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Saturday, November 2, 2019

An Alleyway and the Joker Stairs

In a dank alleyway, far beneath the metropolitan skyscrapers, there exists a temporal loop. A rich couple, having taken an ill-advised shortcut from the theatre to reality, are shot dead over and over, each time in slightly different variations but always with the same outcome.
Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities

On Halloween, I watched the new Joker movie at a cinema in The Bronx. There has been a lot of discussion locally about the influx of tourists to "the Joker stairs," but as an urban planner, I would have been scrutinizing the details of the newest version of Gotham City anyway. As I noted in a review of Imaginary Citiesthe variations of Gotham over time show changes in the fears lurking in the dark places of our collective consciousness.

Joker almost entirely abandons any effort at developing a fictional Gotham City. With almost no alterations, it is unmistakably New York City. More precisely, it is the mythos of the "bad old days" of New York in the 1970s and 80s, complete with the 1981 garbage strike. Stylistically, it draws visual and acting cues from Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), a reference that is directly reinforced by Robert De Niro's character in the film. The details in the streetscape that were altered to recreate the appearance of New York in 1981, and even those that were missed, can be informative. The tagging on the subway and the porn titles on the theater marquees (channeling the Times Square's era of infamy) keep the sense of disorder palpable. Choosing this period was an effective way to capture the grit that has always defined Gotham in the comics and movies, something that has become more difficult as cities have been largely rebuilt into glossier places that are much safer. More importantly, it captures current anxieties about going back to the "bad old days."

The only significant real fictional change to New York's built form in this movie was the insertion of an alley into the old Deuce. Although it appears much of this may actually have been filmed at locations in Jersey City and Newark (places where commercial strips have not been as extensively redeveloped), there is no doubt this was a recreation of 42nd Street in the Time Square area. New York is not a city of alleyways, but the filmmakers revised the infamous streetscape of porn theaters to include one. As usual in dark urban fiction, an alley is a residual space where garbage collects and the retreating effects of society no longer reach. The opening sequence of the movie concludes in this lawless Gotham locale; we see the violent nature of this city as we get to know Arthur Fleck as a helpless victim before he transforms into the Joker. It is this attack that sets in motion the series of events that send Arthur spiraling out of control.
Arthur Fleck lying in the alley after he was attacked