Joker: A Matthew Silver Story

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Joker (2019) opened today in a circus of controversy.  While some are hailing it as a dark, psychological masterpiece, others are denouncing its obvious retelling of gritty character-study films like Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1982) as well as its potential for inspiring violence among unstable white men.  Divorced from the controversy is Joaquin Phoenix’s visceral portrayal of the clown, which delivers a shocking portrait of the character Arthur Fleck’s corrupted mind space–already generating Oscar buzz.

What seems to be absent from much of the discussion surrounding this film, however, is its blatant plagiarism of the LOVE!-fueled antics of New York City street performer (and TTT long-time friend) Matthew Silver.  Silver has been a street performing clown for the masses for years, garnering a large cult following both in-person and online through his near-naked antics in the pursuit of spreading good feelings.  He struts the streets in nothing but his underwear (and sometimes a woman’s bathing suit or brazier) waving hand-made signs, squeaking a rubber chicken, and shouting hallucinatory jargon (such as immature farting noises, prophetic rants, and chicken-inspired “bacocks!”) to the throngs of passerby to the effect of smiles, discomfort, and ironic intrigue.  Self-proclaimed jokester and “village idiot,” Matthew Silver has been redefining what it means to be a clown in today’s culture.

What follows is an account of the blatant theft conducted by Joaquin Phoenix and the Joker production crew, who reduce Silver’s legacy of lovable insanity into a chasm of despair much like the protagonist’s desire to spread joy in the film before his dreams are crushed by oppressive social authority.

 

I. Joker as Silveresque street performer

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We witness Joker‘s first affront in the streets of Gotham where we see Arthur Fleck dressed as a clown and waving a billboard much like Silver’s main gig.  The cinematography here speaks volumes in its overt copying of Silver’s form: the cheap quality sign written in red paint and held in the hands of an imbecile.

II.  Phoenix’s obsession with near-nakedness

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Many critics have pointed to this iteration of Joker as being the most naked yet in that many scenes depict actor Joaquin Phoenix as shirtless or in his underwear.  The only other Joker who demonstrated skin so liberally was Jared Leto’s rap gangster Joker in Suicide Squad (2016); however, his iteration was scarred and tattooed and cartoonish in nature.  Here, we have a skinny man whose nakedness speaks volumes about his mental state.  This is the essence of Silver’s act.  His near-nakedness exemplifies his openness and vulnerability as a performer, and it was this characteristic that Phoenix felt so compelling about Silver’s approach to clown work.

III. Joker’s desire to express joy through dance

Phoenix’s Joker is a dancer and performs his sadistic joy through body contortion: erratic kicks and struts, waving arms, and bizarre facial expressions inspired by some mysterious inner-rhythm.  The above two videos highlight how Phoenix’s movements mirror those of Silver’s.

IV. Authority is an Illusion

Perhaps the largest point of comparison exists with the Joker and Silver’s shared disdain for authority.  In his video “Authority is an Illusion,” Matthew Silver argues for the importance of being one’s authentic self in a society that always puts you down.  The Joker likewise rejects authority, specifically the corporate upper-class authority of Thomas Wayne.  It is no coincidence that Silver’s video takes place primarily on a subway train, which is also the setting where Joker’s dark side is born in the film.  It does not help that Phoenix’s performance of Joker’s voice is nearly identical to that of Silver’s high-pitched, nasally tone.

From these points of evidence, it is clear that Phoenix’s key point of inspiration for his Joker was Matthew Silver, a small-time street performer whose organic approach to clowning proved too irresistible for Warner Bros., director Todd Phillips, and Joaquin Phoenix to ignore.  It is up to us, the viewers, to recognize Silver’s contribution to the newest Joker, even as he receives no credit for his tremendous impact on the spectacle.

– Mick Montage, Film Editor

 

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