A Season Of Problematic Art – And What It Taught Me

In the early days of the lockdown, I found myself revisiting, in the company of my parents no less, the film Joker, the bracingly dark comic-book-derived drama that ruled the box office (remember that?) and the awards circuit not so long ago. My opinion of it now is as it was when I first saw it; it is a potent success as a mood piece and performance showcase but less so as dramaturgy. The noirish urban-nightmare atmosphere produced by the murky, expressionist photography, roiling, discordant score and grungy production design is absorbing, while Joaquin Phoenix’s spectral, feral-child performance remains haunting. But the drama of director Todd Phillips’ film is just as unconvincing as its world and mood are vivid. For all Phoenix’s artistry, Fleck never quite coalesces as a character; his dream of being a stand-up comedian feels like writerly contrivance rather than authentic motivation, and the eventual revelation of his backstory is clumsily literal in explaining his pathology without really illuminating him. I found the film oddly timid in spots, too; every act of violence Arthur commits in the film is the result of provocation or attack, while despite its title and Phillips’ comic pedigree, the film never quite dares to push humour and violence up against each other to truly disturbing effect.

Yet despite Joker’s imperfections, I still cast a jaundiced eye over the alarmism that surrounded its release.  A critical consensus quickly formed that, well-made as it was, the film was dangerous. Many prominent critics – including several I generally respect – argued, in both positive and negative appraisals of the film, that making a film centred on a maladjusted outsider who eventually turns violent was outright irresponsible, a rallying cry for copycat crimes by the coalition of misogynistic, self-pitying, and always-online young men grouped under the label ‘incels’ (‘involuntarily celibates’). IndieWire’sDavid Ehrlich dubbed Joker not just ‘confused’ but also ‘incendiary…and potentially toxic’. Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly refused to grade the film at all, arguing that the film’s potential impact on impressionable viewers was such a terrifying prospect that it defied conventional artistic evaluation – ‘the idea that even one viewer might take its convictions at face value, and then act on them, feels like no joke at all’, runs the review’s concluding sentence. 

The haughty, condescending note of concern  in that last sentence bald-facedly expresses the belief at the heart of the backlash to Joker, and to many similar outrages over the years; that to depict is to endorse.  To show a character engaging in bad acts or espousing objectionable beliefs without including a disclaimer that what is being said or done is wrong is to glorify their misdeeds, and to encourage the poor, stupid audience (for they always are implicitly stupid in such formulations – helpless automatons at the mercy of the media they uncritically consume) to mimic them. 

By happenstance, over the course of this long locked-down summer, I’ve ended up reading and watching various ‘immoral’ works, ones which depict characters engaging in actions which most people would consider abhorrent, that don’t pause their narrative to make sure we know their behaviour is wrong. None of them, so far as I can tell, had any morally corrupting effect on me – but all of them excited me, disturbed me, and made me think, vigorously, about the very nature of art and how we engage with it.

