Joker: welcome to the era of global political psychiatry (2019)

by Giulio Lanza


(Originally published on November 7, 2019 on l’Occidentale

A great success of public testified the popularity of Joker, the masterfully created Hollywood film presented for the first time last August 31 at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, where it was recognized as deserving of the highest prize, the Golden Lion.

A great cast, starting with the protagonist Joaquin Phoenix, of whom it is superfluous to highlight the amazing interpretation. Robert De Niro has a secondary role but of fundamental importance for the development of the story. Many scenes are inspired by Martin Scorsese’s films (e.g., “The King of Comedy”), such as when in “Taxi Driver” De Niro himself simulated talking to strangers while alone in his squalid room.

A soundtrack that is noticeable, powerful and full of low tones, both the original one (pieces like Confession or Call Me Joker), and made of old songs such as My Name Is Carnival, White Room, Smile, Everybody Plays the Fool, or pieces by Frank Sinatra such as That’s Life and Send in the Clowns.

The era in which the film takes place is unspecified, with elements of the 70s and 80s prevailing, but also elements of the so-called Gilded Age of American capitalism, at the beginning of the 20th century (also, at one point the film’s rich – the elite or establishment that openly attribute to their own merit the wealth and power obtained – are gathered in an old theater to see Chaplin’s “Modern Times”), when the differences between rich and poor became exorbitant: incidentally it was the era in which community psychiatry was conceived by industrialists who wanted to represent the problems of workers as medical issues rather than trade unions issues; before that time, psychiatry was limited to psychiatric hospitals and people did not go to see a psychiatrist in the clinic; before that time, the psychiatrist was associated not with the common person but only with the mad.

In the film, the “fathers” of Joker are two TV celebrities: Robert De Niro, TV presenter, and one of the richest men in the city, running for mayor, represented by the Gotham City media as the only one who can save a city in severe crisis and in full decline.

The mother has an Oedipal role that remains unspecified, partly because it is not possible to understand, even after the end of the film, whether hers were delusions or whether there was instead a plot by the rich man she worked for (the future candidate for mayor) in order to have her conveniently locked up in an asylum, even if healthy, by forging the papers.

Robert De Niro in this film is, for a change, perfect: he is a very famous American talk show host, cynical and in his own way wise at the same time. It is clear from one of the opening scenes that he is seen by Joker as the father he never had: while watching TV from the bed he sits on with his mother, Joker imagines that the TV celebrity would be willing to drop his own show and the entire sideshow, if he could have a kid like him in return.

Another important element is the relationship with a famous person in the film, who is perhaps the biological father of Joker, the super rich financier who wants to stand for mayor of Gotham (a nineteenth-century nickname for New York City, later reused in the Batman comics ), a dark city populated by super-rats, as the city news report in an almost amused way.

The political is represented as ruthless, cynical, indifferent to the suffering of the people: wealth and politics in the film are linked to each other.

Psychiatry, on the other hand, is represented as the last saving glimmer that bad politicians cut mercilessly for the poor of the city, who have little else left in addition to television: Joker takes 7 different drugs, all 7 presumably psychotropics. A de-medicalized psychiatry is presented to a certain extent in the film: a black social worker sees Joker once a week to listlessly ask him the same good-bureaucrat questions each time. Bad politics, good psychiatry.

The film manages to present itself as an almost philosophical or ideological work, taking advantage of the fact that madness and mental illness have been for decades, at least since the 1980s, represented as organic diseases like all the others, the brain a organ like all the others, psychiatry a medical specialty like any other.

Joker reveals itself as a surprising film, making us somehow rediscover – or at least reflect on – the largely psychological and social origins of what we commonly identify as mental disorders or, according to the film’s terminology, “conditions” (the piece of paper that Joker hands or tries to hand to the occasional stranger on the street, when laughing uncontrollably, explains indeed how he does not have a disease or a diagnosis but a “condition”).

In reality, one could see, on the contrary, as surprising the fact that for decades the dominant narrative has made us almost forget about such dimension. Just a few years ago, for instance, a book was published, “Madness is Civilization” which had as its subtitle “when the diagnosis was social”: the dominant narrative first almost prevented us from thinking that the diagnosis could have cultural or social elements, and then when the moment requires it, which is at the present time, to “discover” such dimension which in turn is thus surprising.

The film undoubtedly stigmatizes insanity and mental illness, linking them terribly, despite the ongoing global campaigns for the de-stigmatization of mental disorders, to a crime that becomes merciless and, increasingly over the course of the film, without an external motivation; the motivations that initially appear external and “understandable” in their causality, even if not justifiable (but the viewer is almost led to think that they are justifiable), are increasingly internalized and lead us to look for the cause within almost inscrutable mental processes. In doing this, the narrative draws us from the external world to the internal one, which is precisely one of the greatest effects exerted by the film on the viewer. From outside to inside.

