In Ancient Greek mythology, Apollo represents order, law, beauty, reason. Dionysus represents chaos, drunkness, primal instincts, sexual urges. The battle between them is one of order versus chaos.
And the sources I mentioned above frame the battle between Batman and the Joker as one of order versus chaos.
What is very interesting to me is that in every Batman versus Joker movie/show I’ve seen so far, Batman is always framed solidly as the source of good, and while the Joker (who is obviously evil) may wreak havoc for a while, before law and order get restored at the end of the day.
Yet Todd Phillips’ Joker tells a different story.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a sympathetic Joker. While the things he does are certainly destructive and evil, the way the movie plays out, we the audience, the typical proletariat layman living in the day-to-day grind, we can actually find ourselves empathizing far more with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker than the Waynes (Batman’s parents) who isolate themselves from the problems of Gotham in their own world of wealth and privilege.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is struggling to become a stand-up comedian in Gotham City in 1981. His day job is as a clown, in which he gets beat up by the hooligans on the mean streets of Gotham. He works this crappy job to take care of his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy). She calls him “Happy,” while deep down, Arthur is anything but. Yet he does his best to “smile and put on a happy face” to please her. But life has not been kind to Arthur. He’s had at least one stint at Arkham Asylum, was abused as a child, and because of his childhood abuse, suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to break out in maniacal laughter whenever he is anxious or stressed (which is often). (Ars Technica)
Todd Phillips’ Joker is not a diabolical mastermind, but a troubled man who fell between the cracks of a society that has betrayed him. He goes to court-ordered therapy. But when the funding for that therapy gets cut, he has nowhere to go to get help or medication. And that’s when his further descent into violence and madness begins.
Eventually, he gets fired from his day job being a clown. And while still in clown makeup, he kills three Wallstreet executives on a train. The three men started to physically assault him because of his neurological disorder. When Arthur fights back, it’s self-defense at first. But when the third guy flees the scene, running and screaming for help, Arthur gleefully pursues and kills this man. No longer out of self-defense, but because it made him happy to do so.
Immediately after the attack, Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s dad) who is running for mayor, publically condemns these three murders. Yet many of the people of Gotham rejoice because they’re tired of living in poverty, and tired of living under a wealthy elite that clearly doesn’t care about them. Protesters put on clown paint, hold signs that say ‘Resist!’ and start rioting in the city.
End the end, Arthur Fleck makes the transition from an unsuccessful, lonely comedian who no one knows about, to becoming a symbol of the city’s Dionysian rage. He stands triumphant with a circle of protesters celebrating him, protesters who are burning and destroying the city. While Bruce Wayne and his parents flee this destruction, only for a masked protester to kill and rob his parents.
The Ancient Greek Bacchae is very similar. It is a story of drunkness, intoxication and self-destruction. In this story, the cult of Apollo reigns over all. It is a cult of order and society. Yet where it once represented ideas of enlightenment and knowledge, it later came to represent a politically corrupt authority, an authority that was drunk off of power and wealth. The ruling authority was a senile group that was far removed from the people and stuck in their own ways.
The God of chaos and hedonism, Dionysus, enters the situation to shake things up. There is a vacuum of power into which he surges. As a long-haired, non-conformist, he arrives at the capital city with an angry mob. This demigod is arrested, interrogated, mocked and thrown into prison.
Yet the authorities could not imprison the violent forces of the primeval. An earthquake leveled the royal palace, destroying the symbol of the Apollonian World Order. Wild women tore cattle to bits with their own hands. Then these women proceeded to dismember the current authorities just like cattle. They played ball with their arms and feet, and then impaled their heads on sticks.
While Todd Phillips’ Joker takes place in 1981, it relates far more to our world today than any other movie I’ve seen this year. I walked out of the movie theater with chills. The character of Arthur Fleck managed to personify a rage/nihilism/antipathy of an increasing number of people who feel that the forces of law/order/society are failing them. Fleck represents a rage that is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Though Todd Phillips’ movie is not at all a glorification of nihilism and violence. Clearly, the violence caused by Arthur Fleck’s insanity is shown as deranged and evil. Rather, the movie is a character study in how these traits arise and manifest in a man who society has abandoned.
“Death is something everyone is scared of. All the people are scared of death. When death nears, they start crying. So when you embrace death, welcome death, ‘death’ will not come to you.”
