‘Parasite’ Puts Modern Spin on Film’s Long History of Haves vs Have-Nots

Tim Gray

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Every filmmaker hopes to make a good movie, but sometimes the impact is bigger than expected.

Neon’s “Parasite” is one example of a 2019 film hitting a nerve. Writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s film has been praised for its originality and daring shifts in tone. It also has resonance due to its subject matter: the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

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Parasite” is only one of the year’s films that address this zeitgeist subject, also including “Hustlers,” “Joker,” “Knives Out” and the French “Les Miserables,” to name a few. It’s not a new theme: In prehistoric times, some people were no doubt troubled that other cave dwellers had more than they did.

But the subject found new expression in 19th century novels from writers including Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. In 1902, Maxim Gorky’s play “The Lower Depths” was a sensation with its depiction of people at a homeless shelter. (Criterion Channel offers a don’t-miss double bill on Jan. 31 of Jean Renoir’s 1936 and Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film adaptations.)

Movie versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 “The Great Gatsby” often treat it as a romance; in fact, it’s an anti-romance about a man who slowly realizes he will never fit in with the upper crust that he aspires to.

The subject of income disparity has been given film treatment multiple times, especially during the Depression, the 1960s-70s — and now, with “Parasite” and the others.

In theory, Warner Bros.’ “Joker” is rooted in DC Comics, and many have cited the influence of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” But 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, in such movies as “The Public Enemy” and “Little Caesar.” The Depression loomed large even in WB musicals including the Oscar-nominated “Gold Diggers of 1933,” about a group trying to put on a Broadway musical. The film is centered around the jaw-dropping Busby Berkeley choreography, but all the characters — the chorus members, the director, the producers, even the show’s stars — are haunted by the Depression and frightened of their future if the show doesn’t succeed.

Lionsgate’s 2019 “Knives Out” looks at the gap between rich people and their servants. Its antecedent was Universal’s Depression-era “My Man Godfrey” (1936). In “Godfrey,” a rich young socialite (Carole Lombard) brings home a “forgotten man” — i.e., a homeless war veteran — so she can win a scavenger hunt. Godfrey (William Powell) provides the family with a crash course in sensitivity training, long before that phrase was invented. It’s a screwball comedy, but makes serious points about the gap between the self-centered upper classes and the rest of us. (The Gregory LaCava-directed production was the first film to earn Oscar nominations in all four acting categories.)

In the 1970s, there were plenty of films about working-class lives, including “Rocky,” “American Graffiti,” “Halloween” and “The Deer Hunter,” but the movies didn’t focus on economics. The gap between haves and have-nots was often used as a barrier for romance, ranging from “Sabrina” and “How to Marry a Millionaire” to “Pretty Woman” and “Titanic.” In other words, the disparity was a plot device, but it wasn’t explored.

However, there were notable serious studies of the subject, including United Artists’ 1969 best picture winner “Midnight Cowboy,” a sort of “Lower Depths” in modern-day Manhattan. In the years after “Cowboy,” WB released films such as “Mean Streets” (1973) and “Dog Day Afternoon” in which characters were driven to desperate acts by their need for things they couldn’t afford.

“Parasite” is the film of the moment, in a year of wage gaps, the homeless crisis and college-admission scandals. It’s a classic theme, but sometimes it takes a piece of art to bring home the message.

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