“If we are to hope to understand the often violent world in which we live, we cannot confine our attention to the great impersonal forces, natural and man-made, which act upon us. The goals and motives that guide human action must be looked at in the light of all that we know and understand; their roots and growth, their essence, and above all their validity, must be critically examined with every intellectual resource that we have.”
The new “Joker” movie is a rehash of an old conundrum: middle-aged man tries to remain relevant in a society that views him with mocking contempt, while he seeks true love and cares for his elderly disabled mother. Said middle-aged man then experiences a cerebral infarction that plunges him into a psychotic pit of hopeless violence.
How the hell did the screenplay writer get hold of one of
“Joker” reminds me of a 1950 Mexican film entitled “Los Olvidados” (The Forgotten Ones), directed by Luis Buñuel. Also known as “The Young and the Damned”, it focuses on a small cadre of teens trying to survive the brutalities of urban life in a México City slum.
By the 1950s, many films began to acquire a more
realistic approach to the world’s problems.
While a post-World War II America seemed to relegate itself to colorful
musicals and grand westerns with clearly-drawn heroic and villainous figures,
filmmakers in other countries expressed a more cynical, jaded view.
In “Los Olvidados”, Buñuel depicts poverty exactly as it
is: cold, violent and oppressive. It’s a
birth place for anger and hostility; not ingenuity where people go from victim
to survivor through sheer will power and determination. American movies of the time often showed Mexicans
and Negroes as happy and laughing, despite their economic hardships and
substandard living conditions. In “Los
Olvidados”, poverty doesn’t hover in the background like trees in a park. It’s tangible and painful; it’s a source of
cruelty and hate – not an inspiration to forge ahead through rocky obstacles
and build a better life.
“Joker” is a modification of that, as it highlights the
humiliation individuals often experience in their ongoing quest for acceptance. It also points to the hostile and sometimes
violent reaction people have when they don’t gain that acceptance or
respect. It’s why, for example, American
society exploded into rage and bloodshed in the mid-1960s; more directly, why
many non-Whites exploded. They’d finally
lost their patience. They’d done
everything possible to be part of the American mainstream, and it still wasn’t
good enough. They were still being
treated as second-class citizens; intimidated at the voting booth; forced to
sit in the back of mass transit vehicles; sequestered into a proverbial
closet. Beat an animal long enough and
it’ll eventually bite back.
For me, patience was always a given. I had a long fuse. It took a lot to aggravate me to the point of hysteria. That may seem like a good thing, a positive attribute – and it is. But like paralyzing fear, it has its drawbacks – namely that I let people take advantage of me. Then, in the quiet of my home, I’d complain about it – to no one. When I would finally bite back, I would unleash a barrage of bloody emotions. And people would have the audacity to be shocked and get upset. In other words, I’d scare the shit out of them. But the primary drawback? It made me look mentally and emotionally unstable.
I can recall a number of examples where I let myself get
pushed too far, but here’s one. July
2000 and I worked as an executive administrative assistant for a large bank in
Dallas. I supported two bank officers,
plus the manager to our little group.
That summer our particular division decided it wanted every individual
officer to submit letters to every client in their portfolios;
personally-signed letters – not electronically stamped. The letters for each of my two officers
arrived later than for those of the others.
They’d been sent to the wrong floor. One of my officers seemed to get upset that I
didn’t get all 800+ of her letters out on the same day she dropped them on my
desk. She’d taken them home and, after
two weeks, finally had them all signed.
I reserved a conference room for half a day, just for the
sole purpose of folding each and every one of those letters and placing them
into respective envelopes with two of the officer’s business cards. When my manager realized how far behind I
was, he enlisted a few others to help me get them done. One of the helpers was a fellow
administrative assistant who loathed the idea of helping anyone do
anything. In between folding and
stuffing, that one particular officer I supported kept yelling at me to answer
her phone – while she conversed with another associate. I finally told her to stop yelling at
me. She and that one admin, however,
took the time to stand at the desk of the admin to the department supervisor
and discuss beauty secrets with his roommate who did drag shows at local queer
bars. The roommate was on speaker phone.
The next day – after all the letters had been dispatched
– I confronted my manager to complain about the fiasco. His dismissive attitude, along with the
eye-rolling response from that one officer and that one other assistant, served
as the final knife into my back. To
enhance the aggravation, they pointed out that I’d taken the time to talk with
my father (when their own family members would call several times a day) and
then accused me of “fraternizing” with yet another admin.
