The power Hollywood holds to unconsciously transgress the boundaries of a film viewer is limitless. The ability the camera possesses to penetrate reality fools audiences to not only believe what they see but also believe that what they see is real. Seated in a dark theater, the film viewer gazes up at a screen where images appear to seamlessly move and interact with one another. Hollywood narrative conventions encourage the film viewer to passively accept and believe that the images and sounds that pass before their eyes onscreen are synonymous with reality. Film as a transmitter of cultural norms wields the ability to unconsciously educate its viewer. The danger of this appears when the viewer does not realize their opinions and thoughts are formed for them instead of by them.
In 1989, Tim Burton directed a highly anticipated and well-received film about a comic book superhero, Batman. The narrative of the film deals with Batman’s battle with the villain, Joker. As a major Hollywood blockbuster film, it is inevitable that certain narrative scripts be filled throughout the course of Batman. Good must conquer evil and a resolution must be found to appease the anxieties of the audience as they exit the theater. While Bruce Wayne/Batman (played by Michael Keaton) is, as the “good guy,” the figure of identification for the film viewer, the figure of Jack/Joker (played by Jack Nicholson) troubles this notion. Animated, alive, and colourful (in comparison to Gotham City), Joker’s figure challenges the viewer to feel empathy for his misguided cause. The audience is repeatedly drawn into Joker’s criminal acts, both as a voyeur and as a participant who is left almost entirely out of Batman’s narrative progression. The reversal of audience identification in Batman proves most useful in an examination of the Flugelheim Museum sequence. As the narrative of Batman unfolds, specifically as Joker and his gang break into the fictional museum, the film generates a critically engaged film viewer which functions to turn the spectator into an (unknowing) art critic. Aligned with Joker’s point of view, yet critical of his “bad guy” behaviour, the film subverts the social position of art and gives the film viewer an opportunity to reconsider the function of art as a commodity as well as its social and cultural roles.
Placed within the binary opposition of hero versus villain, Batman and Joker can also be positioned against one another as consumer versus producer or buyer versus artist. As Vicky Vale, the love interest for both Batman and Joker, wanders through Bruce Wayne’s mansion with her co-worker Alexander Knox early in the film, they criticize Wayne’s (over)consumption of luxury goods as well as his absence of taste. “Remember,” Knox tells Vale, “the more they’ve got, the less they’re worth.” To which Vale responds, “then this guy must be the most worthless guy in America.” Mockingly, the two discuss Wayne’s “very large bankroll,” a bankroll that later in the sequence gives Wayne’s collected works an aura of authenticity. “I bought it in Japan,” is the explanation Wayne gives for one of the suits of armour on display in his house. The suit’s foreignness coupled with its assumed monetary value is meant to imbue the armour with an artistic value or an innate “goodness” as a work of art. John Walker in Art and Artists on Screen states that art can function as a “visible sign of wealth and social prestige.” However, this scene in Batman functions to mock the lineup of armour in Wayne’s mansion. Regardless of the prestige that may be associated with works of great cost, Knox and Vale encourage and guide the film towards a critical reception of the suits or armour, or works of art, displayed onscreen.
The walk through Wayne’s private gallery with Knox and Vale serves to set up the Flugelheim Museum sequence that takes place later in the film. The film viewer first enters the museum with Vale and then, as Joker makes his entrance, the viewer (re)enters almost as if they are an invisible member of Joker’s gang. Joker’s arrival begins with a cut to a black screen. The main doors to the museum swing open. The film viewer, through the lens of the camera, looks through the main doors and into the museum and sees, sprawled throughout the space of the building, the bodies of the men and women Joker has just poisoned with gas. Quick cuts and a variety of close-ups reveal the unconscious individuals. The silence of the museum echoes and is reinforced by the involuntary silence of those strewn across the cold marble floors. Being positioned with Joker – almost as a participant in his activities – facilitates an opportunity for the film viewer to critique and analyze the work Joker and members of his gang create.
