GG Allin as Joker by James Rosario

One Punk Goes to the Movies: Joker & GG By James Rosario

The nearly thirty-year career of director Todd Phillips is bookended by two films about antisocial loners who become cult figures through acts of violence. Phillips, whose filmography includes mostly lowest common denominator comedies like The Hangover, The Hangover Part II, and who could forget, The Hangover Part III, made his debut in 1993 while still a student at New York University Film School. His latest film won the Golden Lion at the 76th Venice International Film Festival (that festival’s highest honor) and is now nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The former is a documentary entitled Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. The latter is Joker, one of 2019’s most financially successful, controversial, and critically divisive films.

Just as Phillips was finishing post-production on Hated in August of 1993, I was discovering GG Allin for the first time. After what seemed like a lifelong search and the possible fulfillment of a preordained destiny, that month finally put my grubby hands on my first issue of Maximum Rocknroll. As a culture-starved fifteen-year-old wannabe punk, I naturally read every page and devoured every word, but it was a small MRR News report that has stuck with me all these years. The headline read: “GG Allin Found Dead!!!” and was accompanied by a short article detailing what seemed like an impossibly wild punk show and its fateful aftermath. As if this wasn’t enough to get my young mind racing, a lengthy two-page, tightly packed and tiny printed description of this mysterious wild man’s last San Francisco show was also included. Lurid descriptions of flying bodily fluids and drunken violence filled the pages, making me both revolted and fascinated. To complete my metamorphosis into an unquestioning fan, I was loaned a cassette copy of GG’s The Suicide Sessions. My world had just gotten a whole lot bigger, and it had only been thirty minutes.

My relationship with the Joker comic book character goes back a lot further than my GG fandom, but on a personal or influential level, “The Clown Prince of Crime” was no match for a sub-humanoid stage-shitting bloody mess. And while I didn’t realize it then, it’s clear now that by the summer of ’93, my true education had begun. Out went the comics of my youth and in came the records of my future. The discovery of GG Allin helped open my eyes to the possibilities and rewards—and potential pitfalls—of an outsider lifestyle much more than The Joker ever had.

However, let me be clear. I do not admire GG Allin. He was unnecessarily offensive, nasty, and most often completely moronic, but somewhere underneath all that was a sad human being who had a very strange way of endearing himself to people. He may have claimed that he hated everyone and wanted to see the world burn, but I think he just wanted to feel accepted. In a bizarre twist, his radical anti-social behavior made him more accepted than he likely ever would have been otherwise. 

The Joker, who’s been kicking around Gotham City, spreading his own unique brand of anarchy since the 1940s, has traditionally been more of a mystery. His origin story has never been definitive, and his antics have ranged from relatively harmless pranks and tricks to murderous rampages and terrorism. Seen mostly as aberrant criminals by crime fighters or glory-seeking miscreants by ’80s talk show hosts, Joker and GG’s goals seem to be the same: to sow disorder and upset the status quo as much as possible.

The existence of Hated and Joker within the same filmography is interesting for several reasons. Most notably, perhaps, is the negative press the director gained after commenting in Vanity Fair that Joker was made in response to “woke” culture. 

“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” Phillips said. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’” 

This attitude potentially reveals the director’s exploitative nature and his misunderstanding of both his audience and his subjects. Phillips has a tendency, even with his bad films, to look down on his characters, viewing them as less than human playthings that deserve the bad things that happen to them. He doesn’t seem to always get them, their troubles, or their purpose. In addition, he often treats his audience like children who need to be told what to like and when to laugh (or not laugh, apparently). If audiences have moved on from Phillips-styled comedies, it’s not necessarily because they’re “woke,” it’s because that style of mean-spirited comedy no longer resonates.

In a possible nod to those anxiously waiting for The Hangover Part IV, comedian Marc Maron (who has a bit part in Joker) responded to Phillips’s comment with his own observations on the current state of American comedy. He points out that all he sees as “off the table” is “shamelessly punching down for the sheer joy of hurting people,” and that “if you’re isolated or marginalized or pushed into a corner because of your point of view or what you have to say, yet you still have a crew of people that enjoy it, there you go! Those are your people. Enjoy your people.” 

If Phillips has misunderstood moviegoers when it comes to his comedies, he’s also missed the mark about those struggling with mental illness. In Joker, Arthur Fleck (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled young man facing a complete lack of helpful resources. He can easily be seen as a victim of societal shortcomings for much of the film, and Phillips handles this subject matter with a surprising amount of empathy for a time. But, as the film progresses, Phillips devolves Arthur into a clichéd mass shooter. What’s worse is that he blames everything on Fleck’s mental state and his lack of a girlfriend. 

While Arthur’s violence is at first arguably justified, understandable, and even cathartic for viewers, it soon morphs into glorification. Basically, Arthur throws his hands up and says “I can’t help it. I’m crazy,” insinuating that the default state of anyone who suffers from mental illness is that of eventual violence. I am by no means a mental health expert, but this seems lazy and dismissive at best, and a dangerous stereotype at worst. It shows that Phillips doesn’t care enough about his character or the problems and stigmas those with mental health issues face every day to treat them with any sense of responsibility. 

In Hated, Phillips portrays GG much the way the antisocial masturbator wanted to be presented: as an insane rocker with a death wish (GG allegedly approved of a rough cut of the film before he died). This is all fine, but Philips once again betrays himself at the end of the film during footage of GG’s funeral. He expresses his disappointment that GG merely died of a drug overdose and not in some grand self-mutilating spectacle for his cameras to capture. The disdain in his narration cuts through the screen, and it becomes clear that he never saw GG as a human being, but only as a thing to be exploited. 

However, even after these complaints, Hated and Joker are both very good films that offer valuable insight into the cult of personality that can form around violence and spectacle. It could be argued that the art and antics of Arthur Fleck and GG Allin are a reflection of societal and moral failings, an exposure of hypocrisy, or simply a giant middle finger to the system. On the other hand, they could just be assholes. But, even if this is the case, there may still be a lesson to be learned. The job of a good filmmaker is to hold a mirror up to society and force everyone to take a good long look. Even after all his faults and misconceptions, Phillips doesn’t use these films to inform us about how society should act; he’s using characters that would be considered highly “problematic” if they were walking around in the real world today to show us how society does act. It could be that Arthur and GG aren’t reacting to constraints put on them by society, as they both may claim. It could be that Arthur and GG are the reflections society sees when it looks in the mirror. 

James Rosario is a film critic living in Asheville, N.C. He loves punk rock and movies, especially when the two collide. He can be reached via his blog,