Make the Red Flags
As artists, our job is to dialogue with culture.
To put it another way, our job is to wrestle with the issues of our culture, either to display them, show them from a different perspective (which is why diversity matters), or to present potential solutions.
If we do this well, it's going to be a red flag to some people. We'll be advocating for something that’s probably counter culture. It will be against the interests of the people currently in power—and their beneficiaries.
So, when I saw someone post on Twitter that there are red-flag movies, it piqued my interest. The intention of the tweet was to use certain movies as warning signs. It’s a method the tweeter uses to keep themselves safe. And there’s definitely a place for that.
Here’s the thing: I don't like the idea of banning or burning books, or banning movies.
The two movies mentioned in the tweet were Fight Club and Joker.
I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that these movies have been co-opted by wounded masculinity, used as vehicles to justify unconscionable behavior. But we can agree that that’s a very damaged point of view.
However, to limit what those movies have to say because their meanings have been twisted, that leaves us with a weak and damaged part of the cultural conversation. And I think those movies have important things to say. They, too, wrestle with culture in the best possible way.
So, I'm going to tell you how I see Fight Club and Joker, because I love them both, for very different reasons.
After that tweet I rewatched Fight Club.
I noticed that it's actually expressing Buddhism. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) makes the arguments of the Buddha with statements like:
- “You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank.”—This is about attachments.
- “This is your pain. This is your burning hand. It’s right here. Look at it.”—This is about being present in the moment, not distracted by the future or the past.
- “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”—This is what enlightenment is about, letting go of all attachments and expectations.
And if that's all it was, it would be an interesting, OK movie.
But Durden expresses Buddhism through the lens of Western idealized masculinity, as portrayed by the media (that’s us).
The movie even calls it out in one scene.
While looking at an ad for Calvin Klein underwear, Narrator (Edward Norton) said, “I felt sorry for guys packed into gyms, trying to look like how Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger said they should. Is that what a man looks like?” Contrast that with a later scene during Flight Club where Brad Pitt looks like one of those idealized models.
And so, we get the first real strong statement that following Durden is a brokenness they recognize in the abstract. But when it’s right in front of them/us we want to achieve it. And that's where it gets really interesting.
The movie becomes a dialogue about Western versus Eastern ideology. And it manifests as the Dissociative Identity Disorder with which Narrator suffers.
Fight Club concludes that Tyler Durden's manifestation of Western masculinity Buddhism is toxic to the point that it needs to be killed. And that’s how Narrator deals with it in the end.
Sorry, spoiler alert!
So, when people cling to Fight Club as the definition of their masculinity in the way that Durden expresses it, they totally miss the point of the movie.
I guess that happens a lot.
And now … to Joker.
Joker is essentially a remake of Taxi Driver.
But instead of Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro), who is obviously sociopathic, killing bad people, pimps, etc., Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) kills people society says we should admire. And in doing that, the movie attempts to reframe why we think those people Arthur kills are socially acceptable.
And I think Todd Phillips knew this because one of the last people Arthur kills is the character played by de Niro.
I don’t think Phillips was advocating we kill people. But he was definitely saying we ought to reevaluate how highly, and why, we praise them.
All of that would be enough to make Joker a good movie.
But, for me, it’s much bigger.
Joker was a revelation.
It completely recontextualizes Batman/Bruce Wayne.
It showed Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s dad) gaslighting Penny Fleck (Arthur’s mom). Thomas manipulated the system with his wealth/power to justify his own lecherous desires. And we see that Arthur is also Thomas’s son. But because Penny was part of “the help,” she wasn’t worthy of the Wayne name. Instead, she was thrown away and left to rot.
But, in the Batman movies, we only see Thomas Wayne through Bruce’s lens: a hero, an amazing idealized father figure.
If we can accept that this view is Bruce’s view of his dad, and that Fleck’s view is also true, Bruce is revealed to have a very skewed perspective, to the point of error.
Because of Joker, I was able to see Batman for what he was.
The thing about Bruce Wayne is that he is actually in a position to affect real change. With his money, social clout, business connections, etc., he could make a real, substantive difference. Rather than “spending his nights beating criminals to a pulp,” he could resolve the social inequities that cause people to commit crimes to begin with.
But because he's a sociopath, he can't see it.
Instead he exacerbates the problem.
He fights crime with his fists and expensive toys.
His story attempts to justify the dominant narrative: that the violent way the U.S. currently deals with people who break the law is right; that ultimate justice can be found not in solving the catalytic sources of the problems, but with fists, guns, steel, armies, and the prison industrial complex.
To me, Joker is amazing.
Yes, both Joker and Fight Club express damaged masculinity. But if we throw them out, we also throw out the profound social messages they carry.
What's more, as artists, writers, filmmakers, etc., it is our job not just to watch and read these kinds of stories, but to make them.
If we’re doing the work our society affords us, we’ll make red-flag movies.
Because that's what wrestling with culture looks like.
That's what wrestling with the real problems and the real issues looks like.
Damaged people are always going to twist any message to confirm whatever they already believe. This is true with the words of any great leader. But we have to recognize that those are twisted narratives.
We can't stop speaking truth and power simply because there's a potential that our wrestling with society’s real problems might be twisted. Power even encourages this twisting because it reinforces their position.
We, as artists, must dialogue with culture in a meaningful and substantive way.
That’s our job as the storytellers in this world.
The narratives we promote become the narratives by which society lives and dies. And to quote a tagline recently tweeted by Ava DuVerney, “Some people play the game. Others change it.” We either perpetuate the dominant narratives or we tell a better story.
Sorry, folks. There’s no neutrality in this vocation.
Write the stories that make you feel something, something deep and evocative. Write the stuff makes you want to stand up like Howard Beale from Network and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Because that’s the place of Art.
That’s where the great stories and the red flags are at.
*Feature Photo: Brad Pitt | Fight Club (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)