A Clockwork Clown: Sex and violence on screen.

9 Mins read

What keeps your parents up at night? What goes bump, bump, bump in the night? What makes you scared when you walk home at night? Most of us have irrational fears like the dark or house spiders that make us look over our shoulders or raise our heartbeat.

There is, however, a different kind of fear, a fear that tells us that society is crumbling at the edges that the facade that is our day to day life may be turned on its head at any moment.

For your parents or grandparents, it was probably the imminent threat of a nuclear disaster at the height of the Cold War; today it’s most likely the climate crisis and the thought of our planet becoming little more than a burning ball of ash.

[pullquote align=”right”]“A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media.”[/pullquote]

These are very real dangers, something that we really should be terrified of. People, however, are timid. We like to be told what we should be scared of, what goes bump in the night, and fear is big business.

Sensationalised media will tell us that we need to worry about our immigrant neighbours, people who live in a certain place, people from a certain socio-economic background, people who follow a different god. These are the things that we like to be scared of, the things that we want to be scared of.

Beyond the realms of opinion, there is theory to fear. Stanley Cohen, an author and sociologist, defined the concept of the ‘Moral Panic’ in 1972 in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. 

In this masterclass on how to look beyond what we are told, Cohen defines the moral panic as: “A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media.”

Three decades later and we are still being told what to be scared of, still pushing societal values with each new generation that learns how to rebel. 2019 has just passed and our parent’s generation is shocked once again with what we have been able to produce.

At the time of writing in late January 2020, there have been 21 mass shootings in the US since the start of the year. What, you may ask, has the media chosen to blame these heinous acts on? Relaxed gun laws? Gun lobbies with clandestine hands in government? The removal of essential health care for vulnerable peoples?

Not quite. Late last year, the media in the UK, the US and elsewhere launched a siege on Todd Philips’ award winning movie, Joker.

The film portrays the ‘creation’ of the Batman character Joker from a sympathetic angle as a struggling clown performer, coping with manic depression and episodes of psychosis descends slowly into what can only be described as madness.

Joaquim Phoenix gave what Time magazine described as an “unhinged performance,” losing a staggering 24kg to give realism to his role. In Joker, the protagonist Arthur Fleck, lives with his mother in a tiny apartment. Fleck is seen to give his dinner to his mother; hence why Phoenix had to lose so much weight for the role.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in Joker

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in Joker. [YouTube: Warner Bros. Pictures]

The grubby, gritty realism of the fictional Gotham City as depicted in Joker is reflected in the film’s story. Fleck’s councelling office closes, as a result he can’t get his medication and he soon loses his job. This is where the movie begins taking dark twists and turns as the viewer travels deeper into Fleck’s twisted reality.

More than anything, the movie is a serious discussion about mental health and what can happen to vulnerable people when you remove their support without any warning or a plan.

That wasn’t the angle the media took in its response to the film. Joker was accused of sympathising with mass shooters and giving people ‘ideas’. There were very few outlets asking the question of why someone might be getting these ideas in the first place.

Why, after all, would anyone want to go and attack random people in the street? It soon became clear that the movie had become a scapegoat for the authorities to place the blame on Phillips for their own failings.

The controversy the movie caused split critics and communities alike. So many aimed to attack the movie, claiming it represented a growing culture of violence in the industry.

A few brave souls, however, came out in defence of Joker and instead of attacking those who sought to see the movie removed from our screens, instead attacked the forces that wanted more controversy, more hostility, on both sides of the argument, in order to distract us from the real issue: why we are we having this discussion in the first place?

Vanity Fair‘s Chief Critic, Richard Lawson, was one of those few who had a real discussion about the issues Joker raised. “That’s a complexity of causality that many Americans don’t extend to non-white men who commit heinous crimes; there, the thinking seems to be, the evil is far more easily identifiable. But those angry loners — the ones who shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world — there’s almost a woebegone mythos placed on them in the search for answers.”

Soon after the film’s release, a group of individuals signed a letter voicing their concern over the release of the Joker and sent it to Warner Bros. Those who signed the letter had lost loved ones in an attack on the Aurora Cinema in Colorado when James Eagan Holmes released tear gas grenades into the theatre and killed twelve people, injuring many more. The attack took place during a screening of The Dark Knight, a Batman movie from elsewhere in the canon.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in Joker

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in Joker [YouTube: Warner Bros. Pictures]

A segment of the letter reads: “When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called Joker that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause. We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression. But as anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility. That’s why we’re calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns.”

The letter was wielded as a weapon by those who wanted to see the movie removed from cinemas. And so, many theatres, including the Aurora theatre, removed the movie from their line-ups.

The studio quickly released a reply publicly: “Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues,” read the statement. “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the film-makers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

The letter confirmed the narrative that those in favour of Joker had been using. Phillips soon weighed in on the argument asking people not to make judgements for other people, saying: “The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message,” he said.

