The Fat Man who is a hyper-vigilant researcher of all things Shatner sent this in to me. Imagine his horror when another of his idols, Peter Thiel, mocks the great one! Watch starting at 10:00.
Oh the horror. Utter blasphemy.
When The Fat Man forwarded this review, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It seems like some bizarre sort of Kafkaesque nightmare. I asked the Fat Man to provide some kind of introduction to warn the reader if this movie is unsuitable for the Deplorables but he balked at my request. Being a Julliard trained Forensic Editor I sprang into action. Well, after investigating the movie it doesn’t seem to be an abomination, merely bizarre. Never let it be said that photog stood in the way of Art! — photog
Parasite is a new South Korean movie that has surprised the movie industry because of its success at the Cannes festival, followed by very good tickets sales in all major global markets. The movie is about a family that has been left behind by the rise of South Korea’s middle class in the country’s major cities, but as part of the traditional east Asian service class, is fairly well educated, that is to say familiar with the culture of their rich employers and their upper middle class (read bourgeois) aspirations and fears.
The family, mother, father, sister and brother, lives in a basement apartment with a half window that looks out on an alley where local bar patrons come to vomit and urinate. In the opening scene, we are introduced to the family’s current occupation and major goal, pre-folding fast food pizza boxes and eating as much junk food as they can consume. They seem happy, even comfortable in their debasement, cheerfully leaving their widow open as city officials fog the alley to kill insects, crying out triumphantly, “leave the window open, free fumigation”!
One day our heroes are visited by a school friend of the son and given a good luck gift as well as a good job tutoring the daughter of a rich architect. Their good luck expands when the son finagles his sister into a job teaching art to the architects five-year-old son. Soon the father and mother join in as the chauffeur and maid and the family is flush. Of course, once the inevitable descent begins things get extreme and what was attractively amusing turns bizarre.
Some young critical theorist, improbably named Thessaly La Force, wrote a long thought piece for the NY Times on how Parasite is an example of the dominance of “rage” as a theme in East Asian cinema. You can guess the socio/political source of the rage she describes. Another Times’ reviewer blames inequality for the rise of “dirty spoon” cinema described in a separate review. Undoubtedly there is some truth to these theories, but the film is really just another in a long line of Korean, and other east Asian movies, that indulges in the superstitious, the bizarre and the hyper-violent for their own sake. This tendency predates the current economic environment; indeed, it predates the regions current socio-economic structure.
Filial piety, we are told, distinguishes Confucian culture and in this sense, East Asians are never fully adults. There is always an older sibling, parent, ancestor or institutional structure that requires one’s family obeisance. This ubiquitous subordination allows a natural a fluidity of hierarchy that is at the core of slapstick in the West, but is less confined in China, Japan and especially South Korea. The rage that Ms. La Force describes in movies like “Parasite” and “Old School” is childish, more blood-spraying tantrum than sublimated political violence. Tantrums don’t mean to hurt. They are a young child’s natural message of inadequacy.
And tantrum is the appropriate mode of communication for a society of people frustrated by the challenge of integrating the degenerate western fantasies reflected in K-Pop with the demands of high test-scores and traditional service roles. These contradictions are infinitely more damaging than income inequality or homophobia. The two big news stories out of South Korea the same week “Parasite” was taking the U.S. by storm is the second suicide of a girl band member this month and the discovery an enormous global kiddy porn network is based in Seoul. In yet another story run in the NY Times we are told that South Koreans do not see child exploitation as a major problem. The article quotes one police source describing the sexual abuse of children as basically “natural”, citing that more than half of South Korean prostitutes are underage. The officer described one suspect as “unlucky” for getting caught at something “everyone does”.
We might safely assume, therefore, that the societal problems working themselves out below the surface of “Parasite” are likely not to be inequality, or racism or even sexism as defined in the West, rather something entirely different, but familiar to South Koreans. Confucianism taught these cultures a millennium ago how to live with the barbarian in their midst and how to seek for the “Mandate of Heaven”, even when incarnated in a foreigner. In China, Chairman Xi’s new authoritarianism is fueled by what he calls the century of “humiliation” at the hands of the West. He poisons America with fentanyl to avenge the Opium War. The thought that their own imperial war brought about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and has left Japan neutered, their population shrinking, their only weapon trade. In their eternal occupation and division, the South Korean’s embrace Kim who embraces Trump. And now they have sent us ‘Parasite”. The movie makers of these countries direct these conflicting forces into ordinary characters as they vomit out bizarre cultural concatenations to amuse us, to frighten us and to implicate us.
