November 12, 2019

Snow Day tribute to Tulsi d'Arc

On this first heavy snow day of the season, a music video that concentrates so much evocative wintry on-location footage, both interior and exterior, into just a few minutes. The music is part of the folk revival that appears during the manic phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle.

I imagine Tulsi Gabbard in the role, however strange that may seem for an aloha-state babe, since she's a literal member of the military. But you could also indulge your figurative side and imagine Aimee Terese, Anna Khachiyan, or Angela Nagle playing the honor-bound woman martyred during a war for the entire nation (not just some inbred little faction).

"Maid of Orleans" by OMD (1981)



November 10, 2019

Alison Balsam's dance mixtape for depressive cerebrals, to block out their self-consciousness and let the music take over their body

An intriguing character from the not-so-woke Left is Alison Balsam (@foolinthelotus on Twitter). Her persona is a depressive, cerebral wordplayer whose disillusionment with horniness is leading her to becoming a spinster (volcel). Although not-so-woke, she attracts followers from the liberal and radlib parts of the Left because the online Left's fundamental shared trait is mental illness of one kind or another -- so someone who makes depression central to their persona is bound to have broad appeal among leftists.

I use the word "persona" because there are times when she breaks character and we get to see her passionate and corporeal side. It's not often, but regular enough to know that it's a core part of who she is, always stirring beneath the surface. This makes her unlike the depressive leftoids who just whine and rage all day long, and whose light moments only amount to numb, mumbling sarcasm. Thoroughly depressed people are boring -- they may or may not be insightful, but not entertaining. And Alison is entertaining even to non-depressives, especially the recurring theme of her charming yet exasperating encounters with the critter world.



If she hadn't mentioned it, I'd have thought she was 10-15 years younger. She has a distinctly youthful mode of expression, which I attribute to her post-horny / volcel tendencies. Not piling up a certain body count has kept her from sounding jaded, weathered, and grizzled. Her tone is more like a precocious college student -- and so is the eagerness and yearning for something fun to happen in life, in contrast to most depressive cases. She's more of a frustrated fun-lover than a numbed-out buzzkill.

And if she were a total cerebral, she wouldn't have such a fondness for physical, tactile objects like old editions of books, vinyl records, and vintage furniture. If it's only the informational content that counts, who cares what material form it comes in?

She also wouldn't have such a weak spot for dance music:


I can overlook the minimalist euthanasia soundtrack stuff she posts in a depressive mood, if she overcomes that with body-moving lose-yourself music like that. She's really fond of the second half of the '80s, the vulnerable phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle. That was the hangover after the manic first half of the '80s (which overall would be a little too bouncy and upbeat for her personality).

An earlier post examined the turn that dance music takes toward minor-key, start-and-stop rhythms, and heavy layers of repetitive trance-inducing hooks, during the vulnerable phase of the cycle. This appeals to audiences who are in a social and emotional refractory state -- and so, most like a depressive and socially anxious person. They aren't feeling invincible like in a manic phase, so they can't just throw themselves out there on the dance floor -- they need to be coaxed and comforted, and to feel like they don't have to make a firm decision. Rather, their body is merely being possessed by some spirit or force, and they're passively going along with whatever it's making them do.

I think the late '80s vulnerable phase has songs more to the liking of someone like her, instead of the early 2000s or the late 2010s, because they built up more slowly and steadily back then. Someone who feels awkward about putting themselves out on the dance floor does not want to be overwhelmed by a sudden maximum level of energy, right as the song begins. They can ultimately resonate with a high energy level, they just need more time to get comfortably immersed in the groove, one level at a time. And it can't ever get too fast of a tempo, or too major-key of a tone, or else it wouldn't strike a chord with their fundamental depressive core. It needs to stay moody.

Since the late '80s is tailor-made for these types, let's explore further examples. This isn't so much of a standalone mixtape -- it's more of a list of initial songs to get the person to loosen their inhibitions, dissolve their self-awareness, and just let go of their cares. Then other higher-energy songs could fill out the playlist.

First, a precursor that still belongs to the new wave era of the early '80s, but points the way toward the second half. Laura Branigan's cover is even more early '80s, way too overpowering for a depressive cerebral. The original by Raf is slower in tempo and in its build-up, it's more moody and haunting, and the vocal delivery is more anxious and insecure.

