Category Archives: 1970s films

The Joker as Dark Trickster

Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, is an example of how a movie can be highly flawed and highly derivative in some ways and still be significant. Though the story is uneven and ambiguous and the Joker himself (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t a very coherently constructed character, the film manages to tap into the nihilistic zeitgeist of contemporary life. The strong reactions it provoked are proof of this.

A more “serious” filmmaker than Phillips, best known for popular comedies such as The Hangover (parts one, two, and three, sigh), might have created a more fully developed joker -perhaps one who was more politically correct and sympathetic or, conversely, one who was a pure villain. Phillips was content to let the character stray all over the map and leave us with a perplexing, ambiguous character and film that may be, after all, appropriate for the Joker.

The Joker’s Heavy-handed “Influences”

I was never a huge fan of Batman (or any comic/superhero franchise) and missed most of the movies. I do have childhood recollections of the original TV series, though, so references such as Gotham City and Bruce Wayne are familiar enough to me. That said, Phillips’ Joker borrows (or outright steals) more from 70s Scorcese films than from the Batman universe.

Set approximately in a gritty 1970s Gotham City, which is essentially New York, many scenes depict a Times Square-like neighborhood that immediately evokes Taxi Driver. The Joker, née Arthur Fleck, does have similarities with Travis Bickle after he transforms from an anonymous misfit loner to a violent vigilante. Yet he’s equally Rupert Pupkin, from The King of Comedy, another entry in the Scorcese-DeNiro partnership, the character who becomes obsessed with and eventually kidnaps a TV host played by Jerry Lewis.

In Joker, Robert DeNiro is the one playing the TV host, Murray Franklin (who evokes a TV radio host named Joe Franklin). Fleck, like Pupkin, has imaginary conversations with the TV host and visualizes himself as a star.

There’s a dubious assumption that if you blatantly refer to other works while winking at the audience, you’re doing a high-minded tribute rather than simply copying. The fact that DeNiro gave his blessing to the project with his participation doesn’t say much, as many of his later roles can be seen as essentially cashing out on his earlier, far greater roles.

Joker, of course, “borrows” from other films as well, especially A Clockwork Orange, which gave us one of the first truly disturbing depictions of modern society collapsing into violent chaos.

The Joker as Trickster

The Joker is part of an archetype that transcends modern cinema, comic books, and Batman. As a playing card, the Joker is wild, a close relation to The Fool in the tarot, also known as the Jester, a character who dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages in Western culture, and quite a bit further in others. Tricksters such as Loki in Northern Europe, Hermes in Greece, and Coyote in North America have always played an important role in mythology and storytelling.

Tricksters are, by nature, morally ambiguous. They can be fun and playful, but also deceptive and self-serving. It’s revealing just how dark so many tricksters have become in our modern myths. Aside from the Joker, the evil clown, a staple of so many horror movies, is probably the best example.

Modern audiences are split on how they respond to these dark tricksters. In an age when faith in traditional institutions such as government, religion, and even science is collapsing, the anarchic spirit of the trickster is appealing. Yet an amoral clown like the Joker can easily lead to random violence and total societal collapse.

Joker Triggers Many Critics

Joker triggered strong responses from many critics, well beyond the usual elitist vitriol often unleashed on popular movies.  For example, the New Yorker published a near-hysterical review that missed the mark in multiple ways, choosing to fixate on racial issues.

Somehow Fleck being assaulted by a multiethnic group of kids while waving a store’s sale sign equates to the infamous Central Park Five case and his being assaulted by a group of wealthy white guys on the subway makes him Bernie Goetz.

I can almost suspect that Phillips put in a few racially charged scenes to provoke such oversimplified reactions from old-school liberals. It’s easy enough to shove the Joker into the neat category of an angry white male, along the lines of Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down. But Joker is considerably more complex. In a tense urban environment, it’s not shocking that an unstable person such as Fleck would be triggered by racially charged incidents. But the film is clearly dealing with wider issues concerning society, mental illness, anomie, and violence.

Does Joker Celebrate Nihilism?

I don’t believe in anything.” -Arthur Fleck in Joker.

Perhaps the central question about Joker is whether the film is a celebration of Fleck’s nihilism or a cautionary tale. It can be interpreted either way. Fleck is portrayed as a troubled man suffering from mental health issues. The system clearly lets him down when the program that provides him with medication is shut down. This, indeed, is when he starts to unravel. On the other hand, Fleck can just as easily be seen as a sociopath who doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions.

The final scenes, showing mobs of rioters celebrating the Joker as their antihero reminded me of another 70s movie, the cult classic The Warriors, in which street gangs took over the city.

While Joker is by no means a great film, it’s worth seeing and discussing because it portrays a character who is, unfortunately, relatable in a society where alienation and mental illness run rampant (as Taxi Driver was 50 years earlier).

Joker is also a kind of Rorschach test, revealing your attitudes towards complex issues like social unrest, race, anarchy, freedom, and creative expression. Your reactions may very well change over time and even through different scenes of the film. This makes Joker a film that’s always interesting despite its flaws.



