Parasite a Wonderful Film (Mildly Over Hyped)

Parasite (2019)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Neon Pictures, 132 minutes, R (violence, sexual situations)
In Korean with English subtitles

Parasite is an international hit. It not only won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize given at the Cannes Film Festival, it was also the first to win it unanimously since 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color. There is scarcely a list of top 2019 films on which Parasite does not appear, and several critics have proclaimed it the first masterpiece of the 21st century.

Whoa! Can we slow down here? It’s a very fine movie that throws more curves than the legendary Sandy Koufax, but it has its flaws. First, though, imagine a film with the dark humor of the Coen Brothers blended with Quentin Tarantino’s propensity for propulsive violence, and you’re in the metaphorical ballpark. But to really get there, you need to add some sharp social class analysis.

The film pivots around the Kims, a down-on-their-luck family of four. They are thoroughly modern in their addictions to smart phones and cable TV–when they can steal access from their upstairs neighbors–but to call their home a hovel diminishes that word. Among its many quirks are a raised platform where the toilet sits and a subterranean view of the squalid alley outside that’s a drunkard’s preferred urination spot. The Kims have skills, though mostly they take their lead from patriarch Kim Ki-taek, who is amusing but indolent.

The film’s tag line is “make yourself at home,” and it’s also the Eureka! moment that sets the table for this comedy/thriller. Ki-woo’s friend is off to study abroad and suggests that he take over his English tutoring gig with Park Da-hye, the pouty high school daughter of a rich family, a process that involves faking college credentials and reinventing himself as “Kevin.” He enters a world he can scarcely imagine. The Park family live in a house designed by a famous architect that’s a South Korean blend of Le Corbusier, Olmstead, and a gated community. Welcome to the realm of new money. The Parks are a young family headed by a workaholic high tech CEO whose beautiful-but-neurotic wife stays at home to manage her daughter, 9-year-old son, and a staff that involves a full-time housekeeper and a chauffeur. The grift is on! All that’s necessary is for Kevin to reinvent his sister as “Lilly,” an art therapist who can foster the “talent” of the Park’s 9-year-old son and help him deal with past trauma. The next step is to get the chauffeur and housekeeper dismissed, so dad and mom can assume new identities. Viola! The Kims are experiencing the luxuries of the pampered Yuppie rich.

Too simple, right? Of course. This is the part of the film that plays for laughs, but there are secrets that literally lurk beneath the surface. Call these the parts of the film that will make you gasp. Toss in some snobbery, impulsive behavior, and an apocalyptic rainstorm that magnifies class differences, and all we’re so deep into Les Miserables territory that a party and an outbreak of sunshine won’t save us.

Bong Joon-ho is best known in North America for directing the sci-fi action film Snowpiercer (2013). If you know that film and the surreal fog in which it’s bathed, you will catch a similar vibe in Parasite. What Bong doesn’t always do is connect loose threads. There are at least three big ones in Parasite and it’s up to you whether you think they matter, but from my POV a master auteur takes care of such things. Give Bong credit, though; one of the hardest things to do is make a film that is both funny and chilling.

The cast is so strong that the film has won prizes for ensemble acting. You probably won’t know the cast other than Cho Yeo-jeong, who plays Mrs. Park and has been in films such as The Servant and The Concubine. If Mr. Kim (Sang Kang-to) looks vaguely familiar, it’s because he was in Snowpiercer. Take my word for it; the entire cast is superb. Think also of how we have two families of four and each is, in its own way, a collection of phonies.

Parasite is a wonderful film that you should see, even if you believe you dislike subtitled films. I would, though, recommend that you dismiss all talk of Parasite being the best film of the millennium as words over a glass of plum wine.

Rob Weir

A Joan Crawford Film That's Pure Camp!

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)
Directed by Clarence Brown
MGM, 103 minutes, Not-rated

For professional historians, finding factual errors in a Hollywood history film is as easy as locating Chinese-made goods in a Walmart. You won’t need a history degree to suspect that things are amiss in The Glorious Hussy. Joan Crawford stars as Margaret “Peggy” O’Neal (1799-1879), a fascinating woman whose life has parallels to the salaciousness of the film’s title. Alas, most of that story remained eluded scriptwriter Stephen Avery.