"Self Control" by Raf (1984)



And now for the late '80s proper, dominated by the freestyle genre (I chose extended mixes for their even more gradual build-up, to ease the listener-dancer into the mood).

"Dare Me" by the Pointer Sisters (1985)



"I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz (1986)



"Fascinated" by Company B (1987)



"Show Me" by the Cover Girls (1987)



"Cross My Heart" by Eighth Wonder (1988)



It's only Sunday, so that leaves plenty of time to get familiar with these songs in order to use them as inhibition-dampeners by the coming weekend.

November 4, 2019

From status contests over wealth, to lifestyles, to personas, as each generation gets poorer

Related to this thought from our anti-woke Left princess:


Five years ago I detailed the generational structure of status contests, where Boomers competed over material wealth and careerism, but after they had saturated that niche, the Gen X-ers had to find a new niche to compete within. They chose lifestyle contests instead, which don't require nearly as much money as material possession contests.

In a follow-up post, I detailed the invention of persona contests among the Millennials, who don't even have enough money to properly pursue lifestyle contests. Crafting your persona and projecting it into the public arena for competition only requires time, effort, and enough money for wifi to connect you to social media.

The "currency" of status has gone from material wealth, to lifestyle points, to persona points. But within each niche, most people are hyper-competitive pigs struggling to over-feed themselves at the trough. Within each domain there is an over-production of aspiring elites, leading to maximum chaos and fragmentation.

And within each niche, if you rob the competitor of their "currency," they take that as a mortal threat. Millennials don't care if you take their wealth, since they have none and don't compete over that resource. But if you threatened their persona on social media, let alone got their account suspended, that's the end of the world to them. Banned from competing in the persona-construction status contest.

You can use Google to search this blog for other posts on the topic, using "lifestyle strivers," "persona striving," etc. One of the more original and insightful projects I've undertaken, if I do say so myself.

Each of these qualitative shifts began at the grassroots level among individuals whose overweening ambition required an outlet. It's only after that groundswell that business owners capitalized on the development -- they did not invent the trend and get customers hooked on it. Most professionals and owners are too lazy and incurious to invent anything, they just chase after popular trends for as long as they seem profitable.

What will it take for individuals to dial down their overweening ambition and hyper-competitiveness? Material conditions must get so disastrous, and the fabric of society torn apart, that they realize where the worship of competition leads -- to their own destruction. Only then will they adopt the opposite norms, based on humility and harmony, leading to more egalitarian material outcomes.

Obviously we all wish you could just tell people where it has always led, and will lead again this time, but those words are just pointless speculation to the hyper-competitive striver. They need to get their block knocked off before it feels real to them. See Peter Turchin's work on the dynamics of ideology and material outcomes, linked in the first post above.

November 2, 2019

Aimee Terese, Apostle to the Deplorables, hits milestone

The princess of the anti-woke Left, Aimee Terese, officially hit 10K followers on Twitter. She never would have come close if she'd stayed cloistered within the online leftoid bubble, a niche that is beyond saturation, and impossible to break into without social or professional connections to established leftoids.

She did it by appealing to a whole new audience, carving out a new niche. It's composed not only of her fellow lefties who are sick of identity politics, polarization, and so on. There are plenty such figures, and some host podcasts that get as many clicks as hers and Benjamin Studebaker's (What's Left?). But they're not going to hit 10K followers and beyond, because they can't take the leap of faith to interact with people who are not already fellow travelers, and who may even be vilified by their in-group as sub-human.

Here's a recent popular tweet of hers about alienated young white males on social media, who most leftoids would write off entirely, and the only debate would be whether to condemn them outright or just ignore them.


It takes courage to pursue what seems like a lost cause, in the hope of a greater good down the line, perhaps that she will not see herself. An earlier post drew attention to her role as being similar to Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, where she is the socialist Apostle to the Deplorables. And it's bearing fruit! For every libtard fanboy of Chapo Trap House that she loses, she gains two posters of frog memes.

Bernie was meant to do likewise for 2020, but he, his campaign, and his supporters have steered him away from a successful mission to the flyovers. That project is not bearing fruit -- his support is half what it was in 2016. He lost the libtards, but did not appeal to the deplorables to shore him up when the yuppies dumped him for Warren.

