Dilettante's Diary
APRIL 23, 2021
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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Reviewed here: Joker (Movie) and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Movie)

Joker (Movie) written by Tod Phillips and Scott Silver; directed by Tod Phillips; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Nero, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beets and Brett Cullen

One thing about not seeing movies until long after they’ve come out: you forget most of what you’ve heard about them, and what you do remember tends to be a bit vague and confused. That leaves you pretty much free to form your own impressions. What I do remember hearing about this one is that some thought it was objectionable, far too sinister to be endured, and others found it a worthy work of art.

I don’t ordinarily enjoy movies with a central character who’s mentally deranged. On the one hand, I find it too easy for an actor to play weird; I’m more interested in seeing an actor deploy the nuanced skill of presenting a more ordinary person to the camera. Also, a story about a deranged person can offer a spectacle that may be amazing to watch, but it sometimes doesn’t provide any insight into the kinds of lives the rest of us live.

What makes Joker work for me, however, is that you have a superb actor at the centre of it. True, the central character, Arthur Fleck is mentally disturbed, but, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, he is endlessly fascinating. You’re never quite sure what is going on with this guy. How disturbed is he? Is he actually quite perceptive? There’s that special light in his eye that always makes you think there might be more going with this guy than it seems on the surface. You’re constantly wondering: Could this near-wreck of a human being be saved? Couldn’t somebody speak up for him?

The story, set in 1981, is that Arthur is a man who has a difficult life; the wrongs and injustices keep piling up until he can’t stand it any more and he flips out, leading to a lot of violence. He had a difficult childhood, never knowing who his father was; he was apparently abused as a kid. Now, he lives with his elderly mother (Frances Conroy) in their cluttered, dingy apartment and attempts to take care of her as well as he can. He works as a clown, doing advertising gigs in the street, where he’s subject to a lot of ridicule and outright assault. He’s on a lot of prescribed drugs and he visits regularly with a social worker who tries, in a somewhat detached, bureaucratic and ineffectual way, to help him.

I’ve learned – belatedly – that the movie is based on characters from DC Comics and that it’s intended to give a back story for the character of the Joker, who has been Batman’s nemesis through many installments. That background could explain some of the garish elements of the movie. Sometimes, for instance, it’s hard to tell whether what’s happening is a delusion of Arthur’s or an event in real life. Some of the interaction with a tv talk show host (Robert De Niro) would seem highly improbable in real life but not at all out of context in a comic book. Would the comic book context give fans of that genre a bigger bang for their buck? Maybe. But I’m glad to have appreciated the movie without knowing anything about all that schlock.


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Movie) written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margo Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino.

It’s the late 1960s. Leondardo di Capprio is playing Rick Dalton, an actor who’s made a name for himself as the hero of a tv cowboy series. Rick’s career is on a downturn now and he’s trying to make a comeback in movies. Unfortunately, the studios are only offering him “bad guy” roles. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth who works as Rick stunt double and also happens to function as his chauffeur, Rick having lost his driving licence for some reason or other. Rick sometimes has trouble getting movie work for Cliff given Cliff’s somewhat unsavoury past. (Word is that he killed his wife and got away with it.)

The relationship between these two guys is intriguing. There’s a bond between them that can’t be broken. When Rick finally decides that he can’t afford to employ Cliff any longer, how do they mark the divergence of their paths? They go out and get drunk together, celebrating the history they’ve had with each other.

There are special pleasures to this movie for anybody who enjoys the fuss on the periphery of show business. At a Playboy Mansion party, a character identified as Steve McQueen points out who’s who and who is sleeping with whom. On set, Bruce Lee gets a comeuppance in response to his showing off. Al Pancio makes a surprisingly low-profile appearance as an agent trying to hustle work for Rick Dalton. We see Rick trying to learn his lines to a tape recording that gives him the cues, berating himself when he flubs them. We see the jublilation when his improvisation on set sparks the congratulations of the director and the crew. One particularly moving scene takes place when a precocious eight-year-old actress comforts Rick when he’s feeling blue during a break in shooting.

A nice touch of the actor’s narcissism comes in a scene where a director is describing the elaborate costuming and makeup that he wants for Rick Dalton. The actor: how will people know it’s me? The director: that’s the point, you’re supposed to be a different character! Does it matter that Mr. DiCapprio never quite looks the part of the desperado that Rick Dalton is supposed to be playing? Not really, maybe that’s the point. There’s always something of the nice guy lurking inside him.

And does it matter that Brad Pitt seems too charismatic to be a loser like Cliff? Not really. He’s interesting to watch, that’s all that matters. One of his best scenes is when a suspiciously young hitch-hiker (Margaret Qualley) tries to persuade him that she’s old enough to have sex with him. With undiminished charm, he informs her that he’s seen enough of the inside of prisons and he’s not prepared for a return visit because of her.

So far so good, as far as story goes.

But, this being a Quentin Tarantino movie, things are not straightforward in narrative terms. There’s a fragmentary quality to the movie. At one point well into the movie, a voice-over narrator whom we never heard before pipes up. We keep seeing characters who don’t seem to have anything to do with Rick and Cliff. Who are these people and what are they doing here?

Gradually, we realize that Mr. Tarantino is homing in on a historical event that took place in the late 1960s. For American viewers this connection might be obvious from the start. On the other hand, if you’ve read anything about this movie, you probably know what’s in store. But it’s not up to us here at Dilettante’s Diary to spoil the suspense. If you knew from the start where the moving was heading, it would lose some of its mystery.

I think we do have to reveal, though, that the movie doesn’t end quite the way you’re expecting. It’s one of those “What If?” movies. What if the historical thing that happened actually did not happen? Some people might not see the point of playing such games with history. But I feel there’s a tremendous significance to this “thought experiment.” It helps to emphasize the enormity of what did happen, it makes you feel the consequences of it all the more keenly, it makes you dream of how life might have been ...if only ....

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com