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Joker is number 9

Synopsis: Quentin Tarantino is one of my personal idols, but with his latest he let me down. The comix genre on the big screen wasn’t my cup of tea.

To begin with I studied filmmaking at Harvard in the academic year 1994-95 under the tutelage of the renowned Yugoslav (quite an anachronism at the time) director Dušan Makavejev. I saw Pulp Fiction in the opening weekend in Cambridge, Massachussetts. Great impact, no question. Ten years later in Budapest. I got an offer to write a book on Tarantino’s then-oeuvre in six weeks, which I did (Tarantino mozija, Jonathan Miller Publishing, Bp 2004). Kill Bill was his last pic then and apart from being a female revenge film it was,unquestionably, a very well built East–Asia focused pop cultural encyclopedia. When I first heard about his Hollywood pic, I became almost hysterical, wow, that will be something, on his home turf with his vast pop–cultural knowledge, this will be something really excellent! A cast with super-star value, an era with so much action, social tension, student uprising & war, good music and so on; a Tarantino film on that could be no less than welcome.
‘With whom are with travelling’ is a saying in Hungarian filmmaking regarding the protagonist(s). In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood we’re with Brad and to a lesser extent with Leo, and they are great for sure and it’s interesting to see the self-irony in the Eisenhower era TV-western star’s downhill path before the New Hollywood had arrived, the western genre’s journey to Italy, and the major theme that their antagonists are cast as the murderous Manson family. Which would not be painful, if the main characters were not over-generaic and dennishoppering, making the whole counterculture scene equal to the evil of Charles Manson’s pscychopathy. As someone who was privileged to know Allen Ginsberg and being a contributore to a portrait documentary on him (Poet on the Lower East Side, dir: Gyula Gazdag 1995), plus being the first Hungarian translator of Hunter S. Thompson – visiting twice at Owl Farm, Woody Creek – I just cannot support this. Of course I enjoyed the alternative historical ending, but thats no big news in the Tarantino films since Inglorious Basterds; shouldn’t this be expected? Out of this musically rich era I would have wanted something more than Paul Revere and this was in sharp contrast to my experience recently of the “final cut” of Apocalypse Now where Jim Morrison’s still unbeatable after 40 years.
This was Tarantino’s first picture without Harvey Weinstein as his producer. And he had a terrible time with Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill filming her ride in a small convertible. When in the first third of the film Brad changes cars from Leo’s Cadillac to a blue VW Karman Ghía, I hoped he had something to say. But no, he hasn’t. I had the feeling Tarantino made concessions with this film to Trump’s America and it saddened me. Tarantino said, he’ll do ten features in his full oevre as director, not counting My Best Friend’s Birthday and making Kill Bill one. Once Upon a Time… is his ninth. Strongly hope his tenth will be a much stronger farewell to the trade.

The Joker:

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker

As I said earlier I’m no big fan of the Gotham myth. I agree with Martin Scorsese on his opinion regarding comic book pictures. But Joker was different, and not just for the genius of Joaquin Phoenix. From the beginning being an anti-American Psycho, with the killing of three abusive, girl molesting drunk Wall Street pricks on the subway, whom he shoots point blank, this is a kind of liberation from the world we actually live in. This Joker is a loser and not Heath Ledger’s superhero villain of the Dark Knight, nor the manipulative, cruel and sexy Jack Nicholson in Batman. He’s Dostoyevskian; mortified and saddened, exploited and unremembered: a true hero of our time. In a society which is fully against him, the sad white clown is the Travis Brickle of an age which seems to be the 1980s in NYC, but it is as much of the twenty-tens, as ever. De Niro’s show host is an Alex Jones-style asshole, “father” Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is a Park Avenue-type character, ‘mom’ (Frances Conroy) is at least as sick as Arthur Fleck, the Joker, with whom we’re traveling. Yes, when there’s a masked revolt on the streets violence is unavoidable, looting is common, and insurance companies try to wheedle out of their contracts. Social tension is massive and a little spark is enough to start a fire in this atmosphere. Too much inequality, too much populist assholism leads to uncontrollable and subconscious-driven anti-social acts, to revolutions. Brilliant film, brilliant Phoenix who lost more than 45 pounds for the part, which was both physically and mentally challenging, but this was essential for the role, a much more sensitized directing with regard to the zeitgeist compared to what we’ve seen in the Tarantino movie. Not nostalgic 60s with a bright LA sky from Spahn’s Movie Ranch to Cielo Drive, with the distant sounds of the Vietnam war from the car radio, Todd Philips’ movie is about a feasible future. In a world which is ruled by the Trumps, Xis, Putins, BoJos, Erdogans & Orbáns, we are in need of this kind of artistic, filmic liberation to cope with the hell of everyday life. The masterly art of director of Photography Lawrence Sher and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir completes the joy of watching this sometimes hardly watchable picture.

András B. Vágvölgyi

Volume 34 no 4 March/April 2020 pp 35-36

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