Where Bernie faltered, Aimee has been steadfast and tenacious. Reminds me of a song by another Mediterranean Australian, "On a Mission" by Gabriella Cilmi, who's Italian with some Albanian. From the most recent manic phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, 2010:



November 1, 2019

Weakest Halloween ever, during final year of vulnerable phase of cultural excitement cycle

Last year I wrote a comprehensive post on our affinity for Halloween's social and cultural rituals, over the phases of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle. It peaks during the manic phase, and falls off a cliff during the vulnerable phase. That has left cultural commentators with little to discuss over the past several years, because nothing is going on with Halloween anymore.

But just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it's almost as though the holiday didn't even happen this year. About 5-10 years ago, Halloween-themed decorations went up at the beginning of October in most houses in most neighborhoods. I don't care for such an early date because it robs the holiday of its uniqueness by the time October 31 actually arrives -- you're habituated to it, and it's not a carnivalesque break with the ordinary.

Still, this year there were hardly any decorations anywhere -- including on Halloween night, so it's not that they just waited till the bitter end. I drove around different places just to be sure. Having a pumpkin or jack-o-lantern on the porch was common, but nothing more. They used to put up all sorts of other decorations on the porch, the front windows, driveway, yard, anywhere. I counted 1 or 2 houses per street, in between cross-streets, that had similar decorations as 5-10 years ago. Otherwise it looked absolutely dead.

Of course, no trick-or-treaters to be seen roaming around. Not only is it not the rising-crime and outgoing atmosphere of the 1980s anymore -- it's not even a manic phase of the falling-crime, cocooning atmosphere of the '90s and after. At least during the early 2010s, there would be a handful of kids out and about, albeit few in number and constantly supervised by their helicopter parents.

(I still can't forget the parents who were driving their kids in the family car, house by house, keeping the car on the whole time. Bam-bam-bam, we're gone -- and without having our kids spend any time in a dangerous public space like, dun dun dun, the sidewalk!)

The only -- and I mean only -- place where I saw any trick-or-treaters tonight was in the public library, where I was dropping off some horror movies and looking for new ones to check out. The workers were in costume, with candy ready. There were nearly 10 families that showed up during the half-hour that I was there, vs. literally zero that I saw on the streets anywhere. And this was all 7-8pm, not when it was too late.

Helicopter parents are so paranoid during this vulnerable phase that they've consolidated the holiday into what was only a major trend during the earlier manic phase -- taking kids to trick-or-treat centers that are supervised by some institution. Mall, business district, library, etc. Any private residence is too suspicious, likely concealing a bunch of child molesters -- that's who these freaks think their neighbors are -- so they can't trust them with hosting their kids for 30 seconds while the trick-or-treat ritual takes place.

I didn't see many young adults out and about either -- maybe a couple dozen, in the most youth-packed area of downtown, right on a major college campus of tens of thousands.

I observed back in 2012 that Millennials were shifting the main party night to "the Saturday before Halloween" rather than October 31, because they're OCD pussies who can't tolerate partying on a night other than their routine night. That's the whole point of carnivalesque rituals -- up-ending the usual order of society. There's nothing beyond the ordinary about partying on a Saturday night, dorks. (Link in appendix to post above.)

At least I got to go to a late night screening of Psycho, and on film rather than digital. Three other parties there, totaling 7 people including me. Not the greatest turnout, but I'll take it in this climate.

This ought to be the last year of uneventful holidays, since this is the final year of the vulnerable phase. I don't expect it to really pick up until around 2023 -- it has to rise gradually while people are starting to come out of their shells. I seem to remember 2008 being the first year I really noticed the return of Halloween as a mass public ritual, which was a few years into the restless warm-up phase of the late 2000s. From there, it'll soar again until a new peak in the late 2020s.

Until then, some manic-phase Halloween music to tide us over...

"Every Day Is Halloween" by Ministry (1984):



October 29, 2019

Anna Khachiyan and Mediterranean / Eastern witchy sensuality

Ania Pieroni as the Mater Lachrymarum, trying to bewitch the protagonist of Inferno (1980):


Anna Khachiyan, trying to bewitch someone off-camera (2011):


Mediterranean and Near / Middle Eastern faces work best for vampires and similar characters. They combine severe bone structure with full-sized soft features -- eyes, eyebrows, and lips -- mixing danger and sensuality into a heady witch's brew. The restrained expression of Easterners intensifies the power behind their visage -- the energy becoming highly concentrated rather than dissipated.

