Now the smoke has cleared, many are still shocked that a movie as good, as twisted, and as dark as Parasite won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Parasite is the kind of movie you watch and think, “How can this be THAT good?” It is that good, but there is also something about it that resonates beyond just the film itself.
There are two ways to look at Parasite’s win on Oscar night. The first, and most prevalent, is that finally the Academy was yanked to the modern, global age and relented by giving their top prize to a film not in the English language because it was just that good. The second is that its win signals the beginning of an age of darker films winning again.
Parasite won in spite of its tragic ending. Its trajectory was similar to Slumdog Millionaire’s sweep of the season, but that film, unlike Parasite, had a feel-good ending. What drove many voters to vote for Danny Boyle’s film, however, was that they felt they were voting for the impoverished children of India finding a happy life. With Parasite, it is once again impoverished people who dream of a better life, a richer life, the good life — a life like Academy members already have. With compassion and empathy and sympathy, they cast their vote for the have-nots to redeem themselves, even if that redemption came at a lethal price. Their vote, once again, enabled them to feel they were doing a good deed.
I have always known that Oscar voters tend to vote this way. I just sort of forgot about that this year. I was confused by the mixed messages of the stats. After all, Slumdog Millionaire had won every award it was up for. Like Parasite, the individual actors in the film came secondary to the blissful feeling of doing a good deed. Thus, it could be that the voters weren’t necessarily embracing a dark ending so much as they were aligning themselves with the perceived politics of the film: capitalism is bad and its luckiest beneficiaries are due for a comeuppance.
Voting for Parasite was a win/win. It is a great and worthy film, it makes their vote seem “important,” and it helps the Academy look good because they didn’t pick the default white filmmakers and white stories; they picked the one movie in the lineup that wasn’t about white characters. In 2020, that matters a lot. No need to put on a raincoat to protect themselves from the shitstorm of the critical Monday morning headlines, which would have been spread far and wide, with Academy boycotts on the way, as anger and cynicism roiled. Instead, they got glowing headlines, praise for being so daring, and the announcement of the dawn of a new day. It was Instagram Strong.
There was zero self-awareness in their vote. As some of the richest people in the world gathered to anoint their winner inside the luxurious conclave of the Dolby, it seems they gave little thought to the fact that that they are the ones with the garden parties, the housekeeper, the driver, the tutor for the genius child. To them, they are on the other side of that. The good guys, fighting the good fight for the underclass. Parasite is a Black Mirror reflection of the Oscars themselves, as Hollywood Blvd and the surrounding streets are filled with the same agony of longing, basement dwelling, and clusters of homeless forgotten people that surround the festivities of the gods and goddesses.
No, these voters probably didn’t see Parasite as having a dark ending. Rather, they see it as a movie that targets the bad guys while they stand on the side of the good guys. They root for the poor characters to be saved, to find a way out of their squalor. They sympathize with the man trapped in the basement lighting the stairs for his overlord.
There are op-eds out there right now saying that Parasite’s win is setting the stage for Bernie Sanders and the populist/socialist movement. Adam McKay, a high profile Berner, is adapting a version of Parasite for HBO. Oscar voters, SAG voters, and actors in general want to be on the good side.
But Parasite is a dark movie. Its ending is unquestionably tragic, as are the endings in Bong Joon Ho’s other films. His world view is hopelessness against an oppressive system. There is no way out of it except on an individual level, if you manage to escape it and free a genetically engineered baby pig or fight your way to the front of the train or explode in violence at a birthday party then go into hiding. None of these films end like Slumdog Millionaire does. This isn’t about what a good world we live in, but what a bad world we live in, controlled by people who do not have our best interests at heart — unless, of course, you live at the top, as many of these Oscar voters actually do, ironically enough.
And it’s probably even worse than that, when you factor in this country overall and what it does to the third world, what climate change will do to the poorest countries. Parasite is about all of that. So it was rather surreal to watch it feted with such pomp and circumstance. But isn’t that exactly WHY it resonated? Everyone feels guilty for how things have gone, especially those at the top, and if THIS movie represents them instead of 1917 or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, then that is a big payoff.
But what if Parasite’s dominance signals the beginning of a new wave of dark-themed films? Readers of this site will know that we’ve been mildly obsessed with this idea going all the way back to the beginning. Usually the film that is darker or more honest doesn’t win. Ambiguity doesn’t win. There have been many of these films, from The Social Network to Wolf of Wall Street to Get Out. They get nominated. They don’t win Best Picture.
Except for when they do. It’s most astonishing that three pitch-dark films won Best Picture in the past 20 years: The Departed, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker, with Slumdog Millionaire skirting the edge of darkness but finding light at the end. What likely drove these wins, other than their directors being overdue (which can’t be underestimated), was the backdrop of the George W. Bush presidency, the wars in the Middle East, and the 2008 economic collapse.
It did sort of boggle the mind that they won, and still does. But no bleak film since the preferential ballot has been implemented has won except for The Hurt Locker in 2009. Something else happened at the same time. Barack Obama became president. The mood lifted. That seemed to be reflected in the films that won Best Picture. Now that Trump has been in power for three years, the films that have won — Moonlight, The Shape of Water, Green Book — have very much been reflective of the resistance, even if Green Book doesn’t seem like it on its face. To voters it actually was. That also might explain why Roma was as popular as it was. It related directly to Trump’s immigration policies (to put it nicely).
Now we have Parasite, which epitomizes the way the Left sees itself. It was, by far, the darkest movie in the race. It might even be called “anti-American.” Not just because it is not made by Americans or by the American studio system, but because it is about the casual brutality of late-stage capitalism. We have the ultimate capitalist in the White House, but also a white man, which according to the modern Left at the moment is mankind’s greatest evil.
Looking back at Oscar’s past, it is no coincidence that the last great era of dark-themed films winning Best Picture was the 1970s. A similar kind of culture collapse was going on at the time. Coming out of the Utopian vision of JFK, and the social upheaval of movements like women’s lib, black power, and the anti-Vietnam protesters — it all came crashing down when Nixon won in a landslide in 1972. Even if there was a brief respite with Jimmy Carter in 1976, the year Rocky won, the ’70s reflected a futility of the central white male protagonist. That same futility exists now, but no one really seems to want to celebrate those stories so much as the ones about marginalized groups — at least in the film community and the industry that surrounds it.
There have always been films throughout Oscar history that appear suddenly and win Best Picture that are darker-themed, like The Lost Weekend, All About Eve, and Midnight Cowboy. But the 1970s dominate in terms of winners and nominees.
Five Easy Pieces
The French Connection
A Clockwork Orange
The Last Picture Show
Cries and Whispers
The Godfather II
Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Dog Day Afternoon
Rocky (I mean, he loses)
All the President’s Men
The Deer Hunter
An Unmarried Woman
All That Jazz
Ordinary People (ish)
The Elephant Man
And it mostly ends there. The 1980s or 1990s weren’t really about darker-themed movies. But for the odd winner during the Bush era, the really dark movies arrived this year — even 1917 is about the futility of war and the ultimate hollowness of being a hero in wartime. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is bittersweet, Joker is downright dystopian, The Irishman is grim, Jojo Rabbit is pitch black humor, and the winner, Parasite, has one of the most violent endings in Best Picture winner history.
While it might simply be a sign of the times, it’s worth asking why so many went so nuts for Parasite right now. It might be the movie itself. But it might also be the beginning of an era where dark themed films can win Oscars again.