The Joker: a review from the perspective of an actor

by Dr. Alderman (Ernesto Navarrete)

On April 3rd 2019, the first trailer of the movie was released. Ever since, my expectation just started to rise; not because I am a big fan of DC or Phoenix or the director; as an actor, I got caught by the evident technique he would use to bring the joker to life. I just couldn’t wait more to see the movie because of three things I could observe in the trailer: 1)The way the actor was running, 2)the way he portrayed pain when beaten by a gang of teenagers and 3) the sadness he conveys with muscular tension. This emotion was showed in a scene where we can only see his back. Hardly ever can we see an entire emotion without the face of the actor, and when an actor is able to screen such a round sensation to the audience by means of nothing more than their body, it guarantees an experience of unsurmountable standards, the last time I remember having felt this sensation was watching “The revenant” which meant an oscar for Leonardo Dicaprio.

These three things that got me excited were just a little taste of what I was about to see on the day of the prémiére: I will try to describe how Phoenix manages to render such an aesthetic experience. In order to do it concisely and in order not to get lost in the sensation of joy, satisfaction and astonishment I still have, I will divide this analysis in three parts: The skin of the character, The blood of the character, and the Gravitas.

An actor is no more than an “Operator of Energy”, an actor makes use of physical and intellectual resources to overcome obstacles and to interact with a fictional, unusual environment. The way an actor uses this unusual energy in their body and mind is what we call “technique” with which an actor creates for every character a structured “language” that is always unusual and therefore, susceptible of being appreciated.

There are many possible resulting “acting languages” and for this movie, Phoenix creates one that, in the first place, is very healthy, because he doesn’t fall into this insane, narcisistical techinique of “auto-exploration” that shows the actor’s own mental states for the sake of “the true interpretation” and secondly, is very powerful because the character is totally unusual to the human eye.

He rather works on meanings, gestuality, corporality and means of expression of a context that is always true for the character and alien to the actor. We can tell this from the many interviews where Phoenix disappoints those journalists trying to get an answer about “how he created the character” or “how he prepared” they ask if he visited psychiatric patients just as Ledger or Letto did with a lame expectation of an unusual answer… He simply says “No”. Many people morbidly want to hear that the character, in a way, affected the actor to the point of being unable to distinguish the character from the self… Bullshit! when an actor is a GREAT actor, this doesn’t happen. There’s no need to lock yourself up in a room with a psychiatric patient to give a master rendition of a character, but it certainly takes other more complex resources. Phoenix is not resorting to his own feelings, he is masterfully giving shape to an incredible character by means of an acting language that I’m describing in the following lines.

 THE SKIN OF THE CHARACTER

This is the level of the body in action. For the theater pedagogue Eugenio Barba, the skin of the character is the building of a physical structure; the transformation of usual moves and gestures into a “score” of physical actions and spatial equivalences of symbolic load. The joker is undergoing a struggle to find “the self”, We can see this struggle in particular symbolic moves and gestures that Phoenix uses to create the score for his character: a) He lost a lot of weight, which allowed him to be aware of his body in a way he never had; he “created a body” for his character. b) He created a score of moves: the twist of his hands (A symbolic willingnes to come out) , the elevation of the knees (A symbolic hint of a character losing the grounds), the seeking move of his chin together with other smaller moves of the face that are repeated over and over as a leitmotiv. (A hint of uncertainty, as the character is unable to tell the reality from his hallucinations). All this together with an emotional load in his feet, his fingers (yes, he expresses even with the fingers when holding a cigarette) and this means he needs lots of preparation to interiorize all those movements and structures to the point that they are normal to the character.

In everyday life, the principle of minimal effort prevails, many actors keep this principle on screen in the belief that they look “natural”. Phoenix does not, from the very first minute of the movie we can see an authentic determination for maximum throughput. The joker is not a quotidian character and Phoenix understood that he had to use different techniques of expression, aimed to transforming the body of his character to the point that it looks like a monster.

The muscular tension (all the time), is food for thought. It would take an entire article to analyse every single meaningful muscular tension that he used to confectionate the skin of the joker. There is tension in the orbicular muscles, which together with a facial tremor and a constant asymetrical rising of the eyebrows catches the attention; there’s tension and circular movement in the forearms and shoulders, which gives us the sensation of uneasiness (as if he were wearing a suit that doesn’t fit him) and more importantly, there’s tension in the neck, this makes the character tilt his head time and again as a sign of permanent confusion. Finally, smaller tensions in the corners of the mouth, which keeps them angled-down for most of the movie and portray pain, hate, disgust, rejection, and suffering.

The director makes it really simple for spectators to tell whether what we are seeing is real or hallucination by means of the blue and amber lights. Pretty much everything showered under blue is a hallucination (just as we can tell when we see Arthur being hug by Murray, or the evident blue-amber contrast at the hospital room where his neighbour and beloved person lays under blue light while Arthur is under an amber one). We can see an attempt to caress his back and yet she doesn’t touch him.