I don't buy Slavs as vampires -- the bone structure is not high-relief enough -- not so threatening -- and the tendency toward an epicanthic fold keeps the eyes from achieving maximum size -- not so sensual. The vampire legend had to draw on Romanians because Westerners can code them as Slavic (hence Eastern European), but they're substantially Mediterranean (Balkan).

Some resist the idea of Mediterranean / Eastern vampires because they're supposed to be pale, not swarthy. Still, Italians, Armenians, etc. are olive-toned, not dark-brown like the Arabians. Light skin functions, in this character type, as a signal of a more sober temper than a more earthy and lusty one. They're not bloodthirsty predators always on the prowl, they pass for normal in temperament -- even seeming somewhat delicate -- and only occasionally give in to their passionate side.

October 26, 2019

Gen Z less attention-seeking than Millennials? As Gen X was to Boomers

Although Gen Z is not a culturally self-aware generation just yet, some of their core traits should be coming into view very soon. (I'm putting them as those born after 1999, perhaps 2005 and after, although we won't know for sure until they become culturally self-aware and can tell us roughly where the boundaries are.)

One of the main traits attributed to Millennials by outside observers, as well as inside informants, is their attention-seeking. It's wrong, or hyperbolic anyway, to describe it as narcissism. But certainly always wanting to be the center of attention, getting jealous when others receive attention, and behaving competitively in order to grab more of the spotlight from others. At each level of social scale, there's only so much attention to go around, so getting it is a zero-sum game.

That was visible by 2005 or so when MySpace exploded in popularity, and Millennials developed their lifelong addiction to taking and posting selfies. That was back when they were around 15 years old. In fact, they're still obsessed with selfies, despite their vanguard members aging into their 30s.

I don't see that behavior from Gen Z. They're around 15 now, and yet they haven't taken over today's counterpart to MySpace or early-era Facebook with endless selfies and status updates. I mean actual status updates, like when Millennials used to let the world know what they were up to throughout the day, imagining their audience following them around the reality show of their lives.

It's not enough to just "take selfies" -- they have to be addicted to it, and more importantly to spread them far and wide to reach the greatest possible audience. They might send them to one another, ditto for status updates and random thoughts via DMs, but not like the Millennials did at the same high school age -- or well into their 20s and 30s, for that matter. This is a difference of generational membership that follows them throughout their lifespan, not just a phase they went through.

It reminds me of the qualitative difference between Gen X and the Boomers before them, which was noted by all at the time the younger generation came of age (wallflowers, dropouts / burnouts, apathetic, slackers, etc.). The same contrast emerged with the Millennials after them, who seemed to resemble the Boomers in their attention-seeking and competitiveness. And of course the Boomers were noted for attention-seeking behavior relative to the Silents before them. Presumably the Silents got their name from a contrast with the earlier Greatest Gen, who were more fun-loving performer types.

A simple model of frequency-dependent selection could explain these oscillating dynamics, but I won't pursue that in detail here. The basic point is that when everyone else is a wallflower, an attention-seeker reaps massive gains due to no competition. But as more and more pick up that strategy, it yields lower and lower rewards, as the niche for attention-seeking behavior becomes saturated -- as it clearly has gotten by now with the Millennials. It's impossible to hog the spotlight in a world where everyone is an attention whore.

So that leads to selection for the opposite type, the wallflower. They don't get the rewards of "fame," but then in a world where those gains have all but evaporated due to over-saturation of the niche, you're not losing much by foregoing the attention-seeking strategy. And you save all the immense costs that go into seeking attention -- especially in an over-saturated niche for it, since you have to devote more and more resources into attention-seeking when everyone else is doing it to.

You lose next to nothing, you save a bunch in costs -- so long to the attention-seeking strategy. You might as well adopt that as a defining positive trait -- chasing after fame is a fool's game, pursued by insecure posers, and we're not that desperate.

These differences also make me think that when the 15-year cultural excitement cycle changes phase next year -- from vulnerable and refractory to restless and warm-up -- it will be more like the 1990 shift than the 2005 shift.

The manic phase of the early 2010s felt much more like the early '80s than the late '90s, which was fairly low-key for a manic phase. This is probably because the main group of young adults were attention-seeking generations in both the early '80s (Boomers) and early 2010s (Millennials), giving it a higher energy level, while the young adults during the late '90s manic phase were wallflowers (Gen X), making it feel more mellow.

