Sunday, September 8, 2019

I Started a Joke

About the last thing I'm excited for now is first-rate talent being tied up in never-ending projects that suck all the oxygen out of the industry because they make (and cost) so much money. When Joker was rumored to be a Martin Scorsese project I moaned - how many movies does he have left in him? Do I really want him to be spending his (our) precious (little) time on a Batman movie? But I'm curious about Todd Phillips' project with Joaquin Phoenix in the role. Mostly because I think Phoenix is one of the best actors of his generation and he's doing a crime movie which you may know I'm partial to. Also because I read Phillips' pitch to DC which went something like this - try going the other way with these comic book movies (mostly) - no green screens.

And then the trailers landed and who-ee the takes were hot!

And then the film debuted at a festival and the hub-ub was (at least briefly) deafening and I saw my interest levels rise a little more. I may love and I may hate Joker when I do eventually see it, but I've got to say it is refreshing for the polarizing effect of a comic book movie to have just about nothing to do with comic book fidelity and I'm tantalized a lot more by the prospect of having a big reaction (good or bad) to it than the shrug most comic book movies elicit from me.

I get that this might not be your preferred tone or flavor for the material and I have no problem with your disinterest or frustration if that's the case. The good news for everybody who's a fan of Batman is that it's such a fuckin' cultural juggernaut with so many differently flavored takes across so many mediums reaching back decades and showing no sign of slowing down that there is and will be plenty of material of the flavor that you do prefer available.

But I've seen some takes that bother me. Takes that put forth an argument I find disturbing. Namely that making an effort to humanize this character is not only not worth it, but potentially dangerous and artistically irresponsible.

I totally get that explaining too much about a monster or villain can ruin or seriously dilute their ability to be an effective presence in a story. Your 'thriller' may thrill less. What should be a romp becomes a depressing slog. I mean holy shit, what I wouldn't give to have the Darth Vader of my youth back and I think Hannibal Rising was probably a bad idea. But as a writer, I am very here for the challenge of humanizing horrible characters because when we write off real people who do horrible things as 'monsters' or 'unhuman' we do a disservice to ourselves.

They are human and what they do is monstrous.

How can we reconcile that? How can we have anything in common with a monster? If we don't have anything in common with monsters then we don't have to be concerned about our own souls.

Every time I hear a story of an amazing human achievement or heroism or compassion it thrills me because I have something in common (humanity) with the hero. Likewise, every true story of an awful crime that I hear hits me hard because I know that I have something in common with the perpetrator.

When I hear those awful stories they bother me and I am tempted to shrug their behavior off as something un-human. That would be comforting. But inhumanity in action or attitude is exceedingly common in people. It's extremely common in me.

I'm always looking for an excuse to dehumanize victims of crime/poverty/injustice/disease/natural disaster because it's overwhelming to have to consider all the suffering that happens in the world, but when I discount the suffering of real human beings just to achieve some minor comfort, some status, or some little goal then I have engaged in intellectual inhumanity and the difference between thinking of people as less than human and treating them that way means crossing an awfully thin line.

The other side of that line is where monsters live and operate.

I love a thriller and I don't need to know how every monster got to be that way, but when I write I'm always looking for the answer (even if it's not on the page) because I don't want to become one. I may or may not do a good job of it, but it's always part of the work for me.

I've got no problem if you see a trailer for a movie and can tell right off that it's not to your liking, and I've got no problem if you see an actual movie and think that it sucked, but the idea of telling an artist that they shouldn't try to humanize a character - not because it's going to be a bad choice for a particular project, but because any character who would do that kind of thing shouldn't be humanized - it's a pretty wrong-headed take.

If it's something that people do then it is human. "Humanizing" the criminal doesn't lessen the horror of the crime because it's relatable. The relatability of the terrible act is where the horror truly lies.

Thankfully Joker isn't the only polarizing picture this year. Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time Hollywood also provoked some pretty juicy stuff across the spectrum (which I've generally found to be more entertaining than the movie itself), but one particular take really, really, really, like utterly baffled and fucking infuriated me: "I'm sick and tired of Tarantino trying to redeem awful characters."

To which I immediately reply - motherfucker, then who should he try to redeem?

Redemption is the shit.

The good and necessary shit.

Otherwise we're all fucked. All. Everybody. Me first, but you too.

When I was a kid I thought I was a pretty good guy (and I was comparatively), but the older I got the more I realized that my actions and thoughts and instincts run more or less completely perpendicular to my ideals. I fail constantly to be who I think I should be, nevermind thinking correctly who I should be. I need to be redeemed annually, weekly and daily, probably hourly. I make too many mistakes. If there's no improving, no hope for course correction or overpowering grace in the world then a swift and merciful death is the best hope for everybody.

So please show me the redemption of awful characters. The more awful the character, the greater the challenge to redeem. And just like humanizing terrifying characters ought to make them more terrifying, redeeming truly awful characters ought to be a comfort and encouragement to people who know how bad they are. Like me.

Which isn't to say it's always (or often, or regularly) artistically successful. Fuuuuuuuuck no. If the complaint is that a trope or plot point in a character's humanizing or redemption is kinda worn out or poorly utilized, that's absolutely legit. I do hate it when it's done badly, cheaply, falsely. And please forgive me personally for the times that I fail to humanize or redeem characters in a satisfying way - you have my blessing not to read my stuff. There are people who do it better than I can and you are encouraged to go read them.

Joker may do it badly (jury's out - I haven't seen it yet). Tarantino may do it badly (keep having the conversations, everybody). But I reject the idea that it shouldn't be attempted.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Ayres, you are the man. Thank you for articulating all the jumbled up, frustrating, and inchoate thoughts I, and many others like me, have been feeling about this argument. And all with that inimitable humor, class, and style only you can pull off. Please keep on producing all the great work you do, in any form. The world needs more. Many thanks from a fan named Steve down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

jedidiah ayres said...

shucks, I try