“Surprising”: that’s how a character in Hong Sang-soo’s Walk Up describes the decision to hold a film festival in 2022. Filmmaker Byung-soo (Hae-hyo Kwan) has just been invited to attend a complete retrospective of his work overseas, but he and his partner are discussing what this would actually entail: the couple would need to pay her way since the cinematheque can only cover one plane ticket, and Byung-soo would need to quarantine upon returning home to South Korea. The trip would be expensive, “complicated.” They hash it out over greens in a sparsely decorated apartment, boxed into a deeply unglamorous, black-and-white medium shot.
Initially, Walk Up left a very light impression on me, but it was on my mind more than most films as I departed TIFF. Byung-soo is a proxy for Hong, and the plainness of his—and Walk Up’s—fatigue with filmmaking is wryly bourgeois, honestly despondent. With less emphasis on Hong’s trademark sudden zooms and timeline slippage, Walk Up centers on Byung-soo awash in praise for his films, but unable to muster any reciprocal conviction in what he’s doing. At one point, the director describes being visited by God, who instructed him to move to Jeju Island and make twelve new films. The scene is humorous; if he’s not joking, it seems so trivial for this to be the thing that is divinely sanctioned to him. Still, Byung-soo earnestly wants to work without doubting that it matters. Meanwhile, he is estranged from his daughter, who remarks that he cares about his vintage Mini Cooper more than her, and he emotionally withdraws from all of his romantic entanglements.
Hong’s project—at this point, we can expect two or three bone-dry micro-budget films a year, virtually all festival-slate locks—is a reassuring anomaly in the arthouse sphere, often a palette cleanser among heavy dramas. And yet, Walk Up’s drab mood lifts a middle finger to the desire to elevate Hong into a heroic figure. There’s no scene in The Fabelmans where Steven Spielberg’s stand-in curls up on a bed for several minutes, catatonic, as Byung-soo does. After Hong’s recent fêting with a Film at Lincoln Center retrospective, he exaggerates his situation to ask what it means to be “resonant,” a “festival favorite,” when cinema is underfunded and the pandemic trudges on. Among critics, there’s a growing sense that his workmanlike, small-scale, self-reflexive approach is wearing thin. I say “growing sense” because narratives tend to form and settle by themselves in a festival environment, where journalists travel to spend their days in a multiplex, packing their schedules to break even, watching and memorizing the same seven pre-show commercials, and then hope, pray, and cross their fingers that something exciting will happen onscreen. That hope transfigures into hype, the fatigue into tweeted jokes, all of which becomes nuggets of news to cinephiles following along from home.
Above is an advertisement for Bulgari, one of TIFF’s sponsors, that played before every single public screening. In this 30-second “film by Paolo Sorrentino,” Anne Hathaway and Zendaya prance around an Italian villa in serpentine jewelry, flowers fall from the ceiling, and a peacock materializes in the last five seconds. “In the search for wonder,” Hathaway whispers like an incantation, “there are no endings, only new beginnings.” At rowdier evening screenings, the crowd would whoop and start clapping along to the music. It was the closest thing we had to Rocky Horror. Afterwards, something as mismatched with this excess as Jafar Panahi’s No Bears would begin to play. This is a silly jewelry ad, but after seeing it a couple dozen times, it becomes a part of the feature presentation’s packaging.
One of the murmurs among critics at TIFF was that the slate was disappointing. There’s something to this, but I don’t think it had to do with the actual films. There were flashes of total brilliance—among them, Alice Diop’s sublime Saint Omer; Joanna Hogg's gorgeous, devastating The Eternal Daughter; Fox Maxy’s F1ghting Looks Different 2 Me Now, a net-art blitz about land ownership; and Graham Foy’s feature debut The Maiden, which blended the alienation of Alan Clarke with the gauzy atmospherics of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Rather, TIFF was a confrontation with the festival as a viewing context. Even if the strongest films retain their individual impact, something like the Bulgari commercial sets the tone in the room, a bizarre marriage of commerce and the signifiers of art. Tried-and-true approaches, however beautifully executed, weren’t always enough to offset this looming shadow. At least for this writer, there was a hunger for something rawer, with an erratic pulse.
Enter Vera Drew with The People’s Joker. Drew is best known as an editor for Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Abso Lutely Productions; she spearheaded their online Channel 5 programming, executive-produced their sitcom parody Beef House, and directed the most recent season of On Cinema. One of her earliest credits was as a digital imaging technician on Nathan for You, and she’s said that Fielder’s spelunking into parody law inspired her approach to The People’s Joker. Over the course of the pandemic, Drew reworked the narrative of Joker—riffing mainly on the 2019 Todd Phillips film and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016)—into a trans coming-of-age tale, a graphic-novel-style funhouse mirror of events in her own life. Crowdfunding the production, she invited fans to contribute VFX animation, matte paintings, original music, and even brief acting roles recorded in isolation. Stitching together real-world actors, green-screen backdrops, and a dizzying array of animated vignettes, The People’s Joker has an infectious visual anarchy.
