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 my journals?!
“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 response.
“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 and shit.
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 more smoothly.
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.