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TV Series Review: “You”

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about TV shows (I tend to stick to movies), but frankly, I haven’t had such a visceral reaction to a piece of media since the first time I read “Gone Girl.” “You”—bizarrely situated at the nexus of psychological thriller, romantic comedy, and outright horror—is like nothing I’ve ever seen on TV. On one hand, it’s lurid, over-the-top trash; on the other, it’s an eerie indictment of contemporary culture that ends up far more nuanced than it believes itself to be.

When we first meet him, narrator Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) is a charming, sensitive New York bookstore clerk who’s longing to meet the right girl. As soon as aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) strays into his shop, though, it’s not love—but rather obsession—at first sight. Joe sets to work tracking her on social media, insinuating himself into her life, and removing all obstacles to a relationship with her…by whatever means necessary. Things promptly descend into a grotesque, beautiful, and ever-more-watchable spiral of stalking, betrayal, murder, and self-deception: Joe certainly does get the girl, but at a terrible cost. (Season 2, for its part, follows a roughly similar arc, but takes place in Los Angeles and stars the rather more self-confident Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti)).

This is the kind of show it’s very easy to pigeonhole as being about one particular thing or another. And that sort of analysis is all well and good, as far as it goes. Yes, it’s about the dangers of technology. Yes, it’s about toxic masculinity. Yes, it’s a dark satire of the problems faced by inordinately privileged people. But I think that whether or not the showrunners are even aware of it, there’s more going on beneath the surface.

It seems to me that, at bottom, “You” is an interrogation of the essential character of—with all respect to the New York Times—modern love. And this modern love, we come to see, is a fundamentally performative phenomenon. Over and over again, the dynamics of romance in “You” play out across Facebook pages, Instagram feeds, and Tinder profiles, as characters curate pristine images of themselves for potential suitors. These technological platforms are the tools by which Joe learns about and stalks his quarries—but, crucially, they are also the spaces within which the women he pursues present carefully curated versions of themselves.

This profound sense of “self-commodification” bleeds from the public into the private. In every “You” character’s life, sex—and romance in general—becomes a transactional and experiential thing, undertaken casually, rather like a fancy dinner or a trip to a posh tourist destination (and subsequently evaluated in the company of friends and onlookers). At bottom, “You” is a haunting depiction of a world that has lost the capacity to think of love in remotely self-sacrificial terms. Here, all relationships are necessarily subordinated to the cause of self-actualization (in Joe’s case, to horrifying effect, when his preferred form of “self-actualization” proves irreconcilable with another’s).

The first-person framing of the show drives this home with genuine force: by telling the story from Joe’s perspective, the show forces the viewer to confront their self-centered impulses head-on. How many of us haven’t, at one time or another, thought of other people—even those we love—as supporting characters in the story we tell ourselves, rather than as protagonists in their own right? (It’s worth noting that this sort of narrative device—that is, the possibility of audience self-identification with an aberrant character like Joe—runs strikingly counter to prevailing pop-culture headwinds, which tend toward either bland moralism or avoidance of moral issues altogether.) This is all quite uncomfortable, but in a fruitful way: in fearless acknowledgement of the problem—the utter self-absorption of this age—comes the first step toward healing.

To be sure, not everyone will enjoy this show: if you’re not up to watching 20 hours of a rather nightmarish take on “500 Days of Summer,” “You” might not be for you. But to my mind, the show is that rarest of things: a piece of pop culture that manages to capture the anxieties of an age without self-consciously doing so. And that is something worth celebrating.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2020 in Thrillers

 

Movie Review: “Joker”

Among all comic book villains, none is as iconic as the Joker. The character has come a long way since his Cesar Romero incarnation: Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto have all taken their respective turns as the Clown Prince of Crime. This time around, Joaquin Phoenix (perhaps best known for his appearance as evil emperor Commodus in “Gladiator”) dons the clown makeup and purple suit, in a drama that plenty of critics have already denounced as the stuff of mass shootings.

