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The Politics of Hope

Glass vs. Joker

Last year, I wrote a bit about the recent M. Night Shyamalan film, Glass (2019). On release, Shyamalan's film was largely pilloried by American critics who claimed at the time to be tired of the superhero sub-genre, only to subsequently praise the mega-budgeted Captain Marvel (2019) and Avengers: Endgame (also 2019) as pinnacles of blockbuster cinema. As the same critics now busy themselves with the pointless task of comprising the best and worst films released during the past year, it makes me sad to think that Shyamalan's personal and eccentric vision will no doubt end up further denigrated by its inclusion on many of these "worst of" listings.

Despite its flaws, Glass remains a bold and original work that stands outside of the conventions of any other superhero movie released in the last two decades. A film that UK critic Mark Kermode compared favourably to the cult works of William Peter Blatty - specifically The Ninth Configuration (1980) - while fellow critic Mark Cousins compared it favourably to The Testament of Orpheus (1960) by Jean Cocteau.

Corridors of the mind: Like The Ninth Configuration, the hospital becomes a physical representation of the unconscious state; the cerebral space where the three characters as manifestations of the "id", the "ego" and the "super ego", battle for supremacy.

However, this end of year concern isn't the only reason why I'm thinking about the film again. Followers of contemporary British politics will know that last month the country voted almost unanimously for the Conservative government to remain in power for the next five years.

Led by bumbling Etonian elite Boris Johnson - a man who compared Muslim women in Niqābs to "ninjas" and "letter boxes”, called black people "piccaninnies with watermelon smiles", referred to homosexual men as "bum-boys" and called working class people "lazy, stupid and feckless" - the Conservative party is now free to continue its campaign of austerity, cruelty and division. A campaign that over the last ten years has seen amenities privatized by massive corporations that refuse to pay tax, services cut or underfunded to the point of failure, benefits for people with disabilities and learning difficulties removed completely, and student loans increased to the point that a good education is now something that only the very privileged can afford.

Most of our town centres are dead and dying. Police funding has been massively cut to the point that violent crime statistics have skyrocketed in the last five years, with hate-crimes increasing exponentially. The future of our National Health Service is at risk and continual focus on Brexit has shown to the world that the British are a nation of bigots and racists that can't get along with any other country unless seeing themselves as superior to them.

That the majority of voters in the UK looked at these last ten years of toxic Conservative leadership and thought: "Yes please, five more years of that!", is truly dispiriting, and while I attempt to remain respectful of others' political choices, I can't help feeling ashamed that this is now the general attitude of the country I grew up in (especially as the result has further widened the political and personal divide between England and our neighbouring countries, Scotland, Ireland and Wales).

But how does this relate to Glass? At the end of Shyamalan's film, three characters marked by grief and trauma, sit together on a bench in the middle of the busy 30thStreet train station in Philadelphia (significantly: "the city of brotherly love.") Crossing the divides between age, race and gender, the three characters hold hands and together commit to an act of defiance. Their end-goal? To overthrow the insidious forces that attempt to control and regulate the general populace; to prove to the world that every one of us is remarkable, that every one of us has the power to be extraordinary; to demonstrate that if we work together we can bring about positive change.

Glass: Behind the Scenes Footage [Unknown, 2019]:

I was unable to source an adequate screenshot of the scene in question, so this behind the scenes footage will have to suffice.

Glass [M. Night Shyamalan, 2019]:

Physical gestures and hand-holding are major visual themes in Shyamalan's work. It's often a way for characters to connect or to show their true intentions. Such moments frequently illustrate characters at their most vulnerable; letting down their defences or letting another character in on a secret.

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:

The Village [M. Night Shyamalan, 2004]:

The Happening [M. Night Shyamalan, 2008]:

Arriving at the end of the film, this connection between characters remains a moment of pure hope and positivity; a complete subversion of the usual expectation of the superhero or comic book movie, where the requirement is for a grand battle in which cities are destroyed, the heroes vanquish the villains, and a beam of light is fired into the sky.

The final battle in Shyamalan's film is less a bang than a whimper, but it's necessary in showing its audience that heroism is not about who can punch the hardest or who can take the most punishment, it's about passive acts of courage. Not beating and abusing mentally ill people whose delusions have made them believe that they have superpowers, but by honouring those same people and standing up against governments and organizations that want to deny each of us our own identities and differences, our strengths and weaknesses, and anything else that mark us out as unique and extraordinary human beings.

