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“Call for help”: Analysis of Agent Cooper’s Wounded Masculinity in Twin Peaks

crime fiction, Dale Cooper, detective fiction, masculinity, trauma, Twin Peaks

Karla Lončar
karla.loncar [a] lzmk.hr
Ph.D. candidate
Miroslav Krleža Institute of Lexicography

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This essay explores the shifts in representation of the masculinity of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, one of the leading characters of the Twin Peaks fictional universe, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. The research covers three chapters. The first chapter serves as an analysis of Cooper’s character from the original television series (1990–91) and Lynch’s film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), in which he is interpreted as an intuitive detective (Angela Hague), who departs from the conventional depiction of detective characters. The second one investigates Cooper’s “returns” in the third season/Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) and their significance for his character development through the lens of psychoanalytic interpretations of the detective/crime genre and its connections to past trauma (Sally Rowe Munt). The third chapter further explores the struggles of Cooper’s three major self-images in The Return: the Good Dale/DougieCooper, Mr. C and Richard, all of which suggest certain issues in perception of his masculinity, by referring to several psychoanalytic, feminist and masculinity scholars (Isaac D. Balbus, Jack Halberstam, Lee Stepien), official Twin Peaks novels The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes (Scott Frost, 1991) and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (Mark Frost, 2017) as well as the Ancient myth of Orpheus and Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958).

 

Introduction

Ever since he appeared in the television pilot of Twin Peaks, a supernatural crime and soap-opera hybrid series (1990–91) co-created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), has become one of the oddest fictional investigators to date. Just as Twin Peaks immediately came to be regarded as an antithesis to generic television shows, Cooper served as an antipode to the conventional representation of a detective character. Throughout the two seasons of the original series, he acts charmingly strange: instead of predominantly displaying traditional masculine traits such as logic and aloofness like most popular investigators until then, Cooper’s brilliant crime-solving techniques include listening to his own dreams and intuition as well as empathizing with people around him, which are characteristics commonly perceived as “soft” or feminine (Gates 2006, 28). Even the ending of the show, in which he gets overpowered by evil forces responsible for the murder and continuous rape of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the Twin Peaks high-schooler whose case he had been sent to investigate, defies the traditional portrayal of a detective-hero destined to restore the initial order.

Image 1. Dale Cooper entering the town of Twin Peaks in series’ Pilot (1990).

Several other official Twin Peaks works depict Cooper in a very similar fashion: in The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes (1991), the epistolary novel written by Scott Frost, he seems equally eccentric, just as in Lynch’s film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), where he – although briefly appearing – demonstrated yet again his attunement with the supernatural world by envisioning what is going to happen in the immediate future.

However, in Season Three of the series, or Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), Lynch and Frost conceived Cooper’s character in a much more intricate manner. The main plot follows the complex trajectory of at least three of his versions, developed after the Season Two finale, which was set in the red room, the transcendental realm of various spirits, where his personality got split in half. There is Good Dale, who after 25 years of hibernation in the lodge reappears in the world of men by mistakenly switching places with the insurance salesman Douglas “Dougie” Jones, in a process that leaves him operating in a “low-functioning amnesiac state” (Twin Peaks Wiki), which he needs to overcome in order to return to his previous persona. Then there is Mr. C, Cooper’s malevolent doppelgänger possessed by the demon Bob, Laura’s rapist and murderer,[1] who is on a pursuit to kill off the Good Dale and find Judy, another evil entity which can presumably “save” him from going back to the Black Lodge, from where he had previously escaped. And there is Cooper’s look-alike, FBI agent Richard, who appears after Cooper’s successful self-unification and continues to exist, presumably, in some parallel universe, where he is on a mission to save the adult version of Laura Palmer.[2]

What seems to be the most surprising is that Cooper, despite his final self-unification, never fully metamorphoses into that quirky and lovable character the audience once knew from Seasons One and Two. Even the very ending of the show, in which one sees the repeated scene of Black Lodge Laura whispering secrets into the Good Dale’s ear, mirroring the dream-like sequence from Season One, in which Laura tells Cooper who her killer is, suggests that he is more likely to enter another storyline similar to Richard’s than to go back “home”.

Considering this, one can assume that Cooper’s character in The Return is subject to major shifts in its representation. If the “old” Cooper generally serves as a portrayal of a detective who embraces his “feminine” side and is ready to understand the world’s darkness, the nature of his multiple versions in Season Three reveals that this is not entirely the case. Even though the “new” Cooper still functions as an unconventional detective-hero, the powerlessness (DougieCooper), forceful violence (Mr. C) and savior complex (Richard) of his newer versions all point out that his shattered Self is encountering a deep crisis connected to the notions of his phallic power, which lies at the core of the patriarchal construction of male subjectivity (Silverman 1992, 3). In psychoanalytic terms, if all these versions of Cooper are to be perceived as elements of his psychic reality, the Third Season Cooper does seem to have a problem with his own masculinity, if one is to define it as a “set of expectations that society deems appropriate for a male subject to exhibit” (Gates 2006, 28) that has more to do with a certain ”dynamic between embodiment, identification, social privilege and class formation, and desire, rather than … having a particular body” (Halberstam 2002, 355).

The aim of this essay is to explore the shifts in the representation of Dale Cooper’s masculinity and find out what they mean – especially within the context of the Twin Peaks fictional universe and the time during which its installments had been released. In order to do so, I will start by analyzing Cooper’s “original” character through the lens of his intuitive detection (Angela Hague) and feminist readings of the detective genre. I also intend to evaluate how Cooper’s “returns” in the third season correspond with the generic conventions of detective and crime fiction and the changes in his character, as seen through the lens of psychoanalytic theory (Sally Rowe Munt). When it comes to the exploration of his masculinity crisis, I shall refer to several psychoanalytic, feminist and masculinity scholars (Isaac D. Balbus, Judith/Jack Halberstam, Lee Stepien), as well as the official Twin Peaks novels The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes (Scott Frost, 1991) and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (Mark Frost, 2017), along with the myth of Orpheus and Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958), a frequent reference point in Twin Peaks, all of which may provide further insights into this paper’s subject.

The Original Series and Fire Walk With Me: Cooper as an Intuitive Derationalized Detective

In order to explain the ways in which the original and Fire Walk With Me Cooper differ from the conventional detectives, one should refer to the insightful text “Infinite Games: The Derationalization of Detection in Twin Peaks,” written by Angela Hague, in which she analyses the detective narrative of the first two seasons as well as Cooper’s non-rational “intuitive detection” methods. According to her, Twin Peaks heavily defies the rules of the detective genre, which are “based on what John Cawelti has classified as the ‘classical’ detective story created by Edgar Allan Poe and Conan A. Doyle” and “equally applicable to the later ‘hardboiled’ versions of the genre written by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.” (Hague 1995, 130) Namely, “[b]oth classical and hardboiled detection posits that rational solutions can be found to human crimes, that mysteries are physically-based and accessible to the powers of the logical intellect” (Hague 1995, 130). Due to this focus on mental analysis, their stories need to have “definitive endings in which rationality and order are restored” (Hague 1995, 131).

The original Twin Peaks often flouts these guidelines. Firstly, it does this by centering its plot around supernatural agencies that are causing pain and sorrow among the people of the eponymous town. Secondly, by setting up an unorthodox crime investigator – Dale Cooper – who primarily relies on feelings, dreams and intuition while solving cases.[3] And thirdly, it achieves this by employing a postmodern, or metaphysical, narrative structure, which is non-linear, often parodic in nature, and lacks a firm plot and a neat ending (Hague 1995, 132).

To Hague, Cooper represents a player of an infinite game, a term coined by philosopher James Carse, who defines it as a game in which “boundaries are constantly being dissolved to prevent the game from ending,” unlike a finite game, which depends on “the existence of unchanging rules, spatial and temporal boundaries, and ‘conclusions’ in which someone must ‘win’” (Hague 1995, 133). A finite player may be well “trained” in playing the game but an infinite player is truly educated and “sees what is unfinished in the past and therefore discovers an increasing richness in it, with the result that ‘education’ leads to continuing self-discovery” (Hague 1995, 135). Following this assessment, Hague sees Cooper’s capitulation to evil in the series’ finale as something temporary, just like his prior accomplishments: “[t]o understand the nature of evil and its ‘shadow’ relationship with the good, he must completely experience it” (Hague 1995, 142). In doing so, he becomes the very embodiment of constant boundary shifts, represented by the nature of the infinite game.

The virtue of rationality, along with strength, heroism, virility, independence, and will, together with the more challenging, albeit socially acceptable traits, such as the inability to be flexible, coldness, and detachment, have all been considered manly throughout the decades (MacInnes 1998, 47). As expected, all of them have been attributed to many male detective characters. No wonder Cooper’s character, with all its social intelligence, receptiveness to unconscious forces, “ego elasticity” (Hague 1995, 137) and the ultimate surrender to the powers of the Black Lodge, seems like a parodic departure from the conventional detective persona, even though he may look like one (with his keenness for trench coats and slick hairstyles common in the 1950s, Lynch’s beloved cinematic and historical period).

All of this can be applied to Cooper’s character in Fire Walk With Me. Although not functioning as the central figure, since the first part of the film is about the murder investigation of Laura’s unfortunate predecessor Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) conducted by other FBI agents, he still demonstrates exceptional intuitive and non-rational mental abilities. For example, one of the key scenes, in which the special agent Philipp Jeffries (David Bowie) appears in the FBI Philadelphia Office from another dimension, serves as a manifestation of Cooper’s dream. He also intuits the details about the next murder victim in a conversation with the agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), furthering the audience’s previous knowledge of his extrasensory perceptions.

Considering the time of the original series and film’s release, Cooper’s subversive persona can be interpreted as co-authors’ negative response to the popular American films of the 1980s, like cop action films – such as Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) or neo-noir films (Fatal Attraction (1987) – which try to reassert the traditional notions of masculinity, supposedly due to the crisis caused by the earlier failure of the Vietnam War and further political and economic empowering of women (Gates 2006, 100). It can also be read as their nod towards the handsome male characters of the then extremely popular soap operas like Dallas (1978–1991) and Dynasty (1981–1989), which have always been traditionally favored by female audiences.

That said, the originally conceived Cooper redefines masculinity within the context of the detective and mystery genre: he acts “feminized” and is revealed to be imperfect, due to his failed heroism in the series’ finale. However, what has not been disclosed is the extent of his “imperfection,” which in itself will become the theme of The Return.

Season Three: Cooper’s Returns to the Scene of the Crime

Season Three finds Cooper where Season Two left him – in the Black Lodge, still stuck in the surrealist world of “black/white dychotomy” (Hague 1995, 141). From then on he – or all of his versions—sets off on a heroic journey back “home” in order to acquire the object(s) of his desire by playing (if not acting) the detective who follows cryptic clues.

There is a special relationship between detective fiction and psychoanalytic theory, whose scientific aim is to trace and understand unconscious desires. “At the heart of both is the investigation of a conflict, with the intention of effecting resolution and closure,” states Sally Rowe Munt in her Murder By The Book: Feminism and the Crime Novel (1994, 143). “The figure of the psychoanalyst doubles with that of the detective, as an agent bent on interpreting clues and symbols, a figure of power who applies ratiocinative skills to a particular text. The psychoanalyst is adept at identifying repetition and return, something which characterizes not just the action of a detective,” but the whole narrative (Munt 1994, 143).

Expanding on this notion, The Return can be considered as a parable of psychoanalysis, just like the crime novella The Purloined Letter by E. A. Poe, which Munt distinguishes, relying on Jacques Lacan, as the perfect example of a crime text echoing the psychoanalytic process. Both of these works exhibit “continuous return and repetition,” which privileges “the act of interpretation over the original event” (Munt 1994, 144). What comes to the fore is their “endless deferral—one can never return to the same place, only hold a mutable memory of it” (Munt 1994, 144). In other words, what one witnesses is the works’ “obsessive return to the crime scene” and “continual reliving of the event” (Munt 1994, 144). In the case of The Return, whose title highlights the importance of this continuous recurrence, the “crime scene” evidently signifies a certain loss, trauma or a setback that Cooper, as a variation of a psychoanalyst and analysand, must figure out in order to move on.

Image 2. Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

It is interesting to note that all of Cooper’s personas gravitate towards a certain vision of “homecoming,” which is a word defined by the act of a return. The Good Dale looks as if he wants to go back “home”, or to begin where he had left off 25 years ago. Mr. C’s goal is to find Judy, who may be perceived as his mother, especially if one compares the horned symbol found on the card he is carrying (Part 2) with the antlered Experiment which bore Bob (Part 8), the entity he is in symbiosis with. Richard, on the other hand, wants to take the woman named Carrie Page (Sheryl Lee), who he believes is Laura Palmer, to her mother in Twin Peaks, even though she is perfectly fine living in Odessa, Texas (Part 18). It seems that all of the Coopers have the urge to go back to, psychoanalytically speaking, the realm of “pre-oedipal unity” (Munt, 1994, 143), where the mother, or primary caretaker, acts as an insurer of the child’s absolute safety. However, as one is reminded by Carrie’s negative reaction to the (former) Palmers’ house, the site of horrible abuse that took place decades ago, a “home” can be associated with many crimes, too.