Joker makes the spectator identify with a character represented as insane, sick, criminal, in which even the “spectators” who are inside the film, the people in the film, increasingly seem to identify with. The media in the film portray Joker as a crazed criminal who dresses like a clown, while the people almost instinctively see him as a hero who avenges the injustices that all suffer.

The film appears to present the viewer with a vision of the people exactly as the establishment wants the people to become and how they want them to be represented and how they want the people to feel: freed from their useless rationality, proud of their madness, apolitical and depoliticized, ready for the intervention of the two pillars of public order and of psychiatric technique.

On two occasions in the film these two elements appear clearly: when the Joker is in the elevator of the psychiatric hospital and a patient tied to the stretcher is accompanied by a policeman and a man in a white uniform, probably a nurse, as well as in one of the final scenes in which the police car and the ambulance collide to become the set of a crazy party that doesn’t last for long, the insurrection of the jokerized, wild, criminal, crazy people.

When Joker finally goes on TV on the De Niro show, he’s the one who denies that there is anything political in what he has caused throughout Gotham.

It is interesting to note how a few weeks ago in Italy the comedian Beppe Grillo presented himself on video with the Joker makeup at a political meeting of a ruling party.

The ideology that underlies the film has a precise logic and is entirely declined from the point of view of the elites: in short, in my view, it is a profoundly anti-democratic and even anti-political film.

The people are crazy and must be criminalized and psychiatrized (not demonized, that was the era of power, even temporal, linked to religion). The modern heretic is the madman. The way to stem it is no longer spiritual, an exorcism for example, but technical: containment through diagnosis and drugs.

In representing the people as mad and proud of their own madness, even finally freed through it, the idea that the citizen is irrational, out of control is validated. Who would entrust the destinies of a nation or of the world to someone with these characteristics? Just another madman, in fact.

The field of the citizen and of the people is no longer political citizenship: in such context, in fact, like a stick, the psychiatric terms can be used in the most stigmatizing way possible against the political opponent; the only hope therefore remains to become patient, in every sense, hoping that psychiatric services will be graciously provided in a sufficient manner. The de-stigmatization of psychiatric diagnosis outside of politics and within the clinical context is the carrot. Become patient and something will be granted to you, as a minor treated hopefully well. Refuse and you will be contained anyway but harder.

North of Hollywood, from the Silicon Valley, the so-called Californian ideology has been working for at least two decades to combine libertarian and even Randian hyper-individualism with Marxist collectivism in its purportedly scientific aspects: in our individual isolation, it is machines, software and digital algorithms to make all those who are connected to the network a coordinated community.

It comes to mind the name of Bogdanov, the physician and psychiatrist who founded Bolshevism with Lenin, and who wrote the first Soviet-era utopia, ‘Red Star,’ and devised the discipline of tectology, a kind of general science of organization that was used for economic planning in the USSR and anticipated many aspects of cybernetics, the foundation of the current automation revolution.

In the USSR, half a century later, with the Brezhnev era, the so-called political psychiatry became prevalent: dissidence experienced, even before being represented, as madness. The dissidents were not simply sane passed off for mad, but they were viewed as clinically irrational. There was talk of “latent schizophrenia” and “delusions of reform”. On the other hand, how is it possible not to think that in a perfect system a dissident with hopes of change can be completely normal?

Andreotti also joked in his own way with the famous joke that there are two types of madmen, those who think they are Napoleon and those who think they can reform the State Railways.

Joker sanctions in global popular culture the citizen who becomes patient, proud of this, who finally feels freed from the weight of rationality and rules, almost the foundation of a transnational schizophrenic anarcho-individualist party.

We are witnessing the internalization by the people of spectators precisely of how the elites see the people, ready to claim the psychiatric help they desperately need in the manner of the subject, without any residual claims of sovereignty.

The black psychiatrist from the final scene is taken out, as can be assumed by the blood footprints the Joker leaves behind in the last few frames. In this sense, the film is also anti-psychiatric: the villain in which the people recognize themselves kills the good psychiatrist, perhaps the last possible salvation for those who have completely lost their mind, self-control, and married a criminal and sick will.

Joker is one of those unmissable films, to be watched for sure (in the Anglo-Saxon world, the view is forbidden to minors and for very good reasons).

In my view the anti-political message it conveys is devastating and misleading: the message of the upcoming Globalist Revolution.

To be sent back to the sender in full and with no hesitation.

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