Thus, my patience disintegrated faster than tequila at an
open bar during a Mexican wedding. The
level of anger that spewed forth from beleaguered soul terrified even me. My voice rose in such extreme anger that some
people on the other side of the floor hear me.
When our department manager threatened to call security if I didn’t
“calm down”, I took the liberty of calling them myself. On speaker phone. With that supervisor (and my immediate
manager) standing beside me. They were
both stunned into silence, as the security official on the phone waited for a
“No, it’s okay,” replied the department supervisor. For once she sounded nervous.
A security official did come into our area; as equally
perplexed as he was curious about my call.
By then, however, the department supervisor’s boss – they were all
C-level executives – had learned of the situation and consulted with me
privately. He was angered – not with me;
but with my colleagues and my direct manager.
When he gathered all of us together, I thought that one officer, the one
who’d accused me of “fraternizing”, was going to melt into a puddle of tears
I didn’t like what happened that day. I didn’t like that it got so ugly. Hostility breeds nothing but contempt. But I had to take a stand. I had to let people know how exactly I felt
and why I was so angry. I rightfully put
the blame back on them; that if they’d shown me the respect I deserved as an
adult and a business professional, none of that would have happened. Then again, if I’d only said or done
something earlier; if I’d just reacted sooner, the day would have proceeded
Sometimes, though, we do have to yell; we do have to make
a scene. It should never get to that,
but it happens. Some people just can’t
grasp the concept of keeping peace in the neighborhood or maintaining a high
degree of business professionalism. We
have to lower our intellect to their level, so they’ll comprehend what we’ve
been trying to tell them. I hate doing
that – because it really does make us look emotionally unbalanced. But occasionally, there’s just no other way.
The title character in “Joker” is embroiled in the same
dilemma. He’s trying desperately to
remain relevant and garner respect. He’s
been beaten down and disrespected for far too long. Then he explodes. He’s been pushed to the violent breaking
point. And there are literally millions
of people like him across the globe.
It all goes back to one of the most human of desires: to
be acknowledged and respected. The lack of
respect creates hostility in the workplace, but it also launches wars and civil
unrest. We saw that here in the U.S.
with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
We saw it with the 2011 “Arab Spring”.
People can only take so much.
Whatever happens, it’s no laughing matter. Respect will always equal dignity.
In the Valley of Hope, Truth was an elderly woman who traveled on her Horse of Justice; telling the villagers what they often heard from the outside world was wrong, inaccurate, immoral and even dangerous. Whether it was lies about medical issues or dubious declarations made the Valley’s appointed leaders, Mother Truth always settled the villagers’ fears. They had trusted her for as long as they knew and had no doubted she held their best interests close to her heart and soul.
Then, a new group of people ascended to the village leadership. They were loud and angry and disdainful of their
predecessors. They mocked the people who
had come before them with vulgar language and degenerative names. At first the villagers merely viewed them as
pure buffoons; clowns who loved the attention.
But, after a while, some of the valley residents began to listen to this
new crop of leaders. Then they started
believing them. And they began repeating
the claims espoused by these new self-styled leaders. More and more of the residents started to
believe these people. After all, the
latter group was wealthy and educated – they must know of what they speak. They could not be lying. The words these individuals used, the images
they painted of a world out of control – all of it frightened the valley
One afternoon Mother Truth tore through the Valley atop
Justice and frantically told the villagers that the crescendo of lecherous
voices from of these new leaders spewed out falsities. “They do not understand what they say!” she
cried. “They are merely greedy and
arrogant! They want nothing more than to
secure their own futures and their own wealth!”
“What shall we do?” asked the people.
“Stop believing every single thing they say!” Mother Truth
replied. “Think and research for
Stunned, the crowd suddenly and unexpectedly metamorphosed
into an angry mob. They attacked the old
sage unmercifully and hurtled her into a catacomb, before sending Justice into
the fields to reap the crops.
Eventually, some of the villagers realized they had made a
mistake. “Mother Truth has never lied to
us,” they moaned. “Her very name reveals
the nature of her soul. We must free
With the help of these renegades, Mother Truth escaped the catacombs
and rescued her horse from an orchard.
Defiant, she rode back into the village, her head held high
and her silver hair fluttering in the wind.
Troubled by their own behavior, the valley residents came to
accept a painful reality – Truth may hurt, but hope always wins out, and
justice plows forward.
