Not Dark Yet: The Joker, Trump and Bob Dylan

I watched The Dark Knight the other night. And ever since I’ve been thinking about the Joker. Not just about Heath Ledger’s staggering performance but about the character of the clownish sadist who fears nothing and spins through life without an axis.

We watch with anxiety and fascination this dishevelled creature–part Pierrot part Charlie McCarthy–tear up the book of expected conduct. He is man of no fear and no shame. He slices the throat of every norm, even those norms that honourable thieves are supposed to respect.

The Joker is hired by the corrupt politicians and gangsters to scare the shit out of Gotham City’s citizens and to get their black money back from Mr Lau the Chinese accountant to the crooks. From day one it is clear the Joker is miles ahead of his supposed powerful patrons and backers. Not only does he not cower before them he takes pleasure in murdering them. Usually brutally. His fee for his services is a high one but the gangsters agree, because they can’t get to Mr Lau without someone as seemingly dippy as the clown. But when at last he calls his mafia friends to collect their money, piled high like an Aztec pyramid or a holy altar, he doesn’t take his cut and run. Rather he drenches the pile with gasoline and sets it alight. They are aghast. Surely the one thing that everyone bows before is money. Cash. Moolah. But this guy is totally crackers. He is not normal. The usual blandishments, bribes and baubles don’t tempt him at all. The Joker is way ahead of them. He feels only his own pain. He cares only for ultimate and absolute power.

Throughout the tale he is chased by and chases Batman. In a close embrace tango Batman and the Joker take turns leading and following, dipping and pirouetting in an intimate dance in which the line between bad and good, evil and virtue are blurred. Batman wants to capture the Joker and stop his murderous rampages. The Joker simply wants Batman to take off his mask and reveal his true identity. Gotham’s terrorised citizens are unsure which is to be hated more, the clearly despicable Joker or the cloaked avenger who seems to blissfully unconcerned about the collateral damage his ‘good’ deeds leave in the wake of his daring rescues.

Both characters are egotists. Both need each other. The Joker is the obverse of Batman’s coin. Before the film ends you wonder: whose is the real danger to the people of Gotham? The billionaire who dresses up as a shadowy figure but who craves adoration and power and control from behind a mask or the ugly, grotesque jokester who kills and lies openly and offers no future but his grinning presence?

Today, the Joker is in control of America. All the usual blandishments, calls to reason, liberal handwringing about his damnable lies and his absolute contempt of all norms have the least affect. And the Batman hired by the Democratic Party, the Washington Post, the Obama-was-the-greatest industry, the old hippies and college grads, is powerless. He simply flails and puffs. Because at heart the public seems to have decided that they would prefer an bald faced liar than one that has been terrorizing them for decades, if at a remove and in the name of justice, truth and the American Way.

And then in the midst of this toxic stew Bob Dylan quietly drops a 16-minute tour de force that somehow manages to sum the whole clusterfuck up perfectly.

Murder Most Foul, his first original material in nearly a decade, will go down as one of the greatest of Dylan’s many masterpieces. For the man who rejected the accolade ‘Voice of a Generation’ this new song is a grand review of that very generation. A slow, resigned but knowing dirge for the loss of goodness, virtue and hope; for all that he and his peers have held dear since the end of WWII.

It’s hard not to feel the Joker’s Trumpian spirit throughout.

“Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”
“Of course we do, we know who you are!”
You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect
We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect
We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place”

 The world we all thought we lived in —way beyond our means, of course– is gone.

Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight

You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect
We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect

Dylan’s best work has frequently been compared to scripture because it so full of meanings and layers and possibilities. Its ambition extends far beyond mere rock and roll and pop music. And here too, Dylan spins his tale with Biblical pace and profundity. He takes us to the mountain top overlooking Jerusalem and points out all the landmarks, those familiar places and names we have treasured but that now seem superseded by a murder most foul.

It is a song of such deep sadness. His voice is haunted and weary; a prophet on his death bed giving a final ultimate benediction. And yet though a darkness envelopes every syllable of this poem, Dylan’s steady incantation makes room for hope.

Hope it seems lies all around. From Patsy Cline to the Beatles. From the Blue Skies of the Allman Brothers to the sunny sounds of The Eagles. Jazz and the blues are beacons as are Little Richard and Wolfman Jack. The final two verses are little more than a near ritualistic recitation of the names of the Saints who if anyone can, must save us.

Murder Most Foul is a fearsome, troubled a synopsis of a powerful evil and a weakened dream, but…

“Don’t worry, Mr. President, help’s on the way”.


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Nate Rabe Written by:

Nate Rabe, an India born American/Australian, began his aid career in the late 1980s with the U.N. in Pakistan. For nearly 30 years he worked in senior roles in the field and in the headquarters of international NGOs including Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Save the Children and the Red Cross. He recently decided to leave the aid sector to pursue his writing and photography, a process he documents in his blog Life After Aid. His second novel, "The Shah of Chicago" is due to be published later in 2016. He currently lives and works out of Melbourne Australia.

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