11 Top Movies Featuring Trains and Subways

If you’re a fan of trains and the allure of the open tracks, you won’t want to miss out on the cinematic experience of a good train movie. From classic Westerns to pulse-pounding action thrillers, trains have been a staple of the silver screen for over a century. Here are some of the very best movies to take a ride on the rails. Subways are included here as well. These movies are listed in chronological order, going way back to 1903.

1. The Great Train Robbery (1903)

One of the earliest narrative films ever made, The Great Train Robbery was a sensation upon its release and set the standard for train-based action onscreen. Directed by Edwin S. Porter, the film, in a mere 12 minutes, tells the story of a band of bandits who take over a train and make off with its cargo of gold. With innovative editing techniques and thrilling action sequences, it’s easy to see why The Great Train Robbery remains a classic to this day. It was remade in 1978 by Michael Crichton, starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.

2. The General (1926)

Buster Keaton’s silent comedy masterpiece The General is perhaps the definitive train movie. Set during the Civil War, the film follows Keaton’s hapless train engineer as he attempts to rescue his beloved locomotive and thwart a group of Union spies. With stunning stunt work and Keaton’s trademark deadpan humor, The General is one of the greatest films ever made.

3. Strangers on a Train (1951)

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic noir mystery is another example of a movie where a train plays a crucial role. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train is about two men who concoct a farfetched but wickedly brilliant scheme: each will commit a murder on behalf of the other, making it extremely hard to catch either of them. This film has influenced countless other murder mysteries.

4. North by Northwest (1959)

Another entry for the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. North By Northwest is a masterclass in suspense filmmaking, and its climactic chase sequence atop a moving train is one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Starring Cary Grant as an advertising executive mistaken for a spy, the film takes him on a wild cross-country journey that culminates in a showdown aboard a speeding train.

5. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

This one features the subway as a major character. A gritty crime thriller stars Walter Matthau as a New York City transit cop who must negotiate with a group of hijackers who have taken a subway train and its passengers hostage. With tense action and a sharp script, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre. The film was actually remade twice, once in 1998 and again in 2009. Critics may argue which of the three is best, but if you haven’t seen any of them you should definitely start with the original.

6. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Based on Agatha Christie’s popular novel, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic mystery movie that takes place aboard the famous Orient Express train. The story revolves around Detective Hercule Poirot as he attempts to solve a gruesome murder on board the train. With an all-star cast featuring the likes of Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall, this whodunit film remains a timeless classic. It was remade in 2017 by Kenneth Branagh.

7. The Warriors (1979)

Not well reviewed when it came out, The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill has become a cult classic and an iconic New York 1970s movie. It’s a violent, surreal journey of a street gang having to fight its way from the Bronx to its home base in Coney Island, mostly via the New York City subway system. It can be viewed as a modern urban version of The Odyssey featuring unique cinematography and intricately choreographed fight scenes.

8. The Fugitive (1993)

The Fugitive, a 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford, is based on the TV series from the 1960s that’s become a cult classic. One of the outstanding scenes in the film is a train crash scene. In the scene, Ford’s character is being transported to prison by train when a collision occurs, allowing him to escape. The crash, filmed using a combination of practical effects and CGI, is one of the most impressive train crash scenes ever filmed.

9. Before Sunrise (1995)

The first in Richard Linklater’s brilliant trilogy, Before Sunrise features two young travelers, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke who meet and fall in love on a European train journey. The film is a great example of character and dialog-driven filmmaking as it manages to keep viewers captivated without any action or complex plot devices. The sequels Before Sunset, and Before Midnight are also worth seeing, though not as train-centric. See my full review of Before Sunrise.

10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

The Hogwarts Express, the train that takes young wizards to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is a major part of the Harry Potter books and movies. In the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Hogwarts Express is introduced in a memorable scene where Harry boards the train and meets Ron Weasley for the first time.

11. Snowpiercer (2013)

In a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth has frozen over, the last remnants of humanity survive aboard a massive, perpetually moving train. Snowpiercer follows a rebellion led by Chris Evans’ character as they make their way through the train’s various classes and compartments, fighting against its strict hierarchy. With stunning visuals and a gripping story, Snowpiercer is a train movie unlike any other.

Trains have been an integral part of movie history. From the earliest films to modern blockbusters, trains have been used to create suspense, excitement, and drama. These iconic movies are just a small sample of the many great train moments in movie history. I may add more train movies in the future, as there are surely many I overlooked here.

Love trains? See Rail Buffs, another of my sites, where there’s a version of this article and lots of other content on railroad history, model trains, subways, metros, and more!


