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Film & Television

Upstairs/Downstairs – Cinema and Class War Today

Recently, there seems to have been an explosion of films implicitly or explicitly about class divisions becoming a popular concern. This years best picture winner at the Oscars, Parasite, held class as its central dynamic; where some have argued that its popularity and critical acclaim, which doesn’t escape without some degree of irony, are testament to its perhaps noncommittal or ambiguous position [something I’m not sure I can agree with] the point still stands that, as of now, class war is something of a running trend in mainstream film. Joker, in 2019, became a perhaps surprising smash hit, partly on the basis of the controversy swirling around its release, and despite this being a film which I find takes a far more predictable middle ground, the presence of class conflict in the narrative is nonetheless again pronounced. Jordan Peele’s US, in the same year, again foregrounded issues of class, while such themes arise again in surprising places, such as Rian Johnson’s whodunnit homage Knives Out. Class is everywhere, even if the way its approached changes and may sometimes shy away from uncomfortable conclusions for the rich socialites of the film industry, the divisions and impasses between the attic and the basement seem to have bubbled to the surface of popular culture, at least in the cinema.

This can be contrasted perhaps with the trend earlier in the 2010s for dystopian narratives, found in another of Bong Joon-Ho’s [Director of Parasite] film Snowpiercer, or the popularity of the Hunger Games series and a host of imitators. This often dealt similarly with Class, and yet did so through a relatively easy to parse analogy. In Snowpiercer or the Hunger Games, we are left in no doubt as to who to oppose, who is in the wrong here, a picture is drawn of a pseudofascist authoritarian regime violently keeping people in line; even when ambiguities arise in the revolutionaries, as they often do, somewhere at the heart of these is a struggle of good versus evil. Here is where the recent wave of class war in cinema changes, especially when we reach Parasite, whose title itself has a double meaning. These films have, rather than focusing themselves on a revolutionary uprising, or a resistance to fascist regimes, attempted to take a scalpel to class relations themselves, and the assumptions that drive them. The friction between the rich/powerful and the poor/downtrodden here sits within a broader social dynamic, and there’s a general sense here, in nearly all films mentioned, of people from differing backgrounds who would usually simply avoid each other or never come into contact, being thrown into a room with each other.

The significance of this could possibly be overstated by some, but in terms of its symptomatic nature it seems to be a little more than the kind of typical political #resist Oscars fare that poured out of Hollywood in the wake of Trump and Brexit. An awareness of class however, seems to have been made an increasing concern in the years since this double whammy, with conversations around the left’s ability to connect with the working classes and the ever-rising dominant and unavoidable sheer cliff of inequality becoming a regular talking point in the public-political sphere. That it would make its way gradually into the realm of pop culture phenomena may not be surprising, and yet its worth examining for a few reasons, if only to examine our own interaction with not only the idea of class in the abstract but our particular place within it, something we may be naive to expect naturally emerging from the popularity of these films in itself.

What then, does Parasite say about class? The answer isn’t entirely easy, but by any standard it isn’t comfortable. I’m loathe to simply recount the events of the film here as it’s very much worth watching if you haven’t already, but there’s a certain capacity for ambiguity here that is perhaps why notably rich socialites and industry figures could happily proclaim it their favourite film of the year without a second thought. Cinema is cinema, narrative is narrative, indeed, the film takes place in Korea, so we can happily, if we so wish, take this as an example of something that exists “over there” but we don’t have to concern ourselves with. It’s entirely possible, in other words, to list the reasons Parasite is one of the best films of the year without even mentioning class once, despite its centrality to the relations of the film. This, in a sense, reflects how on a regular basis the relations of class are sublimated into its component symptoms, a micromanagement of subjectivity where class is the unspoken abstract.

We may notice mental health, social norms, gender essentialisms, even rampant inequality, without even thinking about class dynamics, despite any and all of these factoring into such an analysis. Something that’s notable to Parasite is the way it looks at class consciousness, or rather the lack of it, and this is reflected quite prominently in the praise its received; both illustrate the ways in which we may recognise any number of injustices and factors of a world driven by economic inequalities, something that may manifest differently yet remains as true as when Marx originally pinpointed it, and yet fail to recognise that we sit within that same dynamic. So, when we watch a film that tackles class conflict, we can safely be a spectator, existing in the “real world” where these things aren’t actually happening, the link between cinema and life is severed as soon as we enter the theatre.

This doesn’t quite kill off my hope however, that the success and prominence of a number of films tackling class, inequality and expression at their thematic core is on the whole a sign of something at least, even if it doesn’t lead to some phantasmic era of “class conscious cinema” as I’m sure some towering monoliths of orthodox Marxism are demanding. Rather than ushering in some kind of pseudo-Lukacsian social realist cinema revolution, it’s notable how many of these films haven’t taken up that mantle at all. Rather than a plodding Ken Loach-esque realism Parasite’s cinematography is itself exquisite and sometimes painterly, colours are heightened, in other words, it makes no bones about its cinematic qualities, and as Mark Kermode has noted, there’s a distinct Shakespearean quality to the narrative here. The problem with the dull realism that someone like Loach churns out to predictable acclaim on a regular basis is that its destiny is perhaps only ever to play to the choir, it is cinema reduced almost entirely to message, an exceedingly simplistic vision of what Political Art can ever be, similar to the kind of folksy protest songs of a Billy Bragg or similar figures.

Beyond Parasite, the films I listed above are all found quite far from the realist tree, all presenting either an outright analogy or a kind of heightened world of cinema quite separate from the muted colours and mockumentary didacticism of “real life”. While it could be argued this somehow leads to the very ambiguities and disconnection I mentioned earlier, I would contend that it is, if anything, more effective at mirroring our lives than some direct translation, given for example the extent to which pop culture drives our interactions with and interpretations of the world, and the way in which, existing as we do in something of a post-Kantian, post-post-structuralist world, we might have to contend with the ways in which “real life” is defined more than anything by fantasy, far from the colour drained authenticity realism tends to demand. What we are offered in the class mirror presented to us through say, Horror, Science Fiction, Cinema more generally, is a subjective mirror, a process of interpreting rather than simply representing reality. In this way the prominence recently of class in cinema is more important than any film Ken Loach has produced, not simply due to the popularity of these films, but their lack of hesitation to exist as cinema, to take up the role of image production rather than simply some kind of simply reflective surface. The warp in the mirror is accentuated rather than ironed out, and so the reality presented in these films, while ending up quite far from any kind of solution to the problems they tackle, does end up moving away from the tendency to risk reinforcing those problems through implying they are what lies underneath, that if we strip away the fantasy and image, the real problems of real people is what remains. In this way, perhaps this wave of films about class might begin, rather than to re-enforce the reality of class identity, lead us to question it, to displace it from the assumed real rather than anchor it to the centre. While its important not to claim for these films some kind of revolutionary capacity, perhaps its a sign that class inequality is not quite the unspeakable it has been in the past.