Varanasi one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Many Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation.
There are holy men here who celebrate, rather than fear death. Death is not a fearsome concept, but a passing from the world of illusion. The film “Beyond Varanasi” explores this concept.
(Picture not from film)
In this film, Mongolian nomads are kicked off their land and relocated to a soul crushing existence where they must work in a strip mine (a very common experience in much of the 3rd world today). However, a young Mongolian boy connects with his destiny to become a shaman and decides to rise up against this oppression.
The bears I surveyed gave this movie a C+.
There were two reasons I was initially excited to see this movie: a fascination with Ancient Celtic Myth and the fact that this was Pixar’s first movie with a female protagonist as the lead. Yet watching this film left me feeling like this was the “C” student who I was expecting to make an “A.” On this blog, I admit to feeling silly for criticizing a movie made for children. Over all, the movie wasn’t terrible. I still walked away from it being somewhat entertained. But there was also something about this movie that left me feeling frustrated.
PIXAR’S FLIMSY ATTEMPT TO CREATE A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER
I feel like “Brave” was Pixar’s attempt to make a strong female character, since they have been criticized for being something of a “boy’s club.” Yet instead of coming off like a strong, female Celtic warrior the likes of Boudicca (a woman who destroyed three Roman towns and nearly kicked the Romans out of Britain), Merida – the lead – remains a prissy, self entitled teenager who seems more likely to whine about doing her math homework rather than leading her clan to greatness.
NOTES ON THE MOVIE ITSELF
Brave itself is a movie that takes place in an idealized 10th century Scotland. The animation and scenery is remarkable, in this aspect, Pixar does not disappoint. Directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman both also have Scottish roots, which gives the film some authenticity.
The beginning of the movie seemed promising. Merida is a princess with remarkable archery skills. She wants to be a powerful warrior like her father, King Fergus. Yet she remains trapped by her mother with the responsibilities and traditions of being a “prim and proper” princess who doesn’t “put her weapons on the dinner table.” Eventually the day comes when it is time to marry Merida off to the future leader of another clan. Politically successful marriages were vitally important to the survival of a clan. These marriages were key in bringing peace to two different clans that may have ended up declaring war on one another. The Ancient Celtic Goddess Brigid herself played an important role in bringing peace to two warring tribes after her son was killed in battle.
Different clans come together in order to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage. The sons of all the clan leaders end up being quite unsuitable – suitors. In cliché movie fashion – they are all miraculously a bunch of bumbling doofuses who can’t tell an arrow’s tail from their own faces. I understand the element here was to introduce comedic relief. Yet I found it incredibly disappointing that ALL of the men in this movie were incompetent. The mighty king Fergus can’t even give a speech without his wife’s assistance. This element made the movie more frustrating and stereotypical than funny in my opinion.
The reality is that the Scottish clans of these times had an intense focus on warfare and raising up powerful warriors. The son of a clan leader would’ve trained his whole life in different skills of battle: sword fighting, archery and hand to hand combat. The idea that all the suitors would be this incompetent is just as insulting as it is stupid. But then again…I remind myself that this is a kid’s movie and I must suspend some expectation of reality here…
With a lifetime focused on physical training, like throwing logs and boulders, it’s likely that the Scottish Suitors may have looked something like this. Heart melts! Merida, if you don’t want any of the suitors, I’ll take all four. Mwahhaa!
MERIDA VIOLATES TRADITION
Merida ends up competing for her own hand in marriage – which violates all protocols of tradition – and wins. This horrifies her mother – the Queen – and increases the rift between the two. After a fight, Merida ends up running away. At this point in the story, I was expecting some heroic adventures and deep life lessons. Instead we get some wacky hijinks where Merida ends up using a witch’s spell to “change her mum” – the most vague request you can make of life altering magic – and ends up turning her mother into a bear. This is bittersweet considering that King Fergus is a mighty bear hunter.
Perhaps there may be some mythological significance to this transformation considering that shape shifting magic was a common theme in Celtic Mythology and that Artio herself was a mighty Bear Goddess.
However, getting back to the movie plot, the rest of the movie tediously makes its way through Merida trying to turn her mother back into a human. There are a lot of shenanigans that ensue which provide some slapstick humor and some clumsy plot development.
