There was a seismic shift in the political landscape of the United States in the wake of President Donald Trump’s administration’s arrival in 2016. The polarization of values along political, economic, and social lines became more hard and fast with little room for nuance in between. Americans became a people that could no longer talk to each other. Further, we became a people who despised each other even when we had more in common than not.
If someone had a political awakening, post-2016, they might think that cinema was following a similar trajectory towards awareness of current issues in front of and behind the camera. Those who have been around for a while and those of us who have made a point to indulge in films outside of our life spans know better. Since cinema tells human stories, it is by its very nature a political art whether in its characters’ dialogue or seeping underneath in the film’s subtext. What is explicitly human has political import.
A ‘Class’-less Society
If film has always been inevitably political on some level, why does it feel like these last four years of film have spoken so viscerally to our political climate? I think it feels this way because we finally have a context in which specific messages—and the language they are packaged in—become meaningful, a revelation. It would be quite easy (and somewhat understandable) to blame much of our current social ills on the current administration, but this would be historically dishonest.
The United States has been trending toward many of these ills for years now. The industrialization of America in the late 1800s and early 1900s would be a significant move towards corporate monopolies and increasing waste being churned out into the air and water leading to the precipice of our climate crisis. President Ronald Reagan and the proliferation of the Religious Right monolith has lead to a political Pharisee-ism divorced from much of its religious foundations focusing solely on two issues—LGBTQ rights and abortion—to the exclusion of a host of ills that remain untouched by their zealotry.
Each decade brings new awareness to those social or political ills that we were either unaware of or unwilling to confront. Context matters. We have to receive a new language before we can recognize new meanings. A major portion of the current administration’s base is grounded in the political Christianity talked about above, but many of these “white evangelicals” are also rural whites and working class whites, both of which make up a significant part of Trump’s base as well.
These two demographics when it comes to their socio-economic standing have more in common with many minority groups who largely vote in blocks for Democratic candidates. They are lured away by systemic constructs of race and the prevailing myth of the American Dream, put bluntly “getting rich” or “having more.” Yet the construct that actually exists and unites the working class and poor regardless of race, creed, etc., a common class consciousness, is subsumed under the guise of a “middle class nation” with a religious devotion to bootstrap theology: God helps those who help themselves. An idea that has more in common to capitalist venture than historical Christianity.
America has always winced at the idea of class, because the idea demands that we look beyond just the individual towards the good of the many, our communities. This means caring for those who don’t have access to power, don’t have ownership over the means of production, and don’t have a voice in society. Especially in this time of the pandemic, we are beginning to see the cracks and failures in the policies and structures that have been continued by the presidencies of both political parties since at least Ronald Reagan, if not further back.
It doesn’t help that those elected officials who maintain the country’s policies and governance are above the laws that are passed. Take for instance when President Barack Obama signed into effect the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act which cracked down on white-collar crime in D.C. and made members of Congress disclose online their buying and selling of securities, a meaningful check on capitalism, only to be amended later on in a quick procedural vote so that there was no longer any need for online disclosure.
We have hit another precipice where we are relearning a language that connects us to old ideas that are given new breath in our cinematic present. These films are showing us something that Karl Marx popularized and Friedrich Engels mobilized, that there is little wisdom in a “class”-less society.
The Parasite on the Platform Named Gretel
This language that we are relearning is giving us a lens in which to see classics in a new light and recognize the driving motivations behind current filmmakers. This language consists of what Marx contended and thinkers like Georg Lukacs expounded on: the idea of “class consciousness.” American ideals have always presumed an equality between all people that has never been realized in its practiced community or governance. Instead, our rhetoric, policies, and interpersonal interactions have sought to make socially constructed divisions, imaginary lines in the sand, to maintain our own privileges and power.
Those systems blindside us from actual divisions between those who own the means of production (corporations) and those who own their own small businesses who are being threatened by monopolies or working for these corporations for minimum wage or less just to make ends meet. There is a real material division here whereas most other social constructs are propped up by surface or imaginary human difference.
There are three films that have come out in the last year that give us a vision for how Marxist thought is coming back into our language whether consciously or subconsciously: Parasite, Gretel & Hansel, and The Platform. The winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar was the film by director Bong Joon-ho, Parasite, which clarifies the ills of capitalism captured in his own words during a Birth.Movies.Death. interview: “essentially we all live in the same country called capitalism.” The film revolves around three separate parasitical relationships between an excessively rich Korean family and an excessively poor Korean family and another Korean couple who were parasites before either of the families came into play.
Gretel & Hansel, the new film by Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter), subtly spins off a tale of haves and have nots from the framework of the classic Grimms Fairy Tale, Hansel and Grethel. Unlike Parasite, the critique of capitalist consumption is perhaps more subconscious in the film’s narrative. It follows a sister and her little brother who are sent out into the woods by their mother to survive due to scarcity in the land and they happen upon the house of Holda, an older woman who seems to be independently wealthy in her resources and food. Yet as the story goes on, Gretel begins to question where all of this wealth comes from and what she is to do with the knowledge once she finds out.
