Act One: When I was a freshman in high school Julie Pardini would drive Mr. Biggins and me 26.2 miles every morning from Boonville over the hill to Ukiah High on Low Gap Road, located conveniently just down the street from a kindred institution of higher learning, the county jail. In those days logging was still king, and the morning roads were full of familiar faces like Rodger Tolman, Leroy Perry and Paul Hughbanks hauling logs in their big rigs to the mills that operated in Ukiah, Fort Bragg and Cloverdale, or hurtling past in their empty trucks towards Comptche or Navarro or up Signal Ridge Road for another load. On many days, when the fog had galloped south from Navarro, we'd climb east up Highway 253, past the Tollhouse and through Bell Valley and up the long slow curve to the top, then find ourselves above a sparkling carpet of diaphanous silver stretching out towards Hopland and clinging to the tan oaks and steep ravines and places only the birds and raindrops know. I've been all around the world, and have seen all kinds of things, but nothing beats winding through a thick valley fog, its wet cocoon mysterious and opaque, and suddenly without warning break through into the light of an unobstructed, unfiltered, unrepentant sun, the newborn rays chasing the morning's milky clouded damp from the leaves and grass and grudging boulders.
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me
— "The Logical Song" (Supertramp)
Every morning, five days a week, Julie would play Supertramp the entire ride to school; better than listening to Yuri Andropov lecturing the KGB's Women Auxiliary on the socialist merits of cast iron bedsheets, one supposes, but it does seem a bit odd in retrospect. Of course Mr. Biggins and I were not the type to complain, or even comment, perhaps suspecting that the soundtrack was part of our new curriculum, which included the peculiar fact that Ukiah High's classrooms had no windows facing outward, towards the Sun and natural light of day.
Goodbye stranger, it's been nice
Hope you find your paradise
Tried to see your point of view
Hope your dreams will all come true
*Goodbye Mary, goodbye Jane
Will we ever meet again…?
—"Goodbye Stranger" (Supertramp)
Act Two: I've seen many sea lions and porpoises swimming by the pier in Sausalito, and also herons, geese and pelicans and once even a young hawk watching from atop a wire as a fisherman released a stingray back into the grateful bay. On several occasions I've been lucky enough to glimpse the graceful shapes of sea otters, a beautiful almost holy sight, given that the species was once hunted to near extinction.
The first time I saw a living otter outside of a television screen was when I was in grade school. In the summer when Anderson Valley Creek was easy to cross Eric June and I would ride his red Rupster dune buggy miles deep into the June Ranch, up a rutted track over the hills and nothing but crickets click-clicking and one or two buzzards circling in the sky above. We'd pass the old James Place homestead which once belonged to a freed slave who old timers said had whip scars on his back. The only signs of James' historic life were a little falling down house and an unruly orchard with apple and plum trees gone wild, and further we'd drive, through the dust and up and over a ridge and through another meadow full of dragonflies and it was beautiful to be alive then, just kids in the woods during summer and a swimming hole to get to.
And what a spot it was: a deep crevice carved naturally from the riverbed, on one side a giant rock worn smooth by water and time with a lip of soft sand beach edging into the Rancheria's waters pooling in blue emerald shimmers.
Once coming over the rise we stopped and pointed: a river otter was splashing around like river otters do! An otter! And in our private swimming hole! And if you don’t believe me ask the trees and the rocks, ask them politely just once, without making a sound, and if you’re respectful enough, they’ll teach you things that’ll make your head spin, and you’ll get dizzy, and excited, and the next thing you know the modern world with all its so-called conveniences and polite backstabbing and self-involved inanities will become as useful as a sparrow with a parachute. People talk about mermaids and pirate treasure and lost colonies of hairy ape men living in cavern palaces beneath Mount Shasta, but there is nothing more romantic or alluring than a secret swimming hole when you're twelve years old on a July day and the sky is overflowing with blue and the otters are dancing and diving and making it all truer than true.
Act Three: Burdened thusly with bittersweet memories of faraway friends and distant summers I go to the picture show. There has been much handwringing kerfuffle from the mainstream media about this Joker, a big budget Hollywood film starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. It's too violent, they whine, too cynical, too dark, too artless and disdainful of what passes for a social contract. Typical of the naysayers is reviewer A.O. Scott of the congenitally overrated New York Times, who claims:
"To be worth arguing about, a movie must first of all be interesting: it must have, if not a coherent point of view, at least a worked-out, thought-provoking set of themes, some kind of imaginative contact with the world as we know it. Joker, an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing, has none of that. Besotted with the notion of its own audacity — as if willful unpleasantness were a form of artistic courage — the film turns out to be afraid of its own shadow, or at least of the faintest shadow of any actual relevance."
Whether fried, boiled or canned in a gelatinous slime of mystery quiver, bollocks are bollocks, and Scott's take on Joker is a steaming platter full, with a bollocks fondue for dessert and a snifter full of fermented bollocks juice over shaved bollock ice in the billiards room post-repast.
