A Sad Joke: How ‘Joker’ Shines a Light On the Issue of Human Isolation
“A person is a person through other persons; you can’t be a human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.” — Desmond Tutu
After a decade-plus of cinematic dominance, superhero/comic book films must dig deeper into their mythology to reach greater heights. Like their comic book writer counterparts, directors/actors now seek to retcon and reboot familiar characters for their version of a limited series. Directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) and starring Joaquin Phoenix (Walk The Line, Gladiator), Joker serves as a one-shot origin story of the clown prince of crime. This is the third on-screen interpretation of Batman’s arch-nemesis in the last decade. Joaquin Phoenix joins Heath Ledger’s indelible portrayal in The Dark Knight and Jared Leto’s impermanent performance in Suicide Squad.
While there was much fuss made about this film’s presentation of violence, what makes Joker palpable is its commentary on isolation. Arthur Fleck is a man forgotten by society. He is socially awkward, mentally troubled and gifted with a cursed condition causing uncontrollable laughter under distress. The world sees Arthur as a sad joke. His daily alienation leads to greater intimacy with isolation, conceiving madness. When madness reaches full term, Arthur’s hair is green, his lips are marked red with lipstick and his face is painted white. At this point, madness is hard to forget.
Today’s smaller, interconnected world hasn’t curbed isolation but has made it more contagious. Weird, tormented and difficult people are excommunicated from their community every day. This issue isn’t just secular, it is also spiritual.
Sundays can be the loneliest time in a believer’s week. Because attending church is a big communal event for families, new Christians coming to church without relatives or a significant other may feel their pew is an island. Differences in backgrounds, cumbersome conversations and hurried talk between Sunday school and worship service can disrupt souls from connecting. We shake our heads at a mad world today yet struggle to shake hands with a stranger who could go mad tomorrow. This begs the question: Who paints on a happy face to mask their sadness on Sundays?
Acts 2: 44-47 shows us how the early church made sure no one was secluded.
And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. They worshipped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity–all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people.
These verses gives a glimpse of a community born from mutual devotion and affection. This is a necessity to combat conjoined dislike and animosity born from worldly tribalism.
For all intents and purposes, church should be a freak show. While there aren’t Arthur Fleck’s sitting among congregates every Sunday, there are many alienated people drowning in isolation. Like a lighthouse, the church helps guide those left adrift because of their eccentricity. In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson talks about his last conversation with a client on the eve of his execution. Their conversation draws a bleak depiction of a life too far gone because of ambivalence toward those most vulnerable and isolated:
“It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.”