With so much controversy surrounding the release of Suicide Squad, I was watching how Jared Leto’s performance played out and would be received amongst all the noise, personally I thought it was one of the best performance I’ve seen on film so far this year. For my part I believe that performances in films should be judged based on the the quality and impact of the work as appose to the size of the budget, this goes both ways. Having only had leading roles in independent films, it would be very easy for me to sit back and judge a Studio extravaganza from an artistic high ground, and certainly in some cases I can, but not all. There is a lot of debate right now regarding the studios doubling down on their tent pole films and making less of the dramas that they used to support with the profits, the majority of the original stories and more interesting films cinematically are now being made by independents and platforms like Netflix and Amazon are changing the landscape forever, now emerging platforms like IndieFlix picking up true Film Festival films like The Sea Is All I Know a short starring Melissa Leo in a truly intense and heartbreaking performance. All this giving more and more opportunity for independents to be seen by a wider audience. Amongst these various forms, modes, channels of beaming out and consuming images, beneath the numbers, spreadsheets and soundbites, there are stories being told by craftsmen and women.
The week before last, I went to Comic Con in San Diego, my interest in this world has been an ongoing developing since the first superhero I auditioned for was Kick Ass when I was 21, what followed was that I was to audition and often go to producers on about half the franchises represented at this years Comic Con. Among them; Spiderman, The Hobbit, Gotham, Game Of Thrones, Hercules, The Flash, Dare Devil, Judge Dredd, many more. Now having gained the edge of the years my twenties have entrusted me, I audition for either villains, or heroes on the edge like Iron Fist.
What I learnt in this quest through the stories of the 21st Century epic is this;
The human epic and the myth of our age is transferred as a cultural practice to the realms of Heroes and Villains. The Hero often prophet like, more than man but not quite a God, like Hercules, son of Zeus but still at odds with the spirit worlds, choosing instead to walk the earth. Following a destiny imbued with a special talent, battles forces of evil and wrestles demons within himself, battling with his human flaws. Often the heroes have an extreme psychology, there was an interesting article going around recently talking about the "Radicalization of Luke Skywalker", the conclusion was that following the Homeland Security notes profiling radicals, like Luke Skywalker they corresponded to these attributes; Come from families where the father is absent; Have difficulty forming relationships outside the home; Are attracted to groups offering acceptance and comradeship.
While we were there walking the convention floor, we decided to catch a panel for the Psychology Of Villains where a team of psychoanalysts/comic book fans broke down the attributes of a number of villains, prescribing villainy to the "Dark Triangle" with each point representing Narcissism, Machivellianism and Psychopathy. The most interesting combination for me was a mix of Narcissism and Machivellianism, leaving little redeeming or relatable interest in the characteristics that make up Psychopathy. This combination most closely resembling The Joker.
Pablo Cuehlo said of Narcissim in his seminal book The Alchemist often quoted by movie stars such as Will Smith and Johnny Depp to be their favorite novel, he describes the river that befall Narcissus talking to the spirits of the forest;
"I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected."
In The 48 Laws Of Power, the philosopher Robert Greene quotes Nicoli Machiavelli;
"I certainly think that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force; and it can be seen that she lets herself be overcome by the bold rather than by those who proceed coldly. And therefore, like a woman, she is always a friend to the young, because they are less cautious, fiercer, and master her with greater audacity"
I believe the best villains do have empathy and do feel, yet are driven by intense desires that are out of synch with the common good, or the peaceful progress of the average citizen.
The most interesting thing about Suicide Squad was the relationship between The Joker and Harlequin. The philosopher Eric Fromm said of the Sado Masachistic striving that it was not a desire for destruction but seeking to fulfill a separateness within the individual that feels a thing apart from the outside world and this disconnection too painful to live with, and so Harlequin destroys herself. She does so not with the intention to remove herself from the world, but to invite The Joker to step in and fill that void left by the unbearable loneliness she walks with.
The first time we all saw The Joker in the trailer, he holds two rods of electricity as he looms over us "I don't want to kill you, I just want to hurt you, really, really bad". In the film we find the subject of the pain he wishes to inflict is Harlequin.
"There is one factor in the relationship of the Sadistic person to the object of his sadism, which is often neglected and therefore deserves a special emphasis here, his dependence on the object of his sadism, while the masachistic persons dependence is obvious, our expectation with regard to the sadistic person is just the reverse. He seems so strong and domineering and the object of his sadism so weak and submissive, that it is difficult to think of the strong one as being dependent on the one over whom he rules, and yet close analysis shows that this is true. The Sadist needs the person over whom he rules, he needs him/her very badly. Since his own feeling of strength is rooted in the fact that he is the master over someone." - Eric Fromm, Escape From Freedom
And that this dynamic of punishment is a form of intense connection that neither can live without. For The Joker, life is not worth living without Harlequin and she walks with a looming void of incompleteness without her "Puddin".