If Gen Z are also wallflowers rather than attention-seekers, then the next manic phase of the late 2020s will be relatively mellow for such an exciting phase -- echoing the late '90s. And therefore the restless warm-up phase that builds up before it, during the early 2020s, will feel more like the early '90s than the late 2000s.

If Billie Eilish is any guide, the early 2020s will kick off a new cycle with bands more like Smashing Pumpkins than Queen or Black Parade-era My Chemical Romance, both of whom were over-the-top showmen compared to the anti-frontman alternative rock of the early '90s, even though all three periods were restless warm-up phases.

To close on an inspirational note for any Gen Z musicians out there:



October 20, 2019

Joker: neo-naturalism for the new Gilded Age (Part 2 on characters and themes)

Part 1 on visual and musical style here.

Almost none of the reviews I've read and listened to have accurately characterized Arthur Fleck / Joker in his role as a violent criminal. This is partly because most people came in with hardened preconceptions about the nature of the Joker as a character, but they still should have noticed how different he is in this movie.

First, Joker is not a vigilante a la Taxi Driver or Death Wish. A vigilante targets an entire group of people who represent a collective threat -- pimps, drug dealers, robbers, rapists, etc. For him, any member of that group is interchangeable with the others -- bumping off any pimp, robber, etc. will achieve his goal of stopping crime. Although a vigilante may have been the victim of a specific criminal, he generalizes that relationship to other criminals similar to the original one, seeking collective rather than individual revenge. His targets have not done anything wrong to him -- he sees them as a threat to a wider group that he belongs to, and is acting on behalf of that group.

Joker, by contrast, only hurts people who have already hurt him: the yuppies who attack him unprovoked on the subway, the co-worker who got him in trouble by giving him a gun, his mother for subjecting him to ongoing physical and mental trauma as a child, and the TV show host who sought ratings by humiliating him before the audience.

He spares another co-worker who treated him decently (and says so). Plus he spares Thomas Wayne, who he could have held a grudge against for telling him the brutal truth that his mother was delusional, that he was adopted, and to stay out of his life or else. It turns out that Wayne was the victim of Arthur's mother's delusions, and she has involved him in her delusions, causing him to get told off by Wayne. So rather than pursue a feud, Arthur takes his licks and leaves him alone. Arthur recognized that he himself was in the wrong, albeit from believing his mother's delusions.

Second, Joker is not a nihilist, anarchist, or other figure who believes in no rules, or that the rules don't apply to him, or that violence and destruction is fun and rewarding per se, a la the Joker from Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. He does not practice indiscriminate and callous violence. He follows fairly common and traditional rules for who you may harm (specific individuals who have already harmed you without provocation, and not those who have done you no harm). The same goes for property crimes -- he does not smash in the windows of random businesses, or blow up buildings of his targets in a propaganda of the deed.

When he says he "doesn't believe" in any of the political protest motives, he does not mean he believes in nothing, but that he does not have collective and larger-purpose motives. It's entirely personal for him, and that is a traditional ethical code (get revenge against the individuals who've wronged you).

And third, Joker is not really a sociopath. He doesn't torture or toy around with his targets like a sadist, he gets right to the point. And again he doesn't choose targets who haven't harmed him, like a sociopath would. He's not a predator, stalker, or hunter. He never tries to force himself on anyone. He does not hold a lowly view of other people in general, nor does he demean them.

And he can sense when he is in the wrong, how the other aggrieved party feels, and does not try to put the blame on them for feeling wronged. We see this not only when he leaves Wayne alone after their confrontation, but also when he's doing his rent-a-clown act at a children's cancer ward and his gun accidentally falls out of his pants and onto the floor, spooking them all.

In fact, a sociopath would only accept a job at a children's cancer ward in order to gain access to them as a child molester or serial killer. During a bus ride, he makes funny faces at a small child in front of him -- not to try to get close enough to harm him, but simply because he's an aspiring performer and wants to make his audience laugh and reward him with smiles. This is echoed later when he approaches young Bruce Wayne -- to make him laugh, not to harm him after getting him to let his guard down.

He is certainly dissociative, suffers from self-aggrandizing delusions, and is socially awkward or cognitively impaired at empathy -- like an autistic person, he can't easily comprehend what others are feeling. But a sociopath is not cognitively impaired -- they can understand what another person is feeling, they just can't emotionally resonate with it. An autistic is clueless, a sociopath is callous.