The truth is that Joker is an honest and fascinating pop movie critique of post-capitalist America; a well-made, well-acted riff on what's obvious to anyone with cataracts for eyes and half an ear: ours is a society well on its way towards ugly implosion. The movie conjures faint echoes of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, the seminal film Network, Scorcese's The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, along with the gonzo nihilism of Kurt Russell's B-movie classic, Escape From New York. And with a hearty 90% approval rating on the popular movie site, IMDB, it proves that more than just a handful of disaffected Laytonville hill muffins are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
Played hauntingly by Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is the sad, sordid tale of Arthur Fleck evolving into his dark and empowering alter ego, a homicidal clown who inadvertently inspires his fellow disaffected thousands to riot and rage against the machine. Fleck is a sad-sack flailing in an abyss of poverty, mental illness, and a home life where he must care for his delusional shut-in mother, who sends daily letters to a Trump-like figure pleading for some hand-of-billionaire-god relief from the grinding despair of their hopeless lives. Like many Americans, Fleck takes multiple prescription mood-alterants and sees a shrink, until the bankrupt city cuts mental health funding and yanks his problematic care (arguably a good thing). Fleck also has a rare medical condition that causes him to laugh riotously at odd, often inopportune times, a Tourette’s-like quirk that leads eventually to gunplay and blood. In this uber-dystopian Gotham City besieged by super vermin of both the two- and four-legged variety, mountains of filth and menace, and dwindling welfare services, time and place are twin powder kegs, and Arthur Fleck is a flaming jug of high-octane gasoline.
The story opens with Fleck trying to make an honest buck, kitted out in face paint, red nose and fire-wire hair, and toting a GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sign on a busy street corner, another pathetic cog in the free enterprise wheel. He's set upon by feral youths who steal his sign then beat him senseless. Overwhelmed, the man in the clown suit trudges home to lick his wounds and watch TV with his handicapped mother in a hellhole apartment building surrounded by similar demon-realms of crumbling cinder block and broken elevators. And then things start to go downhill.
When a fellow clown-for-hire loans Fleck a gun, we know that the bats have left the bell tower in search of fresh soft throats. Soon enough Fleck is forced into dispensing vigilante justice to three lupine stockbrokers on the subway, the painful and riveting sequence a polite nod to amateur sheriff Bernhard Goetz's hijinks on a downtown 2 train back in 1984. Unlike Goetz, Fleck doesn't go looking for trouble, but it has a knack for finding him, partly because of the way he scream-laughs like the insane person he is, partly because he is a victim too in a world that has neither the patience nor interest in listening to his barbaric wailing, which is in reality nothing more than a cry to be recognized as a human being, to have friends and dignity, to be rescued from the horrible and relentless fate of a freakish Elephant Man-like crypto-life and excruciating death, ignored, scorned, and left to perish without priest or purpose in time's grey sewers, like a rat caught in a rusty trap beneath a Chernobyl bomb shelter. There are no happy endings in Joker, no teaching moments or fey love interests or overcoming all odds to add one's light to the sum of light via some clunky plot device like a prom date corsage or winning field goal or improbable victory over hordes of yellow-fanged zombies with only bungee cords and a George Foreman Grill for weapons. Indeed, the film's ruthless milieu and spiraling despair are so dark that it feels like a righteous blow for truth and freedom has been struck when the beleaguered and besieged Arthur Fleck finally lashes out, and with murderous and bloody results.
Joker succeeds as Hollywood fable because the so-called average person is tired of barely treading water in this soul-crushing sea of corruption and lies and filth. We know that the center cannot hold. We understand that the water broke years ago and now we wait to see what monstrous beast lurches forth from the womb of our collective sins to wreak existential havoc on what remains of our once divine souls. We know our current prison must be slashed and burned and replanted with seeds of hope and justice. We know too that the shameless greedy whores and perverts who run this country and the world will not surrender their disgusting thrones without the reins being pulled from their cold dead hands. Like Arthur Fleck, we begin to laugh uncontrollably at things that aren't funny, maybe just to prove to ourselves we can still crack a smile.
Meanwhile, the shadows lengthen. Winter is coming. All the clown, would-be clowns and bullied, lonely people shuffle from drug store to parking structure in the morbid cloak of two-dimensional meaning, not human beings so much as shadow puppets on a piss-stained concrete wall. Maybe one day soon the disaffected and disavowed and humble kind-hearted millions will start to laugh together and all at once. Maybe we won't stop laughing until a Biblical torrent of tears is unleashed, drowning the rotten and the rotting old in a flood of justice and truth, a billion-trillion-footed tidal wave that clears the stage for the next epic melodrama. I don't know if there will be caped crusaders or wild apples or otters frolicking with mermaids in the deep. But, as with any birth of a new civilization, there will be blood.