Directed and written by Todd Phillips • Produced
by Creative Wealth Media Finance and DC Entertainment
• Distributed by Warner Brothers

Downton Abbey
Directed by Michael Engler • Screenplay by Julian
Fellowes • Produced and distributed by Focus

The Conversation
Directed and written by Francis Ford Coppola •
Produced by The Coppola Company • Distributed
by Paramount Pictures

There must be other films as ghastly as director Todd Phillips’ Joker, but I can’t think of any that come close to its sickness. I don’t say that lightly. This is a thoroughly immoral film, and a profoundly unpleasant one, unless, of course, you hanker for gruesome scenes. How about watching people get shot in the face point-blank, the content of their skulls exploding behind them? Or, perhaps you take delight in watching a deranged son suffocate his elderly mother with a pillow. How about seeing a demented man repeatedly stab a work colleague in the neck, erupting a geyser of blood from the poor fellow’s jugular? And there’s more, much more.

I thought I had become inured to the grisly images proffered as entertainment in many current films, but Joker’s descent into blood and gore corrected my complacency.

It wasn’t only what was on the screen that disturbed me. I was especially distressed to see quite a few young children in the New York theater where I saw this film. Many of them appeared to be younger than seven years old and were accompanied by their parents. What, I wondered, could these adults be thinking? Yet the kids didn’t seem much disturbed by the carnage on the screen. The way they were running up and down the aisles made it clear they were having a swell time. Perhaps their loving parents told them that they needn’t worry, since New York City’s police—make that Gotham’s—had been put on alert.

Authorities, fearing the film would provoke violence among the audience, had girded themselves against possible shootings such as the one that accompanied the initial showing of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Nothing much seems to have happened yet. Still, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if savagery broke out at one or more of the film’s upcoming showings.

Joker is a follow on to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, which were themselves an unconscionable twisting of the Batman comic books into the violently macabre. Translating fanciful comic book heroes and villains into characters tasked with committing and enduring real-life mayhem seems to me an inexcusable undertaking. Filmmakers are no longer content with the kind of bloodless shoot-outs that were common in westerns and detective films of the past. No, it’s now commonplace to witness exploding heads, compound fractures, and decapitations—as if a story involving characters originally designed for children would be unduly pallid without them.

The Joker is Arthur Fleck, a psychotically depressed man who has been driven over the edge by the continual mistreatment he’s endured at the hands of society’s hostile underclass. Fleck is in his 30s and living with his mother in a slum apartment building. When we first meet him, he’s carrying a placard outside a low-rent emporium that’s hired him to lure potential customers into its precincts. He’s not successful at his task. A pack of teenagers rip the sign from him and then beat him unconscious for no better reason than that he’s obviously an easy mark. After he recovers from his wounds, a co-worker gives him a .38 handgun for self-protection. As you would expect, Arthur will use this gun to express his discontent with society.

The question here is why Phillips made this film. Perhaps he wanted to cash in on the growing trend of pathological gun violence. Can we fault him? Nothing sells quite as well as public massacres.

Although Fleck’s clearly a looney, he manages to beguile a beautiful young woman who lives down the hall from him. When he takes her to see his stand-up routine at a local comedy club, she laughs delightedly at his unfunny jokes and pathetic stories. Why she should be so amused we never learn. The other patrons respond stonily to Arthur’s attempts at humor.

As I mentioned several years ago in my review of The Dark Knight, there’s something desperately wrong with comic book films that insist on portraying their super heroes and villains as if they were real people. It not only strains our willingness to suspend our disbelief, but also encourages young viewers to venerate these freaks.

We’re invited to applaud Joker’s ability to rile up the underclass, who find in his vicious antics echoes of their own fevered dissatisfaction with things as they are. Suddenly in the film’s third act, Gotham is invaded by men in clown regalia, each trying to inflict mayhem more vicious than the other. Arthur doesn’t plan this. It’s his happenstance example that summons the slaughter. Still, he’s pleased to have occasioned this lunacy and laughs uncontrollably at its progress, inviting us to join his amusement. Now there’s a joyous message for the young at heart.

Turning to a far tamer film, I’m puzzled by Downton Abbey, the film version of the British weekly series shown on PBS in America for seven years. Why do Americans find British aristocrats so admirable? Didn’t we rise up against them in that revolution 243 years ago? Yet, the American audience for PBS productions such as Downton and Victoria can’t get their fill of their supposed betters. This is a long-established trend. In the 1970s, there was the success of the Upstairs, Downstairs series, in which the downstairs servants were unfailingly, if not slavishly, loyal to their masters as are the Downton retainers.

For reasons never addressed, the film fails to mention that the Crawley family who occupy Downton are descended from the aristocrats who came into their estate by the grace of Henry VIII. The self-indulgent king acquired many such piles after turning the monks out of them when he instituted the Church of England. He doled them out to the island’s powerful families to strengthen his hold on their loyalty.

At the film’s conclusion, Grantham states stoutly that Downtown Abbey and its tenants, the Crawleys, will always be in flower. Really? I suppose this is meant to cheer the story’s aficionados and, what’s more, prepare them for the next installment of the series. Well, can you blame the producers for wanting the show to go on and on? It’s been an exceptionally remunerative undertaking.

I much prefer Evelyn Waugh’s handling of the ancestral house theme in Brideshead Revisited (1944). His narrator, Charles Ryder, is a painter who specializes in memorializing ancestral homes on canvas. By way of explaining the value of his profession, he tells us that he “regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited, as mere lodgers and short-term sub-lessees of small importance in the long, fruitful life of their homes.”

I suppose this is the sentiment that Grantham is invoking with regard to Downton. But neither Ryder’s nor Waugh’s admiration for the Brideshead estate was unqualified. Ryder ultimately comes to think of Brideshead not as a goal in itself but rather as a foreshadowing of more important things to come. He parallels the estate’s appeal to that which seduced Dante in The Divine Comedy. It’s a preview that, like Beatrice, beckons us on not merely to wealth and beauty, but rather to salvation. In other words, it has a mystical aspect to it, if only we can see it.

In the novel, Ryder loses whatever claim he thought he might have had on Brideshead, but is nevertheless cheered by what he comes to understand to be the heart of the estate: its art nouveau chapel overseen by a “beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design” that’s been situated before the altar’s tabernacle. It burns for the soldiers who are stationed in the house during the last days of World War II. This wasn’t the builders’ intention, but history has bestowed upon it this simple and august mission. It’s a call to sanctity.

Perhaps it was the role of Catholicism in Brideshead that reminded me of another work inflected with the faith. Although starkly different in tone, Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation (1974) takes religion very seriously indeed. Its protagonist, Harry Caul, is a devout Catholic. As a consequence, he feels guilty about his profession: He’s a high-tech snoop using electronics to get the lowdown on criminals and miscreants. He’s right to feel guilty. A few years before snooping for his current client, he performed a surveillance job that led to the murder of an entire family. Still haunted by their deaths, he nevertheless continues to pursue his trade. On an assignment to record a conversation for a CEO of a large corporation, he learns that another murder may be in its planning stage. He fearfully decides to warn the potential victims.

Caul, as his surname suggests, makes it his practice to insulate himself from others lest he become personally involved with their troubles. His extreme privacy, however, has led not only to crippling loneliness, but also to his inability to understand others. He frequently says he doesn’t want to hear the conversations he records. Far from defending him, his self-imposed isolation ironically leads to his being ensnared by people planning a murder. How he responds to this threat is literally the crux of the film; it’s Caul’s cross to bear. This is easily Coppola’s best film.