Magic in the Moonlight -Latest From Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s latest film sounds like a rehashing of what he’s been dutifully releasing year after year for the last four decades. Magic in the Moonlight has a basic Pygmalion theme and has a glamorous 1920s South of France setting, factors which Allen’s usual upscale and sophisticated (at least by 20th century standards) audience will find hard to resist. I haven’t seen the film and probably will wait until it’s available on Netflix streaming (if ever), so I’ll refer you to what sounds like a trenchant critique of it (see link at the end of this article).

Personally, I’m ambivalent about Woody Allen. It’s hard not to admire some of his films from the 70s and 80s, though even then they were on the verge of being anachronistic, with Allen so fond of quoting Sartre, Freud, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, a practice he has continued. By the 90s and 00s, it was hard to find much original in even his better efforts. The only differences seem to be that the scenes have shifted mostly from New York to Europe and, rather than starring in his own films, he’s mainly using stand-ins -in the latest case, Colin Firth.

If you consider Allen’s personal life and the recent accusations made against him, you probably would want to avoid his work altogether. I don’t take this stance, because, let’s face it, great art (and great deeds in other aspects of life) have often been created by highly flawed human beings. Additionally, how much do we really know about any of the celebrities and heroes out there, even those with the most pristine images?

My main complaint with Allen is that his work and point of view hasn’t really evolved over the decades. In fairness, though, even a mediocre Woody Allen film is wittier and more entertaining than the average Hollywood romantic comedy, though that’s not saying very much.

In the following article, Kate Arthur and Alison Willmore discuss Magic in the Moonlight, as well as their own views on separating artists’ personal lives from their work.

Why Woody Allen’s Lighthearted New Movie May Still Tie You In Knots

Straight Time

Straight Time (1978) is a lesser known film from another decade that has quite a bit to offer contemporary fans of indie films. The last film I reviewed on this blog was John and Mary, which starred Dustin Hoffman along with Mia Farrow. So, in keeping with the theme of older Dustin Hoffman films, I decided to revisit Straight Time, directed by Ulu Grosbard.

Straight Time is a sneaky movie -like it’s protagonist, Max Dembo (Hoffman), the movie doesn’t quite play it straight and let you know where it’s headed. In fact, it might be good advice to not even read this review until you’ve seen the movie (if you’ve never seen it before or don’t remember it). While I won’t reveal the ending, it’s hard to give a relevant description without revealing a little more than you should really know before seeing it.

The film starts out with Dembo being released from prison after serving a sentence for burglary. He is unlucky enough to have the parole officer from hell, Earl Frank, expertly played by M. Emmet Walsh. Frank is an underhanded, racist redneck type who does everything he can to hinder Dembo’s rehabiliation. So at first we think this is what the film is about -a non-violent ex-con trying to go straight, and coming up against social injustice. The fact that Dembo is played by the normally mild-mannered Hoffman makes us all the more likely to see things this way. But that’s not quite what’s really happening here.

There are clues from the start that Dembo has real problems conforming to authority in any form. His first confrontation with Frank comes when, instead of spending his first night of freedom in a halfway house as he was ordered to, he slips into a hotel. He unsuccessfully tries to reach Frank and tell him this, and the two are immediately at odds. Now we can sympathize with Dembo’s desire to be free of the system, and see that Frank is a stickler for the rules, but we can also see the futility of breaking the rules the first day you get out of prison.

Things start to look up for Dembo when Frank relents and lets him stay in a hotel (albeit an awful looking one-room fleabag) and he manages to get a job in a factory. Not only that, but he manages to land a date with the young woman who works at the employment agency, Jenny (Theresa Russell).

When Dembo hooks up with an old friend, Willy Darin (Gary Busey), things go downhill for him. Darin, a drug user, shoots up in Dembo’s hotel room and the next day, Frank discovers evidence of this on a visit. Dembo is thrown back into jail and tested for drug use. Although he’s only there for a night, we see that this experience has taken away any chance of rehabilitation. When Jenny visits him, he looks back at her with dead eyes that tell us that, no matter what else happens, his fate is already sealed.

The rest of the film is a mainly depressing look at Dembo’s slide back into a life of armed robbery. He meets up with another old friend and fellow thief, Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton, another great character actor), and the two begin a two man crime wave around Los Angeles. We also see more and more evidence of Dembo’s violent nature and inability to change.

Straight Time is not exactly an uplifting film, as it has a theme that’s akin to Greek tragedy, where a person’s destiny is determined by fate and his inborn character. While we want to root for Dembo and see him as a victim of society (as personified by the undeniably evil Frank), the film forces us to confront the fact of his own culpability in everything that happens.

Max Dembo is a fascinating character not because he’s a hardcore sociopath, but because he’s an understated one. He almost appears too lazy to look at himself honestly and make the effort to change. We can imagine that, had everything worked out perfectly for him, and had he run into a sympathetic rather than a sadistic parole officer, he might have actually gone straight. However, life seldom works out perfectly. So the film suggests that social ills such as crime are not simply a result of the flawed characters of the criminals or the flaws of society, but a complex mix of the two.

Straight Time is a vintage 1970s movie with a great cast. For complete details see the IMDb page for the film.

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