While a dominant reading of the Flugelheim Museum scene might suggest that Joker’s use of paint is a horrific act of vandalism where classic works of art are destroyed, an alternative reading of this scene might suggest that Joker is actually creating new and equally important works of art. As various works are re-appropriated by Joker and his gang, the viewer engages in an active evaluation of the new pieces as they appear. In purple, Joker paints “Joker was here!” atop another artist’s depiction of a back alley in an unidentified urban centre. Though the camera denies the audience complete visual access to the newly finished work, the film viewer understands that Joker’s addition to the painting changes the presence and purpose of the original image. The original image functions as a blank canvas on which Joker is inspired to create art. A cut brings the audience to a different part of the museum where a member of Joker’s gang, hands positioned over his head in ballet’s fifth position, dances towards an image armed with a paintbrush covered in pink paint. The camera pulls back to reveal Edgar Degas’ painting, Two Dancers on Stage (1874), with newly added pink brush strokes at the feet and head of the central figure in the image. The altered Degas image, juxtaposed with the one Joker has just created, allows the film viewer to decide which newly appropriated image they prefer. The film viewer assigns value to the two images based not on monetary assessments, but instead which image they find aesthetically pleasing. As more works in the museum are appropriated the film viewer continues this unconscious process of evaluation. The unconscious process of evaluation that Batman generates allows the film viewer, perhaps for the first time, to critically evaluate works of art seen onscreen.
The museum scene functions denotatively to reinforce Joker’s status as villain. However, his interaction with various works of art in the museum serves to expose the unconscious boundaries of the film viewer that have been socially inscribed. Before he enters the Flugelheim Musem, Joker tells his girlfriend: “Daddy’s going to make some art.” Joker’s definition of “making art” is read within the context of Batman as vandalism instead of a creative process. The film viewer experiences a visceral shock, disbelief, and distress as they witness Joker cover iconic images of the Western world with fluorescent pink, green, purple, blue, red, and orange. The discomfort that the film viewer experiences functions to expose the invisible boundaries – both socially and culturally imposed – that surround works of art. Cultural and social norms dictate that a work of art can be seen, admired, and appreciated from a safe distance, but they can never be touched. Joker does not adhere to these unspoken rules and, as a result, his dance through the museum is understood and read by the film viewer as an unspeakable act of violence. The horrified reaction the film elicits is precisely what works to uncover the aura, as Walter Benjamin describes it, of the works Joker takes his artistic license to. However, it may be suggested that although the original aura of the works is destroyed, it does not wither. Instead, the works accrue a new and different aura. The sudden change of aura that Joker forces on these works may be unwanted, but it challenges the film viewer to reevaluate their relationship with the works of art seen in Batman.
The character of Joker, understood as an artist with a vision rather than solely a villain, allows for a negotiated reading of the Flugelheim Museum sequence. As Joker enters the museum he announces, “Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds!” A gang member switches on a boom box and Joker, along with his gang, dance into the museum with the predetermined intention of creating art. Joker’s art exists within parody, and his creative process adopts a most serious and severe nature. “I create art,” Joker says, “until someone dies.” He does not react and interact with any form of art as social and cultural convention dictates. Joker interacts with the art differently. He dances as he moves from piece to piece, he makes additions to images, and he saves (or preserves) works of art. Joker presents a new, non-conventional method of appreciating art through interaction and he encourages others to do the same.
As Joker moves through the museum towards Vale, his interaction with the works of art around him ends in front of Francis Bacon’s painting Figure with Meat (1954). “Hold it,” he says as he holds up a mahlstick which prevents a gang member from taking a knife to the image, “I kind of like this one, Bob. Leave it.” Joker and Bob stand directly in front of Bacon’s painting with the figure in the image positioned between the two men. The figure in Figure with Meat looks out at Joker and Bob as they are engaged in this interaction that concerns the fate of the painting. The figure sits silently, surrounded by darkness, and gazes out at Joker and Bob much in the same way that the film viewer sits, surrounded by darkness, as they look up at the screen that the film is projected onto. Figure with Meat, as it mimics or mirrors the position of the film viewer, functions unconsciously to suggest that the majority of art consumption in the popular world has little to do with active participation. The Bacon painting reflexively comments on the convention of both art and film viewing practices. Provided with an opportunity to question the dominant socially and culturally inscribed viewing practices, the film viewer is made aware that these practices are not likely to change. The film viewer, just like the figure within Figure with Meat, is doomed to sit passively in a darkened theatre as a witness with no agency for change.