The Return notably plays with another motif that mirrors “our earliest Oedipal struggles,” and that is the split between the good and the bad self, just like the one Cooper experiences throughout most of this season. This “sadistic fantasy” is typical for crime fiction, as the protagonist often projects his own fears “onto a perceived ‘enemy’” (Munt 1998). To explain this fantasy, one needs to go back to the psychic processes of childhood: in order to conceive itself as a “separate identity,” ordinarily after experiencing the trauma of separation from the primary caretaker, the child needs to define itself through opposition, or an enemy, states Munt citing Tania Modleski and W. W. Meissner (1998). Extrapolating from Melanie Klein, Munt goes on further in suggesting that this “splitting off of projected and introjected images into two types – good, loved phantasms, and dangerous, bad phantasms – leads both to omnipotent fantasies of restoration and fantasies of paranoid destruction … Gradually, through the process of mourning,” the child ”learns to reintegrate the two sides of this internal, psychic, manic-depressive response, through an increasing testing of reality, which s/he performs through the activation of the super-ego” (1998). If mourning is not successful, the anger towards the imaginary enemy persists and turns into the state of melancholia (1998). Similar processes may happen in adults when particular events evoke past traumas, which certain artworks, especially the ones consisting of generic crime elements like The Return, convincingly recreate.

The eventual eradication of Mr. C and Cooper’s consequential unification, along with his metamorphosis into a ”separate identity” represented by Richard, does reveal that, amidst the processing of certain trauma, Cooper is gaining some sort of insight, which Shoshana Felman, following Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, defines as a ”singular event of discovery … that, because it cannot by its nature become a heritage … has to be repeated, reenacted, practiced each time for the first time” (1987, 12). But what kind of insight and what kind of trauma?

The Return and the Trouble with Cooper’s Masculinity

Except for their peculiar affinity for returns, DougieCooper, Mr. C and Richard all seem to have certain issues with power and potency. DougieCooper is the embodiment of powerlessness in as much as he is completely dependent on others: he walks where he is led and is at most able to repeat other people’s sentences (like “Call for help”). Sometimes he acts like his old self – for example, the first time he tastes coffee after 25 years of absence (Part 4) or when he masterfully disarms Ike “The Spike” (Christophe Zajac-Denek) in self-defense (Part 7) – but he is not able to consciously control his actions. He does not seem to have an erotic drive, either, except for the one time he had sexual intercourse with Dougie Jones’ wife, Janey-E (Naomi Watts), who took all the initiative (Part 10). Mr. C, on the other hand acts like his sheer opposite: he is the “embodiment of the all-powerful American and the ultimate capitalist product” (Stepien 2018) who does what he wants[4] powered by Bob, which includes killing people and raping women (like Audrey Horne /Sherilyn Fenn/ and Diane Evans /Laura Dern/). Richard seems like the combination of these two. In Part 18, he exercises different levels of power and control over his enemies as well as Carrie Page, a version of Laura Palmer, whom he desperately wants to take back to her mother in Twin Peaks. He exhibits sexual interest too, although his desire seems more ritualistic than authentic, as one can see from the depiction of his and Linda’s (Laura Dern) intercourse.

Having all that in mind, it is fair to assume that their complex relationship with control and power is related to the perception of their masculinity: DougieCooper acts pretty emasculated, Mr. C is an example of toxic masculinity, and Richard is somewhere in between, although gravitating towards a certain emasculation, due to his failure to bring Laura home. It seems all of them have a different relationship to phallic power, which can be defined as “the representation of the power that seems to be available to men in social and political terms in a male-dominated culture” (Halberstam 2002, 355). If one considers Cooper’s versions as the representations of himself, it is safe to assume that, throughout the Return’s narrative, he suffers from a serious masculinity crisis, due to internally conflicting self-images.

These images also reflect certain narcissistic traits – with Mr. C acting within the fantasy of grandiosity (he is a white male psychopath) and DougieCooper his vulnerable, fragile counterpart (he is constantly under attack by Mr. C’s assassins as well as the mafia), similarly to Richard, who behaves as what Isaac D. Balbus in his article “Masculinity and The (M)other” calls an “idealizing narcissist” (2002, 223), marked by his need to take care of others (that is, take Carrie/Laura back home). However they are read, if one considers them along with the previously mentioned psychoanalytic readings of detective fiction, this season can indeed be interpreted as Cooper’s turn to childlike, or pre-Oedipal responses as a defense mechanism from an evocation of a certain trauma.

In order to explore this presumed emasculating trauma one needs to revisit certain scenes of his returns, especially prior to his split and after his unification. The season begins with Season Two finale footage of him getting trapped in the lodge. However, it is worth remembering that the reason he got there is because he wanted to save his girlfriend Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) from the psychopathic killer Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh). In order to set her free, he agreed to give his soul away, after which he got split in half and met his doppelgänger, who immediately escaped out of the Black Lodge, leaving the good Dale stuck in the world of transcendence.

Another memorable return of his happens after the killing of Mr. C, when the presumably unified Cooper travels back in time and saves Laura from her demise (Part 17). In this scene, admittedly referring to the mythic legend of Orpheus and Eurydice’ journey from the Underworld,[5] Cooper does manage to save her from her killer and alter the course of history. However, just as Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife whom he wanted to resurrect by leading her out of the kingdom of the dead, she disappears nonetheless, leaving him confused.

In his last “return,” however, he tries to save her again, this time as Richard, who finds Laura/Carrie working at the Odessa diner (significantly called Judy’s) and living in a home with an unidentified male cadaver. She agrees to come with him to “her mother” but ends up screaming and causing a blackout in the Palmers’ house, which in this unknown timeline seems to belong to the Tremonds/Chalfonts – families from the earlier installments of Twin Peaks linked to the Black Lodge. As indicated in various resources, this plot twist is strongly reminiscent of the one from Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock’s film.[6] In this film, detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is enthralled by a woman called Madeleine (Kim Novak), who turns out to be played by (another) Judy (Kim Novak), an actress hired to deceive him, so the real Madeleine can die at the hands of her husband (Tom Helmore), who pushes her off the tower Scottie cannot climb due to his vertigo, a condition that developed after he was unable to save his police partner. In the final sequence, Scottie manages to take Judy to the scene of Madeleine’s crime, where she screams in horror and falls to her death, too. Although Carrie doesn’t die in The Return, both of these works feature female doubles – one functions as an object of desire (Laura/Madeleine) and the other as its less glamorous version (Carrie/Judy) – as well as the damaged, fragile and emasculated protagonist (Cooper/Scottie), suggesting that there is an important link between them.

All of Cooper’s returns involve failed attempts to save women: first Annie, then Laura, and finally Carrie. However, those were not the only women he knew who were in danger. Let us not forget the original series’ Madeleine “Maddy” Ferguson, Laura’s look-alike cousin (whose name also refers to the names of Vertigo’s protagonists), who got killed by Leland/Bob. There is also Caroline Earle, his first love, who got killed by her husband Windom and whose spirit interchanged with Annie’s character after Cooper entered the oneiric world of Black Lodge. Audrey Horne belongs to this group too, since she was held hostage at the local brothel and later raped by Mr. C. Cooper did help some of these women, like Annie and Audrey, to a certain extent, although it turned out to be little bit too late. And some of them, like Caroline, Laura and Maddy, he could not help at all. Yet, the last two versions of Laura – the ones resembling Eurydice – perhaps did not want to be “saved”.

“Cooper never questions for a minute whether or not he has the right to alter all of time and space, or the consequences that this might have for the people,” Lee Stepien interprets the scene of saving Laura (2018). “First off, by ‘rescuing’ Laura, Cooper is effectively depriving her of the right to choose. In the first season, Bobby Briggs reveals that Laura told him that she wanted to die. It’s an extreme example of the way that real world chivalry can often have the effect of suppressing a woman’s autonomy. Secondly, preventing Laura’s death doesn’t erase a lifetime of trauma. She was not a troubled girl who needed a man to save her, but someone who was trying to take charge of her life in the face of the years of physical and psychological suffering. Laura’s original problem … was Bob. He’s a symbol of the negative consequences of institutionalized patriarchy that is invisible or ignored, as in cases of sexual assault when the focus is shifted to the woman’s behavior.” (2018)

In psychology, the urge to save women, or to be needed by them, has been known as the White Knight Syndrome, which is the exact term FBI agent Tammy Preston somewhat sneeringly uses when referring to Cooper in Mark Frost’s canonical book Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (2017, 57). Mary C. Lamia defines it as “a compulsive need to be the rescuer in an intimate relationship originating from early life experiences that left the white knight feeling damaged, guilty, shamed, or afraid,” which usually include some kind of “loss, abandonment, trauma, or unrequited love. Many [white knights] were deeply affected by the emotional or physical suffering of a caregiver.” (2009)

Although The Return does not suggest this, leaving the question of his initial wound open, it is interesting to note that, according to Scott Frost’s The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Cooper, in a way, he could not save his mother either. Namely, she died from brain hemorrhaging in a hospital when he was 15. After she died, Dale and his dad saw her and his dad whispered something in her ear (1991, 37). A variation of this scene can be found as early as Season One of Twin Peaks, with Laura’s persona whispering Cooper the name of her killer in the Red Room of the Black Lodge. However, this scene gets recreated at the very beginning (Part 3) and the very ending (Part 18) of The Return, too, suggesting its importance.

Having all of this in mind, The Return may be read as an allegory of Cooper’s psychic crisis triggered by Bob’s violence towards women, which catapulted him back to the interior realms of his earliest loss(es), or feelings of complete safety: like Ferguson in Vertigo, he too perhaps felt he was not “man enough” to save them when they needed him the most. This allegory does not have a neat ending, since it ends with the aforementioned scene of an anxious-looking Cooper listening to Laura’s whispers. However, the fact that this scene tends to repeat itself suggests a glimpse of hope that Cooper might eventually hear her and create an alternate timeline where he could get past his troubles and gain critical insight concerning his ideas of masculinity, which are more harmful than not to the women he so desperately wants to save.

Conclusion

Agent Cooper has been one of the most radical detective characters in television history. Since the time of the original series and the film prequel’s release, he has represented an atypical investigator – warm-hearted, intuitive and sensitive to supernatural forces – someone who incorporates lots of the so-called feminine aspects into his personality. Even his ultimate demise has been seen as a welcome antithesis to the conventional, overly masculinized, white male detective hero who mostly succeeds in solving cases. However, in spite of Cooper failing his final task, he could overall be seen as a psychically stable character who, in light of Lynch and Frost’s postmodern play with characters and narratives, represents an “infinite player,” whose seeming demise is just another stage in his mission to achieve a certain balance in the world.

In the third season of the series, Cooper remains an infinite player: he indeed passes many stages in his quest for insight and balance. But The Return represents a much darker take on this process, eventually reaching the point of radical deconstruction of Cooper’s character. By the end of the show, he still has not finished his journey, revealing his immense fragility, disorientation and insecurity. Moreover, the series exposes that his “old” character is just another and perhaps non-existing construct, and that the “real” Cooper consists of several personas, who severely struggle to find balance in the expression of their masculinity and power.

In order to metaphorically point towards Cooper’s messy psychic reality, Lynch and Frost cleverly play with several oneiric plotlines and timelines, as well as the conventions of crime and detection narratives, which can be seen as a repeated return to the scenes of the crime, or revisitation of certain traumas, losses, and unconscious childhood wounds. In psychoanalytic terms, they revisit certain traumas and losses in order to soothe the characters’ and readers’ subconscious childhood wounds as well as reflecting and revealing pre-Oedipal, narcissistic impulses that emerge while dealing with severe stress.

Since the fictional portrayals of psychic scenarios always at least implicitly reflect on social conflict, Cooper’s struggles with his manhood, triggered by his failures in saving Laura, Annie and a string of other women, may also be interpreted as a reflection of the current Zeitgeist. In this day and age of fourth-wave feminism, women’s rights movements have indeed been striking new blows at patriarchal social structures, disturbing the gendered notions of what makes a “woman” or a “man,” in a similar fashion as during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the original series had been released, coinciding with the articulation of third-wave feminism. Considering this, The Return may well serve as a mirror to the latest social upheaval. However, there is a certain optimism to it, which in itself seems radical: by not providing a finite or happy ending, the series invites us to keep replaying the same narrative – just like Cooper – until we reach further insights, which would move us away from the confinements of rigid patriarchal rationalities to the realms of true empathy towards ourselves and others.

Karla Lončar is a Croatian Ph.D. candidate in film studies at the University of Zagreb, currently working at the Miroslav Krleža Institute of Lexicography. The subject of her dissertation is Twin Peaks, for which she was awarded The Fulbright Research Scholarship in 2017/18. Her writing on the series has appeared in various Croatian and international publications (Supernatural Studies Journal, New American Notes Online, Desistfilm, 25 Years Later website, etc.).

References

All links verified 27.5.2021

Film

Die Hard. Director: John McTiernan, written by: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on: Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman. Gordon Company, Silver Pictures. 1988. 132 min.