For a variety of reasons, I tend to think this says more about the critics than about the film.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a fortysomething loner in Gotham City who scrapes by at a rent-a-clown agency while caring for his aging mother. Fleck dreams of being a standup comedian, but suffers from severe depression and a neurological condition that causes fits of uncontrollable laughing. Day by day, Fleck’s life goes steadily downhill: he is assaulted by street toughs, fired from his job after acquiring a gun to protect himself, abandoned by his caseworker following social-services cuts, and mocked on national television after an unfortunate comedy club appearance. When a knot of young financiers attacks him (purely for kicks and giggles) on a late-night train, Fleck finally snaps. Out comes the gun, and a legendary villain is born.

As should be clear, director Todd Phillips’ Joker bears little resemblance—beyond the most superficial aesthetic one—to the classic comic-book character. Whether appearing as the pure nihilist of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” the lascivious tactician of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke,” the quasi-demonic specter of Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth,” or the Ed Gein-influenced psychopath of DC’s “New 52” comics, the Joker has always been an agent of chaos rather than its product. This Joker is Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” run through the filter of Chris Arnade’s recent book “Dignity”—the American “forgotten man” turned vengeful.

In light of this, the political valence of “Joker” is not readily characterized as left-wing or right-wing. To be sure, the film can be read as a straightforward tale of class struggle (there’s plenty of Occupy-inflected imagery to go around). But in mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne’s denunciations of the angry and disadvantaged as “clowns,” it’s not hard to hear him calling them a “basket of deplorables,” or see his retinue as a mass of prosperous elites sneering at those who struggle with unemployment, mental health, drugs, and broken communities. The movie, in short, is the most curious of things: a genuinely populist take on the Batman mythology.

Certainly it’s not the first to float these questions. After all, both “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” feature villains who are, in some sense, casualties of Tony Stark’s industrial empire. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” traces its central conflict—must power always be accountable to the masses?—back to the massive carnage that closed out “Man of Steel.” And Amazon Prime’s television series “The Boys” is built around the vindictive victims of superheroes’ casually destructive escapades. But none of those projects are truly willing to interrogate the questions they raise: Tony Stark remains a hero who never has to say he’s sorry.

By contrast, “Joker” actually commits to its populist premise rather than simply flirting with it.  The film isn’t forced to abandon its ethos in favor of a fiery superhero smackdown designed to appeal to global audiences: rather, its climax is a chillingly plausible crescendo of mass madness, an upsurge of merciless violence directed against a coddled elite. If “The Dark Knight Rises” raised the specter of the French Revolution, “Joker” evokes the Russian.

And yet none of this ever amounts to a glorification or celebration of violence. “Joker” is instead an interrogation of the roots of violence, the abuse and drugs and family breakdown and other conditions that might lead someone to conclude that they have nothing left to lose. I tend to think that the “Joker” backlash is rooted less in fear of “copycat killings” (nothing about the movie glamorizes murder) than in the fact that the film unflinchingly depicts these conditions, and asks the audience whether, under the right circumstances, mightn’t they go a little crazy, too?

This is not a question easily answered, because deep down, one knows that the breakdown on display here isn’t strictly attributable to an uncaring government or an untreated illness. That’s because what Fleck clearly craves, more than anything else, is dignity—to be seen as a person of value despite his weaknesses. In the wake of his first killing, Fleck muses, “In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice.” Only in blood, and in the awful maelstrom of the mob, can Fleck find the actualization and community he craves. Nothing else in his life offers hope.

Here, more than any ambient creepiness or startling moments of violence, is where the real power of “Joker” lies: in its haunting study of true alienation, and how easily those of us who live fortunate lives overlook the ones who don’t fit our narrow standards of propriety. Indeed, the film left me with a question that has troubled me ever since: If Arthur Fleck walked into my church—unsettling laugh, strange behaviors, and all—would I look on him with kindness? Would I see, in the Joker himself, the image of God?

I’d like to say yes. I hope I can say yes. But I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, do most of us.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2019 in Thrillers

 
 
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