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The essential qualities of the maze define the latter as a complex, multicursal puzzle that includes choices of path and direction, with different entries and exit points. Like a maze, The Joker is a highly complicated work of art, elegantly ordered by interwoven parts comprising and admirable whole – a wholeness not in the organic but the aporetic sense. Derrida defines aporia as "a point of undecidability, which locates the site at which the text most obviously undermines its own rhetorical structure, dismantles, or deconstructs itself." In this sense, aporia is a condition that suggests "an impasse," a knot, or an inherent contradiction found in texts, which results in a "double bind" of incompatible or contradictory interpretations and meanings now "undecidable." Aporia is a creative force that enriches the text and re-centers the reader in the process of interpretation. Filmmaker Phillips Todd cinematically articulates the aporetic moment through a genuine fusion of reality and fantasy – blurring their borderlines as illustrated below. The aporetic is also revealed at the level of a complex characterization and a subjective focalization through the mentally ill Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix). The sections below analyses individual scenes to understand the filmmaker’s construction of an aporetic narrative maze.


The first scene opens with a zoom in on a man, putting on clown makeup in front of a mirror.  Though the place is populated by his coworkers, Arthur is separated from them, suggesting his social isolation. The subsequent close ups of the hands and face suggest a pensive mood. He then tries to laugh, but tears up. He puts his fingers in the corners of his mouth to put it up into a grin – then pulls them down into an exaggerated frown – then back up into a grin with a makeup stained tear running down his face. The scene introduces the first aporetic moment in the film: while his job is to make people laugh, Arthur cannot smile to himself.

Through an establishing shot, the next scene takes us to New York City in the late 1970s outside of Kenny's Music Shop. The shot depicts high buildings with a grey sky. Though Arthur is part of the scenery, he is hardly visible, for the high buildings dominate the framing. The establishing shot is followed by a shot of the clown dancing and spinning an "everything must go" sign in front of the store. Next to him is a black musician playing a cheerful tune on a piano. The two artists are ignored by the pedestrians who are walking by. This atmosphere is perturbed by a group of teens who insult Arthur, confiscate his sign, and run down the street. Colliding with the traffic and panting heavily, Arthur follows them. One of the teens hits him with the sign in an alley, which knocks Arthur to the ground. Then they start beating him and run away, leaving him exhausted on the ground. Like the previous one, this scene depicts a gritty atmosphere and a disgruntled tone, symbolized by the buildings that seem to imprison the population. Even the sky is grey, offering no possibility of escape. The pedestrians' indifference and the teens' violence further add to Arthur’s predicament and isolation as suggested by the shot of him lying gasping for air on the ground.  

The third scene, which takes place in the department of health office, opens with a close up of Arthur in the middle of a laughing fit. He's trying to control it, but cannot. Despite the laughter, there's real pain in his eyes; something has broken in him. He sits across from an overworked, middle-aged, African-American social worker (Sharon Washington). Her office is in a cramped and rundown building. Stacks of folders are piled high in front of her. When he stops laughing, he asks, "Is it me, or is it getting crazier out there?" She replies, "It's certainly tense. People are upset. They're struggling. Looking for work. The garbage strike seems like it's been going on forever. These are tough times. How 'bout you. Have you been keeping up with your journal?" But Arthur's smile reveals he was looking for a deeper answer. He becomes nervous when she asks to see it. He explains that he has also been using it as a joke diary for funny thoughts or observations. She opens it to find pornographic images scribbled alongside entries about his hopelessness and his death. She hands back the journal then asks Arthur if it helps to have someone to talk to. He responds, "I think I felt better when I was locked up in the hospital." He asks for an increase in his medications, but the social worker reminds him he is on seven different kinds. He says he doesn't want to "feel so bad anymore." This scene constructs Arthur as a victim of both the social isolation and the economic depression that leaves no place for the downtrodden. The scene also stands in opposition to the first one when Arthur couldn't laugh.