Fatal Attraction. Director: Adrian Lyne, written by: James Dearden, based on: Diversion by James Dearden, starring: Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer. Jaffe/Lansing Productions. 1987. 119 min.

Fire Walk With Me. Director: David Lynch, written by: David Lynch and Robert Engels, starring: Sheryl Lee, Chris Isaak, Kyle MacLachlan. CIBY Pictures. 1992. 134 min.

Lethal Weapon. Director: Richard Donner, written by: Shane Black, starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey. Silver Pictures. 1987. 110 min.

Vertigo. Director: Alfred Hitchcock, written by: Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on: D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Tom Helmore. Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions. 1958. 128 min.

TV series

Dallas. Created by: David Jacobs, starring: Barbara Bel Geddes, Jim Davis, Patrick Duffy et al. CBS. 1978-91. 14 seasons. 357 episodes.

Dynasty. Created by: Richard and Esther Shapiro, starring: John Forsythe, Linda Evans, Joan Collins et al. ABC. 1981-89. 9 seasons. 220 episodes.

Twin Peaks. Created by: David Lynch and Mark Frost, starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn et al. ABC. 1990-91. 2 seasons. 30 episodes.

Twin Peaks: The Return. Created by: David Lynch and Mark Frost, starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn et al. Showtime. 2017. 18 parts.

Websites

Lamia, Mary C. 2009. ‘White Knight Commonalities: Are you a ‘white knight?’ Psychology Today. May 2009. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-white-knight-syndrome/200905/white-knight-commonalities.

Loncar, Karla. 2017. ‘When the World Spins: Connections Between The Return and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.’ 25 Years Later Site. December 2017. https://25yearslatersite.com/2017/12/14/when-the-world-spins-connections-between-twin-peaks-the-return-and-alfred-hitchcocks-vertigo/.

Stepien, Lee. 2018. ‘The Men Are Not What They Seem: Shattering Fragile Masculinity in Twin Peaks.’ 25 Years Later Site. April 2018. https://25yearslatersite.com/2018/04/03/the-men-are-not-what-they-seem-shattering-fragile-masculinity-in-twin-peaks/.

Twin Peaks Wiki, n.d. ‘Dale Cooper.’ https://twinpeaks.fandom.com/wiki/Dale_Cooper.

www.BlueRoseEpics.com. 2017. ‘Twin Peaks Finale Partly Explained By Mark Frost.’ November 2017. http://www.blueroseepics.com/2017/11/twin-peaks-finale-partly-explained-by.html.

Literature

Balbus, Isaac D. 2002. “Masculinity and the (M)other: Toward a Synthesis of Feminist Mothering Theory and Psychoanalytic Theories of Narcissism.” In Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory, edited by Judith Kegan Gardiner, 193-209. New York: Columbia University Press.

Felman, Shoshana. 1987. Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.

Frost, Mark. 2017. Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier. New York: Macmillan Books.

Frost, Scott. 1991. The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes. New York: Pocket.

Gates, Philippa. 2006. Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film. Albany: State University of New York.

Hague, Angela. 1995. “Infinite Games: The Derationalization of Detection in Twin Peaks.” In Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, edited by David Lavery, 130-143. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Halberstam, Judith. 2002. “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Men, Women and Masculinity.” In Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory, edited by Judith Kegan Gardiner, 344-368. New York: Columbia University Press.

MacInnes, John. 1998. The End of Masculinity: The Confusion of Sexual Genesis and Sexual Difference in Modern Society. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Munt, Sally Rowe. 1998. “Grief, doubt and nostalgia in detective fiction or … ‘death and the detective novel’: a return.” College Literature 25(3).

Munt, Sally Rowe. 1994. Murder by the Book? Feminism and Crime Novel. New York and London: Routledge.

Silverman, Kaja. 1992. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York and London: Routledge.

Notes

[1] He is the spirit that possessed Laura’s father Leland, who welcomed his presence when he was a child.

[2] There are two other versions of him: artificial doubles, or “tulpas,” manufactured by the supernatural technology, which include the aforementioned Dougie Jones, a sleazy insurance salesman, petty gambler, thief and adulterer, and another one who takes Dougie’s former place, this time as the caring husband and father of the Jones family.

[3] I would like to add he is not the only character in touch with his intuition and feelings: similarly defined are also some of the Twin Peaks women and men (Sarah Palmer /Grace Zabriskie/, Maddy Ferguson /Sheryl Lee/, Andy Brennan /Harry Goaz/, etc.), which contributes to the overall unconventionality of the original Twin Peaks.

[4] Memorable is his remark that he does what he wants: “Want, not need. I don’t need anything.” (Part 2)

[5] Mark Frost confirmed that in an interview for Empire Magazine, quoted in “Twin Peaks Finale Partly Explained By Mark Frost” (2017).

[6] For further reading, see Loncar (2018).

Kategoriat
1–2/2021 WiderScreen 24 (1–2)

The Twin Peaks Fandom on the Net – 30 Years of Activity and Counting

fandom, Twin Peaks

Samantha Martinez Ziegler
samazi [a] utu.fi
Digital Culture
University of Turku

Printable PDF version

The Twin Peaks fandom on the net has had a lifespan of over 30 years since the cult series began airing on U.S. television in the year 1990. Up to the present time, fandom culture has evolved, and the Twin Peaks community as well. The focus of this essay is to explore the history of the Twin Peaks fandom from its origins on the Usenet newsgroup alt.tv.twin-peak in the early 1990s all the way to its move to LiveJournal, social media, and the hybrid platform Reddit in the 21st century. In my text, I also highlight how the unsolved mysteries and recurrent riddles of the Twin Peaks television series and Twin Peaks-related media have been instrumental to the ongoing activity of the fandom. Lastly, I consider what the longevity and adaptability of the Twin Peaks fandom on the net mean in terms of fandom culture and the foreseeable future of fandom. This essay was written in the spring of 2020 for that semester’s Academic Writing and Digital Culture class but was revisited and last modified in May 2021 prior to its publication in the journal.

 

Introduction

“This has to have been one of the best shows ever”, a user posted on a thread on alt.tv.twin-peak, a Usenet newsgroup active in the early 1990s mainly dedicated to discussing and interpreting the American TV series Twin Peaks among its fans. “You are dealing with an obsessed group of people here”, another user commented in relation to the heavy influx of messages on the board during the show’s first two seasons. Users would log into the net and dedicate hours of their day to share their ideas and theories among other passionate fans. What we could now easily dismiss as common fan behaviour, in the early 90s, these interactions on the alt.tv.twin-peak newsgroup were one of a kind. They influenced and shaped fan culture for generations to come.

As noted by Henry Jenkins (1992), Twin Peaks posed a series of strenuous challenges and riddles open to interpretation for computer netters, like no other TV show had done before (Jenkins 1992, 55–57). The complexity of Twin Peaks gave its viewers the opportunity to spend days analysing and discussing, in particular, fragments of dialogue, camera shots, character mannerisms, and even background music. These communal analyses served as a base for users to subsequently formulate their own theories and later introduce them over several discussion threads, a behaviour that can still be observed within the online Twin Peaks fandom up to this day.

With the premiere of Twin Peaks: The Return in the year 2017, the show’s third and final season, new questions have been added to the ones that have plagued the minds of fans for decades. Though rather than drawing negative emotions, these unanswered questions are the core essence of what the Twin Peaks community is all about: a group of enthusiastic fans who want their brains to be put to test with every new episode and every piece of new media. In this essay, I will go through the virtual history of the Twin Peaks fandom, from its birth up to now, while taking a look at the way the series’ mysteries have played a role in keeping the fandom active during the show’s nearly 26 year-long hiatus.

Origins of the Twin Peaks Fandom on the Net

When the first episode of Twin Peaks was broadcasted on American television on April 8, 1990 by ABC Network, viewers were instantly mesmerised by what they saw on their television screens. Twin Peaks was like no other TV series seen before. With Mark Frost’s brilliant story writing combined alongside David Lynch’s hailed eye for filmmaking, Twin Peaks blended several television and film genres and tropes into a unique and intricate type of its own. Set in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, Washington, the plot revolves around an FBI agent, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who joins the local police to investigate the murder of 17 year-old homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). However, in the two hour long pilot episode of the show, we soon discover that most of the mysteries revolving around Laura Palmer’s death go beyond what we can see. The odd, quirky personalities from the town folk make the viewers question what other secrets are hidden under plain sight. But the most important question, the one that was printed in the mind of every viewer after watching the pilot episode of the show, is unmistakable:

“Who killed Laura Palmer?”

As actor Kyle MacLachlan put it into words for a Showtime interview in 2017, this question, which computer netters amicably nicknamed WKLP early on, resonated around the world. And more importantly, it drove people with connection to the net to reach for their peers, who were interested in Twin Peaks, in order to discuss the episodes, share their theories, and spark new ideas and speculations. As a result, the alt.tv.twin-peak newsgroup on Usenet, an electronic networked discussion system, was born on April 12, 1990.

From early on, when television viewing was combined with taking part in discussion boards, “technologies of convergence enabled communal rather than individualistic modes of reception” (Duffett 2013, 388). Multiple discussion threads would start after each episode, often including the questions such as “did anyone else see…” or “am I the only one who thought…” in the title, suggesting a need to confirm one’s own produced meanings through conversation with a larger community of readers” (Jenkins 1992, 57). Users typed down their hypotheses and shared them with those “who shared their passion for breaking the code” (ibid.). Whether these theories would or would not be proven right was nonessential; it was the thrill of sharing these thoughts within a Twin Peaks obsessed community that motivated fans to keep the group active while the show aired on TV.

The first season of Twin Peaks consisted of 8 episodes, including its two hour long pilot. Rather than offering resolutions, through the course of the series, creators Mark Frost and David Lynch added intricate riddles and unexpected twists to the already multi-layered story told on TV. It was in the middle of the show’s second instalment, which was broadcasted on the same network from September 1990 to June 1991, that Frost and Lynch saw themselves forced to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer.

The revelation shocked audiences around the world, including members of the alt.tv.twin-peak newsgroup. Interestingly enough, revealing the identity of the killer was not enough to tie any of the other loose ends of the series. Frost and Lynch had created an exceptional story that extended far beyond Laura Palmer’s murder, even though its consequences and the events that led to it were still considered to be the very core of the show. A few days after the reveal episode was broadcasted on U.S. television, a user commented “too bad we STILL don’t know what those owls are or whether or not they aren’t what they seem” on the alt.tv.twin-peaks group, the last phrase in reference to one of the most iconic and haunting lines of dialogue said in Twin Peaks: “the owls are not what they seem”. To this day, only fan-made theories surrounding the owls’ imagery is offered.

While Twin Peaks was still airing its second season, ABC cancelled the show due to low viewership in the U.S. The show’s final episode, titled “Beyond Life and Death”, was broadcasted on June 10, 1991, and for many years to come, it would become one of the most heavily analysed episodes within the expanding Twin Peaks community in message boards, online forums, blogs, among others. There are two main reasons why: the first one, a promise made by the deceased Laura Palmer: “I’ll see you again in 25 years”. This sparked interest and excitement among fans, despite knowing about the show cancellation. The second reason, by far the most evident one, was the final scene of the show. In it, FBI Agent Dale Cooper seemingly loses his sanity, repeating the same line over and over again: “Where’s Annie?”. These two scenes, among other supernatural patterns repeated through the course of the show, would mark the fate of fan discussions for years to come.

Image 1. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in the Black Lodge, Twin Peaks, Season 2, Episode 22.

 

Image 2. FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in front of a broken mirror, Twin Peaks, Season 2, Episode 22.

Fandom Migration and Adaptability — The Move From Usenet to LiveJournal to Reddit

The Twin Peaks fandom did not disappear after the show’s cancellation in 1991. If something, the show’s already laid down roots gained strength. A prequel film arrived in American movie theatres in 1992 by the name of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, written and directed by filmmaker David Lynch himself. The movie did not act as a way to tie the show’s loose ends since it is set before the events of the television show, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me focuses merely on the last days of Laura Palmer’s life. Once again, many fans with access to the computer net headed to the alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup right after watching the film, ready to share their theories or confirm beliefs they had during the early days of the show.

With the popularisation of the world wide web in the mid 1990s, many fans started moving from Usenet to different web pages, online forums, and fan club pages. Nowadays, this process is known as fandom migration. These web pages would essentially look like “shrines, full of pictures of celebrities” (Duffett 2013, 382). For instance, while users were already able to share images in the alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup in the early 1990s, the internet made this process considerably faster and easier than before. With these new innovations, the internet “transformed and further facilitated the whole phenomenon of fandom” (ibid.).

Following the end of the show and airing of the prequel film, the Twin Peaks fandom never ceased its activities on the net. Messaging boards would come alive with multiple posts discussing new theories “as new releases of the series arrived on VHS, then DVD, and then Blu-ray over the years” (Silver 2018). Some of these releases would include extra footage or deleted scenes, which fans would utilise to fill in the gaps in their own theories or spark entirely new ideas. After all, the show had enough unsolved mysteries and plots for viewers to generate different interpretations of the new information. Questions, theories, and opinions that were often found on alt.tv.twin-peaks were now posted elsewhere on the web. To illustrate, on thread started on a Twin Peaks LiveJournal under the title “Judy” in 2004, user greypele posted the following:

“I’m aware that Twin Peaks is not meant to make any logical sort of sense and that still, with that said, it is a great deal of fun to attempt to make sense of it, my question is: Who is Judy? […] I’m just asking for any theories or additional information. I’ve gone on another Twin Peaks a-thon and am, again, totally obsessed with trying to make connections while being very seriously terrified by the sound of a ceiling fan.”