This makes Arthur more of a pitiful and doomed character out of Steinbeck. Lennie dreams of petting soft rabbits, but his lack of awareness of his own brawny nature leads him into crushing them to death as he pursues this dream. And Arthur dreams of fulfilling his life's mission of making an audience laugh and feel better -- and getting rewarded with laughter and applause -- while his socially autistic nature means he will never be able to read the room and know what the audience would like, so he only ends up making them feel worse, and he only receives distancing reactions from them.

He's not quite so doomed in his quest, though, since he does ultimately receive rapturous applause from the rioting protesters, after he has set an example of striking back at those who have wronged you.

Making this movie an "origin story" is therefore a decision to return to naturalism and various forms of determinism (heredity, upbringing, current class role, etc.). It's not the typical origin story of a villain from comic books, horror movies, or whatever else. Those villains always rise to the level of sociopath, serial killer, nihilist / anarchist, and so on. Because their violence is so extreme, it feels wrong to reduce it to a naturalistic explanation -- Michael Myers became a serial killer because he got bullied at school, or whatever.

But since Fleck / Joker is not that level of a villain, but is a fairly powerless and pitiful figure who is lashing out at those who have already wronged him, it's totally fine to assign him a naturalistic origin story. And his psychology may be abnormal, but it's not inhuman -- so, sure, investigate its origins in his upbringing, his class position, and whatever else. In a twist, we can't explore the role of heredity through his mother (a delusional psychotic) because he's adopted.

But he was adopted by a delusional psychotic, profoundly neglected, beaten to the point of traumatic head injury by the mother's boyfriend, had been institutionalized himself, perhaps a victim of Munchausen Syndrome by proxy (at the hands of his mother), and loaded up on various psychiatric drugs (some of which may be inappropriate and causing iatrogenic harm, if his mother misled the doctors as to her son's condition).

Current circumstances -- dim job prospects, rising crime, urban anomie, austere government policy -- may play a role in other narratives about psychological breakdown and violence, but it's rare to see one focus so much on childhood and parental influences. There's no such investigation in Taxi Driver, any Batman movie, Blue Velvet, Silence of the Lambs, or scores of others. The brief scenes of childhood abuse in Natural Born Killers is a partial exception, but the throwaway exposition tacked on to the end of Psycho does not count as an in-depth narrative investigation. This places Joker more within the mainstream of Gilded Age naturalism than Midcentury existentialism (free will, agency, making your bed and lying in it).

As our material and ideological conditions have returned to those of the Gilded Age -- hyper-competitiveness, laissez-faire economics and morality, Social Darwinism, and widening inequality -- the subjective sense of hopelessness and determinism will re-emerge into the zeitgeist. When society keeps breaking further and further down, the forces of the world feel too over-powering to be stopped. Only when societal breakdown has been tamed -- as during the Midcentury -- do people feel like they have more agency and are not merely molded and tossed around by fate.

October 17, 2019

Joker: the return of naturalism for the new Gilded Age (Part 1 on visual and musical style)

After one of my rare visits to the movie theater, I sided more with the audience than the critics on Joker. The movie may polarize responses because it's trying to integrate two different movies, one about his background and origin and another about his initial acts in his new criminal role as Joker. It wasn't the most seamless weaving together of the two narratives, but it did the job.

It may have also polarized responses for bringing such crystallized expectations to it -- choosing a protagonist from a high-profile franchise, and a director from a comedy rather than thriller background -- and then frustrating those who had showed up wanting something different. I've never paid much attention to comic book franchises, in film or elsewhere, and I haven't seen a single one of the Hangover movies in full, so I didn't go in with any hardened view of how it should have been.

I did see it after having read and listened to extensive spoilers, though, including endless comparisons to Taxi Driver (whether they enjoyed the supposed parallels or not). Joker bears little resemblance to Taxi Driver -- it's the contrasts that stand out more, and reveal the differences between the zeitgeists behind the two.

I'll split up my review into two parts, this one on the physical aspects of visual and musical style, and another on the conceptual aspects of themes, characters, and narrative style.

On the cinematography, it differed from the earlier Batman / Joker movies by Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan in opting for a more realistic than heavily stylized look. The cinematographer is mainly known for the Hangover movies as well, so this could have been making the best use of their limitations (comedy films rarely stand out visually). And certainly it's less stylized than the neo-Expressionist look of Taxi Driver's scenes of city streets at night. Joker rarely uses striking compositions, dynamic camera movement, bold colors, or chiaroscuro lighting.

