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Becoming best picture

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Movie

Becoming best picture

What does critical acclaim for Parasite tell us about American culture?

Parasite received a huge box-office boost when it won the best picture Oscar on Feb. 9. It even received a one-week engagement in 214 IMAX theaters starting Feb. 21. And that’s too bad, because anyone who knows basic Marxism could predict its plot: Poor liars-for-justice outwit the bourgeoisie, who are either dumb or evil, until scorn from the rich and dissension among the proletariat bring destruction and death. 

The history of Parasite’s ascent is worth remembering. Movie reviewer Paula Bernstein observed in Fortune last October, “Based on historical precedent, the odds of Parasite being nominated for a Best Picture aren’t in its favor. Only 11 foreign language films have ever been nominated for Best Picture.” But Bernstein predicted that the film’s “examination of income inequality and class rage … could make it the underdog to watch come awards time.”

She was right: Parasite not only gained nominations but won four Oscars, including the top honor. It’s good to see the pride Koreans have in one of their own winning. It’s good to see awareness of poverty problems. But what does it say about American culture that Parasite has on the Rotten Tomatoes website an approval rating of 99 percent, based on 400 reviews? Why did 52 critics gave Parasite an ­average Metacritic score of 96 out of 100, indicating their “universal acclaim” for “a masterful dissection of social inequality”? 

The one Metacritic review—from Hollywood Reporter—that gave Parasite only 70 of 100 rightly called the film “cumbersomely plotted and heavy-handed in its social commentary. … [Its] bludgeoning attacks on economic injustice have more passion than nuance.” That’s right. Parasite won despite its cumbersome plot. Correct that: Given Hollywood’s woke ideology, Parasite won because it’s heavy-handed, “a tick fat with the bitter blood of class rage,” as Variety noted. 

What does it mean when our “best picture” emphasizes class rage and the murders that result? In my graduate school film classes long ago I read Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, first published in 1947. Kracauer argued that plot devices and conclusions of highly praised 1920s films offer insight into societal motivations and fantasies: Movies pushing radical change and apocalyptic climaxes softened up Germans for Hitler. 

Will a future dissertation be titled, “From Parasite to Sanders”?