In the movie, O’Neal is the vivacious daughter of a Washington, D.C. innkeeper and a political junkie who can hold her own in debates over federal versus local sovereignty with senators such as Daniel Webster (MA) and John Randolph (VA). Secretly, she has loved the older Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) since girlhood, even though she’s an ardent Unionist and he a states’ rights advocate. When he rebuffs her, she elopes with a handsome sailor, 39-year-old “Beau” Timberlake (Robert Taylor), who is twice her age. Upon his death, she marries Senator John Eaton (Franchot Tone) just months after Timberlake is dispatched to Davy Jones’ locker. Rumors fly.

Further complications arise when her “Uncle Andy” Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) wins the presidency after a brutish campaign that besmirches his wife Rachel (Beulah Bondi). She is crestfallen and dies before Jackson takes the White House*.  When he does, the heartbroken Jackson asks Peggy to act as his White House hostess. This outrages DC socialites such as Vice President John C. Calhoun’s wife, Floride, who organizes other political wives to snub Mrs. Eaton. They regard her as an adulteress and–they whisper–perhaps a murderess. An outraged Jackson, who blamed malicious ridicule for Rachel’s death, defends Peggy’s honor to the degree that he eventually fires his entire Cabinet except for Eaton, his Secretary of War. Tongues continue to wag, however, and Peggy eventually convinces Jackson to apoint John ambassador to Spain so they can escape the DC snake pit.  

There are enough evidential holes for several stagecoaches to pass through, but had director Clarence Brown left matters there, we’d have a workable rough draft of the improbable-but-true Petticoat Affair (1829-1831). The social backstabbing over Peggy was so intense and constant that President Jackson had trouble getting any work done. Instead of plumbing the depths of this, The Gorgeous Hussy piles on contrivances until history gives way to farce. There is, for instance, the invented character of “Rowdy” Dow, a goofy mooncalf, Peggy’s friend and defender. The role is so ambiguous that Jimmy Stewart seems to improvise from one scene to the next. We witness Randolph as a pivotal figure in the Nullification Crisis** of 1832, though Calhoun was the lynchpin and Randolph opposed his stance. Instead, Brown devises an absurd scene in which a secessionist “anarchist” (really?) assassinates Randolph and leaves Peggy bereft. (In life, Randolph died of pneumonia and there is no evidence that he and Peggy were smitten with each other. He was 26 years older than she.)

Let’s set a few more things straight. The Glorious Hussy was made just two years after the Hays Code stablished strict moral guidelines that movies had to adhere to acquire certification, without which they could not be distributed. The real Peggy O’Neill was outspoken, flirtatious, and quite possibly a for-real “hussy,” an outmoded and politically incorrect term that means brazen and/or sexually promiscuous. She married Timberlake in 1816 and bore two children–a third died at birth–but it’s up for grabs if they all sired by Eaton, a drunkard and gambler. We know for certain that she met Eaton in 1818, and that the two were seen in each other’s company long before Timberlake died in 1828. Because Peggy was already viewed as Eaton’s lover, unsubstantiated rumors held that Timberlake committed suicide. Perhaps the moralists had grounds to suspect her. For what it’s worth, Peggy was neither Jackson’s niece nor his White House hostess; that job fell to Jackson’s actual niece, Emily Donelson, who was among those snubbing the Eatons.

The Cabinet firing was real. It was engineered by his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren, who “resigned” so that Jackson could dismiss the rest of his advisors. When the dust settled, only Eaton remained and Van Buren became Jackson’s confidant. When Vice President Calhoun took up the nullification cause, Jackson dumped him in time for his 1832 reelection; Van Buren became the new VP and four years later, the 8th president of the United States. (Legend holds that Jackson threatened to hang Calhoun!) As for Peggy, the best that can be said of her is that she was an unconventional woman in an age in which that was not a sanctioned option for most women. She and John did go to Spain, though John was first appointed governor of Florida Territory. John died in 1856; 10 years later, 59-year-old Peggy married an Italian dance instructor who was in his mid-20s. (It did not end well. They divorced in 1869, but he bilked her and Peggy died in poverty in 1879.)

Good stuff. Too bad it’s not in the movie. Barrymore and Bondi play the Jacksons as if they just wandered off the set of a Ma and Pa Kettle episode. Incredibly, Bondi gained Best Supporting Actress nomination. More surprising still, cinematographer George Folsey was also nominated, even though his sets were cheesier than all of Wisconsin. Neither won; Hollywood has some standards! Joan Crawford was also miscast. She was a superb actress, but not a head-turning beauty. The Gorgeous Hussy is a rare case in which the lead actress was less attractive than the woman she portrayed.