In May, perhaps spurred by Joker’s shameless Martin Scorsese fetishism, I chose to revisit Goodfellas, one of those films whose energy and verve makes it endlessly easy to return to. Since at least Taxi Driver, Scorsese has repeatedly courted controversy by putting his audiences in the shoes of violent, criminal, or otherwise unpleasant characters, using camera movement, editing, music, and (sometimes) voiceover to replicate their point-of-view all while showing their actions with cold objectivity. When working in this brazenly subjective mode, Scorsese creates a fascinating push-pull of reactions; we’re seduced by the heady style only to be snapped out of our reveries by his blunt depictions of the cruelty and banality of his subjects. Goodfellas represents perhaps his (or anyone’s) greatest triumph in that regard. The sounds and images which lead into its opening titles are the whole movie in microcosm; as gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) watches his compatriots Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) commit a murder, his horrified face becomes a freeze frame – then chimes in Liotta’s laconic voiceover with “As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”, just before Tony Bennett’s ‘Rags To Riches’ enters. The alluring glamour and brutal reality of organised crime – it’s all there. The whirling-dervish movements of Michael Ballhaus’s camera, Thelma Schoonmaker’s kinetic editing, the toe-tapping doo-wop and hard rock on the soundtrack (indeed, one thing that struck me on this viewing is how key musicality is to the film’s seductiveness – not just its dynamic use of music, but the way it is accompanied by rhythmic editing and dance-like camera oscillations) , and the detached, remorseless voiceovers by Henry and his eventual wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) are intoxicants as potent as the ones Henry snorts and swallows throughout the film. We get high on the film’s sheer vivacity, and on the audacity of the protagonists, all while seeing our reactions mirrored in Henry and Karen, as they discuss how the criminal lifestyle came to seem glamorous and (perhaps more chillingly) normal to them. But Scorsese never feeds us any illusions about what kind of people these are, never lets us sentimentalise or valorise them. When the bill comes due and grim realities rear their head, the film doesn’t flinch. The sequence that stayed with me the most this time plays out halfway through the film, when Henry wakes up to Karen pointing a gun in his face, prepared to kill him for his infidelities. After a scuffle ends with Karen laying bruised on the ground, Scorsese and Schoonmaker elect to hold for an agonisingly long time on a warped wide shot of the bedroom, Karen weeping on the floor. More so than on previous viewings, I found this image unbearably weighty, stark and pointed. The life of a gangster may look fun, the film says, but these are the kind of people who live it; men who beat their wives. The film is a poisoned apple, irresistibly sweet but with a bitter aftertaste. In placing indulgent, invigoratingly opulence alongside stark brutality, Goodfellas unsettles far more than a straightforwardly condemnatory, scolding film would. We are left to wonder why it seems that our notions of success and good living come easiest to violent sociopaths.

Later in the summer, my ongoing immersion in the great Russian authors led me to finally take on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the spectre haunting our libraries since 1955; its brilliance and its controversy equally undeniable and perhaps inextricable. The cause for controversy around Lolita, then and now, is its frank broaching of the subject of child molestation – and, moreover, its invitation to identify with the perpetrator. Nabokov frames the text as the memoir, written from prison, of Humbert H. Humbert; professor of literature, Europhile, erudite chronicler of the brutishness and philistinism of post-war America – and remorseless, repeat-offending paedophile. Humbert recounts his obsession with and subsequent grooming of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (to whom he bestows the titular nickname – the book’s very title tainted by Humbert’s ‘solopsising’ of Dolores), the daughter of his landlady (and later lover) Charlotte Haze, overloading our senses with assonance, alliteration, multi-lingual wordplay, and allusions. Nabokov deploys his considerable powers of eloquence in bringing to life the inner world of this monstrous man; we’re privy to his cutting observations on the people around him, his mythopoetic descriptions of his own ardour, his half-academic, half-sentimental (and often contradictory) self-justifications. The only aspect of Humbert’s life we’re not granted access to, pointedly, is his abuse of Dolores; that remains hidden off page, or behind verbose euphemism. He insists that it was Dolores who initiated their first encounter, but surprisingly does not elaborate it with the kind of detail in which he recounts his furtive lustings for his ‘nymphet’. Later, he’ll make cryptic references to ‘a session of adoration and despair’ or an incident in which he ‘loved too loudly’. He repents of nothing, yet he cannily self-censors that which might puncture his portrait of himself as aesthete and romantic, more sinned against than sinning (to quote another of literature’s most seductive villains), that which might make his readers contemplate Dolores as a human being rather than the object of his obsession. But of course, he can’t completely fool us, can’t completely shut out the reality of his crimes. And therein lies the brilliance of Lolita’s alignment of its reader with Humbert – and its ultimate damnation of him. The details that struck me most – that made me sharply inhale and have to put the book aside for a moment – were the blemishes on the edges of Humbert’s beautifully painted tableaus.  Towards the end of part one, the oft-silenced voice of Dolores cuts through Humbert’s flowery evasions with one, shockingly blunt sentence; “I ought to go to the police and tell them you raped me”. There it is, in plain language, the reality of what we’ve been reading, the reality of what Humbert has been doing to Dolores, laid bare and shorn of Humbert’s lyrical flights of fancy and allusions to Dante and Baudelaire. The line is a blade, cutting through Humbert’s flowery evasions and touching its readers’ nerves. In letting Humbert’s mask fall, letting us plainly see him as a deviant and Dolores as his victim, Lolita forces us to consider language and point-of-view, how the words used to describe an action can mediate our perception of it. In presenting events from Humbert’s point-of-view, I do not feel that the book immersed me in his dream, into hypnotised, somnambulant acceptance of the violations recounted. Rather, it forced me into true wakefulness in a manner few other books have even come close to; to question what I am being told and how I am being told it, what the teller might have to lose or gain in telling their story and certain way, and whose point-of-view is conspicuous by its absence.

