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JOKER: the Perfect Movie for Self-Isolation

The Joker was just meant to be watched in self-isolation.

Joker Warner Bros Arthur Fleck Joaquin Phoenix
Joker/Images by Warner Bros.

As the Coronavirus ruined 2020 so far and forced us to stay home, we decided to re-watch some of the movies from 2019, which impressed us the most. Not that we’re complaining that we have to sit at home and mostly pass time by Netflix-n-chill, but actually doing nothing is quite hard.

At least we’re not called to fight in an actual war, as our grand-grandparents were in WW2, so sitting on our collective assess at home for a few weeks, thus saving lives shouldn’t be this hard – and yes, we can do it – as one Twitter meme I saw yesterday said.

And yet, “Joker” feels like the perfect movie to fit the current state of our post-apocalyptic existence in early 2020… when it feels like the world’s truly gone mad just like Gotham City in the movie. The oppressive, rotten, and “ticking-time-bomb” atmosphere of social decay that director Todd Philips and the cameraman Lawrence Sher created is quite impressive. With early 80’s Gotham City resembling the dilapidated ruin that was New York City in the late 70s, where garbage and violent crime were the norm on the streets of the metropolis.

And yet, in Todd Phillips’ “Joker”, the city feels as the main character, who alongside Arthur Fleck’s deepening and irreversible psychosis, is at the doorstep of a pandemic, buried underneath tons of garbage, as some form of metaphor for the growing discontent and seething rage of the collective underclass of the forgotten and betrayed. A feeling shared today among many elderly folk, poor, and sick left to their own devices in isolation, because “the system” does not have a place for them.  

Director Todd Phillips manages to build a complete picture of a slow and hypnotically deepening madness, fuelled by civil unrest, amplifying further the affliction of our titular character, Arthur Fleck, who is slowly, but surely transforming into an “agent of chaos”. And this is not just about following the path of the main character, but also about the overall societal breakdown, illustrated by the failure of core social services, so vital not just for the emotionally vulnerable, but also the socio-economically marginalized as well.  

Todd Philips breaks down Joker’ opening scene

The first moment in which Arthur’s world is revealed to us is when he dances on the bustling boulevard and performs his clown dance with a sign that reads “EVERYTHING MUST GO”. These words, may seem frivolous and meaningless at first, but hits us hard especially when we know how it all ends. But these little signs of foreshadowing in the movie are neat tricks the filmmaker uses, but are also so easy to miss, that subconsciously guide us through the hero’s journey in the abyss.

 This very first scene, shows us for the first time the surrounding world of Gotham City, a cold and unforgiving place, hustling and bustling with people and sounds, hovering over the character like a dark cloud. By the way, this is a used technique throughout the film. The city is a form of a prison, always around and above the characters, but always bigger than them, making them feel small and insignificant.

Joker BTS Behind the Scenes Nico Tavernese
Image by Nico Tavernise/Warner Bros

We never see the end of this city, we never see the sky and the rooftops of buildings. Throughout the movie, there is no empty space. Because there is no place for it in Gotham. The city and the atmosphere overwhelm everyone in it. And it is they who determine the events. The constant presence of radio and television sounds, reveals who the true rulers of this world are. And it is not by chance that actually the media create real character of the Joker.

 They make him a symbol and a hero. Arthur is the man who commits the murders on the subway, but it is the City, the media, and the oppressive city atmosphere that forms public opinion. The Joker is a reflection of the needs of this sick society. He is the answer to the discontent that is felt in every scene. In thus lays one of the many strengths of the film; the director manages to create this ominous presence and sense of dread in society without using many supporting characters or resorting to cheap tricks.

This feeling or the rotten state of Gotham can be felt on a subconscious level, aided by the looming parental presence of the radio news and cheap television talk shows in the. By showing the apocalyptic environment of the city with all the rubbish on the streets and the resentment that lurks beneath it all.

The stark lighting, and sickly sodium vapor hue of the street lamps (which were standard for street lighting for decades, and fit the retro period of Gotham in the film) combined with the subdued color palette and heavy use of contrast in the film echoed the deteriorating psychological state of the story’s protagonist.

The combination of warm colors combined with cold colors, in a much more authentic, vintage variation of the rather overused “orange and teal”, is yet one of the methods used by the DP and director to highlight the conflict between good and evil that underlies the film and the character of Arthur. The light emphasizes the emotion in each scene. It enhances that sense of warmth and cold reveals both of us in a highly visual way. It was these scenes that proved to be one of the reasons for the movie to be shot on a digital cinema camera.

DP Lawrence Sher on set of “Joker”/Image by Warner Bros & Nico Tavernise

In an interview with “Variety”, the film’s cinematographer Lawrence Sher says:

We spent a large portion of prep with the intention of shooting on film. We ended up shooting in digital because we could shoot large format which allowed us to have the intimate shots, we could be on a medium lens and that didn’t have the distortion. What can sometimes happen with a wide lens is that distortion can suddenly be off-putting and distort the faces and features.

We wanted all of that to feel normal, but we wanted that proximity to be present to the psychology of the audience. When we decided to shoot on digital, I wanted to maintain a film look as much as possible.

 All that green that exists on film stock back then. It really brings out strong color variations with a bit of green in the high end and low end. We had to bring all those things back into the image to replicate that look, including adding green. “

“Joker” was filmed with ARRI large format cinema cameras such as the ARRI Alexa 65, ARRI Alexa LF and Alexa Mini. The lenses used were the Hasselblad Prime DNA from ARRI Rental.

In another interview, Lawrence Sher, the director of photography on “Joker” says that they had a shotlist for the scenes, but not so much of a traditional storyboard.

One of his main goals was to ensure the camera point of view and the camera movement was as if it was through Arthur Fleck’s POV. The camerawork in Joker was highly motivated by the protagonists’ point of view. For example in the Subway Scene (a pivotal scene in the first half of the film), the feeling him and the directed tried to convey, was that of a “fever dream”, to evoke the feeling of doubt in reality in a way.

But nevertheless, all shots in this scene of Arthur are done in close proximity on wide lenses; they are more intimate, they are part of Arthur’s way of seeing the world. Even the shots of the three Yuppies that accost him are done from where Arthur is sitting – through his point of view as if. The use of a large format cinema camera such as the ALEXA LF and the ARRI Alexa 65 allowed the DP to use a larger canvas, but still be able to get closer to the actors. 

Arthur heading up the staircase (screenshot from Joker)

The now iconic, “Dance on the stairway” is a key sequence in the final transformation of Arthur into the Joker. Filmed in a much more upbeat and dominant way of the Joker dancing his way down the stairs, compared to the earlier shots of Arthur hunched over, and walking slowly up the steep staircase.

Filled with despair and emptiness, he climbs the stairs hard to get to his home, which is the only warm place for him. The ascent of the stairs suddenly symbolizes this struggle and the pain it brings. The stairs are the way to his new self, his new identity. And when he finally becomes “the Joker”, the dance on those same stairs is his celebration.

Lawrence Sher, ASC, cinematographer of “Joker”, explains the impact of color in film in this video below:

Well, these were some of the moments that left a lasting impact on us and we have a strong feeling we’ll be re-watching “Joker” again soon. We would love to hear your opinion on what films you are watching while self-isolating.

What do you think?

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