Parasite Versus Joker
By Robin Hanson · January 25, 2020 10:00 pm
My take: Parasite is done in a style designed to appeal to upper class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more upper class perspective. Joker is designed to appeal to lower class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more lower class perspective. Which is part of why upper class critics prefer Parasite.
I’ll need to give some spoilers to elaborate on this; you are warned.
In terms of style, the difference is obvious. Parasite is done in art house film style
I think critics have a lot of real estate lust for the huge minimalist mansion in Parasite. It’s a rare fashion forward house that actually looks good and seems like it would be nice to live in.
The house is a set designed for the movie. Mr. Bong is the top director in South Korea and it wouldn’t be surprising if he could be the top architect if he’d chosen that career.
, while Joker is done in a mass market comic book style.
But note that Joker has very few special effects and was made for about $55 million, which is the kind of middle range budget that generally flops these days. I believe Joker may be the lowest budget movie ever to make a billion dollars worldwide (granted, that’s in box office revenue not adjusted for inflation — i.e., from Jurassic Park onward, not from Birth of a Nation onward).
Joaquin Phoenix is about a one to a million favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and you can see why. This is a much more melodramatic-operatic performance than has been fashionable in recent generations. Either it works or it doesn’t, and it works.
Parasite has many complications and plot twists, while Joker moves along rather predictably. In Parasite emotions are relatively reserved and you have to look closely to see them. In Joker, emotions are pretty exaggerated and obvious.
Parasite mostly takes place in upper class worlds, focusing on their main concerns. Upper classes are focused on status differences near their level, and they mainly care about the lower class folks they see in the world around them. They wonder if they can trust them, if they are treating them well enough, and if they deserve their own favored status. Parasite shows lower class people who seem sloppy and dysfunctional in own world, but who show great competence when serving the upper class. They dress sharply, act properly and reliably, and are skilled at key upper class skills of charming, bullshitting, and acting obsequious as needed.
I really didn’t understand why the poor family in Parasite was inept at doing simple jobs like folding pizza boxes, but then suddenly turned into the Mission Impossible squad when they got a chance to edge in on the rich family. With those skills you’d figure they could make decent money selling cars or the like.
… Joker is mainly about one low class person. It takes place almost entirely in his low class world, focusing on his ordinary concerns. When he ventures into upper class worlds he seems to like them, and doesn’t seem offended by what he sees there. He is, to be honest, objectively dull, stupid, with clearly lower-class tastes, habits, and markers (such liking cigarettes and guns). He is Hollywood-ugly, and socially awkward and unskilled.
This character tries to be good and to better himself, but he comes to feel that he is treated badly by many folks, and he doesn’t get the attention, help, or courtesy that he deserves. And he’s clearly right. As he starts to experiment with retaliating against those who treat him badly, he falls into a reinforcing cycle of increasing indignation, confidence, boldness, and even grace. When his retaliation happens to hit upper class people, he gets much more attention and validation, which spurs him on.
When he gains a public stage, his main complaint is that everyone treats everyone badly:
Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne, men at ease, ever think what it’s like to be a guy like me? To be anybody but themselves.
His audience may interpret his mentioning rich guy Wayne as a declaration of class war, but we know that it’s really because he sees Wayne as his mean father. The only clearly class-related complaint he voices is that the world shows more concern when high class folks suffer than when he suffers.
Like most low class people, Joker isn’t particularly envious of or even focused on the very rich. He says he isn’t political, and he isn’t interested in ideology. He is simply mad at most everyone for either treating him badly or allowing others to do so. He might be more mad at those who are better off than he, but he doesn’t make many distinctions within that majority.
Many other low class folks are inspired by Joker to riot and destroy, with no apparent political plan beyond gleeful retaliation at authorities and the world, to say “we are mad.” And that seems to me a relatively faithful representation of how most lower class folks actually see class conflict, and of typical consequences when they are inspired to act out.
… And yet Joker has inspired far more hostility than Parasite, especially from those who claim to side with the lower classes. A great many of those who love Parasite, and claim to support its violence of low against high class, hate Joker, many saying explicitly that they fear his inspiring real low class young men to also feel indignation and resort to violent retaliation. Extra security was even added to watch for violence at Joker screenings; no such security was considered for Parasite.
… But why so much hate from those who claim to side with the lower classes?
… Another possibility is that they see the upper class perspective on class conflict as correct, and the lower class one as mistaken. They don’t like Joker pushing the lower class view, and they don’t actually want lower classes to act; they instead want upper class folks to approve new policies to be run by upper class folks in the name of helping lower classes.
Despite all I’ve quoted, there’s lots more at Overcoming Bias.