The movie, Joker, could be easily dismissed as an attempt to extend on the successful formula established by Christopher Nolan in his turn at the Batman franchise, launched in 2005. But beyond the constant “dark” refrain, not enough was said about Nolan’s reformulation of the DC comic book character. When Tim Burton in 1989 first attempted to bring the character to film his movie temperament and the last shreds of maturity that remained in American popular culture required that he make it in its essence, comic. It’s true he leavened the film with instances of “adult” gravity, but no more than in his other comic book movies.
But Nolan did something that it took the success of the ‘80s and ‘90’s Batman movies to make possible, play Batman straight. By 2005 struck upon the formula for converting the comic book into a “serious” movie by making the films “dark”, thereby removing the tongue from Batman’s cheek. Nolan took the comic out of the comic book hero and the films became blockbusters. I suspect they did for the same reason space movies from 2001 to Star Wars were also so successful. The baby boomers and later Gen X-ers had a choice between the narcissistic atavism of their peers or withdrawal. The comic book fans were always outsiders so it was easy to choose withdrawal, and so they did, in droves. What has been truly remarkable was that most of the rest of America follow along, in even bigger droves.
But what does it mean to movies and America to make comic book movies without the comic? One might say that comic books, at least of the super hero variety, always played straight. They were more like the serial genre fiction that anticipated both the “soaps” and the novel. Fair enough, but the illustrations, primitive graphics and primary colors, were a comic proscenium, perhaps helping to suspend disbelief for the comic book reader, but not his sense of humor. Theatrical movies have no such proscenium, they have long been understood to be psychological, subconscious, in their effect. They do not afford the comic book distance, the healthy separation. We needed Burton’s fantasy gloss to create distance from the film. But Nolan’s success argues that this view was wrong, or at least obsolete, that audiences yearned for the Dark Knight’s subconscious payload, unmediated by winks at the camera.
Todd Phillips’ new contribution to the franchise, Joker, suggests that we might still need the winks. The movie attempts to use psychological clichés and bathos to establish a “natural” backstory to the one-dimensional villain. The attempt exposes the naiveté behind Nolan’s original reformulation. What is a joker, can one have a backstory? Lear’s fool never needed one. Jokers are allegorical place holders for dramatic elements like plot and action, even fate, but never character. They are anti-characters, devices, not anti-heroes. Ah, but Phillips would counter, I wrote Borat and most people thought he was real. Isn’t character fluid? Yes, it is fluid but not superficial. But what about the epics, they were full of the very same placeholders? Wasn’t Hephaestus allegorical? The answer is Hephaestus may be a myth and allegorical to us, indistinguishable from a joker, but to the Greeks he was a god.
Is Joker a god, is Batman or Thor, to us? The mind reels. So, Phillips may have wasted much of his runtime trying to pose Joachim Phoenix’s anorexic torso to evoke St. Sabastian and paint the decay of ‘70’s New York in renaissance yellows and gold. The adolescent retreat in the face of adulthood beaten by the American movie going public, however, is not a Christian martyrdom. Phillips’ attempt to tell Joker’s story as such is the latest landing in the vertiginous descent of American society into an arrested underworld. Must we now analyze the cardboard cutouts populating our comic book movies first as patients, to remove any moral question of their actions, then as victims, to instead apply a moral test to “society” and finally as martyrs, to establish our newly reconstructed deities? Foucault would be proud. This mental ritual has become so routinized by academic and political rehearsal the director seems unaware of its emptiness.
And that can be the only verdict reached for Nolan’s vision and Phillips’ realization. Empty. This explains the need to go to further lengths, to go darker, with each successive relaunch. The writers, producers and directors, even the actors, know they must work harder each cycle to pump up the crowd and distract from the inevitable descent. But by trying to make serious our comic book carnival posters, the Hollywood hucksters have drained the fun from their movies, and our laughs on the rollercoaster.
I thought sci-fi fans might get a kick out of a review of this film since its source was a graphic novel and its director is David Cronenberg, who I rank with Kubrick as among the most important directors working in the genre.
The movie has a quality cast, including Viggo Mortensen as the rural Indiana restaurateur, Tom Stall; Maria Bello as his wife Edie; Ed Harris as the gangster Carl Fogarty; Ashton Holmes as Jack Stall, Tom’s son; and William Hurt as Tom’s kingpin brother from Philly. There are also a host of additional small-role actors that do an excellent job. Harris is particularly effective as the one-dimensional killer as is Holmes as the nerdy millennial.
The movie opens by following two motel guests, one in a dark button-down shirt in the middle of the desert, i.e. a bad guy, packing up to “head east” and “avoid the big cities”. The younger partner complains of the boredom and yawns his way through the rest of the scene, including when he’s asked to go back to the front desk and fetch water from the cooler for the long drive. There he sleepily encounters the clerk and maid whose throats his partner has just slit and almost nods out as he notices that a small child is emerging from the back room and shoots her. Like I said, bad guys.