The film’s grassroots origins are fitting. Its major villain is the culture industry itself, which perpetuates an ascendant alt-right—Heidecker steps in with his Alex Jones impression as an animated Perry White, hosting Gotham City’s version of InfoWars—and an evil billionaire class—Phil Braun, who helms the cult online project Geddython, voices Bruce Wayne, here something of a Jeffrey Epstein figure. At first, Joker’s dream is to join that culture industry: to become a comedian. The skyline of Gotham City is a dead ringer for that of Lorne Michaels’s production company Broadway Video, and so Joker tries to get her foot in the door at UCB Live, a takeoff on Saturday Night Live named for its stars' launchpad, Upright Citizens Brigade. When an aspiring comic “auditions” for UCB Live, they stand in front of a computer that harvests their appearance, demeanor, and target demographic; the program's comedy training orientation is a demented version of “yes, and...” that falls back on heteronormative clichés, the “yes” meaning that you accept the premise of the comic setup. But Drew does not—she populates these scenes with outsider artists and underground comedians. Fake-SNL’s star is Awesome Show alum David Liebe Hart, here playing an off-kilter version of Sacha Baron Cohen. Antagonist Lorne Michaels, animated like a cylindrical crash-test-dummy by Dan Cupps, is voiced by Sarah “Squirm” Sherman, a current SNL cast member specializing in the art of the alt-comedy gross-out.
Drew also has genuine fun with the coming-of-age narrative—how different are those beats from a comic-book origin story? Joker creates her own subterranean network of misfit comedians, introduced in a scene that nods to the Steadicam sequences in Goodfellas (which is, in its way, also a film about belonging). In this space, Joker redefines her identity. She falls in love, experiments with drag, and comes into her own through a caustic, Andy Kaufman-style stand-up set. It’s an in-joke to those familiar with Abso Lutely that Joker’s cohort practices “anti-comedy”: a muddled label applied often to Heidecker, as well as conceptual, confrontational descendants of Kaufman. But for the subset who gravitates to this approach, it’s the furthest thing from an attempt to alienate the audience—it’s a way of connecting to people with a similarly warped sensibility, and a deliberate rejection of the clichés underpinning UCB Live. This type of comedy is key to what Drew is doing: she’s making a film about trying to find an authentic self, and in the process, she opens the door to an alternative community.
By playing with the Batman mythos, Drew’s target is the corporate gatekeepers, not comic-book intellectual properties. Popcorn movies can lead to unexpected lightbulb moments, and that recontextualization is central to fanfiction. The film opens with a dedication to Drew’s mother and Joel Schumacher: early on, Joker sees herself for the first time in Nicole Kidman in Schumacher’s playful, weirdly sensual Batman Forever, and Schumacher’s kitschy Batman & Robin has been retconned as a queer classic. Considering the intersection of fanart and experimental cinema, films like Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) and Todd Haynes’s Superstar (1988) deal in found footage, repurposed cultural mythologies, and uncleared music—Haynes’s film was fatally copyright-dinged by the Carpenter family, condemned to covert circulation on VHS. More recently, online projects like Our Footloose Remake (2011), Our RoboCop Remake (2014), and Shrek Retold (2018) laid the groundwork for Drew’s collaborative ethos. The People’s Joker builds on this legacy: it captures how mass entertainment tries to negate perspectives outside of the mainstream, but it also creates something new in spite of those rights holders' intentions. As freewheeling as her aesthetic is, Drew crafts an oddly classical narrative about discovering oneself in a world of moving images—a sui generis alternative to cynical, gender-flipped reboots.
Amid the chaos of the film getting pulled from TIFF, The People’s Joker pointed most directly to the way that film festivals—at least at this scale—sustain capitalist modes of production and prestige-picture hype cycles. It's to the Midnight Madness programmers’ credit that this was able to screen for one day, even with a rollback, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see David Liebe Hart on an enormous multiplex screen at an 8:30 a.m. press screening. As I approached the theater, a huge line was snaking around the building, waiting for Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin. When I asked a volunteer if there was a line for People’s Joker, she helpfully gestured toward a gaggle of about ten people, more of a smokers’ patio than a formal queue. Perfect, I thought. The ten of us watched The People’s Joker in the calm before the storm, and it seemed an adequately twisted way to reclaim a “search for wonder.”