Even a decade after the show originally aired, and with only a minimum amount of new footage released, the narrative surrounding the story of Twin Peaks kept inviting the viewer to participate in its analysis (Jenkins 1992, 55). Similarly, a decade later, in the year 2014, redditor cohle779 started a thread on the Twin Peaks subreddit (/r/TwinPeaks) after watching Fire Walk with Me, sharing their own theories and individual interpretation of the film. At the end of the post, the text reads: “what are your theories or findings? I also always wonder about who Judy is, what’s up with the monkey and what happened to Desmond”. Even with the ten year gap between the posts and the different platforms, the same questions are asked (“who is Judy?”), and no answer nor interpretation is discredited – a recurrent custom found in the fandom. On both of these occasions, fellow members of the Twin Peaks community have come forth and answered the threads by posting their own made-up theories about the subject in question, regardless of whether their hypotheses are plausible within the context of the show or not.

Fans want to dissect the source material with other fans. Following this notion, fandom allows fans to do so, and on the net, communication platforms become the virtual space to carry out these fan activities. According to Mark Duffett, even though fan text (otherwise known as fanon[1] or, particularly, meta[2]) “often creates particular details or character readings even though canon does not fully support it – or, at times, even contradicts it”, it is a vital part of fandom because ”it shows that fans can canonize their objects in a different way to the text’s official creators or guardians” (2013, 354–355). These fan-made texts, and more specifically in Twin Peaks fandom, these fan theories, have an effect on the way others perceive the original source material, often altering their perspective (ibid.). This ongoing fandom engagement creates a distinction between a “casual” viewer and a more devoted one.

The Return of Twin Peaks on Television and Reigniting of the Fandom Online

In the year 2014, after a series of cryptic tweets by Mark Frost and David Lynch referencing Twin Peaks, fans started to speculate online about a possible continuation for the TV show. However, it was not until spring 2015, when Lynch confirmed the then heavily rumoured return of Twin Peaks through his Twitter account. Although the announcement was made 25 years after the first season of Twin Peaks was broadcasted, Twin Peaks: The Return, the long awaited third season of the show, premiered on Showtime in May 2017. The Return consisted of 18 episodes that continued the plot from the first two seasons, keeping the majority of the original cast. The cliff-hangers from the original series were addressed, yet neither Lynch nor Frost ever offered straightforward explanations. Even if mysteries have been plaguing the minds of fans since the 1990s, The Return was not the creators’ way of answering age-old questions about the show, but a way to challenge the viewers with even more riddles than before.

Once the final episode of the season aired, and parallel to the fan reaction to FBI Agent Dale Cooper repeatedly repeating the famous phrase “where’s Annie?” in the closing shot of Twin Peaks in 1991, the feeling of shock took over the online Twin Peaks community with the cliff-hanger from The Return. In it, fans are presented with a new question, once again formulated by Agent Cooper: “what year is this?”. As one would expect, a new hoard of fan-made theories was created soon after episode 18 was broadcasted.

Image 3. Sheryl Lee in the closing shot of the series finale, Twin Peaks, Season 3, Episode 18.

Since the first two seasons of Twin Peaks aired on TV in the early ‘90s, “fandom, the internet, and television itself necessarily all transformed, but Twin Peaks’ originary mythos of intertwining the three cast a long shadow over all of them” (McAvoy 2019, p. 88). Yet in spite of these changes, the need to confirm and validate one’s own ideas and sentiments within a large community of fellow fans in order to have a sense of belonging still characterises the Twin Peaks fandom to this day.

As I mentioned before, back in the early 1990s, multiple threads started on the alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup would start with “did anyone else see…” and “am I the only one who thought…”, followed by the original poster’s own thoughts on a certain topic concerning the series (Jenkins 1992, 57). In a similar manner, Reddit users have exposed alike behaviour after the broadcast of The Return. For example, an entry by redditor thefrightfulfulhog posted on the Twin Peaks subreddit after episode thirteen of the show’s third instalment is titled “Did anyone else see a similarity between these two pairs of shots?”. Another case that follows the same pattern is redditor thisheatdeceit’s entry on June 5, 2017 by the title “Am I the only one who thinks the ending of the new part is really sad?”. Over 25 years later, this type of fan behaviour, and more specifically, the need to find peers who agree with the sentiment expressed, is still present in the Twin Peaks community.

The Twin Peaks subreddit, along with microblogging platform Tumblr and other social media, not only make the experience of sharing fan-text faster than it was for Usenet users in the early 1990s, but also allows new forms of fan-made material to be created. In this manner, it is not uncommon to see that the most popular posts[3] on Reddit are a collection of internet memes, or aesthetic photo edits, gifs and moodboards[4] on Tumblr. Nowadays, the sharing of these images plays “a much greater role in the fan discourse” (Cherry 2019, p. 72) than it used to in its Usenet and BBS origins, nowadays becoming an accepted essential component of vocabulary for online communities. Moreover, fan-made images often accompany fan-text, analyses, theories, and other forms of meta text in order to illustrate their ideas or express their emotional responses to the content material. The sharing of these images, especially Twin Peaks-related memes, was remarkably observed during the first run of The Return in 2017 (ibid.).

Image 4. Meme shared on the Twin Peaks subreddit about The Return.

 

Image 5. An exemplary aesthetic edit of Twin Peaks posted on Tumblr.

Laying the Groundwork for the Future of Online Fandom

The stable presence of Twin Peaks online communities on different forums and social media platforms resonates well with other fandoms. As outlined throughout this essay, in spite of the lack of new source material and a hiatus that lasted for nearly 27 years, the Twin Peaks fandom has kept its online activity for decades by discussing and analysing old content among its peers (Silver 2018). The extensive amount of fan-made material, meta, and projects suggests an “excessive fan consumption of cult media” (Cherry 2019, 75). Whether the source material is old or new, fans continue to consume the source material of Twin Peaks and dissect it online. And one of the most fascinating things about this fact, is that this behaviour has persisted for nearly three decades.

During the 2010s, the exponential rise and popularity of social media platforms created spaces for new and lesser known fandoms. A notable example of this is the fandom of the TV series Hannibal, created by American writer Bryan Fuller and based on the series of novels by Thomas Harris. The series aired its three seasons on the television broadcasting company NBC from 2013 to 2015 up until its cancellation, consisting of 39 episodes in total. Analogous to the birth of the Twin Peaks fandom in the early 90s, the Hannibal fandom saw its rise right after the first episode aired in April 2013. The amicably nicknamed fannibals[5] would participate in online discourse about the series’ content, often engaging in different analyses and theories, which continued following the show’s abrupt cancellation in 2015.

Nearly five years afterwards, the Hannibal fandom remains active online. For instance, by visiting the Hannibal subreddit, I was able to find lengthy discussions and blocks of meta text that keep on analysing the series finale, among other recurrent topics such as the nature of the relationship of the protagonists, and so on. While a new season of the show has not been confirmed by the show’s creator, fannibals are not giving up hope. The “Save Hannibal” campaign, a movement that was built solely on social media, has helped spark the conversation about the show’s revival (Caulfield 2019). It seems that as long as there is a passionate fanbase, there is hope. By looking at the history of the Twin Peaks fandom, which was active for over two decades with no new content before getting a new season of the show, and managed to adapt to technology advances, other fandoms could try to follow its steps.

Social media has undoubtedly changed the way we consume and experience fandom. To be precise, these platforms make fandom interaction more accessible and reachable than before. Whereas the most prominent and interactive Twin Peaks communities can be found on Reddit and the microblogging platform Tumblr, Twitter also became home to one of the most unique fandom experiences: a project by the name of Enter the Lodge. What started as a fan-made way to celebrate the story of Twin Peaks, soon became a popular production within the fandom. Started in 2012 and entirely written on Twitter, Enter the Lodge is a fictional continuation to the series’ second instalment. They also count with a website, EnterTheLodge.com, where the different conversations, plot developments, as well as images and documents have been archived.

Social media-based projects like Enter the Lodge put fan theories and meta text in practice: fans are able to develop their own hypotheses not only by writing them down and sharing them with others, but by participating in a role-play-esque project with fellow members of the community.

Conclusion

Over the course of the years, Twin Peaks and its community have left an important mark in the history of fan culture on the net. From its origins, thousands of threads started on the alt.tv.twin-peak newsgroup on Usenet in 1990 and 1991, up to now, with diverse web pages and spaces created on platforms like Reddit, Tumblr, and social media dedicated to the show. The Twin Peaks fandom has not only demonstrated fandom behaviour as its best by producing lengthy and complex analyses since the show was first broadcasted, but has in its process created a strong sense of community amongst its members. Thus, fan-made theories and assumptions are well received by the fans, and these often prompt others to participate in the conversation and continue the discussion. The Twin Peaks fandom has also set an outstanding example of what it is to adapt to new technological advances by migrating through different networked platforms. From the previously mentioned newsgroup on Usenet to shrine-like forums and social media, fans have found and created safe spaces where to share their mutual passion for Twin Peaks and all the unanswered questions the show has left behind.

The year 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of Twin Peaks, and trustingly, the fandom that was born alongside the show will keep growing and continuing to reach these life milestones for years to come.

References

All links verified 27.5.2021

Images

Image 1. KissThemGoodbye.Net. Twin Peaks Screencaps. Retrieved from http://kissthemgoodbye.net/twinpeaks/displayimage.php?album=57&pid=78436.

Image 2. KissThemGoodbye.Net. Twin Peaks Screencaps. Retrieved from http://kissthemgoodbye.net/twinpeaks/displayimage.php?album=57&pid=79235.

Image 4. KissThemGoodbye.Net. Twin Peaks Screencaps. Retrieved from https://kissthemgoodbye.net/twinpeaks/displayimage.php?album=27&pid=36262.

Image 5. Redditor SubtleOrange. /r/TwinPeaks. Reddit. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/twinpeaks/comments/6dwaqb/no_spoilers_it_cant_be_that_complicated_right/.

Image 5. Tumblr User chloedeckr.. Tumblr. Available: https://chloedeckr.tumblr.com/post/135764472337.

Online conversations, social media, and forums

Hannibal – The NBC Tv Show subreddit. Reddit. r/HannibalTV. (13.12.2013). Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/HannibalTV/.

LiveJournal user “greypele”. LiveJournal. Twinpeaks.livejournal.com. (25.11.2004). Retrieved from https://twinpeaks.livejournal.com/206368.html.

Reddit user “cohle779”. Reddit. r/TwinPeaks.(7.4.2014). Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/twinpeaks/comments/22eqqd/fwwm_jeffries_scene_question/.

Reddit user “thefrightfulhog”. Reddit. r/TwinPeaks. (5.6.2017). Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/twinpeaks/comments/6s574s/s3e13_did_anyone_else_see_a_similarity_between/.

Reddit user “thisheatdeceit”. Reddit. r/TwinPeaks. (7.8.2017). Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/twinpeaks/comments/6ffndy/s3e5_am_i_the_only_one_who_thinks_the_ending_of//.

Twin Peaks subreddit. Reddit. r/TwinPeaks. (15.4.2010). Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/twinpeaks/.

Usenet, alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup. (17.4.1990). Google Groups -archive (18.2.2020). Retrieved from https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/alt.tv.twin-peaks/f_cUldDLjBk.

Usenet, alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup. (20.4.1990). Google Groups -archive (18.2.2020). Retrieved from https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/alt.tv.twin-peaks/StAAR71cmTI.

Usenet, alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup. (11.11.1990). Google Groups -archive (18.2.2020). Retrieved from https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/alt.tv.twin-peaks/gh9c10WPIEw.

Usenet, alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup. (20.1.1991). Google Groups -archive (18.2.2020). Retrieved from https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/alt.tv.twin-peaks/DaaDDuVEF9w.

Usenet, alt.tv.twin-peaks newsgroup. (31.1.1991). Google Groups -archive (18.2.2020). Retrieved from https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/alt.tv.twin-peaks/vp9B6XUDku0.

Web Pages

EnterTheLodge. (2014.) About | Enter The Lodge: fan-made Twin Peaks project. Retrieved from http://www.enterthelodge.com/about/.

Fandom Migration. (n.d.). In Fanlore. Retrieved from https://fanlore.org/wiki/Fandom_Migration.

WelcomeToTwinPeaks. (n.d.). Twin Peaks community. Retrieved from https://welcometotwinpeaks.com/.

Twin Peaks Usenet Archive (February 12, 2021). Retrieved from https://alttvtwinpeaks.com/.

Literature

Baker-Whitelaw, G. (June 4, 2013). “A delicious guide to ‘Hannibal’ fandom on Tumblr”. The Daily Dot. Retrieved from https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/fandom/guide-hannibal-tv-fandom-tumblr-fannibals/.