I did all this viewing and reading and contemplating (activities which eat up a majority of my time, I will confess) in the midst of a period wherein our cultural patience for such morally complex art seems to have run out. I’m not talking about ‘cancel culture’ or any such notion – I’m talking about something more basic, more deeply rooted. I’m talking about the way that our now-now-now, social-media-fuelled culture of instant reactions and hot takes has made us so impatient with art; we need it to state its intentions upfront, preferably in the form of a pat moral message. And if it doesn’t? If it asks us to look past its surface or take in its totality? Then it’s a ‘torture fantasy’ (Zero Dark Thirty) or ‘propaganda for toxic masculinity’(Phantom Thread) or ‘a disaster for Hollywood – and for us’ (La La Land – yes, La La Land). Mostly, this kind of knee-jerk thinking simply produces bad writing of the aggravating but harmless sort – a dressing-down of Kubrick’s The Shining (a barely subtextual, deeply disturbing story about a mother and son terrorised by a violent, alcoholic patriarch) for allegedly trivialising domestic violence, or an insistence that video games return to ‘the concept of absolute, objective morality’ lest their nihilism normalise evil – but upon occasion it does real, tangible harm to art and artists. Consider the case of last year’s Blue Story, a rap musical about postcode wars in South London, written and directed by Andrew ‘Rapman’ Onwubolu, which was pulled from Vue Cinemas after a violent altercation broke out at a screening (the film was later reinstated amidst outcry). The assumption that Blue Story was the cause of this violence (an assumption carrying an ugly racial charge), that in depicting gang warfare it spurred it, robbed a young, marginalised artist seeking to honestly tell his own story of a major platform. It’s easy to brush off arguments about our overzealous quickness to judgement by pointing out that the likes of Scorsese are unlikely to be hurt by such controversies, that no-one’s going to remove Lolita from our bookshelves – but artists like Onwubolu, without such privilege or prestige, have no such guarantee. 

Moreover, my season of problematic art made me think about what we all stand to lose by shutting out those works which refuses to hold our hand, which plunge us into uncomfortable, even unacceptable, perspectives. We don’t engage with art as instruction manual or sermon; we don’t read books, watch films, listen to music to be told how to live, or to hear our own beliefs repeated back to us (at least, I hope we don’t). Rather, we engage with them as we do dreams – as experiences which take us outside of ourselves, which make us feel feelings outside the purview of our daily normality, then leave us to reflect on them, to connect them to our own existence. Art lets us see through eyes that are not our own – including soiled ones.  In so doing, it can make us see the world anew – can provoke us to self-reflection, can challenge the processes through which we empathise and identify. To deny that, to ask that evert piece of art give us easy answers, is not only to deny the power and potential of art; but to also deny the complexity of the human condition, our ability to parse contradictory ideas and feelings. We won’t get rid of the Humbert Humberts and Henry Hills of this world, the Richard IIIs and Rodion Raskolnikovs, by dismissing the art depicting them – but we might just damage our capacity to understand them, and ourselves.

Milo Farragher-Hanks


‘Joker’ Review: For Better Or Worse, Superhero Movies Will Never Be The Same – IndieWire

‘Joaquin Phoenix’s Captivating, Unsettling Joker is no laughing matter’ – Entertainment Weekly 

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (London; Penguin Random House LLC, 2015)

‘The truth about Zero Dark Thirty – this torture fantasy degrades us all’ – The Guardian

‘Why “Phantom Thread” is Propaganda For Toxic Masculinity’ – The New Yorker

‘La La Land’s Inevitable Oscar Win Is A Disaster For Hollywood – And For Us’ – The Guardian 

‘Why The Shining Hasn’t Aged Well’ –Screen Rant

‘Games need to return to black-and-white morality’ – Polygon

‘Film about warring gangs is pulled after machete brawl at Birmingham cinema’ – The Guardian

‘Blue Story to return to Vue cinemas after criticism of withdrawal’ – The Guardian

The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club.

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