Parasite vs. Joker

A shared theme beyond deadly violence. …Joker and Parasite … Both films boil down to a similar argument: Wealthy people have too much, and the rest of society suffers because of it. … Parasite does a better job of illustrating the wealth problem as it exists in the world today. (more)

Parasite … has resonance due to its subject matter: the gap between the haves and the have-nots. … Joker … its real heritage is in earlier WB films. During the Depression, WB offered gangster movies about men who fought to rise above their poverty-stricken backgrounds. (more)

Both also invoke issues of class and the potential for class-related conflicts to escalate into violence. The universally acclaimed Parasite handles these themes with more sophistication and nuance than the divisive Joker. In fact, not only is Parasite a better film than Joker … (more)

Parasite and Joker are now #3,4 in betting odds to win the 2019 Oscar best picture award, and these movies are more “social commentary” than #1,2. That commentary is said to be about inequality and class conflict, and most critics (96 to 59) see Parasite as more “sophisticated” than Joker. My take: Parasite is done in a setting and style designed to appeal to upper class folks, and it is more about class conflict from an upper class perspective. Joker is designed to appeal to lower class folks, and it is more about class conflict from a lower class perspective. Which is partly why critics, who are mostly upper class, 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 an art-house film style, while Joker is done in a mass-market comic-book style. 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, while in Joker, emotions are pretty exaggerated and obvious.

Parasite mostly takes place in elegant upper class worlds, and focuses on upper class concerns. The 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 higher 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. This difference in competence is so great as to be puzzling; why couldn’t they succeed in other jobs before? Part of the explanation is that these lower class folks cheat, lie, and fight dirty to gain and keep their lucrative positions serving the upper class. Perhaps a habit of doing that elsewhere has kept them down.

The low class folks know they aren’t being nice, but claim that they’d act nice if only they were rich. The rich folks, falsely thinking that they are talking only to themselves, are respectful of the poor folks, except they note a funny smell. In a key crisis, a rich guy acts cowardly, and that or the overheard smell comment induces a poor guy to kill him. The movie offers no hint of disapproval of this, it seems to be comeuppance for rich folks not deserving their better lives.

Joker is quite obviously the origin story of a comic book villain. So we know right from the start that we will see a not-yet-bad guy turn into a bad guy, and we may see where and how exactly he went wrong. What we don’t know at the start, however, is just how sympathetic (very) he will be as a character. It is actually hard (though not impossible) to decide where and how he goes wrong.

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 and stupid, and has clearly lower-class tastes, habits, and markers (such liking cigarettes and guns). He is Hollywood-ugly, 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 goes off his meds (due to govt funding cuts) and 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, the main complaint Joker voices 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. (more)

His audience may interpret his mentioning rich guy Wayne as a declaration of class war, but we know that he really says that 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 of the population. 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. Joker 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.

Contrary to the critics, this lower class view of class concerns shown in Joker seems to me no less “sophisticated” that the upper class view shown in Parasite. Nor is Joker a less well made movie. And yet Joker has inspired far more hostility than Parasite, especially from those who claim to side with lower classes. A great many of those who love Parasite, and claim to support its violence by low against high class, hate Joker, many saying explicitly that they fear it might inspire 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.

It makes sense that Joker, done in a style designed to appeal to low class sensibilities, would be more likely to actually inspire rage by them. It uses comic-book style exaggeration and mood to great effect, and spectacular acting by Joaquin Phoenix. In contrast, Parasite is subtler and more cerebral; you have to be paying close attention to even see the low class man’s resentment build. But why so much hate from those who claim to side with the lower classes?

One possibility is that their hostility to lower class tastes and movie styles matters more to them than trying to inspire lower class action; they feel compelled to identify with the high class movie regardless of its weaker effects. 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 on class, 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 applying upper class views in the name of helping lower classes.

A third possibility is that they see Joker mainly as a white male lower class person. While critics like to talk about class, what they mainly care about these days is race and gender. While Joker doesn’t seem to resent women or people of color more than others, and his violence mostly targets white men, he is willing to stalk one woman for a bit, and he just appears culturally too close for comfort to their max disliked prototype of loud resentful gun-loving smoking “incels”, 4chan fans, Trump supporters, etc. For many in our political climate, it is simply not possible for them to feel any empathy whatsoever for such a character, no matter how badly treated. In Parasite, in contrast, no characters are white, all act upper class at least at work, and their roles are quite evenly divided among male and female, who are shown as equally competent, though tellingly it is the poor father who kills the rich father.

Me, I didn’t find the killing by the poor father of the rich one in Parasite at all justified; the rich folks there seemed mostly morally blameless, while the poor ones commit many wrongs. I sympathized with Joker’s suffering through most of his movie, and found him largely justified when acting in self-defense. But he crossed the line when he began to initiate violence, and eventually he went way past the line. The rich folks in Joker’s world were not acting worse than the others, and the rioting seemed unlikely to help. This scenario may argue for more help for the poor and mentally ill, but not at all for extra taxes on the very rich. At least that’s my take.

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