This lovely bit of business is immediately contrasted by Tom and his quiet nuclear family. In these introductory scenes of the Stalls they all speak so softly and behave so tenderly to one another that the opening scene becomes submerged by the normal impulse to separate this seemingly vulnerable family from the monsters. But we know they will come and the savagery of the two drifters is anticipated by the inevitable high school bully that humiliates Jack in gym for daring to catch a fly ball to right. Violence, large and small, is almost clumsily emphasized. Cronenberg was said to have commented in connection to the film, “I am a great believer in Darwinian evolution and that violence is baked into our genes”, presumably explaining his lack of subtly on the issue.
When I read his comment, I thought of Cronenberg’s other films, like “Dead Ringers”, the story of twin gynecologists that descended into a surgical horror. And other of his films, Naked Lunch, Crash, Fly, all disturbing, but not particularly violent in any conventional sense. Rather, at their core, his films stylize death and disfigurement in a kind of grotesque eroticism. His focus, until “History”, was more in line with Poe than Peckinpah. Afterwards, however, gangsters and violence become common in his movies. One suspects the shift may be understood at least in part as commercial, but also, he seems to be trying to work out more conventional themes in more mature ways. For instance, “History” includes Bello in a frontal nude scene that seemed all too blue-blooded for the director of Naked Lunch.
In any event, when a very fickle fate sends our drifters into Tom’s diner, we are shown all the good that violence can do. For just as blue shirt instructs his youthful partner drooling at the waitress to “start on her”, mild mannered Tom dispenses with the would-be butchers faster than you can flip a flapjack. His ruthless efficiency at smashing a hot coffee pot in the face of one assailant, retrieving his gun and then dispatching both make his adversaries seem like amateurs. Even professionals like Ed Harris’ Carl and his gang can’t measure up to Tom’s lethal skill set. Carl, hearing of Tom’s heroics on the news, emerges from Tom’s past as if vomited out of hell’s mouth. His face seems half melted, one eye is clouded, he claims his visage is a reflection of Tom’s true nature and he has come to return him to it.
I won’t belabor the obvious. I’m sure the reader knows there is only one way our genes and destiny can resolve such a history. It’s a pretty good film, especially given its source. “A History of Violence” made money and won acclaim but it was less influential than one might have guessed back in 2005. When I saw it back then, I thought that some of the film’s hokier elements like the straw man bullies and one-dimensional housewives would evolve along with the genre. I was wrong, in fact, the thinnest parts of graphic novel sources like Watchmen or Westworld, the robot/costume stuff, became the focus of their realization on the screen. We have devolved, but I’m sure that statement comes as no surprise.
Ford v Ferrari is the true story of the effort by Ford Motor Company, led by Carol Shelby, to build and race the first American car to win the Le Mans Gran Prix, the most prestigious road race in the world. The film was directed by James Mangold, starring Matt Damon as Carol Shelby and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, the lead driver for the Ford team. The movie is something of a small miracle; a mostly live action Hollywood film shot on real locations. Also, there is no political agenda. All the actors are who they actually were, white men, and they fight, lie and cheat, which is to say they compete, for the purity of winning. How did this happen in 2019 America?
It is a wonderful spectacle to behold. Matt Damon as the Texan Shelby battling the soulless suits, led by Josh Lucas, who has made something of a specialty out of playing dastardly weasels. The movie is unconcerned with cultural appropriation, casting the Jewish Jon Bernthal as the Italian-American auto industry icon, Lee Iacocca. He does a fine job. Even Henry Ford II has a substantial role played by Tracy Letts. And to top it off, the film is centered on Miles’ intact heterosexual family of three, a supportive, if somewhat feisty wife and his heartbreaking 10-year-old son, who will witness his fiery death.
Now the movie aims for iconic myth-making but I’m happy to report it is at least soundly competent. I have been wondering the last few years if the industry was still capable of making a real movie. Apparently in some corners, it is. The racing scenes are fun, much of it CGI, but still enjoyable. Grown men past sixty, as were many in the audience, will have a different experience from everyone else. If you were around in the 1960’s but still too young or too working class to be in college, cars was the most important thing in life. They are the material and cultural medium that ties the suits to the cowboys and the Brits to the Italians. They hate each other in all the deplorable ways we make believe is unnatural. It is the very nature of men and it is their crafts and creations, mechanics, racing, auto making that channels their animal spirits to a higher plane. They compete, they innovate and even when they lose they tip their hats to the winner, as Enzo Ferrari does to Miles.
Bale and Damon go a little over the top now and then as does the film itself when the Ford scion is reduced to a sort of weeping orgasm at his first experience of real racing at the hands of Shelby. But these flaws are welcome and authentically quixotic in their ambition. If the film ultimately misses the mark myth-making, it doesn’t matter. It succeeds at something more important, reminding us what real movies and real men once looked like.
