Two traumatized individuals devolving into madness. The music suits Joker and the cinematography suits Van Gogh. Progressively getting darker and more out of body, causal hallucinations plague the screen. Vincent’s world crumbles, and Joker’s is given meaning, but both are scouring their minds for something. Vincent knows what his purpose is, Joker is just finding that out. In both films, the audience doesn’t know what is real.
Joker and At Eternity’s Gate are telling the stories of a man’s mental downfall. They proactively try to relate him to the audience while simultaneously portraying his harrowing negative traits. Unfortunately for Joker, only his carnage is remembered. Where Joker fails, At Eternity’s Gate succeeds. There is enough natural character development to turn Vincent into a reflection of the audience. I understand his motives and his reasonings, and none of his exposition is hand-fed to me through half-assed dialogue. While the barrier between Joker and the audience is strengthened, Vincent’s is torn down.
At Eternity’s Gate is filmed introspectively with many first person POV shots to establish a connection. It’s surreal seeing things from Vincent’s perspective. Not to mention the immense conviction in Dafoe’s eyes as he portrays him. He keeps the character close to the audience by murmuring what’s going on in his head. The landscapes and editing solidify the journey into his mind, with the world becoming a painting. Handheld and sporadic camera movements encapsulate psychedelic visualizations of his mental state. The world becomes a reflection of his mind.
We learn more and more about the Joker as the movie progresses, but not what he’s thinking. It’s a necessary undercut that allows the finale to be as shocking as it is, but it severely disregards everything that make’s Vincent relatable. The scenes that work though, are the ones that play with his mental instability. The more we learn about it, the more attached we become. At Eternity’s Gate turns Vincent’s struggles into montages of bad trips, while Joker turns them into jokes. The fact that he’s a comedian and his disease is treated as a laughing point, creates a divide into the possible empathy people can have for him. While it can come across as endearing to poke fun at one’s self, eventually the emotional attachment vanishes. If he doesn’t care about himself, why should we?
Joker is a villain to society while Vincent is a villain to himself. There is a self-inflicted downward spiral for Vincent, but an accepted second-hand result for Joker. Vincent doesn’t remember the reasons why he’s put in mental institutions or why people keep on leaving him, but his response to pain is beneficial to the world, whereas Joker kills innocent people and ignites a revolution. They are both leaders, but neither of them knows it. Vincent becomes hated during his time alive while Joker is revered.
They are both living for attention. Vincent asks everyone for validation on his art and Joker seeks validation for his life. Only Joker succeeds, but in that temporary victory, he really ends up losing. His resolution comes with the illusion of happiness deriving from attention, while Vincent ends up realizing that attention isn’t what’s important. Joker closes with his mind dancing; he evades the true problems and cherishes the pleasure of success more than the necessity of the journey. It twists his view of the world. He doesn’t learn anything worth learning.
What is the moral of Joker compared to At Eternity’s Gate? Do something bad enough and you’ll be noticed? Vincent ends with a moral happiness of self-acceptance that overshadows the tentative pleasure of a chaos-induced high. Vincent reflects, “I wanted so much to share what I see, now I just think about my relationship to eternity.” He transforms the pain of his demented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use his passion and pain to portray the ecstasy of life, is beyond human. It is beyond any possible message Joker is trying to convey.
Seamlessly, At Eternity’s Gate transitions from painting to painting in his entire discography. The story of his life is shown to us, not told. He haphazardly runs around to find each “perfect” location, and when he does, it’s utter euphoria. Colors rush in and envelope the frame as he absorbs his surroundings. He becomes a product of his art: a moment in time. In the perpetual search for something that doesn’t exist, his obsession removes all other aspects of humanity in him. He fiends for art and rejects anything besides it. Even by hastily controlling his subjects, yelling at children, and having manic episodes in front of the people he cares about, he never burdens society the way Joker does. Even when he’s at his worst, he’s just a crazy man who wants to paint. The Joker is a homicidal maniac with delusions of grandeur, inspiring people through hate and fear.
I can sympathize with Joker but empathize with Vincent. It’s the difference of transferring one’s pain to the audience and transferring one’s pain to the characters in the movie. Ten minutes of At Eternity’s Gate are spent in a shot, reverse-shot conversation with Vincent, a priest, and an armed guard, revealing all of his thoughts in an audition for freedom. The same type of scene in Joker, comes in the generic form of buying over-the-counter prescription pills while giving exposition about his childhood. There is no emotion to it, the camera and location evoke no feeling I don’t already get without visuals. If I close my eyes, I don’t miss anything.
The power of cinema is to tell a story in more ways than one. In At Eternity’s Gate, the camera is an up-close fish eye lens with immense depth of field. It’s a visualization of drugs, that keep Vincent’s sanity always in question. The movie is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a painter. His drug is paint, and without it the world becomes deafening. The, “tell me brother, am I a great painter,” scene is just one of the many examples of ingenious editing to convey emotion. The repetitions of a pervious conversation haunt Vincent as he never has any peace of mind. His world becomes trails of his past that never seem to catch up to him. He’s living life twice at the same exact time.
Prince, S. (2012). Movies and Meaning: An introduction to film. Harlow, Essex: Pearson.