Caulfield, A.J. (November 14, 2019). Will there be a Hannibal season 4?. Looper. Retrieved from https://www.looper.com/174947/will-there-be-a-hannibal-season-4/.

Cherry, B. (2019). ‘The owls Are Not What They Meme’: Making Sense of Twin Peaks with Internet Memes. In Sanna, A. (Ed.), Critical Essays on Twin Peaks: The Return. Pp. 69-82. Springer. Switzerland.

Duffett, M. (2013). Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. Pp. 342-411. Bloomsbury Publishing. New York, USA.

Jenkins, H. (1992). “Do You Enjoy Making Us Feel Stupid?”: alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author and Viewer Mastery. In Lavery, D. (Ed.), Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Pp. 51–69. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, USA.

McAvoy, D. (2019). “Is It About the Bunny? No, It’s Not About the Bunny!”: David Lynch’s Fandom and Trolling of Peak TV Audiences. In Sanna, A. (Ed), Critical Essays on Twin Peaks: The Return. Pp. 85-103. Springer. Switzerland.

Miller, L. S. (May 18, 2017). ‘Twin Peaks’: How The Show’s Original Fans Created the Internet As We Know It Today. IndieWire. Retrieved from https://www.indiewire.com/2017/05/twin-peaks-fans-created-internet-social-media-mark-frost-henry-jenkins-1201818886/.

Paskin, W. (June 7, 2017). Diane, Remind Me to Tell You How Twin Peaks Changed TV Forever. Slate.com. Retrieved from https://slate.com/arts/2017/06/how-twin-peaks-spawned-a-whole-tv-genre-from-lost-to-mr-robot-to-westworld-that-wants-to-be-a-riddle-for-viewers-to-solve.html.

Rodriguez, A. (September 2, 2017). “Twin Peaks’” obsessed fans have been trying to solve the same mysteries online since 1990. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1067020/twin-peaks-obsessed-fans-have-been-trying-to-solve-the-same-mysteries-online-since-1990/.

Silver, S. (2018). How Twin Peaks Gives Us Hope for the Future of Fandom. Living Life Fearless. Retrieved from https://livinglifefearless.co/2018/features/how-twin-peaks-gives-us-hope-for-the-future-of-fandom/.

Notes

[1] Fanon: fan + canon. The body of widely accepted fan-created embellishments of a fictional universe, storyline, or character. (source: Double-Tongued Dictionary)

[2] Meta or meta text refers to fan-made text discussing source material, story or character analysis, or other aspects related to fandom. (source: Fanlore)

[3] On Reddit, the popularity of a post is measured by getting upvotes from other redditors.

[4] An aesthetic edit or a moodboard is a style of image editing in fandom that refers to a set of images about an individual fandom or character, usually by adding a specific colour palette or by being desaturated. Source: fanlore.org.

[5] Fandom slang: a blend of fan + Hannibal. (source: wiktionary.org)

Kategoriat
Ajankohtaista

Learning to Feel? An Essay on Death, Sex and Tricksterism in Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019)

emotions, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joaquin Phoenix, Joker, Jungian archetypes, sexuality, Todd Phillips, trickster

Kirsi Kanerva
kirsi.kanerva[a]helsinki.fi
Postdoctoral researcher
Department of Cultures
University of Helsinki

Printable PDF version

In this essay, I will discuss some of the opportunities offered by Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) to engage in an “interpretative play,” to use the term of Noël Carroll, with this particular work of art, and consider some of the emotional responses that the movie elicits. The perspective in this free-associative essay is subjective, and the aesthetic and non-aesthetic responses to the film elaborated here concentrate on the following selected themes: emotions and sexuality as part of the Joker’s origin story and the Joker’s role as an archetypal trickster in the Jungian sense.

 

Introduction

In 2019, Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) became the highest-grossing R-rated film in history (Yang 2019). The origin story of the Joker[1] has elicited many discussions on issues of social concern. Compared to many other Batman-related narratives in the DC universe, Joker is more realistic: the Joker figure—or Arthur Fleck (hereafter AF), as he is called in the beginning of the story, before he becomes the Joker—is not an exaggerated, mutant-like (cartoon) character or psychopathic villain in the realm of fantasy. The realistic approach and the tendency to provoke discussion on social matters are certainly key, but not the only factor that has led to audience engagement with this particular work of art. The film’s director Todd Phillips has suggested that the movie is so popular because of the deeper meanings people can discover in it, and it has also been pointed out that the film offers multiple choices for interpretation. (Looper 2019; Morrison 2019.)

Indeed, some things are not explicitly spelled out in Joker, and non-aesthetic responses elicited by the movie, such as interpretations of various scenes or symbols, are manifold. As spectators interacting with and contemplating works of art, we do enjoy engaging with “interpretive play,” as Noël Carroll has noted, and we consider it rewarding to search and discover hidden themes and meanings or latent structures (Carroll 2001, 6, 9–12, 19). In addition, the movie elicits aesthetic responses as emotional responses produced by events and situations, and the protagonist keeps us engaged with the work (Carroll 2001, 215–218, 222, 225). In this essay, I will discuss—from a fully subjective perspective—some of the opportunities offered by Todd Phillips’s Joker to engage in an “interpretative play” with the work and some of the emotional responses that the movie elicits.

Naturally, no matter how subjective this essay intends to be, interpreting a work of art, understanding and explaining it requires that the intentions of its makers are not disregarded. In the case of Joker, these intentions may include those of the screenwriter (Todd Phillips & Scott Silver) and the director, but also those of the main actor, Joaquin Phoenix, who improvised in some of the scenes, and the composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, whose music both creates atmospheres and contributes to the interpretation of some scenes in the movie. These intentions have been further elaborated in different media, as well as in the original screenplay of the movie, which has been made available online. Even if these intentions do constrain other interpretations, they also permit the study of meanings expressed in Joker which were not purposefully intended by the filmmakers and which they may not be aware of (as some of our actions can be subconscious, and the degree of consciousness and intentionality in our decision-making may vary). Moreover, the meanings intended by the filmmakers are not necessarily always understood in that way by the audience; the former cannot control interpretations of their work even if they were to explicitly suggest how it should be understood, whereas the latter will inevitably interpret it in light of their knowledge, experiences, norms and value orientations, which they may not necessarily share with the creators. (See, e.g., Carroll 2001, 184–185, 187–188; Johansen 2002, 46–57, 67.)

What follows is a free-associative essay of my own interpretive play, a creative-oriented piece of writing that aims at elaborating some of the responses the movie has elicited—in one of its spectators, at least. The topics considered in this essay are not all-encompassing; the themes that will be discussed include emotions and sexuality as part of the Joker’s origin story, and the Joker’s role as an archetypal trickster in the movie.

Prologue: On Emotions

AF is represented in the movie as a socially handicapped, isolated person who suffers from some kind of mental illness that requires medication, as he has suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child. He desperately tries to fit in, forcing a fake laugh when he hears other people tell jokes, even if he does not seem to find them funny himself, and always trying to put on a (normative, socially acceptable) happy face. At times he bursts into pathological laughter that he cannot control. At the same time he is painfully well aware that to be accepted by “normal” people, he must behave as if he had no mental illness. There is something childlike in him; he is the good little boy who will bring joy and laughter into the world. In other words, a great deal of his “abnormality” is related to his emotions, which he expresses—or practices (Scheer 2012)—in somewhat unconventional ways, or not at all.

Video 1. Teaser trailer for Joker.

In AF’s case, as a consequence of the code of conduct—the happy face—his mother has expected of him, emotions that do not comply with its norms are locked inside. When his boss Hoyt shouts at AF at the beginning of the movie, accusing him of neglecting his work, he keeps smiling and holds everything inside. Shortly thereafter, he tries to release all the bottled-up anger: the camera shows him aggressively kicking heaps of garbage. (The script suggests something animate as the object of his kicks, but this is not portrayed in the movie.) The anger was there already in the office, however. Even if AF doesn’t say anything, it leaks out a bit, reflecting on the surface of his body and behind his eyes, even if his face muscles are frozen in a smile. A similar betrayal of emotions—this time also through his face muscles—occurs when he discovers that his mother has concealed knowledge about his real father, and later on Murray Franklin Show where the talk show host makes fun of him. At times his irritation finds expression in his legs, which quiver nervously, while his frustration is represented in self-inflicted violence, such as when he hits his head against the wall of a phone booth after being told he is fired.

Even if AF occasionally appears unemotional, he has feelings; he is detached from his inner state. AF’s “unemotionality” already as a child is implied when his mental image of his mother as a young Penny Fleck, whom AF sees as he reads her medical report, explains to the doctor that she never heard him crying and how AF has always been “such a happy little boy.” The silence and “happiness” mentioned in connection with his abuse could refer to a response mechanism that occurs during traumatic events in which fight-or-flight responses are not possible (see, e.g., Scaer 2014, 13–19); in AF’s case, these include his freezing up and being unable to react physically, or becoming dissociated from his body, which may have helped him to be mentally somewhere else, even though he was present during the torture which resulted in brain injury. A similar type of freezing response is shown in the beginning of the film, when AF is beaten up by a bunch of youths. As he lies on the ground in his clown suit and the boys are kicking him, he does not express any signs of pain—or any emotions whatsoever. The only change in his state of being appears to be his breathing; after the boys have run away and AF lies alone on the ground, it sounds slightly heavier.

AF is not completely handicapped when it comes to his ability to interpret his inner state but he has difficulties in verbalizing his emotions or expressing them in conventional ways. He is aware that he only has “negative thoughts,” but he does not seem to be capable of categorizing his emotions or naming them more precisely than being happy or not. In the above-mentioned scene, the only emotional “outburst” occurs after the boys have ceased to kick him and then run away: AF pushes a button in his clown suit so that a flower attached to the front makes a squirt of water. According to Todd Phillips, this act suggests that the Joker sees comedy in his pain (Phillips 2019). However, despite the director’s intended meaning, since the water does not spray on anyone as a joke, the flower that emits water can also have alternate interpretations. Water is liquid, just as tears are liquid; it is as if the flower is shedding tears on his behalf (or bleeding on his behalf, from his mental wounds) since he himself lacks the ability to communicate his inner feelings. In this case, and when he is later assaulted by three men in a subway car, he does not shed tears. After all, this would cause the blue makeup around his eyes to drip. This kind of visible “leaking” does occur after AF has put on his Joker makeup (as will be further elaborated in chapter “The Beginning of the Metamorphosis” below).

As his mother never heard him crying, tears in particular appear to be an expression that AF has learned to block or is incapable of expressing—until they later start to flow unabated, such as when he learns from his mother’s medical report that he was adopted and severely maltreated as a child. When he reads about his mother’s psychological diagnosis and internment in a mental hospital, he first starts to cry. This information shakes the foundation of who he thought he was, shattering his self-identity. Eventually, however, he starts to laugh; he laughs and sobs so long and hard that snot runs down from his nose.

As a child who was always “happy,” perhaps he laughed instead of crying, as seen above. AF’s laughter, therefore, is a gesture that underlines his detachment from his social environment. Laughing sometimes signifies his desperate attempt to be “normal,” but in general AF’s laughter is difficult to interpret in a conventional way. He appears to laugh uncontrollably when he is confused, nervous, anxious, sad or upset; when he is hurt; when he thinks he has been unjustly treated; or when he hears things he does not want to hear, like when Mr. Wayne implies that AF’s mother’s story about him being AF’s father is false. Even stage fright appears to trigger his uncontrolled laughter. Moreover, this laughter is constantly misinterpreted, being read differently by others.

Image 1. AF’s pathological laughter. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Source: Joker © Warner Bros. 2019

In the course of the movie, AF does learn new ways to express his thoughts. When the object of his infatuation, the single mother Sophie, lightly uses the finger gun gesture in the elevator, AF takes the meaning of this sign in a different way. He performs it also when he exits the elevator, placing his finger “gun” to his temple and pulling the trigger, as if to blow his head off. It is slightly uncertain what his message is; it is not intended to be threatening, but it could also indicate “yeah, my life sucks, too,” or “I want to kill myself” (based on the fact that only a little while before, he expressed to his social worker the wish to have his medication increased, because he did want to “feel so bad anymore”). He uses the finger gun gesture again when he intrudes into Sophie’s apartment after discovering the “truth” of his childhood in the official documents. As he sits on Sophie’s couch he places the finger gun to his head but does not pull the trigger. In this scene, the gesture—even if AF does not “fire” the “gun”— probably refers to his wish or intention to die. Like his other expressions of frustration and anger—after all, suicide is violence against oneself and thus related to anger and aggression—the gesture does not require words. His inner life finds expression in a nonverbal gesture, as in the case of the tear-shedding flower mentioned above.

Another nonverbal expression that appears to be linked to AF’s inner state but also represents a crucial part of his becoming and being the Joker in this cinematic context is his dancing.