Okay, it’s a 1936 movie, but it’s still a cream pie in history’s face. So why bother? First, The Gorgeous Hussy is so bad that it’s good camp. Second, turkeys often inspire us to investigate more deeply. Third, it’s a textbook case of how wrong Hollywood can get things. Watch it, and from that day forth you will don a skeptic’s hat whenever you see the fatal words, “story inspired by….”

Rob Weir

* Before the 20th Amendment (1933) new presidents took office in March, not January. Rachel Jackson died on December 22, 1828, but her husband grieved for her for the rest of his life.

** The Nullification Crisis was an argument over tariffs that also centered on whether a state could void a federal act. It later became a favored cause of pro-slavery apologists hiding behind a “states’ right” cloak.


Worcester Photo Revolution Show a Disappointment

Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman
Worcester Art Museum
Through February 16, 2020
[Clicking an image increases its size]

Not what the mods had in  mind!

The Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in central Massachusetts is known for launching creative photography exhibits. Alas, Photo Revolution is not among them. Although there is certainly no rule that commands that an exhibit with the word “photo” in it must consist entirely of still images snapped by a shutterbug, a contrived air looms over WAM’s latest show.

Contrivance happens early and often in Photo Revolution. To be sure, the exhibit’s underlying construct is sound in ways that Susan Sontag informed us in her path-breaking On Photography in 1977; that is, mechanically produced and reproduced images have become such a part of our cultural vernacular that they have broken free from the camera. Think of how many photos you know that have appeared on t-shirts, coffee mugs, scarves, and dorm-room posters, billboards. Often, you’ve seen the image repurposed before you ever behold an archival print of the original. The putative purpose of Photo Revolution is to show how photographs influenced pop and contemporary art from the 1960s onward. Too often it feels as if the opposite point is being made.

It is certainly true that photography is no longer bound by the limits of documentary style–though that’s been the case long before the 1960s. The first thing we see as we enter the gallery is a high contrast photo of two mod girls in black and white geometric miniskirts. If you don’t know, the mod movement developed in Britain during the early 60s.  It was a harbinger of a larger youth subculture that rocked the foundations of mainstream society and challenged everything from musical preferences to fashion taste. The image we see, however, is from Life Magazine and it’s decidedly lacking in the rebellious values that gave rise to the mods. This tells us that even the commercial world realized that the times they were a changing. That’s not news either and it’s not unique to photography. For example, in the early 20th century, many of painter Maxfield Parrish’s oils began life as ads for Edison Mazda light bulbs. Indeed, an enduring (though not endearing) condition of advanced capitalist economies is that they appropriate challenges to the status quo, tame them, and sell them back to the masses.

The next thing we see is a row of paper dresses from Andy Warhol. These stretch the concept of photo inspiration to a ripping point. One dress is adorned with Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup cans; another with a close up of an eye that is from the 1929 Luis Buñuel film An Andalusian Dog. Hmmm…. Where is the photo revolution in these? Is it merely that Warhol took a polaroid of cans, painted them larger, and then screened them onto other materials? Can we say that a photo was the inspiration if the image came from celluloid? Or do we say that Warhol’s use of these images is a thrice-removed reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction? Similarly, the WAM exhibit advertises itself with another Warhol image–that of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong (then spelled Mao Tse-tung). At one point, someone took a photo of Mao, but the image most Westerners knew was a poster similar to the one that hangs in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Warhol merely copied that image, altered the colors, and scribbled on it. I doubt Warhol would have cared had that image been a watercolor rather than a photo.

The best way to enjoy this exhibit is to forget that the word “photo” has anything to do with it. This is a good strategy because there really aren’t many actual photographs, though the ones that do appear end up being more political and meaningful than the sculptures, collages, prints, and paintings that allegedly drew from the photographic tradition. There are several notable exceptions to my previous remark. Rosalyn Drexler’s collage titled The Defenders seems more relevant now than it did in 1963, when she assembled it. We see suited men with pistols and machine gun and a corpse. FBI versus crime figures? Does it matter in today’s era of rogue lawmen? Another winner is The ‘Nam, a Marvel Comics cover that does a reversal of the famed Eddie Adams photo of a South Vietnamese official summarily executing a Viet Cong suspect. Is turnabout fair play?

