, and idol are rendered even more jarring and (deliberately) hard to watch.
Still, one possible reading of the film is this: A world full of people who are alienated and ignored is a dangerous one. This should not be a controversial statement. Joker, which takes place amongst striking sanitation workers and budget cuts to mental health services, is clearly evoking 1980s New York, a place and time riddled with violent crime. While the narrative that people with diagnoses like schizophrenia are more violent is misleading, it is still one factor interacting with many (including poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse) that may contribute to violent crime. And as the ghosts of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the Romanovs and Marie Antoinette can assure us: hell hath no fury like a proletariat scorned.
But from here, the film gets unclear. A monologue Arthur gives towards the end of the film suggests that a lack of civility is to blame for Gotham’s problems. That, and the divide between the haves and the have-nots. He notes that people would likely step over his dead corpse, rather than be shocked and appalled, as they were over the fate of his well-to-do victims. That call to civility is undercut a few moments later, when he unceremoniously shoots his comedy idol. Both Gotham’s rioters and the city’s upper class seem uninterested and unwilling to talk to each other. Is the film simply trying to say some version of “When neighbors listen to each other, good things happen?”
The point gets muddled by more details in the plot. Thomas Wayne, by virtue of his wealth and influence, can always be heard and listened to. If he wants to change Gotham, his resources will get him on TV to announce his bid for mayor. The same can’t be said for people like Arthur. If Wayne wishes to close off the world, he can rely on assistants, butlers, and a gated mansion to make sure he doesn’t need to listen to anyone else. He does not address the protesters as people with opinions different from his, but as “clowns” who have done nothing with their lives. It is implied, then, that these losers are not worthy of political recognition. But the film may be guilty of the same depoliticizing Wayne does: showing the protestors as a mindless mob out for blood. In another scene, Arthur’s coworker describes the people of Gotham “animals.”
The message from Phillips that is clear seems to be that, without some other means of recognition, people will resort to the loudest and most violent means available: whether that’s rioting on the streets or assassinating a talk show host on air. That quest for recognition, political or otherwise, is also reflected in the film’s two biggest inspirations: Taxi Driver, in which Travis Bickle seeks recognition from a woman he lusts for, and The King of Comedy, in which Rupert Pupkin seeks recognition from his comedy role model and talk show audiences at large.
But even more important may be the film’s least-discussed influence: the 1976 film Network.
Network is the story of veteran news anchor Howard Beale who, after being fired, announces his plans to kill himself on air. But rather than obediently giving a dignified farewell broadcast, Beale instead decides to rant and rave while decrying the ills of modern society. While Howard is clearly having an on-air mental breakdown, an ambitious network executive sees a huge opportunity: Howard’s combative ramblings are great for ratings.
Howard’s concerns will sound familiar to viewers of Joker — jobs are scant and punks run wild in the street. He laments that people, in search of safety, retreat to their living rooms, where their worlds become ever smaller. Importantly, he doesn’t ask his viewers to write their congressman, or protest, or riot, but simply to affirm their human dignity with their anger, saying, “I’m a human being, goddamnit, and my life has value.” For Howard, the affirmation of human dignity (and recognition from a cruel world) is expressed in the phrase, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” And boy, is everyone else really mad and not going to take it anymore.
Howard’s invective is massively popular and, importantly, makes his once-struggling network a ton of money. His unfiltered rage even spawns more rage-filled TV, as the network airs the The Mao Tse-tung Hour starring a band of terrorists affiliated with the communist party. All is well and good, until Howard’s rage is directed at his network’s merger with a Saudi Arabian conglomerate. His words endanger the deal, thus leading to his prompt assassination. The message is clear: TV will exploit anyone and anything for a profit.
Both Howard’s and Arthur’s breakdowns are tied to their overall degradation in the world. Both are unceremoniously fired. Both feel trapped in an insane world, and both want their fundamental humanity recognized. And just as Howard’s illness is exploited by network executives, Arthur’s illness is exploited by Murray Franklin. After his uncontrollable fits of laughter and bad jokes cause him to bomb at a nightclub, footage of the event is shown on television. The audience loves the cringey footage so much that they demand more, and Arthur is invited on the show to be the butt of more jokes. When Arthur assassinates Murray, the film cuts to a grid of televisions showing the assassination interspersed with banal commercials — a clear nod to the ending of Network, in which Howard’s murder is displayed on a grid of TVs as just another sensational news piece.
Like Joker, Network is about a society failing its people, and what the resulting anger means. Network cynically argues that behind every earnest plea for revolution, there’s an executive with a plan to package and sell it. But unlike Joker, Network’s message is crystal clear. This message came before the advent of 24-hour news networks like CNN or Fox News. It came before the advent of social media, where savvy business people drum up rage for the sake of engagement. It even came before Hot Topic started selling Che Guevara t-shirts. Network served as a warning for what advertiser-driven media would mean for the world. It, obviously, was a message we never heeded.