Dancing, or Sex and Death

In the beginning of the movie, AF does not defend himself when he is being attacked by the youths, like he is incapable of physically protecting himself. Instead of fighting or fleeing, he freezes. After receiving a gun from Randall, an older clown colleague, he carries it with him when at work (even though he is not used to handling guns), perhaps because the threat of physical aggression is constantly present in his life. When he is attacked later by three white-collar types on the subway, he appears more prepared to defend himself. At first he tries to kick his aggressors, but when they start to beat him up he shoots them. Killing the first two, he appears to act spontaneously, as if in self-defense, but the third is an intentional execution. AF acts rationally. He does not leave the train immediately but gathers his things in his bag, as if to leave no identifying evidence, and only then follows the third man off the train, finishing him.

After the incident, AF is shocked at first. He runs away from the crime scene in panic, as if he is expecting to be pursued or caught. He hides in an empty public bathroom, out of breath and agitated. But then, in solitude, he starts to dance. The director of the film has pointed out that AF “has music in him,” and it is this music that is fighting to get out and moving his body in the bathroom scene (Flicks and the City 2019). AF’s performance here could be construed as a kind of victory dance or “somatic therapy” that helps him to calm down. His movements are slow and relaxed, and he is no longer agitated. The scene differs drastically from the scene in the original screenplay; although it is likewise situated in the bathroom, AF intends to shoot himself but cannot because he has no bullets left. Thus, the music fights its way out of AF only in the improvised scene of the movie (Giroux 2019). As AF dances, his body is no longer a passive object of violence but an active subject that expresses the music in him. The music—which C. G. Jung did not place in the same category as sex but which “originally belonged to the reproductive sphere” (Jung 1967, 136)—is also linked to AF’s sexuality.

Image 2. The Bathroom dance. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Joker © Warner Bros. 2019)

After the subway killings, it is as if he has sexually awakened. AF is not an asexual person per se; in the movie, his sexuality prior to the subway killings appears to involve pornographic images, but his sexuality is not expressed in his body language. According to the original script, he is sexually inexperienced. After his dance in the public bathroom, however, it seems that he has become sexually aroused. Immediately thereafter, the camera follows him down the corridor of the apartment building where he lives; he heads determinedly, in a straight line, toward Sophie’s door. When she opens it, he immediately kisses and embraces her, and the slow motion suggests that they are about to have a sexual encounter. As revealed by the filmmakers (Flicks and the City 2019), AF’s relationship with Sophie is just a dream,[2] but Arthur the clown is nonetheless eroticized for the first time: he expresses sexual desire (even if in his own mind), and his sexuality is now expressed in his body and in his movements. It is no longer made manifest merely in the pornographic images of his journal, which suggest a boyish and inexperienced type of sexuality.

At this point, the Jungian approach to personality appears well suited to explain AF’s experience: the film appears to make visible the process in which the various parts of AF’s human self, both conscious and unconscious, start to become integrated. Until the subway incident, his personality has consisted only of the slightly childlike and compliant side that he shows to others; the good little boy is his persona/ego or, in Jungian terms, the mask that hides his true self. At this point in the film, it is as if he is lacking life power and energy; all he has are negative thoughts, and his lack of power can be seen in his posture, in the way he walks (somewhat downcast, hanging his head to the right), and in his incapability to defend himself.

After the killings, however, his sexual desire is aroused. The animal side of his personality now appears integrated in his self, representing the source of both creative and destructive energy; this is where Eros belongs. This side also includes the shadow, which everyone carries but which has been isolated from his consciousness. It is the repressed “other in him,” including things that are unacceptable in terms of one’s own morals as well as social standards. The shadow, which also encompasses the past, is not purely evil, but primitive, disobedient and non-conforming to the norms and regulations of society; Jung also characterized it as inferior. (Jung 1969a, 76–79; Jung 1969b, 197–198; Jung 1966a, 53; Jung 1966b, 28.) From a Jungian perspective, the shadow is AF’s “companion and friend,” his “potential ally” and “dark brother.” As soon as it starts to become incorporated in his personality, it enables him to defend himself, since defense and the capability to attack require evil (Neumann 1962, 352–353). Being an opposite “to the attitude of the conscious mind” (Jung 1966a, 53), the repressed shadow creates tension when it is made conscious, which is the prerequisite for movement (Jung 2011, 30; Jung 1966a, 53–54). As Jung explains, “Life, being an energic process, needs the opposites, for without opposition there is […] no energy” (Jung 1969b, 197). He continues, “Life is born only of the spark of opposites” (Jung 1966a, 54).

As a consequence of the incident in the subway, AF’s libido (which in Jungian thought does not have the predominantly sexual meaning that the term has for Freud) now has a gradient. As a consequence, his libido—that is, his psychic energy as a desire and appetite unchecked by any authority, which is linked not only to sexual procreation but also emotions and affects, as well as general life instincts of survival and bodily needs, such as hunger, thirst, sleep, sex and avoiding pain—has started to flow (Jung 1966a, 50–54, 62–63; Jung 1967, 135–139). He was a victim for so long, but now he has defended himself. The subway killings give rise, in William James’s terms (1929), to a conversion experience; AF’s life is radically transformed from the old to the new. Earlier he did not have control over his own life; his agency was restricted, and he had no chance to counteract or limit the violence directed at him. But now, with the help of his “dark brother,” the shadow, he gains agency. It is he himself who uses violence now. He has become the one who decides who will feel pain and die.

AF’s dance movements may also reflect his attempt to make himself look bigger (Sapir 2019). He has conquered those who tormented him—he has gained power over them—and thus, in a sense, he has become “bigger.” A reflection of this psychological consequence can later be seen in his straighter posture.

Image 3. The Bathroom dance. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Joker © Warner Bros. 2019)

The same piece of music (composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir) that plays in the background in the public bathroom scene is heard again in the movie when the Joker is waiting behind the curtains, about to walk on stage on the Murray Franklin Show. His hands move as if he were dancing again to the rhythm of his inner music, and his movements are as calm and relaxed as they were when he danced after the subway killings. This time his dance does not prepare him for procreative action (in his dream world), but appears to set up his last scene. His intention there is to commit suicide. By then, in Freudian terms, his death drive Thanatos (the opposite of Eros as his life force and will to live) has been activated, and he is prepared to die. This time we can clearly hear the voice of women singing. This music by Hildur Guðnadóttir may not be the singing of angels but—bearing in mind her cultural background and the Scandinavian mythological tradition—valkyries (valkyrjur); thus, these are the voices of supernatural women who escorted ancient warriors into battle and chose those who would be slain, taking them to the afterlife and joining them in Valhalla (a notion which presumably had sexual connotations as well; see e.g. Egeler 2010, 84–104). When AF enters the stage of the Murray Franklin Show, his behavior is in line with the elements created by the music: being sexually charged, he intensely kisses the previous guest, an elderly female therapist. It is as if death (his or others) and sex are inseparable opposites that take place together, with (actual or impending) death being the impetus that stirs up AF’s sexual urges.

Insinuations of the inseparable link between sex and death can also be found in the scene where AF kills Randall. After his deed he sits down, leaning against the wall beside Randall’s corpse, and breathes heavily as a consequence of the physical effort. Randall’s bodily fluids (blood) are splattered over his face and breast, and a relaxed smile plays on his face, as if to imply his satisfied participation in a sexual act. Soon after the killing, AF heads to the TV studio in his Joker outfit. As he dances down the stairs, he is clearly feeling good. He appears joyful, relaxed and self-confident; he is surrounded by an aura of eroticism and his habitus (in Bourdieu’s terms)—including how he uses his body while dancing and how he walks—resembles that of other cinematic male figures with sex appeal. A cigarette hanging between his lips complements his erotic image.

Image 4. Joker dances down the stairs. Source: Joker © Warner Bros. 2019

Occupying himself with (male) death—either his or that of others—appears to awaken his sexual desire, even if the impulses that have been released prior to his lust are not culturally acceptable but belong to the domain of chaos: killing, destroying and raping. (Indeed, while from his own perspective he fulfills his wish for love in his dream, from Sophie’s perspective this desire perhaps leads to rape.) The existent (although not actually fulfilled) desire suggests that as a consequence of the lethal violence he exercises and which makes him a kind of “warrior,” he yearns for reunion with the feminine, and he longs for a woman’s affection and gentleness. In line with the Ancient Greek mythic tradition where the god of war (Ares) was united with the god of love (Aphrodite), what is produced as a result (as the offspring of the deities) are Eros and Anteros, symbolizing “passion” (see also Stevens 2004, 123–126).

Death thus releases AF’s inner music. As has been mentioned above, Jung linked music to the sphere of reproductive activity. Perhaps in line with this (departing from the Oedipal motif), it should be noted that when AF kills his mother, he does not dance; after the matricide scene, he rehearses for the Murray Franklin Show. Interestingly, after killing another female figure (the doctor in the mental hospital at the end of the movie), he first walks out of her room in a somewhat bowed posture, but by the end of the corridor he has already started to dance. His death-elicited dancing thus appears to be connected to patricide, killing one’s “father,” who represents authority, a figure of dominion, that is, someone who has the legitimate right to exercise power over others. This authority is not tied to a particular gender. The doctor, although a woman, is a person who exerts power over AF when she chooses to listen to him or not—or prescribe his medication or not. AF is suspicious about authorities in general; this shows in his behavior when he interacts with his social worker, the doctor and two detectives.

Thus, all the men he kills are like “fathers,” or creators of the Joker, and authorities in that sense. Randall gives him the gun without which the Joker would never have been born, the three young men in the subway are the ultimate trigger that catalyzes his transformation, and Murray not only contributes to the emergence of the Joker when he plays AF’s video on his show and ridicules him, but he also acts as Murray the Baptist by giving him his villain name. In addition, AF’s actions also contribute to the death of his putative father, Mr. Wayne. After the downfall of his fathers and creators, or the other authority figures in AF’s life, it is the clown who survives and takes power.

In Freudian terms, by killing his “fathers” AF avoids castration, but the objects he uses to kill the men (not the doctor or his mother)—namely, a gun (and bullets) and scissors—are also phallic objects in that they penetrate the bodily boundaries of their targets. Therefore, AF’s lethal violence against other men is in some sense also sexual and connected to power, a symbolic male rape that allows him to subjugate his victims and eliminate his rivals, who have forced him into an inferior position and, from an evolutionary perspective, prevented him from being the fittest in the reproductive sense. The first time AF fires his gun, by accident in an improvised moment (Giroux 2019) in his own living room, refers to this competitive position between males that AF appears to experience: in his imaginary discussion, a woman praises him for being “a good dancer,” after which he fires his gun at an invisible male rival (who, according to him, is not a good dancer), as if to eliminate his imagined competitor. The elimination of his “fathers” and sexual rivals (with the help of his ally and brother, the shadow) is an act of violence, but the act is also related to sex and power, for it is the death of those he sees as authority figures that in particular releases his inner music, embodied in his dancing, and thus enables his libido to flow.

The Beginning of the Metamorphosis, or the Trickster in Him

After discovering that Mr. Wayne is his father, AF goes to see him. At first he meets his half-brother Bruce Wayne (meeting him brings a smile to his face), and later Mr. Wayne himself. However, the arrogant Mr. Wayne, whose version of AF’s origin differs from his mother’s, rejects AF and eventually punches him in the face, irritated by his uncontrolled laughter. The following night, AF stands in his apartment, alone after his mother has been hospitalized. He is now separated from his putative male kin: his father who claims not to be his father (though the butler Alfred Pennyworth’s surprise as he sees “Penny’s son” is telling) and his little half-brother. He leans toward the kitchen countertop, his back in a curved posture, hanging his head, uttering some short and feeble bursts of laughter. He starts to empty the fridge, and then he packs himself inside it.

If interpreted in Freudian terms, this scene improvised by Joaquin Phoenix (Giroux 2019) could suggest that AF’s death drive has strengthened: AF’s sense of connection with other beings has begun to completely dissolve now. According to Mr. Wayne’s claims, he is not genetically connected even to his mother, but an adopted son without a past (even if we cannot be sure if the adoption papers he discovers the next day are false, made because Mr. Wayne wanted to deny all connection to his son he had conceived with a servant woman), and his putative link to the Wayne family is erased right at the beginning. As he climbs in the fridge and closes the door, it is as if AF wishes to enter an enclosed space, the womb, and thus eventually dissolve and return to the inorganic state where he no longer exists (Freud 1930, 4509–4510; Freud 1920). Interpreted from the Freudian perspective, his act could be related to his suicidal tendencies. However, in light of the process where AF becomes the Joker, his withdrawal may not refer to an irreversible demise per se, but to a momentary disappearance, which results in a symbolic reassemblage of the dissolved inorganic parts (like Frankenstein’s monster) or a metamorphosis during which he changes his shape.

In his curved position, AF appears like some type of malformed monster. Later, when Gary and Randall pay him a visit after his mother’s death, he bends his back similarly, as if he were an animal. After drawing a smiley face on the wall by stamping out his cigarette and laughing his fake laughter at Randall’s joke, he places himself in the doorway, his back in a curved position, his face turned down. From this posture, he lifts his face to observe the two men, as if on the prowl, resembling an animal that is about to attack. He then calmly straightens his back, approaches Randall and kills him with scissors and his bare hands.

