Friday, November 1, 2019


Happy Friday everybody! Check out my reviews, online at Phoenix Magazine, of Terminator: Dark Fate...

...and the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound...

Also, Happy November everybody! Check out my "Four Corners" column on four new and newish restaurants around the Valley.

Hope everybody had a great Halloween; we counted just 13 trick-or-treaters at our door. I wore my wolf hat, and one young Spider-Man, after grabbing his handful of fun size candy, told me I looked scary. I thanked him even though I thought he was just being indulgent to an old man, and his Mom must have sensed this, because she said that no, really, from down the street, I made a rather unnerving silhouette sitting out by my front door. Glad to hear I still can.

Late Saturday evening this past weekend I was approaching the door of a Quik Trip when I glanced up to notice that The Joker was approaching the door from the other direction. By which I mean, not the campy super-villain from Batman comics or the ‘60s-era Batman TV show, but the Joker as played by Joaquin Phoenix in the Todd Phillips movie Joker, now in theaters.

I was momentarily startled; then I remembered it was the weekend before Halloween. I held the door and let the young man enter before me. But there’s no denying that his costume gave me more of a genuine chill than your run of the mill Halloween party hobgoblin.

As a cultural phenomenon, Joker appears not to be in any hurry to go away; four weeks after its opening, it returned to the number one spot at the U.S. box office, unseating another revisionist take on an iconic villain with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Even before its opening, Joker was the subject of anxious controversy for its perceived appeal to alienated young men. There was concern that it could even lead to violence akin to the horrific 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight show of The Dark Knight Rises, by a man who reportedly identified with the character. This shooting killed twelve people and wounded dozens of others.

So far, thankfully, actual violence connected to Joker seems largely not to have materialized. But this doesn’t alter the concern of many social critics that the movie could be seen as validating, even glamorizing, the “incel” (“involuntary celibate”) sensibility and other angry, self-pitying and sometimes violent mindsets held by troubled young loners.

For those who haven’t seen it: The title character of Joker is Arthur Fleck, a young man who lives with his mother in a low-rent apartment in a run-down, monochrome, garbage-strike-stricken ‘70s-era version of Gotham City. Arthur suffers from a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately. He’s a for-hire clown, work he loves and takes seriously, but which makes him the target of everyone from street thugs to treacherous coworkers. The guy can’t even playfully make faces to amuse a child on the bus without getting scolded by the kid’s mother.

In short, he’s a man more sinned against than sinning; a man who might legitimately wonder if fate somehow simply has it in for him. He suffers mightily and through no real fault of his own, and when he turns to violence initially, it’s in response to being abused by despicable strangers on a subway; for the most part he acts in self-defense. Eventually, as he self-consciously adopts the “Joker” persona, his crimes become more psychotic and calculated, but it isn’t hard to imagine the character’s actions seeming understandable and even justified to isolated, antisocial young men.

When I saw the film, about a week before it opened, what struck me was how powerful Phoenix was in the role, and how curiously unsatisfying the rest of the movie was. I certainly don’t think that Phillips and the other filmmakers had the slightest intention of justifying violence as a response to feeling lonely and persecuted, but by creating a character who suffers to such an improbably unrelieved degree, and so blamelessly, they’ve made a movie that can be read that way. It may not be what the film’s makers had in mind, but apart from showcasing a brilliant piece of acting, it’s hard to say just what they did have in mind, so this dark interpretation has naturally filled the vacuum in Joker’s thematic center.

The real, if grim, value of this movie may be to suggest how widespread this feeling of alienation is in our current angry, hectic, chaotic, social-media-driven lifestyle. Joker may be less a drama and more the description of a symptom: We’re hearing a lot of laughter these days, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of joy behind it.

RIP to the wonderful John Witherspoon, passed on at 77. I got to spend a couple of days with him in 2001 or 2002, when I worked at the Tempe Improv. Truly a lovely guy. He lamented that it had been so many years since he had seen the TV show Lost in Space and that he wanted to share the show with his kids, so I gave him a couple of VHS tapes I had of it. I’ve often wondered if he ever found time to watch them.

Finally, my beloved Mom would be 100 years old today if she hadn’t left us in 2008; Happy Century Mom! Everybody says they had the Best Mom in the World; my siblings and I actually did. Here she is, sometime in the ‘50s, on the steps of the Presbyterian Church in Vernal, Mississippi, where she and my Dad got married in 1939 (they met earlier that same year at Mardi Gras); that’s my sister Priscilla with them.

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