US police, theatres brace for violence as Joker opens amid controversy

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Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker. PHOTO: NIKO TAVERNISE/WARNER BROS PICTURES

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - As it prepared to roll out its new movie Joker, Warner Bros faced protests from the families of mass-shooting victims, pundit criticism that the film could inspire violence, a warning from a theatre chain, and even comments from its director that he was fuelled by resentment for liberal Hollywood.

And that was before the New York Police Department decided to deploy undercover cops to screenings.

Joker, the new Joaquin Phoenix movie about a marginalised middle-aged white man who finds salvation in violence, hits US theatres on Thursday night (Oct 3).

For a modern film business that scrupulously avoids controversy - shunning ideological content in its scripts and coaching stars to avoid politics in interviews - the movie has become the most unusual of modern products: a lightning rod produced by a major studio.

"There's been so much controversy around it that I don't think anyone really knows what to expect," said Bruce Nash, a movie-release expert from the box-office site The Numbers.

That includes Warner Bros, which has been in a position of desperately trying to avoid headlines for a movie when news coverage typically is a sought-after commodity. Executives have been tasked with steering the release of the film to a country seething with anger and reeling from mass shootings.

A rare movie that makes a villain the hero, Joker centres on Arthur Fleck, a failed clown and standup comic with a neurological deficit who turns to mass murder after being marginalised. He eventually becomes The Joker, folk hero to an angry populist mob.

The politically charged backlash began even before the film debuted at the Venice Film Festival, where it landed one of the film world's top honours, the Golden Lion prize. Time Magazine's Stephanie Zacharek was among several critics questioning the movie's message.

"In America, there's a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week," she wrote during the festival. "And yet we're supposed to feel some sympathy for (him)."

She also said the character could "easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels," referring to a group of disaffected white males who describe themselves as involuntarily celibate.

Other journalists worried Joker could serve as inspiration to people contemplating violence.

"The film is also deeply disturbing and, I fear, could incite real-world problems. Gun violence, mental illness and random senseless killings don't play like they used to at the movies," wrote the Hollywood Reporter columnist Scott Feinberg. The sentiment prompted Claudia Eller, the editor-in-chief of rival publication Variety, to say "Totally agree with you."

In the past week, the fears about real-world violence have been echoed by those who have suffered its consequences. Members of five families affected by the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre in July 2012 - at another Batman-themed film, The Dark Knight Rises - spoke out against Joker and encouraged the studio to atone for its sins by supporting gun-control laws.

The five family members - including two who lost children - wrote a letter to Warner Bros chief Ann Sarnoff saying the sympathetic depiction of a mass-murderer "gave us pause." The family members asked the studio to use its "massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns."

The letter prompted the studio to take the highly unusual step of interpreting the film for its audience. "Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero," Warner Bros said in a statement.

Still, the company said the film would not play in the Aurora theatre, which is part of Cinemark, the country's third-largest chain.

A Warner Bros spokesman declined to comment further for this piece.

Elsewhere, the studio has sought to elevate security levels. Warner Bros has worked with law enforcement in New York City, where the Gotham-based movie is subtextually set. Both uniformed and undercover police officers will be dispatched to screenings in the city to deter and stop any incidents.

Theatre chains have been treading carefully too.

"Parental warning (this is not a joke)," a representative for the 40-theatre upscale Alamo Drafthouse chain wrote on Facebook, citing "very, very rough language, brutal violence, and overall bad vibes."

"It's not for kids, and they won't like it, anyway," the post said.

The boutique chain Landmark, meanwhile, has banned masks at screenings.

The film will open on some 4,300 screens this weekend, and tracking has been strong. The pre-release surveys suggest an opening total of US$90 million (S$120 million) and possibly as much as US$100 million. If that happens, Joker will make history - only three R-rated films in history have hit that mark.

Warner Bros has tried to walk a line few studios have been forced to walk during Oscar season, the period of overheated movie publicity that begins in September and stretches into the winter. A splashy party at Toronto was followed by a low-key premiere in Los Angeles last weekend at which no print journalists were allowed on the red carpet. And the studio has been judicious about its stars' media appearances, balancing the need for promotion with the fears of more hot water.

But events often seemed to overtake the studio.

In a mostly unrelated Phoenix profile in Vanity Fair earlier this week, Phillips, called to give some ancillary quotes, noted the film came about because he was angry about the direction of liberal Hollywood.

"Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture," he told the magazine. "So you just go, 'I'm out.'... So I go, 'How do I do something irreverent, but (forget) comedy?"

On Sunday co-star Robert De Niro, who plays a talk-show host and object of The Joker's obsession, appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources and dismissed defenders of President Donald Trump with a four-letter epithet, adding gasoline to the fire.

Politics could actually drum up business for the film. Though some people at the Toronto event, including a few affiliated with the film, privately said they saw the angry populists as Trump voters, Hollywood marketing insiders said the movie could also easily play across the aisle.

"People are angry and feel powerless," said a longtime studio marketing executive not involved with the film who asked for anonymity because his company did not authorise him to talk to the press. "This is a movie about a beloved angry character who finds his power."

The tracking, he said, suggests Warner Bros may be making a mistake trying to tamp down the negative attention. "The controversies and pearl-clutching are only supercharging it," he said.

Some experts worry the controversies - particularly over the potential incitement of violence - could distract from more important issues raised by the film.

"All the talk about whether it causes violence takes away the real opportunity we have here: to use the movie for a dialogue about questions like alienation, toxic masculinity and the fragility of whiteness," said Kendall Phillips, a professor at Syracuse University who studies the way works of popular culture affection social tensions.

"These are questions we have a hard time talking about after a mass shooting because both sides gets so entrenched politically. A movie allows us to talk about these issues - if we allow it to."

Asked by The Washington Post if he was worried the film could become a model for those with violence on their minds, director Todd Phillips, best known for The Hangover movies, had an unusual answer. He didn't say it couldn't - just that the medium of film is meant to be potent.

"Art isn't safe," he said. "You want a safe art form, take up calligraphy."

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