The most recent entry is the Netflix original film, El Hoyo (The Platform), by first-time director, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. This Spanish-language film takes place in a dystopian future where “criminals” are placed in a square tower with over 200 floors, each floor containing a concrete room with two beds and two captives and a square hole where a platform descends down to each floor upon which a veritable feast lays, the captives on the higher floor receiving first taste and each subsequent floor getting smaller and smaller remains until it reaches the bottom where they may go without food for a month…or they find other means of sustenance. Each month the captives on each floor are mysteriously shuffled between floors.
Each of these films showcase how late-stage capitalism engenders a violent form of consumption that demeans all parties, rich and poor, and makes humanity less than human and mere consumers and producers in the process. Never able to enjoy leisure for fear of a lack of productivity and profit nor enjoying one’s work for fear that it might overextend itself into our leisure. Thereby never being satisfied with life, slaving to compete in both production and consumption.
The Descent (And Ascent)
The most telling reference point that ties these three cinematic treatises together is the visual cue of descent that is prominent in all three of these films. Each of these films shows their protagonists descending, both physically and economically, whether it is from the yuppie, rural neighborhood to the urban ghettoes of a South Korean city by the Kim family, the descent into the basement of the old lady’s residence by Gretel, or the feast upon the concrete block that descends down the Spartan prison cells.
These cinematic plunges from the height of luxury to the depths of economic hell and existential despair call upon that creeping sense of frailty in the capitalist construction of economy and society. The poor are played against each other to compete for the dream of moving on up, becoming rich, and enjoying luxuries without the concerns of where one will eat next or how they will pay their bills. The Kims resort to folding pizza boxes in Parasite simply to get enough money for food. When the opportunity arises for Ki-woo to get a job as a tutor for the Parks’ daughter, Da-hye, he sees a way for his family to be installed in jobs within the Park household. Yet the only way any of this could be achieved and upward mobility to take place is if the Kims cheat the class system they live in, even to the point of pushing out and doing violence to another poor couple that had been living off the rich architect that lived there before the Parks.
Gretel, however, finds within the basement that the old woman is not who she says she is and that she lures children (of scarcity) down into the basement to kill them and transform their mangled bodies into the feast that Gretel and Hansel had unknowingly partaken in during the film. They had been satiated by children of poverty just like themselves. The seemingly endless resources and food that Holda had were provided by the poor and magically transformed into something that could be consumed by rich and poor alike.
The cooks at the top of prison who prepare the feast atop the platform every day appear to be well taken care of and serving the unseen system that employs them to make the food for the captives. As the food and drink descends, those on top partake until they are full within the limited time the platform remains on their floor. As it drops to each level, the captives are given fewer options and partially-consumed remnants. Keeping food for later brings punishment to each pair of captives as those controlling the panopticon can increase or decrease the temperatures of the cell to deadly levels until the food is tossed back on the platform.
Captives are able to communicate with those two or three cells above them or below them and the system feeds on the worst beasts of humanity’s nature. It is not unusual for captives to belittle or urinate (among other acts of dehumanization and violence) on those above or below because at the end of any month they could rise or fall in their economic status. This is their insurance for revenge and comeuppance in case they move down and are treated poorly.
By displaying the inherent downward mobility that is actually promoted within existing forms of capitalism, we see how these films expose the myth of progress outside of the “one percent” and how that myth must be bolstered to appease the working class, even when they think they are gaming the system like the Kims in Parasite. Increased consumption does not equal freedom, just another level of slavery as the system continues to divide the poor through ever-increasing forms of societal division based on surface differences and “middle-management.”
How Marx Is Making A Comeback
Whether it takes place in a realistic South Korean society, transported into the magical fairy tale world, or pushed into a dystopian future, the message remains the same through verbal and visual cinematic cues. Capitalism, as it currently stands, is faltering in its ability to maintain its power over the masses. People can only be suppressed long enough before there will be a revolt. It seems that current cinema is doubling down on Marxist ideals, strengthening the resolve and consciousness of the working class at a time when a pandemic is revealing the cracks in late-stage capitalism—and the rhetoric and policies of politicians of all stripes upholding it—much more apparent to the common person.
As George Lukacs put it in 1920 in an essay entitled, “Class Consciousness,”:
“The proletariat only perfects itself by annihilating and transcending itself, by creating the classless society through the successful conclusion of its own class struggle. The struggle for this society, in which the dictatorship of the proletariat is merely a phase, is not just a battle waged against an external enemy, the bourgeoisie. It is equally the struggle of the proletariat against itself[,] against the devastating and degrading effects of the capitalist system upon its class consciousness.”
Cinematic storytelling has the power to give us a new language that can engage both our hearts and minds and to transcend the consumerism and endless productivity that continues to dehumanize us and only makes more money for those already in power. I can only hope that this trend continues and that cinema takes a cue from directors like Bong Joon-ho in critiquing the inequity inherent in capitalist systems and that the visual power of cinema can continue to connect the language of Marxism to everyday life and the meaning that saturates it.
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