The low-style visual approach reinforces the naturalistic themes, characters, and narrative. This is not a real comic book or superhero / supervillain movie, nor do the Joker's crimes rise to such a level that they seem unnatural and in need of a more stylized visual delivery.

In fact, the only memorable stylistic device is the frequent use of shallow focus, putting Arthur Fleck / Joker in focus, and rendering everyone and everything else blurry, even his immediate surroundings and people sitting right next to him. This choice was not just some fashionable gimmick, nor was it used for utilitarian purposes (e.g., to de-emphasize things and people in the background that might distract our attention from key figures in the foreground).

When he's sitting in bed with his mother watching a late night talk show, there is no clutter of distracting objects -- just him, his mother a foot away, the bed, and a few odd pieces of furniture and decoration. And yet everything other than Arthur is blurry. Ditto for the shot of him looking out the window of a bus -- there's little action going on in the foreground, and not much in the background either. This shot is echoed later when he's in the back of a cop car. So minimizing distractions is not the reason for the extreme shallow focus.

What this does is visually convey not only Arthur's loneliness and isolation from the people, things, and places in his world, but his psychic state of dissociation and increasingly solipsistic retreat into his own mind. After what he's been through, he has begun to live so much in his own mind that on a raw perceptual level, anything beyond himself is just one great big blur.

By the end of the movie, his dissociation has gotten so bad that he feels disembodied from even himself. In one of the movie's iconic shots, only his head remains in focus -- the entire rest of his body below the neck has floated off into the blurry background of the dressing room. Usually shallow focus at least respects the integrity of a subject's body, but here this is violated in order to show how far he has traveled off into a dissociative fugue. The promotional still below is not the best example from this sequence (it's most striking when he puts a gun under his chin), but it's not out on DVD to do a proper screenshot.


Thus, the heavy use of shallow focus does not undercut the otherwise realistic visual approach. It is not used for purely stylistic effect, to delight the visual sense, but to try to render as scientifically and objectively as possible the dissociative breakdown and solipsism of the protagonist.

Unlike the effective naturalistic visual approach, the musical style did not achieve its goals. This may owe to the comedic background of the team of filmmakers, where music tends to use existing pop songs or well-timed flourishes to echo a bit of physical comedy.

To its credit, it did not rely on contemporaneous hit songs, which Arthur would have been oblivious of. Nor did it employ a melodic approach to the score, which would have suggested dynamism, action, and coherent structure in a movie about the cold impersonal shaping effects of the environment on a person, and a slow dissociative melting-away rather than a series of psychotic explosions. (Contrast this with the heavily melodic and thrilling soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, whose antisocial protagonist wields more agency and experiences more exciting events than that of Joker.)

This approach to the score is one of the few similarities to Taxi Driver, whose score is mostly simple variations on a single motif, and plodding dissonant harmonies. However, Joker's score is too dramatic, almost bombastic, in its energy levels for a movie that is not very dramatic. Taxi Driver's score is more appropriately moody, despite being more dramatic in its plot.

And the instrumentation for Joker is too orchestral, taking away from the movie's overall naturalistic approach. Taxi Driver used a Midcentury jazz arrangement that feels more at home in New York during the 1970s. Joker needed an arrangement that was softer and more informal. Perhaps an elevated take on the moody, mellow country-crossover music that was dominant throughout the '70s, leading up to the year that Joker is set in (1981). Not the most exciting genre or period of music, but it would have done the job better for this movie -- more plausible as the background for lower-class characters, and more evocative of the tone of pity, disappointment, and bleakness that pervades the plot (at least until the final act).

The use of "Rock and Roll Part 2" for Joker's triumphant dance was great -- drawing from a moody, emo period that is more simple riffs than full melodies (early '70s, glam), rather than other stadium hits like "We Are the Champions" that are too melodic and high-energy to fit into this movie.

There should have been a counterpart to this song in the earlier part of the movie, to set up a contrast with the triumphant final act. Keep it in the glam rock genre, to make the comparison obvious, but one that is more yearning and self-pitying. Not melodic, layers of droning instruments, and a final vocal layer that is just disembodied sighing, to suggest dissociation or disintegration. With lyrics about one's childhood. The perfect choice -- "Cosmic Dancer" by T. Rex (also hits on Arthur's penchant for dancing).