Everything we see under amber light is the contact of the character with the reality. There are only three moments under white light, these are the moments when the audience comes out of the mind of Arthur and sees the world: The scene of the ambulance taking his mother to the hospital, the scene with young Bruce Wayne and the final one at the Mental Institution where he ends up killing again. (So, the moment when the clowns praise and applaud him was just a trick of his twisted mind, no, it didn’t happen).

We can see how he perceives the world as a combination of melancholy for his inner desires and hate for the unfairness of the world. A perception that only the audience can see as a separate thing but Arthur can’t. The confussion is evident in his eyes and the actor takes a constant movement of the eyes as if seeking for something but always up, never down. This totally overrides the version of a victim. He closes his eyes when being kicked on the floor and shows the pain with a tremor in the mouth.

What happens in this movie is we are seeing almost everything from inside the mind of the character, and without a critical eye, it would be, if not impossible, at least difficult to tell reality from hallucination. Much as it is easy for the spectator, it is impossible for Arthur, and he shows it with a perfect match of his acting language with the film composition and the elements of the symbolic scenario. He moves up the stairs with a faltering composition and comes down with a corporal score of liberty. The way down is what sets him free, his body shows no limitation of movement but a quality of expanding, energetic and unusual nature when he assumes himself as the joker. This takes us to the next part of the analysis: The blood of the character.

THE BLOOD OF THE CHARACTER

In acting technique, the “blood” is a work in which the actor makes the physical score match the external elements: the musical score, the interaction, the photography; it is a chaining of actions that have their equivalent in other elements of the composition.

Joaquin Phoenix gets to the so-called “blood” of the character by means of a translation of physical actions into vocal actions. The rest is the director’s job. In a way, his voice matches the cold or the warmth of the scenes by using an airy techinique, and playing with the pitch of the voice and the openness of the mouth while speaking. That is to say, he “Makes a cold voice”, it is high-pitched and tight when he hallucinates and it becomes low-pitched and more open when his vision matches the reality. The speed of his moves matches the speed of the movie, everything he does looks like a coreography, no place for improvisation. The actor is in total control of the character, he dominates the character, not vice-versa.

THE GRAVITAS

We shall understand “gravitas” as the virtue of creating a character in a serious, worthy way, together with the capacity to contain and administer the energy that the actor is using for the sake of projection. Phoenix does this masterfully. How? Not easy to do, as I mentioned when talking about the skin, he is following a principle of maximum effort in every movement, but he keeps the energy in a boiling captivity, for example: When we see Arthur running in the chase of his bullies, there’s the sensation of an external “force” that doesn’t allow him to run faster, this force is the same that keeps his knees elevated more than the natural, the same that keeps his voice just one or half a level away from the total yell, and it’s this contention of his energy that creates facial outbursts of emotion and gives the audience great expectation, because we know he could or could not react impulsively, it keeps the mistery. Phoenix follows a principle of impulse VS counter impulse that grows up little by little. It means, he never loses that counter-impulse he imaginarily sets, he just makes it bigger all the time and this makes his corporality go to the limits of expression, which is an EXHAUSTING and very demanding process for any actor. He gets to a level of gravitas that lets us see a character who is resolved, determined, deliniated, and yet unpredictable. He moves as if he was submerged in a tank of water, slowly, with resistance to his movements, and with a constant seek for air, with an evident compression in his lungs.

As I see it, the creation of the joker is from the outside to the inside, which matches his clothes, the red in the outside, symbolically conveying violence and matched with his hand moves, a twisted perception of the reality conveyed in the amber vest and matching his shoulders constant tensions, and a blue , mad, sad, melancholic and ill inside that he accesses through his corporality and which finally debouches in his eyes and mouth, this allows the actor to get in and out the character with a certain ease. For which this doesn’t affect him psychologically.

Heath Ledger’s character was based on Pirandellian techniques, he used an animal to create the skin of his character: a hyenna, we can see this in his moves, his way of walking, his laughter and the position of his head. Ledger created a character that came from inside to outside, dangerously making his own emotions show. The movements were a result of his seek, his auto-exploration for the esence of the character.

Phoenix does it the other way round, he starts with the corporality and this affects the way the emotions show, which is more impressive to see because all of these movements and ways to show emotion are extraneous to the audience, detached from what we are accustomed to seeing, I mean, Nobody moves the hands that way and nobody is all the time at the top of their energy when feeling sad, angry or confused. We cannot recognise an element, an animal, an object, an emotion or anything that helps us understand what’s before our eyes in Joaquin Phoenix’s rendition, this uncanny valley of expression that he creates is what makes his Joker so powerful.

My opinion? Well, this type of renditions happen once in a blue moon, great work, great actor, great aesthetic experience.


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