The fictional Arthur Fleck, better known as the Joker in his titular movie, would be pleased that his story has already stirred up so much controversy. And that before it has even hit theaters.
Director and screenwriter Todd Phillips unleashes his vision of DC Comics signature super-villain in theaters this weekend. But Phillips’ Joker bears little resemblance to Batman’s traditional nemesis. Instead, Arthur Fleck (played in the film by an emaciated Joaquin Phoenix, who says he lost a shocking 52 pounds for the role) is an impoverished, alienated, mentally ill, wannabe stand-up comedian whose tentative grip on sanity erodes. Violence against him begets violence against others in a film that gradually slips into the depths of howling, bloody madness.
Some have wondered if Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck could potentially serve as a demented inspiration for similarly desperate men in the real world. After screening Joker at the Venice Film Festival (where it won the coveted honor of Best Film), Time reviewer Stephanie Zacharek savaged it:
As you can probably guess, all of Arthur’s travails are leading up to a series of “See what you made me do?” brutalities, most of which happen while he’s dressed up in his clown suit. Violence makes him feel more in control, less pathetic. … Arthur inspires chaos and anarchy, but the movie makes it look like he’s starting a revolution, where the rich are taken down, the poor get everything they need and deserve, and the sad guys who can’t get a date become killer heroes.
Zacharek also added, “[Arthur] could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels,” the latter word a contraction that stands for “involuntary celibates,” or men who long for romance and can’t seem to find it.
The film’s violent themes have prompted some city police departments to provide increased security presence at theaters this weekend, including New York City and Los Angeles. Elsewhere, the Army has issued a warning based on FBI information culled from the dark web regarding possible theater attacks this weekend. And families of some victims killed during the Aurora, Colorado, shooting at a Dark Knight Rises screening in 2012 have written a letter to Warner Bros. that said in part, “We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.”
Others have suggested the idea that a movie could spark violence is “pointless” and even “irresponsible.” Meanwhile, both the studio and director Todd Phillips insist that the film is intended to critique violence, not inspire it. In an official statement about the film, Warner Bros. said:
Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.
Phillips echoed those thoughts, saying of the controversy, “I’m surprised. … Isn’t it good to have these discussions? Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence? Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?” And in a separate interview with the UK’s IGN, Phillips added, “The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message,” Phillips said.
Singer and actress Selena Gomez was also talking about mental health this week. On September 13, she received the 2019 McLean Award for Mental Health Advocacy at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. She talked candidly about “suffering mentally and emotionally” last year, as well as sharing that being officially diagnosed with depression and anxiety made her feel both “terrified and relieved. Terrified, obviously, because the veil was lifted, but relieved that I finally had the knowledge of why I had suffered for so many years with depression and anxiety.”
Another former Disney star, Demi Lovato, shared her recent experience of being baptized in the Jordan River this week:
I am an American singer. I was raised Christian and have Jewish ancestors. When I was offered an amazing opportunity to visit the places I’d read about in the Bible growing up, I said yes. There is something absolutely magical about Israel. I’ve never felt such a sense of spirituality or connection to God … something I’ve been missing for a few years now. Spirituality is so important to me … to be baptized in the Jordan river—the same place Jesus was baptized—I’ve never felt more renewed in my life. This trip has been so important for my well-being, my heart, and my soul. I’m grateful for the memories made and the opportunity to be able to fill the God-sized hole in my heart. Thank you for having me, Israel.
Also talking about Jesus this week? Kanye West. The rapper was reportedly set to drop his latest album, Jesus Is King, last Friday. That didn’t happen. But its’s supposedly still coming, along with an accompanying documentary about West’s much-publicized Sunday Services that’s reportedly set to drop on Oct. 25. West also recently announced that he’s done making secular music.Finally this week, sadfishing. If you’ve never heard of this term, don’t feel bad. I hadn’t either before this morning. But it’s here, and we need to talk about it.
Sadfishing refers to a growing trend on social media to exaggerate one’s emotional problems in search of sympathy and likes. (Or, good old-fashioned attention-seeking, as we oldsters might have called it in the pre-digital era.) Experts say the problem with the trend is that it can shift undue attention to narcissists but away from others who may be silently suffering with mental health issues that genuinely need attention and professional help.