“To me, art can be complicated and oftentimes art is meant to be complicated. If you want uncomplicated art, you might want to take up calligraphy, but filmmaking will always be a complicated art.”

Phillips also said in an interview with AP News: “The truth is as you see it and it’s heartbreaking,” showing remorse for the dialogue his movie had begun, adding, “and you know what happens in the movies when you have a world that lacks empathy and lacks love? You get the villain you deserve.”

Back to 1972, Cohen had released his theories on moral panics that have now become a staple in every media syllabus and in the same year, Stanley Kubrick had just released his twelfth movie, A Clockwork Orange.

Based on Anthony Burgess’ novel published in 1962, Kubrick released his dystopian world onto the public. The tabloid press in the UK tore Kubrick to pieces; they were on a mission brand Kubrick – now a world renowned director, with his seat firmly placed in the hall of fame alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg – an irresponsible, fetishistic nobody.

Malcolm McDowell plays Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

Malcolm McDowell plays Alex in A Clockwork Orange [YouTube: MovieClips Classic Trailers]

One such paper, the Daily Mirror, launched an investigation with the catchy name “The Cult of Violence.” During their ‘investigation’, the paper wrote to the Home Secretary at the time, Reginald Maudling, who took it upon himself to combat drugs, sex and violence in the cinema, pushing instead family-friendly movies. The British Board of Film Censors also came under direct fire for refusing to ban or edit the movie prior to release.

Film companies also took a brunt of the onslaught as the Mirror wrote that they were “defending their sordid products with unprincipled bravado and phoney excuses.”

Unlike the media’s response to Joker, which was at least subtler to some degree, the Mirror wrote in one column that: “The most abhorrent depths of brutality and perversion are being exploited in the name of artistic freedom.” The tabloid press and the Mirror, in particular, had Ted Heath’s conservative government on their side and plenty more ammunition.

The headlines and accusations came at a nauseating rate. Headlines that didn’t seem to ask questions but rather make mission statements like “Sunday Mirror on TV at your cinema: Violence – time to call a halt” came thick and fast.

They branded anyone who had anything to do with the “X-film predators” as “porn pedallers”, saying “guilty filmmakers with their glib talk and their staggering irresponsibility” were undermining the fabric of British society.

The same British society that a decade earlier had seen the rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, punk and the birth of moshing at gigs. Soon after this, the Mirror ran out of thinly veiled threats and began rallying the troops by putting words in the mouths of their imagined enemies: “Anybody who deplores the obligatory rape and prescribed brutality is denounced as a has-been and not worth it.”

Once they felt they had successfully debunked the movie as “some vile social cancer,” The Evening News joined in to get the peoples perspective on the story.

Looking back at the vox pops now, the interviews are almost comical as our concept of what violence on TV is has changed a great deal. Mrs Paddy Swindon said: “I wouldn’t like my daughters to see this film” which goes without saying when it comes to children and violent movies.

Alex's droogs attack a homeless man on the street.

Alex and his ‘droogs’ attack a homeless man on the street in A Clockwork Orange [YouTube: MovieClips Classic Trailers]

Soon after, the author of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess wrote to The Evening News coming out in defence of Kubrick and the movie adaption of his novel.

In this letter, a copy of which is held in the Stanley Kubrick archive at the London College of Communication, Burgess claims that whilst the Evening News‘s critics called the book a masterpiece, they were happy to attack Kubrick’s work. He claimed that Kubrick’s movie had done the book justice and that the ideas Burgess was attempting to put across to his readers are all there.

In 1973, whilst promoting two new projects, Burgess said: “It was a good film, though boring in places, but it should have been more violent, because only by piling on the violence could the absurdity of violence be shown.

“We should have been able to reach a stage in violence where we were just laughing at it. This is what I tried to do in the book.” He said at the same event that “the English don’t care very much for their writers and the Establishment always regards writers as suspect.”

Nonetheless, after years of attacking violence in movies, critics are still happy to blame the failings of their societies on artists like Phillips.

The US military sent a letter to all their staff saying: “When entering theatres, identify two escape routes, remain aware of your surroundings, and remember the phrase ‘run, hide, fight.’ Run if you can. If you’re stuck, hide, and stay quiet. If a shooter finds you, fight with whatever you can.” They were warning about possible violence at screening of Phillips’ Joker, after the FBI identified potential threats from “incel” extremists.

As Anthony Burgess once said “Art begets art”, just as violence begets violence. It is up to the individual to make their own minds up regarding whether or not they wish to emulate the art they see, but in a healthy society that solves these issues before the act has taken place and art can remain art.

Maybe we need more of the “old ultraviolence”?




Featured image by Warner Bros. Pictures via YouTube. 

Edited by: Franziska Eberlein & Kesia Evans.

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