 It is in the following scene that we understand the leitmotif of the laugh. In this scene, Arthur is on the bus. A little child (Demetrius Dotson II) frowns at him, and Arthur starts to play peek-a-boo with the boy and makes him laugh. The mother (Mandela Bellamy) yells at Arthur to stop bothering her child. Arthur goes into one of his laughing fits and cannot stop again. He shakes his head no, but still he cannot stop laughing. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a small card then hands it to the woman. The card reads: "Forgive my laughter. I have a condition (more on back)." She turns the card over and reads the small writing: "It's a medical condition causing sudden, frequent, uncontrollable laughter that doesn't match how you feel. It can happen in people with a brain injury or certain neurological conditions." In this scene, we understand the meaning of Arthur's recurrent laughter. Such realization adds to the aporetic sense of the story, for the viewer finds it difficult to distinguish a real laugh from the uncontrollable one. The woman's reaction further illustrates Arthur's isolation and the social distanciation that characterizes Gotham.



The aporetic narrative maze is heightened by blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality, especially in the scene of Arthur and Sophie (Zazie Beetz) as well as Arthur's phantasmagoric initial participation in the Murray Show. The encounter between the two characters takes place in the elevator. When Arthur first enters, Sophie yells, "Wait." He stops the door with his foot as she enters holding a bag of groceries. Her daughter (Rocco Luna) follows. There is an uncomfortable silence as the elevator dings for each floor it passes. The elevator slams, shakes, and continues upward. The child giggles. Sophie mutters how awful the apartment building is, and her child imitates her. Sophie pretends to shoot herself in the head with her fingers while looking at Arthur who gives her a knowing smile. She smiles back as the elevator dings for their floor, and the doors open. Sophie and her daughter exit first then Arthur who heads the opposite way. Arthur turns, shouts "hey" to get Sophie's attention, then does a more violent version of the finger gun to himself. She gives a half-smile and enters her apartment. This first encounter is followed by other shots in which Arthur follows Sophie everywhere she goes.

In another scene, Arthur is writing in his journal about mental illness. He is back in his apartment, at night, alone at the kitchen table and smoking, with only the pendant light illuminating him. He writes deliberately and in large letters: "People expect you to behave as if you DON'T" with a smiley face in the O of "don't." The doorbell rings. Surprisingly, it is Sophie, asking if Arthur followed her that day. After a moment of hesitation, he says "yeah" with an expectant look on his face. Sophie gives him a smile and wishes he had robbed the workplace. He says he has a gun and could do it tomorrow. She then says, "You're so funny, Arthur." He tells her he does stand-up and invites her to a show. She says she"d like that and walks away. Arthur has a look of swagger on his face, watches her walk back to her apartment, and shuts the door. The following day, after he is fired from his work for bringing a gun with him, Arthur returns home, knocks on the door of Sophie's apartment, grabs her, and kisses her passionately, which she returns with equal emotion while closing the door behind them. This romantic moment is followed by the development of their love story: attending his one man show, going out together several times, and standing by him when his mother is taken to hospital. Later on, some audience members are surprised when Arthur gets into Sophie's apartment, and she begs him to leave in a way that suggests they have never been together. It is at this moment that we realize that all the above scenes may be figments of Arthur's imagination, projecting his own fantasies. This tendency to fantasize is also depicted as Arthur imagines himself participating in or attending the Murray Show.



Likewise, the film's ending intensifies the aporetic sense. The last scene introduces Arthur in the middle of a laughing fit in Arkham Asylum He's in an all white room with a social worker. She asks, "What's so funny?" He says he is thinking of a joke. She asks him what is it. He replies, "You wouldn't get it." He then sings "That's Life." The last shot depicts Arthur walking down the hall – leaving bloody footprints behind him. He starts to dance to the song in his head. He turns a corner, but then runs the other way, pursued by an orderly. It is in this last scene that the audience realizes that The Joker is a narrative maze that offers multicursal paths with no definite plotline. While most Hollywood films close with a resolution that brings back the "equilibrium" to the story, The Joker leaves us with further questions that invite the audiences to a re-imagining of the film. Are all of the events fantasies imagined by Arthur while detained in Arkham Asylum? Is Arthur's transformation into a joker, his last participation in the show, and the live killing of Murray another fantasy like some of the previous ones? Indeed, the film's aporetic, narrative maze makes it difficult if not impossible to decide which way to interpret it and – as Arthur might say – "You wouldn't get it."

February 2021

From guest contributor Mourad El Fahli, University Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah, Morocco


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