The process of AF’s metamorphosis is also visible in his facial appearance: when he kills Randall his face is painted white (without any other makeup yet). The white mask does not leak; it hides his intentions and makes his face unrecognizable. Before putting on his final clown makeup, after which he has become the Joker and his metamorphosis is complete, he tries on different identities, even speaking to Gary in an English accent. But it should be noted that even before this scene, AF has been an amorphous figure, whose facial appearance and miens (when he is without his clown mask) have differed from scene to scene, so that during the whole film it is difficult to say what AF actually looks like, and whether he is in fact changing his faces or shifting his shape.

Image 5. The white mask. Source: Joker © Warner Bros. 2019

Shapeshifting is one of the characteristics associated with archetypal tricksters (Hynes 1993, 36–37). The earlier cinematic representations of the Joker have highlighted his role as a trickster figure who plays jokes on people (Mattes 2019; Polo 2019; Corse Present 2019), and after becoming the Joker in this film, AF also becomes someone for whom, similar to other tricksters, causing mischief gives pleasure (Doueihi 1984, 287; Makarius 1993, 79; Hynes 1993, 35–36). This is seen when he stirs unrest and wreaks havoc, for example, in the train snatching a clown mask from one of the passengers, which eventually results in a group fight: he laughs at seeing the unrest. Compared to earlier representations of the character, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a far subtler portrayal of a trickster, sharing more characteristics with trickster archetypes in world mythologies than the mere tendency to play pranks or shift his shape.

As the supposed illegitimate son of Mr. Wayne, AF is—similar to many other tricksters—of impure birth (Makarius 1993, 73–74), reflecting “a sort of predestination to a career of being a violator” of social norms (Makarius 1993, 74). When his father rejects him, he is also “[a]bandoned by his own kind” (Makarius 1993, 77). His alternate origin in the adoption papers, whether they are fake or not, abolish his past and make him a foundling with uncertain origin. He could be the son of elves, or even Oedipus, who got the name “swollen foot” because of the scars made when he was bound and abandoned by his parents; in like manner, AF got his “scar,” his brain injury, when he was bound to a radiator, abandoned by his real father.

The Joker’s role as a trickster is further suggested by his unconventional behavior, including his laughter and view of what is funny. “Comedy is subjective,” he declares in the studio. Before becoming the Joker, who laughs at seeing unrest or violence exercised on others, he laughed when upset, afraid, nervous, sad or confused. He has learned that laughter is about happiness, but in his case it is linked to emotional states that are unpleasant to him. Just before he kills his mother, however, he appears to invert his view of his own life and the meaning of his laughter. He denies that he has a condition, even if she has always told him so; instead he argues that his laughing self is his “real me” (which in a way is true, because his brain injury is apparently permanent). Before he considered his life a tragedy, but now he regards it as a comedy; thus, he chooses to interpret his laughter in the conventional way—that is, the way “normal” people understand it—as an expression of happiness and joy.

However, accepting the “normal” interpretation of laughter also makes his choice a sign of his submission to the prevailing circumstances. By that time, even his own death has become a source of laughter to him: after killing his mother, he rehearses his joke for the Murray Franklin Show at home. When he acts as if he is blowing his head off with his gun, and as he pretends to lie dead on the sofa in his own living room, there is a happy smile on his face, and his imaginary audience is cheering and laughing. In terms of the Joker’s role in the cinematic universe, when he chooses to view his tragedy as a comedy, he again displays one of the characteristics of a trickster: the ability to invert situations so that bad becomes good, grief becomes joy, and sadness becomes laughter (Hynes 1993, 37).


Video 2. AF rehearses his joke for the Murray Franklin Show.

Even the worst and most immoral killings the Joker commits are now a source of amusement for him, part of his comedy. It is the “real him” that sits in the police car at the end of the movie and is overjoyed at the chaos he observes and of which he himself is the seed. The tendency to invert situations is also apparent in his clown name, Carnival. The name and the phenomenon known as Carnival make another direct reference to a state where the world is turned upside down to question prevailing norms, to break boundaries and to make the sacred profane; it is a state that eventually leads to ritual purification.[3]

Tricksters are also (excessively) erotic figures whose sexual self-control may be underdeveloped (Doueihi 1984, 287; Greenfield 1985, 38–41; Makarius 1993, 79–80; Stevens 2004, 124–125). AF’s tendency to associate death with sex is but one symptom of this over-eroticizing. A reference to excessive sexuality is also made, for instance, when AF is phoned by a scheduling person for the Murray Franklin Show and invited to appear. As the phone rings, the camera briefly shows AF lying on his bed, his hand in his underpants, before the view is blurred. As he gets out of bed to answer the phone, the camera focuses again on his hand, which he is pulling out of his underpants, as if to suggest that he has been masturbating. The abundance of pornographic images in his journal may likewise be interpreted as representations of his excessive interest in sex, even if he sometimes appears asexual, especially in the company of his mother. Yet, his interaction with her appears slightly disturbing, such as, for instance when he bathes her or dances with her. Later, when she has been hospitalized and he is downcast at how his father figure Murray ridiculed him on his show, he lies on her bed—a double bed which is apparently also his own bed—smelling her pillow, as if to comfort himself. Not only is there a strong emotional bond between the mother and son, but also there is a kind of incestuous aspect of their relationship, and incestuous relationships (which are thought to have magical value) are typical of tricksters in general (Makarius 1993, 67, 70–72). This stands even if his mother acts as a kind of repressive force: she expects him to be a good little boy whose sexuality is somewhat infantile and hidden, as is suggested by the pornographic images and drawings in his journal, which are apparently meant for his eyes only (he is unwilling to show his journal to his social worker, for example, both in the film and according to the original screenplay).

Image 6. Joaquin Phoenix and Frances Conroy in Joker. Source: Joker © Warner Bros. 2019

What is also interesting concerning his role as a trickster is that the Joker (i.e., not AF) sheds tears only with his left eye. The first time is when he is on his way to the studio to perform on the Murray Franklin Show, and he is being chased by the two detectives. The second time is just before expressing happiness at how the streets of Gotham City are burning, when he sits in the police car after killing Murray Franklin. In both scenes, the blue color under his left eye has become quite smudged, betraying the tears that he has been shedding. In mythology, one-eyed gods, such as Óðinn in Old Norse and Horus in Egyptian mythology, can see all and possess great wisdom. In Jungian thought, then, the single eye signifies self-awareness (Grabenhorst-Randall 1990, 193). Thus, a single eye shedding tears could suggest that the Joker is now more conscious of his feelings, desires and motives than AF ever was; this appears to be true, since emotions start to leak to the surface of the Joker’s body to an increasing degree, as if he had learned to feel now, whereas AF appeared “emotionless.” It also symbolizes possession of knowledge that he did not previously have. Before further considering the issue of the left side, which I will return to in the next section, it is worth noting that the idea of possessing knowledge points to the fact that, even if most of the traits mentioned above emphasize the trickster’s abnormality and dangerous aspect, tricksters are in fact positive figures as well. This favorable side of the trickster and his connection to knowledge is manifested also in AF-Joker, even if becoming a benefactor requires that he violate a taboo.

The Modern Prometheus

In the scene where AF commits matricide,[4] the camera is directed at his face to show how after suffocating her with a pillow he takes a deep breath, as if it were his first ever. He inhales like a newly born child. The camera then shows him calmly standing by the window (he is calm during the whole scene, but this suggests that he has now decided to commit suicide, as sudden and total calmness are one of the signs presumed to indicate imminent suicide when one has made a determined decision to end their life). As he looks out the window, sunlight shines through the glass and Venetian blinds refract the rays. He sees the light, and it illuminates his face. The hospital room appears dim, like a kind of cave, from which he sees the brightness outside. As in the allegory of the cave presented by Plato in the Republic (Book 7), once freed from the prison of rules that have required him to always put on a happy face, even though he is still down in the cave, he sees the light. What AF saw before was but an illusion, the false world of a good little boy who was always happy. Now his vision is clearer. Whereas previously he saw silhouettes reflected on the wall, now he sees reality, and he can perceive its true form. He has become a philosopher, whose role in society, according to Plato, is to enlighten those who are still “prisoners,” that is, those who spend their lives in the cave watching silhouettes on a wall rather than the true form of real objects.

After killing his mother, AF can look at the light without squinting. It does not blind him, because he has been heading toward it ever since he was fired from his job at Haha’s: he walked out after picking up his things, down the stairs, kicked the door open and stepped into the bright sunlight. (Right after this scene, we see empty medicine boxes; AF is running out of his pills, so going toward the light is also related to his missing his scheduled dosage.) As the cave allegory suggests, matricide provides him with knowledge—the wisdom that the light outside the cave represents. Murdering a blood relative is a violation of one of the most fundamental societal taboos, but in the reality of the trickster, the magic power—wisdom—that the trickster can gain access to is derived from the breaking of such taboos (Makarius 1993, 71–73; Doueihi 1984, 294). Like a trickster, the Joker gains wisdom by committing matricide.

In the cinematic reality where he dwells, the Joker can be viewed differently from different perspectives—after all, tricksters are full of ambivalence and contradictions. They are simultaneously demiurgic creators, ingenious inventors or ridiculous clowns or idiots; furthermore, they are good or evil, or benevolent or malefic (see, e.g., Doueihi 1984, 283; Makarius 1993, 67–68, 86). For the authorities that define the norms and maintain order, he is a monster—even if they do not necessarily realize that the monster is their own child, created by them (Cohen 1996, 20). But for the masses—the “clowns” ridiculed by Mr. Wayne—he is a source of inspiration and admiration, and his effect on them is profound.

From their perspective, he has not followed norms that require subservience and obedience to laws; rather, he has killed the rich and arrogant. Through his actions he has given a voice to the silent but ever-increasing anger of the crowds, which has been inflamed by social injustice (even if some of the protesters may have asocial or criminal motives as well). He has given them keys to their agency. His actions have promoted their actions, and his violence has encouraged them to join the uprising and create chaos (in a city that is already in chaos, covered in its own filth). As the violator of taboos “who separates himself from the society and transcends its law through devotion to the cause of humankind” (Makarius 1993, 72)—although not consciously since he has his own personal motives—the Joker provides the crowd with tools and information that enable them to satisfy their secret desires. For the masses, he is the (asocial) hero who disobeys the rules, challenges established orders, plays tricks on the authorities and the powerful, and transgresses boundaries, as well as desecrates the sacred on their behalf. He is also the scapegoat who in the end is punished for his transgressions. (Makarius 72–73, 78–79, 83–84.)

He who has seen the light brings people knowledge. As suggested by the analysis of his ascent from the darkness of the cave into the light, the Joker brings the people light; it is reflected in fire, which eventually spreads in the streets of Gotham, triggering riots and literally engulfing the whole city. From the perspective of Christian ethics, the Joker as light-bringer could naturally be seen as Lucifer. From this perspective also, AF’s use of his left hand appears intriguing. For example, AF puts on his clown makeup and writes with his right hand, except when he notes in his journal with his left hand that “the worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you dont [sic].” He giggles as he writes, as if he finds the sentence “funny” (even if we know that his laughter usually does not signal joy). In addition, during his first killing in the subway car he first holds the gun with both hands but later always shoots with his left hand. Left-handedness suffers from a history of stigmatizing beliefs and superstitions; the left-handed have been considered more prone to committing crimes, and in the history of Christianity, the Devil—“the aping shadow of God” (Jung 1969b, 177)—has been regarded “as the left hand of God” (Jung 1969c, 313).

The connection between left-handedness and criminality is further emphasized at the end of the movie, for the man who eventually shoots Bruce Wayne’s parents holds the gun in his left hand. Interestingly, however, when the Joker kills Randall he holds the scissors in his right hand. (This could be intentional or unintended, or even another sign of the trickster defying expectations.) However, interpreting AF-Joker as a left-handed demonic figure (in the Christian sense), who is inherently bad, would immediately label him as a negative character pure and simple, an interpretation resisted by the movie itself. It also contradicts the trickster figure, who as the collective Shadow is an ambivalent archetype, a symbol of the archaic past where divine and non-divine were not yet distinguished (Radin 1972, 168), and where there existed no pure good or pure evil, but “[g]ood and evil, creation and destruction” were fused (Diamond 1972, xxi).