The politics of Glass are the politics of hope, which is perhaps why the film was received with such cynicism. Because mainstream critics recognized that they are part of these organizations that tell people they're worthless; that punish those that attempt to be different; that destroy those that seek to push the message that each of us is capable of great change. The critics, who saw Shyamalan's anti-authoritarian, anti-government commentary, were blinded by it; seeing only a critique of themselves and their poor profession.

Glass [M. Night Shyamalan, 2019]:

A moment of reflection: Dr. Ellie Staple, named after the piece of stationary that holds the pages of comic books together, becomes a critical stand-in. The supposed voice of reason or authority that tells these characters they're ordinary; that they're unremarkable.

Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]:

A moment of reflection: Dr. Staple connects back to one of the most controversial characters in Shyamalan's oeuvre; the entertainment critic Mr. Farber. Farber stands in judgement over the events of the film, misreading the wonder and magic of the story unfolding through an attitude of cold cynicism.

Unbreakable [M. Night Shyamalan, 2000]:

In the film's reconfiguration of the title character, Mr. Glass, from his appearance in the earlier Unbreakable (2000) to his function in the film in question, Shyamalan has turned the character from a proto-terrorist into an almost Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders type figure; someone going up against an organization that wants to keep people in their place so as to profit from them; someone pushing a message of hope and collaboration.

As Corbyn, Sanders and others like them have been vanquished and denigrated by cruel populists like Johnson, or the American president Donald J. Trump, so Glass was vanquished by the designer nihilism of another comic book movie, the Todd Philips directed Joker (2019).

Praised by critics for its novelty of presenting the famous comic book villain as if it were a serious psychological study on mental illness, Joker aims for profundity, but merely wallows in its own unpleasantness. Rather than explore mental illness as a serious condition it merely exploits it, as a window dressing. Its existentialism is shallow and third hand; the product of someone that has never read the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard or Immanuel Kant, but has seen the films of Martin Scorsese, specifically Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), and has borrowed from them, liberally.

Joker [Todd Philips, 2019]:

The King of Comedy [Martin Scorsese, 1982]:

Nothing about Joker is original or authentic. Its director, Todd Philips, made his name directing atrocious comedy films like Road Trip (2000), Old School (2003) and The Hangover trilogy (2009-2013); films that revelled in sexism, racism and homophobia, that were crass and morally repugnant, that were defined by a poor, televisual aesthetic. In interviews Philips claims to have turned to drama because comedy has been ruined by millennial "snowflakes"; the culture is apparently so "woke" that audiences don't appreciate the Philips brand of offensive humour. It's no surprise then that Joker has played into the mindset of people like Jordan B. Peterson and Paul Joseph Watson; cultural commentators who see the film's defiantly nihilistic, offensive right-wing aspects as a blow to the supposed suppression of political correctness.

Paul Joseph Watson repeatedly aligning himself with the Joker as a right-wing "anti-SJW" icon.

Throughout his career, Shyamalan's innovations have been denied him. With Unbreakable, he wasn't simply ahead of the curve in creating a modern-day superhero movie, he was creating a serious, psychological superhero movie that approached the sub-genre as if it were a gritty procedural. Shyamalan's film received mixed reviews with many critics calling the film silly, joyless and pretentious. Cut to five years later, when Christopher Nolan directed Batman Begins (2005), and the same stylisation and aesthetic was praised as game changing.

We're seeing the same thing now with Joker being touted as an original work, despite Shyamalan directing arguably the first gritty supervillain origin story with Split (2016) several years earlier. Once again, those that control the narrative have the power to re-write history and Shyamalan's innovations are credited to someone else.

Glass isn't as great as those earlier Shyamalan films, but it's nonetheless a work that connects to the mood of the day and feels - in its final moments at least - like a necessary healing, especially for our countries that have lost sight of what it means to see others as friends and allies. It's a film that shows its surviving characters moving towards something hopeful, something positive, towards genuine change. You can balk at the film's slow pace, its weird tone, its intentionally anti-climactic final face-off (though no critic would balk at these things if the film were a foreign-language art-movie or had been directed by some hitherto unknown A24 sponsored Wizkid), but you can't deny its positive intentions and its message of hope.


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