The Fat Man is a learned critic of cinema. I welcome his contributions and hope to see him on a regular basis.
There are many ways to consider The Irishman, Scorsese’s’ latest, and hopefully last, gangster pic. We can try to at least mention them all but it may be best to see it as another allegorical mock epic. Almost the entirety of post-war US history not only acts as a backdrop to the film, but the movie suggests its main characters were central players in such events as the Kennedy assassination, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban missile crises, perhaps even Watergate. The baby boomers can’t get over their all but irrelevant history of air conditioned atavism and faux passivism. They have no epic story to tell, so they are continually painting up their cowardice in the face of a minor war or their alternating deification and denunciation of their fallen non-hero, JFK.
It is no shame that Scorsese reveals himself as sentimental and self-deluding in The Irishman. Many great films begin with cherished delusions, like the tradition of the Ronin or the hooker-with- a-heart-of-gold. Marty and Paul Schrader did wonders with that last fantasy in Taxi Driver, with the whore/Madonna duo played by Cybil Shepard and Jodie Foster. The fact that poor Jodie was still prepubescent was just a cute detail, like attending college to avoid the draft and then going on to graduate studies to learn to justify it to the memory of the poor guys that got killed. But at least Taxi was, in its dysfunctional characters and their infantile motivations, funny. “He’s not a murderer, he’s a Sagittarius” (or was it an Aquarius), protests Jodie Foster’s character, Iris, to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle for criticizing her pimp, Sport. That may be the funniest line to come out of Hollywood in the 1970’s.
I guess it’s time to address the details of The Irishman and justify all this scorn I’m heaping. Let’s start with funny. It’s not. The cheap laughs squeezed out by mocking the blue-collar naivety of the regular-guy-come-psychopath, Frank Sheeran, the movies protagonist played by De Niro, are so hackneyed they will make you squirm. The rest is humorless. How Scorsese managed to get one of the most naturally funny actors of the 1970’s and 80’s, Joe Pesci, to turn in a joyless performance will remain a mystery.
But, you may ask, why is funny so important. This is big stuff, Pacino, De Niro, Pesci, Keitel, the all-stars, it’s an epic, remember?
It’s true Scorsese swung for the fences on this one, as he did with The Aviator, The Age of Innocence and The Gangs of New York. You’d think he’d learn. Not satisfied with his one true contribution to American cinema, Raging Bull, a small movie perfectly drawn, he continues to balk at the big canvas. He can’t do it. All of his attempts, whether he juices them with amazing sets as in Gangs, or beautiful costumes like in Age, or a remarkable profile like Howard Hughes, fail for the same reason. He can’t tell that story. He can scare us and make us laugh, but he can’t move us. His work can be natural or abstract but never profound. He knows it, as all directors do that pile on the violence. They’re impotent so they pour on the blood.
And Scorsese, as usual, does pour on the blood. We make our way through Frank’s mournful decent from hard working family man to prolific serial killer. We are told the war was to blame where he was asked to unofficially execute German prisoners. His wonders why these prisoners were so compliant in digging their own graves. He asks himself maybe they thought they would get a break if they did a good job? It never occurs to him they were just taking more orders, the same process that dehumanized them in the camps and him.
The Irishman is quiet for a Scorsese movie, without any of the Eric Clapton that accompanied the mayhem in Goodfellars. A number of times, in the background score and in shots of empty rooms through partially open doors we see references to that most quiet of directors, Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu, who directed Tokyo Story, is of course admired by Scorsese but unlike the Italian neo realists that he loves, Ozu and his peaceful style is wholly unsuited to a gangster movie. It’s a clue of what Scorsese is trying to do. Make peace. It explains the unfunny Pesci performance and the banality of De Niro’s narration. Scorsese never had the hand to paint the kind of movie that his contemporaries Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola did. He could never shoot a scene like Brando in his office listening to the undertaker or like John Huston and Jack Nicholson discussing broiled fish. So he made up for it with rotating camera’s in the ring and forensic dialog ripped from FBI files.
But in The Irishman he tries Ozu and we get a whispering Joe Pesci saying “I chose us” to De Niro at the movies end to explain Hoffa’s betrayal. And Hoffa was betrayed, by Scorsese, by Pacino, by everyone who might be interested in what he did build into his union. It must be a curse to try to do a film about the union boss. Nicholson’s Hoffa was terrible, but at least he wasn’t transformed by an aging Italian actor and his friend’s pathetic confession into a one-dimensional stooge. Nothing is examined, nothing explained, just gossip.
And that is the reason the Irishman is a terrible movie. You can’t attempt to depict the sweep of a generation without saying something about why it matters. But because his generation still lies about the meaning of Kennedys and Castro and war, Scorsese has to lie as well. And so he does for the three hours of The Irishman.