Freud found that the reproductive drive is fueled much more by fear than we might realize, being restricted from the satisfaction of our sexual instinct causes more anxiety than being restricted from food or water. The Joker is constantly on the high wire of death and his willingness to walk that line between existence and non-existence means he will ultimately win over any confrontation. His internal state accepting that life for the sake of living is worthless and all things are fair game in the pursuit of his desires, namely in this case Harliquin. Guided constantly by the only thing he fears, the fear of losing her, this motivates him to sacrifice all else for her attainment. Knowing this of himself he uses that fear to spark a fire and ferocity in him, offering her up to a notorious gangster as he stares violently, breathing deeply into the man's face.
"Sexuality is the only function of the living organism which extends beyond the individual and sees to his kinship with the species… For the price of ecstatic pleasures it involves him in dangers which threaten his life and frequently cause death.” - Sigmund Freud, The Libido Theory and Narcism
When they are together it feels as if there is no-one else. Their taboo love makes them apart from the world, and as outsiders inextricably bound by danger, dangling on the edge of living. In his book Totem and Taboo, Freud discovered the origins of the word 'Taboo' are Polynesian meaning both the forbidden and the sacred at the same time and that the opposite word in the same language is 'Noa' meaning ordinary or common; 'Taboo, in the literal sense, includes everything that is sacred, above the ordinary, and at the same time dangerous, unclean and mysterious'.
"The persistence of taboo teaches, however, one thing, namely, that the original pleasure to do the forbidden still continues... in their unconscious they would like nothing better than to transgress them but they are also afraid to do it; they are afraid just because they would like to transgress, and the fear is stronger than the pleasure... It would therefore seem that these must have been the oldest and strongest desires of mankind." Sigmund Freud, Totem And Taboo
I believe The Joker has a very healthy way of seeing the world in the pursuit of his desires without fear, like an amoral prophet he lives wholly by his heart. Much like Satre he denies conventional societal beliefs that today feel flaccid, makes his own moral code and lives by it. A completely unique individual. When the individual is at peace with himself he has no need for another to satisfy that feeling of incompletion that The Joker and Harlequin chase, but I believe the individual can only ever be truly at peace with himself in the moment of death.
I remember on set of Road To The Well there was one scene I spontaneously took off all my clothes, for no other reason than it felt like the right thing to do, Jon Cvack didn’t end up using that take in the final cut, but he almost did. As I was standing on the edge of a cliff in a precarious spot, soon after one of the crew said to me ’that was so dangerous you could have died’, I said ‘what’s so bad about dying’. I think back to that moment not in acknowledgement of some kind of way to be nor in remorse, but at that time the bliss that I felt fulfilling my destiny on screen, fulfilling the character arch of Frank a man who makes his way out of a life of repression to a higher plain of thinking, beyond morality, I was prepared to die, alone. Road To The Well’s next screening is at Long Beach Indie Film Festival September 2nd at 9pm.
When it comes to Leto's performance in its place within cinema history. Comparisons inevitably turn to Heath Ledger’s portrayal in Dark Knight Rises. A couple years ago when I was a finalist in the Heath Ledger Scholarship, I wrote a poem for Heath;
My braisen cuts my ankles as I scratch my fingers from the mud of the beast that eats each day with my socks and flaking skin, I bare myself seeking another in belief of cinema and only cinema at the end of every corridor. I open another door trying to escape my passion in fear that cinema will shut itself to me again. Yet again I see flickering images 24 frames a heartbeat.
After a week studying the underlying stories of the franchises in the cinema that make up our age, I feel we live in a time where the big movie studios who once made tentpole films to feed the ecosystem of more interesting original stories that fostered the development of filmmakers, artisans and actors, these studios are now doubling down on the tentpole films and clearing their slates of original more artistic films, which now seem to be only coming from the independents. But a company like A24, who are turning huge profits on their slate of films from last year like The Lobster, Ex Machina, The Witch, Room, this year grace us with another fascinating slate that I will be backing all the way with films like Swiss Army Man and American Honey, are proving that there is an audience that does exist and wishes to see original stories being told with deep and fully realized performances. I say give the people what they want.
I just read a fascinating study done by the American Film Market's research team who came to the conclusion when conducting a detailed study of breakout box office successes that producers should "Look for good actors, not big stars, and do the same with all of the technical crew on a film"... If nothing else, than for financial reasons.
Having said that, the current political climate in America is turning out to be much like my approach to big budget films; a man like Christopher Nolan sees much like we must see in American politics today, those of us that were Bernie supporters (the purest heart a presidential race has seen in decades) must now unite in the face of Network TV star Donald Trump and his old fashioned dying ways and accept the harsher more corporate reality which we inherit in the form of Hilary Clinton as the West hurtles through the tunnel of it's extreme Centre. Though with both Obama's and Bernie's endorsements, and though it's not as perfect or as liberal as we had hoped, there are openings within the existing system for a human story to to be told. Jared Leto et al, will attest.
"A stick cannot be broken in a bundle" - Scotty Star Trek
In other news; my mother the painter Stephanie Burns will have an artistic career retrospective airing in American Televison, by the TV Show "Color In Your Life", airing August 10th. The show has a huge following in Australia and is now expanding to the US. I'll be writing more about this in the weeks to come. The show will feature her latest series of paintings on the Californian coast. Here's a sneak peak