Figure with Meat further informs Joker’s character development and helps to define him as an artist. Bacon’s work is a pastiche that borrows from Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Innocent X (1650) as well as Rembrandt van Rijn’s Carcass of Beef (1657). The use of Bacon’s painting operates as a commentary on Joker’s own artistic and personal style. Functioning as a pastiche himself, Joker is made up of elements drawn from various sources of inspiration. As already noted, he holds a mahlstick, a tool used by artists to steady the hand. Also his costume, while highly stylized, is quite eclectic. The purple silk hat he wears resembles the same hat seen earlier in the sequence in Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669). Does Joker save Figure with Meat from Bob’s re-appropriation because he feels Bacon’s work is already complete? Or are Bacon and Joker’s artistic visions analogous? The film aligns Joker with Bacon’s style when he leaves the painting untouched. Also, the appreciation Joker voices for Figure with Meat presents an opportunity for the film viewer to form a private opinion about Bacon’s work. While the narrative of Batman encourages the film viewer, by association with Joker’s preference for the work, to respond critically to Figure with Meat, it is significant that the viewer is given an opportunity to evaluate a work of art on an unconscious level.
Joker immediately moves from Figure with Meat to the table Vale is seated at where she has been watching Joker’s movement through the museum. Costumes throughout the whole of the film play a subdued role as everyone is dressed for the most part in black or white. Set against the dark and gloomy aesthetic of Gotham City, the predominantly stark costume choice works to create a dull and void mise-en-scène. Joker’s vibrant purple garments puts a splotch on the black canvas that is Gotham City, and in this sequence another figure known as Vickey Vale is also dressed in colour. Vale is dressed in a blue-green dress – a costume detail that functions to unite her with Joker. When Joker tells Vale, “We mustn’t compare ourselves with regular people. We’re artists,” his statement is reinforced by the creative addition of colour in Vale’s dress within the dark atmosphere of Gotham City. Joker and Vale differentiate themselves from the “regular people” because they wear colour.
Joker’s evaluation of art continues as he picks up Vale’s portfolio and flips through it. “Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap,” he says to Vale as he moves through photographs of women typically scripted as conventionally beautiful. As he arrives at a (fictional) cover of Time Magazine on which the caption reads, “Corto Maltese Revolution – pics by Vicky Vale,” Joker’s opinion of Vale’s work changes immediately when he states, “Ah! Now that’s good work.” The images of Vale’s work initially appear to the film viewing audience on a canted angle. However, once her work has been deemed “good,” Joker realigns the portfolio so that the images become more accessible and more easily read by the camera and, by extension, the film viewer. “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it” Joker tells Vale. His character speaks for the film viewer when he questions the status of Vale’s work. Is it art? The question remains unanswered by the film and requires once more that the film viewer take an active role in order to evaluate the authenticity and the aura of the works presented to them.
Batman immerses the film viewer in the underbelly of Joker’s activities and allows for a new and potentially subversive appreciation of art and its social and cultural functions. Joker’s actions force the film viewer not only to interact with the artwork found in the Flugelheim Museum, but to also look at and evaluate the works that cover the walls. “Let me challenge you with a little piece I did,” Joker tells Vale at the museum. His words resonate with the film viewer and his vision of being “the world’s first-fully functioning homicidal artist” enables and encourages the film viewer to critique his artistic methods.The Flugelheim Museum sequence challenges audience members to reevaluate their relationship with the art world. Batman persuades the film viewer to critique the works of art that the Joker destroys, the work he saves, and the works he creates. This helps to generate an audience that is forced to actively evaluate and engage with various works of art in a critical manner. Social convention suggests that art hung in a museum should be immediately regarded as “good,” but Joker redefines and challenges this assumption through his appropriation of specific works of art. There is always the possibility that the audience may simply digest the Flugelheim Museum sequence as a violent scene in which irreversible acts of vandalism take place. However, it is more likely that the film viewer will become engaged with Joker’s disfiguring works in a way that allows them to become more conscious of the institution and gain the ability to effectively embrace the role of the art critic.
2. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1969), 221.
3. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1969), 221.