Film responses: A few dissenting thoughts on Parasite, Joker, and the Infinity Gauntlet

Note: I can’t call this my most coherent film response. It’s more a jumble of rants. I had intended on rewatching Parasite and analyzing specific sequences in detail, but I didn’t have the heart for it. I really dislike this movie and I’m always going to be deeply suspicious of this level of consensus, especially when it seems ideologically motivated. I especially detested the torture that occurs when one poor family betrays another. The Kims must maintain stress positions while the betrayed housekeeper presides over the procedure, masterfully imitating the pronouncements of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Nasty stuff.

Parasite
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
132 min, South Korea, 2019

Joker
Directed by Todd Phillips
122 min, USA, 2019

Sitting on a Starbucks terrace near the Zócalo, in front of me a kid flexed his giant, backlit fingers in silhouette and made me do double-takes. A few confused moments later I realized that he was wearing a plastic replica of the Infinity Gauntlet, Marvel’s fictional WMD, perhaps the first one ever for kids under 10. In the case of Iron Man’s Final Solution it’s more accurate to call the Gauntlet a WMG, or Weapon of Mass Genocide. Here are my thoughts on Tony Stark’s moral choices.

The sight of that kid’s very expensive toy startled me, once its meaning out-of-context settled in — representing as it does not just the normalization, the infantilization of symbols of military violence and destruction but the embodiment of the idea of the zero-sum game as our era’s decadent dominant paradigm. Not just for narcissistic Presidents, anymore: it sells tickets; it’s a toy.

Other equally decadent if less coherent ideas sell tickets these days and also win their directors, not just reverence, affection, and acclaim, but also Oscars.

Best-picture winner Parasite posits that all poor people want is good wifi and to take advantage of stupid rich people. Also, that they’ll kill one another — betray their own class — to do so.

Indeed, the scenes that most forcibly dramatize these regressive and self-destructive impulses are the ones most often cited as the film’s greatest formal and, apparently from someone’s perspective, moral achievements.

But I’ve come at this movie from all sorts of angles, watched it twice through, replayed key scenes three or four times, and I can’t for the life of me understand what makes anyone think this movie conveys progressive messages or provides a materialist looksee into class conflict. Even Krystal and Saagar believe the hype. I don’t think it’s any great achievement in terms of filmmaking, either.

The central conflict in Parasite is intraclass and as such it’s not an analysis or revelation of truth. No, it’s a cynical, elitist fantasy. Look: there’s no way you can look at the poor characters in this film and conclude, yup, that looks like me. Because it’s not you. This film’s target demographic is art-house elites. They’re not rich like the rich folks in Parasite but they sure as hell aren’t poor. It must be quite comforting to assure yourself that there’s nothing we can do about the “plight of the poor” because, after all, they’re killing each other. And they’re thieves. And can’t be trusted. And on.

The folks who swallow Parasite are of the same kind who believe that Nancy Pelosi has working-class interests at heart and that Joe Biden really will turn out to be a new FDR — people whose lives will not fundamentally change no matter who wins which election, or if the minimum wage hits $15 or not. That ideology alone, coupled with a narrative that pretends to expose class conflict, and you’ve got yourself a guaranteed Oscar consideration.

The rich fucks in this movie exist to erect a site of conflict between the two ersatz working-class families in that artsy house, if you can call such a structure a house in the way that most humans on this planet experience it.

The Kim family’s apartment bears a closer resemblance to an actual house that a majority of humans might recognize as one, although we’re asked to believe that these sophisticated con artists don’t care much for privacy. Their toilet sits on a ledge next to a window that opens onto an alleyway where drunkards piss. Or at least one drunk.

They haven’t bothered to create any sort of privacy screen in any direction, presumably because it would have made it harder to shoot the shit-explosion that’s at the center of one of the film’s biggest physical gags and the one that often gets the biggest laugh.

Poor people drowning in their own shit. What’s not funny about that?

Why does the young woman use her bare hands to try to keep the shitty fountain from drenching the room? No sensible character would do such a thing, would she? Well no character except one written into a movie that’s meant to depict the working class in a particular way and elicit laughs from the non-working-class audience about the way these funny, not-so-admirable, poor people live. It’s nonsense but it fits and it’s funny. To someone. For reasons.

I often complain, at least to myself, that the voices and perspectives of poor and working class people can’t be heard or perceived in current world cinema except via a handful of directors. I’m thinking of Pedro Costa and…well, I’ll have to think about that a little longer.

As for critics who are interested in the perspectives of poor and working class people or even qualified to consider them? You got me there.

How would a working-class critic write about films like Parasite?

What would a working-class cinema look like? Feel like? All I know for sure is that it wouldn’t look or feel like Parasite.

Or Joker.

The points of view represented in Parasite and Joker are not that of other poor people or even of other rich people, such as represented by the milque-toast cyphers living in the big pretty house. No, it’s another strata of elites who can objectify both families from equally privileged and self-satisfied positions of rhetorical and cultural power, the most potent and disappointing representative image of which is the jury at Venice led by Lucrecia Martel, which gave the Golden Lion to Todd Phillips’ Joker. Martel has muttered some unconvincing shibboleths about anti-heroes in defense; Jonathan Rosenbaum seems to support these laudits, at least tacitly. In his Letterboxd review, he claims that Joker maintains “a meditative distance from its ugly themes.” Meditation? It felt more like a mind-rape to me. That’s about as hollow a claim as Arthur Fleck: I’m not political. If that’s meditation, I’ll stick with inebriation, thanks.

But more importantly, he seems to misunderstand the basics of what’s wrong with this film’s attempt to speak for Trumpers, if that’s indeed what it’s doing. From my perspective, the explanation for the Joker’s amorality has little to do with gun violence and everything to do with a failure to imagine the opposition, like all liberal failures these days.

I can’t and won’t go into any more detail about my objections and disgust at this film, other than to point out that my love for Scorsese’s King of Comedy, which Phillips reductively quotes from at length, made me recoil from every move this film made.

Finally, I can’t imagine that I could critique Joker any better than this post by M. C. Myers on Bright Lights Film Journal.

Key quote:

I’ve heard a lot of people defend this movie with the tone of a rebuttal to a conversation that hasn’t happened yet, claiming that anyone who thinks Fleck’s narrative contains sympathy just didn’t understand that the protagonist is a villain and can’t be trusted. But I think it might be best to hear it from my mother, who says everything straight, as though the story of Arthur Fleck is a documentary. After the film ended, she turned to me and said, “Maybe Batman was a little hard on him, huh.”

M.C. Myers, Bright Lights Film Journal

Concluding summary:

  1. Parasite and Joker are pop-art films made by elites to flatter elites and to objectify and dismiss populist sentiments and uprisings. That’s not all they do but it’s impossible to understand their impact and imputed importance without recognizing those goals and allegiances.

  2. There’s nothing leftist, progressive, or heavens forfend, radical or Marxist, about Parasite or Joker at all. On the contrary, they are shallow and stupid reactions to populism.

Further Research

The Gaslighting of Parasite, Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution

Written with StackEdit.

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