They’d found another one. It was huge. A drone surveying the area counted 109 figures; its sensors initially identifying them as human. Rivas and Mugabe had stood in awe upon studying the preliminary data, alongside the rest of the team. If 109 human bodies did lay in the rubble – remnants of what they believed to be a hotel – it would be the largest collection of human remains the team had discovered in more than a decade of scouring the locale.
The region itself was gigantic; what once had been a placed called Texas. More specifically, the northeastern stretch; where two of the most heavily-populated metropolises had once thrived. Until seven millennia ago. Before the 2019 event simply known now as “The Cataclysm.”
“There have to be thousands, if not millions,” Rivas had told the expeditioners just a day before the drone returned with its stunning data estimate. “Not just here in this one building. I mean, across the entire region. These cities were among the grandest of their time.”
“Right now,” Mugabe interjected, “let’s just concentrate on this one building. Or what’s left of it.” He didn’t want the group to get too excited about anything; least of all a site containing so many bodies.
“Yes, of course,” Rivas concurred with a grin.
The crew was already stretched; pushed to the precipice of exhaustion as they continued searching through the unimaginable layers of dirt, rock and dust. But whenever they did find the remains of someone, they’d also noticed the individual was clutching an object in their hands. All of them – each and every corpse – held a similar object. Every single one of them – holding tight to a single item.
The 2019 sunstorm had been massive; the worst on record. Then and now. Among the archived records of all the sunstorms hitting Earth before and since, none matched the 2019 event. That’s why scientists dubbed it “The Cataclysm.” The word is so bland, so ordinary in a way; yet it said everything. To the untold numbers of people who studied the event – and the subsequent, wide-scale societal collapses it induced – the term “cataclysm” itself had come to signify that one unimaginable episode.
It was inevitable. By the start of the 21st century, humanity had come to rely upon technology too much. People across the globe identified with tangible pieces of metal and plastic more closely, perhaps, than their own families and friends. In fact, personal interactions seemed routed through the mystical electronic clouds they’d created for their world; a world they claimed was better than any before. To their descendants of the 90th century C.E., such flippant beliefs were almost laughable.
It remains a miracle – no minor one – that anyone should survive to the present day. Any human, that is. When the multitude of satellites cluttering the ionosphere fell silent in the days immediately following “The Cataclysm,” it appeared – from what records remain – a brutal chain-reaction of minor cataclysms exploded across the planet. Power plants – able to remain operational for a while – eventually died; as did water treatment plants, telecommunication lines. Everything attached to an actual or virtual wire just…died.
And thus, so did people. Countless numbers of people; millions of them. A mass exodus of souls floating from the decaying flesh of their hosts; rising past those same darkened satellites and up into the brighter stars.
Perusing photos of other recently-discovered sites made Rivas and Mugabe think of an even more ancient but equally horrific episode: the destruction of Pompeii. Pictures from 20th century archaeologists captured the disaster in a manner never seen before. The city-state’s residents – trapped in the environs of what they surely thought was a safe place – caught off-guard in the worst possible way. Their bodies and terrified expressions frozen in swarms of scorching lava for future humans to see and study. There was nothing like it.
But this – this was on a much larger scale. Pompeii was a single prosperous city with the unfortunate coincidence of being situated beneath a ubiquitous volcano. What the explorers saw in the remains of some nondescript building in the midst of a place once teeming with life was a tiny fraction, a sliver of the human wasteland that stretched across the globe. The societal collapses had driven many of their ancestors underground into vast caverns constructed for just such an event. Or something like it. But surely even those initial survivors couldn’t have foreseen the rolling swathes of brutality that followed the darkening of those wicked satellites; surely even they couldn’t have imagined the blessed sun betraying them in such a vile manner.
Yet, they lived; they survived. They survived to repopulate and prosper with a greater understanding of their own humanity, their vulnerability, their fragile nature. They survived to love that sun unlike their immediate ancestors who lived within the confines of those mystical clouds.
Rivas and Mugabe stared at those antiquitous photos of Pompeii’s victims; frozen in lava; terrified and helpless. And then they looked at the drone photos of the bodies in this building; the 109 discovered so far. And they realized the vast difference between the two events; a difference apparent in the faces and hands of the dead. The people of Pompeii had died clutching their loved ones. The victims of the 2019 event died clutching their cell phones and laptops; waiting for the Internet to come back up.