BRAVE IS NOT SO BRAVE
(Now that’s what I call Brave!)
Our heroine also does not prove to be very “brave” either. When she comes close to having a fight with a real bear she ends up screaming and curling into a ball out of fear.
Eventually Merida discovers that she must “mend the bond destroyed by pride.”After this revelation, I was hoping some life lesson would emerge about the destructive effects of pride – but in the end this was all muddled by some vague lesson of each person being allowed to choose their own path. Merida does not end up getting married, the unsuitable suitors go home, and there is not much clear indication of what happens to the rest of the clan as a result.
The reality is that the clans would’ve probably declared a brutal war on one another, destroy their alliance and bloodshed would ensue. Merida’s actions did nothing to benefit her people or her family. The desire to doom the future of one’s entire clan for one’s own selfish interests is not “brave,” it is selfish and “prideful” and frankly is a perfect description of what is wrong with modern values today. Actual Celtic history is replete with tales of women who knew how to fight – and there were women who even had their own fighting schools. Yet most Celtic men and women did what was good for their tribe and not necessarily what was best for themselves. If we are to learn from the past, we must learn to do what is best for those around us – not simply living for our own selfish ends.
LACK OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT OR STORY ARC
I think the problem here is that the boys at Pixar really had no idea how to develop a powerful female lead. They couldn’t conceive of an independent and strong female without also making her selfish and prideful, not really heroine material. A good character is also someone who has some kind of challenge to overcome. I suppose the challenge here was to mend the bond torn by pride – but she didn’t really end up making any major sacrifices or concessions for her prideful behavior. She was also a great archer from the get-go, so there wasn’t really much to develop on that end either.
WANT TO A GOOD KID’S MOVIE ABOUT A FEMALE HERO?
A much better children’s movie about a strong female lead was Mulan. She joined the army not out of some childish fantasy, but in order to save the life of her father, who was becoming too old to realistically defend himself in armed combat. She also isn’t a “Mary Sue” who ends up miraculously being good at combat either. Mulan was somewhat clumsy in the beginning and actually has to train and work hard in order to become a powerful warrior. In the end, she makes tough decisions and harsh sacrifices in order to save the nation of China. What’s even better, is that Mulan the Disney movie was actually based off a true story.
While Mulan was fighting to save the nation of China from Hun invasion and inventing clever war tactics, Merida was busy throwing tantrums and getting freaked out by Bears.
WANT TO SEE SOME STRONG CELTIC WOMEN WHO ACTUALLY EXISTED?
9 Out of 10 Dwarfs Approve of This Movie.
The significant thing about this movie to me wasn’t just the dwarf battles, the beauty of the elves, or the godly power of wizards. The most powerful thing to me was that in a world full of magical, mythical beings, it is the simple folk who are the heroes. Tolkien chooses Bilbo Baggins, a mere hobbit, to be his protagonist. Bilbo leaves behind a domestic life of worrying about his doilies and when he’s going to eat second breakfast – to running from Orcs, finding treasure, dining with elves, and exploring the depths of Goblin infested mountains.
Why does Tolkien choose a Hobbit for his hero? Gandalf explains:
“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of everyday kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”
In triumphing over evil, we often think we need some kind of superman to step in and save the day. That we need the most powerful of armies or the most famous individual. But sometimes the most effective thing, can be a simple act of everyday kindness and hospitality. Even you – yes little old you – can make a difference! How many would be suicides or shooters were prevented by someone who had enough love and kindness to be that person’s friend? How many times has your life been saved by that friend or neighbor who took the time out of their day to help you out?
This movie is a reminder to me that we can’t forget the everyday, simple kindness of folk. That perhaps, the modern evils of our time reflect a more isolated society where people take less and less time to help one another out – let alone even know their neighbor’s name. There has been a loss of kinship and brotherhood in this “every man for himself,” “me first,” “consume as much as you can”generation.
It was ultimately the hoarded wealth of the dwarf king Thrór that lured the dragon Smaug to destroy his kingdom. Smeagol too is broken down into a pathetic and lonely creature as a result of his obsession with his precious – the ring. As values shift towards self ascension and money, the world ultimately gets subsumed by a great evil. Maybe we should be a little more like the hobbit and less like a Smeagol in our every day lives.