In the end, though, the actual photographs are generally of more interest. There is, for instance, an antiqued Cindy Sherman photo of Lucille Ball that grabs the eye, as does William Eggleston’s lonely photo of a rural field fronted by a Wonderbread ad pocked with gunshot holes. An advertising shot that unintentionally caused some ex post facto merriment is one for Gallo salami. Forget the meat, can you say cheese(y)? I also got a chuckle from a set of “baseball” cards that are actually famed photographers in baseball gear. Ansel Adams as a catcher? Another intriguing image is one of a young California family that looks as if it could have been the cover of a Richard Brautigan novel. 

In my view, though, the curators erred conceptually. Great photos are great photos and there is no need to artificially elevate their impact by linking them to the so-called fine arts side of creativity. In a nutshell, what the WAM needs is less Andy Warhol and more Cindy Sherman.

Rob Weir


Normal People is Extraordinary

Normal People: A Novel (2019)
By Sally Rooney
Hogarth, 268 pages.

An old adage holds that you can’t judge a book by its cover but if there’s anything that’s a near certainty, it’s that the characters in a book titled Normal People aren’t. This small gem from Irish novelist Sally Rooney centers on two misfits: Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron. It opens in January 2011 as the two are in the homestretch of high school, and it takes us though to February 2015, when they are finishing university. I mention the dates, as Rooney structures her book episodically and each new chapter is headed with titles such as “Three Weeks Later,” “Two Days Later,” “Four Months Later,” etc.

Marianne and Connell are as outwardly different as chalk and cheese, as they say in Ireland and the UK. Though they both live in the small town of Carricklea in County Sligo, Marianne comes from an haute bourgeoisie family whereas Connell is decidedly of working-class stock. In fact, his mother, Lorraine, does housekeeping for Marianne’s mother, Denise. What they share in common is that is intellectually gifted, psychologically fragile, and socially gauche. To their classmates, each is “weird,” though Connell has friends and Marianne has none. Who, after all, could get past her frostiness, her tart tongue, or her utter refusal to conform to anything that resembles the norms of her peers?

Lest you think this a teen version of When Harry Met Sally or some sort of typical boy-meets-girl coming of age tale, let me assure you it’s not that simple. First, the two are rivals for top academic honors at their school. Marianne is in the race because she’s so smart she can excel by coasting and because for her it’s basically a big middle finger to those who taunt her. Connell works hard because top honors is the only way he could ever hope to go to university–though he thinks maybe he should skip it and get a job to help his mum. Although shares Marianne’s low self-esteem, he’s nonetheless a mensch–a gentleman who is attentive to women and believes in the equality of the sexes. This also makes him an oddball. Although Connell occasionally tries to fit in with his mates, he’s lousy at it, and is more comfortable around Marianne. Of her Rooney writes, “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it. …She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person.”

She is wrong about that. Connell befriends her, but furtively to spare both of them embarrassment. It begins with two outcasts sharing their frustration and evolves into what each believe to be casual sex. Marianne is baffled that Connell finds her attractive, yet their friendship goes into deep freeze when Connell doesn’t ask her to go to Debs (a prom analog) with him. By the time both are at Trinity, an even more unorthodox relationship emerges and their (relative) popularity polls reverse. Connell becomes acutely aware of being a blue-collar bloke who can see through bourgeois BS. In one class–he’s a lit major–he describes a pretentious assigned essay as, “culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”

The heart of the novel, though, is encapsulated in the title. Rooney writes, “Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so he could copy from example.” The same could be said of Marianne. Both yearn to be “normal,” though they’ve no clue what that might mean. It is at the very core of why, even when the two are barely speaking to each other, they are walking quantum entanglements. What does all of this portend for their futures with or without each other? Read and find out.

Sally Rooney is just 27–not much older than her characters–yet she is able to detach and analyze in ways that writers twice her age are often unable to do. She has been hailed by The New Yorker as the “first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” I’m not keen on any of the “generations” labels, hence that tag line strikes me as if it’s one of Connell’s call-bullshit critiques. I do, however, give Rooney great credit for mapping some of the minefields through which younger folks must tread these days. Rooney is an unabashed lefty, but Normal People isn’t a political novel. It’s more individual and profound than that. It’s about trying to figure out identity, values, and commitment when someone like Rooney isn’t there to provide safe passage through the aforementioned minefields.

Rob Weir