From the Jungian perspective, the left hand, which is clearly the weaker hand of AF (and Joaquin Phoenix?), is also considered to be inferior. Thus, the left hand could also refer to AF’s shadow (see also Jung 1969a, 78–79), which, as has been elaborated above, is not purely evil but primitive, unadapted and disobedient, and which is his ally when he defends himself. That said, the atmosphere is definitely creepy when the Joker draws a smiley face on the wall with his cigarette with his left hand shortly before he kills Randall. Also, at the end of the movie, as he is being taken to jail and the policeman who is driving the car blames him for bringing the fire on the streets of Gotham, the Joker, who has watched the rioting people and laughed happily at the unrest, presses the left side of his face—indeed his left eye—against the wire mesh that separates the two men and answers: “I know. Isn’t it beautiful?” This could be interpreted as a sign that the shadow side of his self is talking.[5]

Figure 7. Joker sheds tears with his left eye (a screenshot from the final trailer). Source: Joker © Warner Bros. 2019

It is more difficult to understand why the Joker uses his right hand to kill Randall. It could be suggested that this deed is more conscious and intentional, and less instinctive, than the killings he carries out with his (shadow-linked) left hand. The consequences of the actions he commits with his left hand are much more significant, as for the masses the Joker is the bringer of light, Prometheus, the philosopher of ancient myths (see also Kofman 1986, 27), who steals fire (power) from the gods (authorities, the rich) and gives it to civilization—the subjugated masses who live in misery and poverty—thus providing them with the means to improve their existence: this time not literally fire to cook food or forge swords but the strength to rise up and demand change. It is the Joker’s actions that spark the inferno on the streets of Gotham. Truly, the Joker is the bringer of fire, the modern Prometheus, even if the consequences of his actions leading to the uprising of the masses were unintended by him. Many of the earlier discussions on the film have centered on the individual and the issue of whether the movie itself could elicit violence (Newland 2019). However, although the movie concentrates on the Joker, the film is also a story about the birth of the power of the masses, and how the socially isolated and neglected come together and create groups. It is precisely this story that has inspired the use of Joker masks around the world in various protests and demonstrations (Mounier 2019).

Regarding the aesthetic experiences elicited by the movie (Carroll 2001, 215–218, 222, 225), the last outdoor scene, which underlines the Joker’s role as a modern-day Prometheus, exemplifies an emotional response—which can be determined by asking ourselves what emotions it elicits in us, as Carroll (2001, 232) suggests—which is the opposite of isolation: namely, a sense of unity, empowerment and undividedness. In this scene, some of the rioters have lifted the Joker onto the hood of the police car. A huge crowd of people gathers round, cheering and yelling, inciting him to stand up. He rises, and he dances. The perspective here is interesting: first the Joker is shown from the point of view of the crowd, but then the camera zooms to his face. Behind him are the masses, clown-masked and non-recognizable. The Joker paints his own blood, which is dripping from his mouth, into bright red clown lips on his face. When he turns around again, the viewer is now behind him. We see what he sees (even if we cannot feel what he feels). People around the police car are cheering and roaring. The noise is immense. The power of the scene is overwhelming. In the movie theater, the noise and the music generate a bodily effect; they are not only heard by the ears but felt by the body. The music and the noise of the crowd well over the viewer, going through them, being absorbed in them. As a visual and aural entirety, the last scene encloses the observer. It is not about being possessed, but becoming part of. The sense of unity nearly makes one burst. It brings tears to one’s eyes, producing exaltation and euphoria. The observer merges with the surging, faceless, clown-masked mass. They are undivided; there is an overwhelming feeling of togetherness. The experience is empowering; at the climax of the scene, just before the lights go out and we can hear AF’s laughter, everything is possible. The masses are united, powerful in their collectivity.[6] (But the violins in the score are sad, and somewhere in the background one might hear the sound of apocalyptic trumpets and the metallic voice of some cyborg beast, roaring. Gæti það verið Fenrisúlfur?)

This scene could suggest that for the first time the Joker is truly connecting with people in his social environment. He is the object of their awe and acclaim. People have noticed him, and because of his confession on the Murray Franklin Show they know that he is their Hero (another Jungian archetype), the clown who brought fire. It could be argued that his narcissistic wishes have now become fulfilled. In addition to that (in a Freudian sense), as an organism he has become the object of these other organisms and, for a moment at least, is incorporated into a higher unity with them. He is touched and utterly overjoyed; like in the studio, both of his eyes are full of tears. He appears to laugh—it is not an uncontrolled, pathological laughter this time, and his tears are not tears of anger or agony. His expression suggests that he is deeply moved, overwhelmed by feelings that flood out of him, uncontained.

Epilogue

In the last scene of the movie, the Joker walks down a white corridor, hands cuffed, with bloody shoe soles. He has apparently killed the doctor he was just speaking with. He is in a mental hospital, but here, too, he can see the light: at the end of the corridor there is a window—he is heading toward it—through which daylight illuminates the white aisle. Everything is bright, and he must be seeing everything clearly now. His shadow follows behind him, bound to him, without losing its grip on his body. Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life plays in the background, creating a jocular impression and framing his last trick—his killing of the doctor—as somewhat “funny.”

The Joker’s being in a mental institution suggests that—despite men crashing into the police car, in order to free him—he was still taken into custody. The riots that his actions elicited must have also been suppressed by the authorities. Even were he to become the real Joker, would he ever be anything but a sad figure in the reality of Gotham City? Like Frankenstein’s monster, he might have to admit that “no sympathy may I ever find” (Shelley 1818, “September 12th”). Even if others might use him to promote their own aims, he would not gain anything from it in the end. Tricksters never do.

Who knows. Maybe he will be back. As the song goes, maybe he is just finding himself “flat on […] [his] face,” and he will later “pick […] [himself’] up and get back in the race.” How would AF, if he were able with proper medication to rid himself of the Joker within him, handle his relationship with his putative little brother in the fairly realistic Gotham City portrayed in Joker? In the scene where the two offspring of Mr. Wayne meet, he is both interested and thrilled about the boy. His smile is genuine. Even though he may laugh at the mental picture of Bruce Wayne standing by his dead parents, he is still the trickster, who may deceive us and whose world may be inverted. Or, perhaps the Trickster (the former Boy who also became the Hero in this life story of his) is just happy because he is now his little brother’s closest kin. Brothers, undetachable from each other, they are like shadows.

But what about Bruce Wayne? Does the Joker become his enemy because he is bad or because Bruce knows about their mutual origin? Why does Bruce become Batman in the first place? Is losing his parents the only reason for becoming a hero? (Does it make him a loner, too?) Or, did he break a taboo or commit such a grave “sin” that it needs to be atoned for? Is helping people part of his penitence, or a way to connect with people? After all, no man is an angel, and flawless saints only inhabit fantasy (being a rich orphan and seeing your parents to be killed is hardly enough to make you a saint). Does Batman really help people, or does he just pretend to be doing it, to emphasize his own status? With his earlier male role models, his father and Alfred Pennyworth, hypocrisy and double standards were probably practiced in his upbringing more ardently than high moral standards. Is Bruce Wayne himself a reliable narrator? Is everything we have learned about Batman by far just his dream? Can we trust his testimony? Did he really see a clown in the alley where his parents were shot? What if he has false memories, or if he just lied?

If the Joker is an unreliable narrator, as has been suggested (Morrison 2019), and the story is just his imagination, Joker would merely confirm general expectations concerning Gotham City (or everyday reality?), that bad people are bad because of the inherent badness that resides within them, whereas good people are good, pure and simple. Flawless and perfect, Saint Batman is thus a member of this breed, a modern savior who has never sinned but had to suffer because of the deeds done by others, who deprived him of his mother and father, Mr. Wayne the Martyr (who is not a bad person after all, even if that is suggested in Joker).

Sometimes we just grow tired of hearing stories about these modern fairytale saints and superheroes that wear funny costumes, some of whom occupy themselves with industrialized manslaughter and whose explanation that “they couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives” as a reason for killing somebody would be a hilarious joke instead of a morally contemptible utterance. They do not move us or let us be surprised; they do not enable us to ask, ponder or answer ultimate questions about life and the human condition, to become wiser and more understanding. They do not make us think (quite the opposite), and they do not inflame us with enthusiasm to contemplate veiled meanings or allow us to explore the shadows hidden from our view. Our defenders, our allies, our friends—our selves. “How about another Joke[r], Murray?”

 

Special thanks to Anu Salmela for her helpful comments on the text, and to Albion M. Butters for proofreading the article, correcting my English and offering useful comments.

 

References

All links verified January 21, 2020

Film

Joker. Directed by: Todd Phillips, written by: Todd Phillips, and Scott Silver, starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy. Hollywood, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019. 122 min.

Music

Hildur Guðnadóttir. 2019. Joker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack). Watertower Music.

Scripts

“Joker. An Origin.” Written by: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver. April 13, 2018. https://www.scriptslug.com/assets/uploads/scripts/joker-2019.pdf

Online Videos

Flicks and the City. 2019. “The Joker DELETED ENDING You Never Saw + Deleted Scenes.” October 5, 2019. Video 10:46. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joU-xioKMvA.

Looper. 2019. “Joker Director Finally Explains That Last Crucial Scene.” October 8, 2019. Video 4:11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lvobr-K2Sps.

Phillips, Todd. 2019. “Joker Director Breaks Down the Opening Scene.” Vanity Fair, October 7, 2019. Video 12:32. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awoQuVq2yYc.

Warner Bros. Pictures. 2019. “Joker – Teaser Trailer.” April 3, 2019. Video 2:24. https://youtu.be/t433PEQGErc.

Warner Bros. Pictures. 2019. “Joker – Final Trailer.” August 28, 2020. Video 2:24 https://youtu.be/zAGVQLHvwOY.

Warner Bros. Pictures. 2019. “Joker Movie – I’m Also A Comedian Clip.” December 13, 2019. Video 1:21. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7T0DuKpjDMY.

Websites

Corse Present. 2019. “Joker: A Trickster for our Times.” Corse present blog, October 5, 2019. https://corsepresentblog.wordpress.com/2019/10/05/joker-a-trickster-for-our-times/.

Giroux, Jack. 2019. “Joker Cinematographer Lawrence Sher on Contrasts and Chaos [Spoiler Interview]”. Slashfilm, October 23, 2019. https://www.slashfilm.com/joker-cinematographer-interview/3/

Mattes, Ari. 2019. “The Joker’s Origin Story Comes at a Perfect Moment: Clowns Define Our Times.” The Conversation, September 11, 2019. http://theconversation.com/the-jokers-origin-story-comes-at-a-perfect-moment-clowns-define-our-times-123009.

Morrison, Matt. 2019. “Evidence ALL Of Joker Is In Arthur Fleck’s Head.” Screenrant, October 10, 2019. https://screenrant.com/joker-movie-not-real-arthur-fleck-mind-theory/.

Mounier, Jean-Luc. 2019. “From Beirut to Hong Kong, the Face of the Joker is Appearing in Demonstrations.” France 24, October 24, 2019. https://www.france24.com/en/20191024-from-beirut-to-hong-kong-the-face-of-the-joker-is-emerging-in-demonstrations.

Newland, Christina. 2019. “’Incel’ Violence is Horrific, but Joker is Complex, and Doesn’t Take Sides.” The Guardian, September 2, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/sep/02/incel-violence-joker-rightwing-film-joaquin-phoenix

Polo, Susana. 2019. “The Secret to the Joker’s 50 Year Transition from Trickster to ‘Twisted’.” Polygon, October 8, 2019. https://www.polygon.com/comics/2019/10/8/20903529/joker-batman-dc-comics-history-funny-dark-twisted.

Sapir, Moran. 2019. “Hidden Things in the Film Joker That Most People Missed.” Universityfox, October 31, 2019. https://admin.universityfox.com/stories/behind-scenes-joker-facts-make-movie-even-better/.

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Carroll, Noël. 2001. Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. 1996. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” In Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 3–25.

Diamond, Stanley. 1972. “Introductory Essay.” In Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Schocken Books, xi–xxii.

Doueihi, Anne. 1984. “Trickster: On Inhabiting the Space Between Discourse and Story.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Vol 67, 3: 283–311.

Egeler, Matthias. 2010. Walküren, Bodbs, Sirenen. Gedanken zur religionsgeschichtlichen Anbindung Nordwesteuropas an den mediterranen Raum. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.

Freud, Sigmund. 1920. “Beyond Pleasure Principle.” In Freud: Complete Works 2000, 2007, 2010, edited by Ivan Smith, 3713–3762. https://www.valas.fr/IMG/pdf/Freud_Complete_Works.pdf.

Freud, Sigmund. 1930. “Civilization and Its Discontents.” In Freud: Complete Works 2000, 2007, 2010, edited by Ivan Smith, 4462–4532. https://www.valas.fr/IMG/pdf/Freud_Complete_Works.pdf.

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Jung, C. G. 1969b. “A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity.” In The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol 2: Psychology and Religion: West and East, translated by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 107–200.

Jung, C. G. 1969c. “Foreword to Werblowsky’s ‘Lucifer and Prometheus’.” In The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol 2: Psychology and Religion: West and East, translated by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 311–315.

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Notes

[1] I have chosen to use the article (i.e. the Joker) since the character is commonly referred to in the comics as “the Joker”. However, I do not suggest that Arthur Fleck is the Joker.

[2] Here I will not consider further which scenes in the movie could be just AF’s dream.

[3] Jung, who considered the clown a trickster as well, has regarded the old carnival customs as “remnants of a collective shadow figure” (Jung 2011, 135–142, 144).

[4] That is, matricide, if Penny Fleck is indeed AF’s mother.

[5] In the first scene of the movie, AF sheds a tear with his right eye, as if to suggest that the shadow is still isolated from his consciousness (even if the actor’s tear is spontaneous; Phillips 2019). After putting on the Joker makeup, AF’s self-awareness and wisdom has increased; he sheds tears with his left eye, which can be linked to the shadow.

[6] According to Jung (2011, 147): “As soon as people get together in masses and submerge the individual, the shadow is mobilized.”

 

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