The winner of this year’s Best Picture award at the Oscars was a South Korean film about class resentment, economic desperation, and the parasitic dependence of the upper social strata on our world’s basement dwellers and working poor. An actor best known for his juvenile and politically incorrect comedies was widely assumed to be a main contender for the Best Actor award, for his role as a rare jewels dealer who exploits Ethiopian opal miners in a film set on the infamous 47th street, in Manhattan’s seedy diamond district. To any reasonable observer, Parasite’s (2019) victory and the buzz surrounding Adam Sandler’s performance in Uncut Gems (2019) would seem to suggest that change is in the air – that films that raise questions of class and exploitation are beginning to receive broader, much-deserved recognition. Indeed, these films purport to illuminate the “rock bottom” of late modern life, training their cameras on the marginal players in late capitalism: the unemployed and exploited in Parasite, the lumpen and the criminal in Uncut Gems.

This apparent progress in the cultural sphere might seem at first glance to attest to a broader pattern of change, as exemplified by the rise of politicians associated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US and the groundswell of support for presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who regularly make reference to the need for “big structural change,” in Warren’s phrase. In the late stage of neoliberalism, as resistance begins to take hold against the decades-long effort to “globalise” the economy (i.e., to employ workers wherever in the world it is cheapest to do so), perhaps the success of directors like Bong Joon-ho and the Safdie Brothers is best understood as a symbol of rising historical consciousness and the renewed vitality of the Left.

Yet it is just such success that should give us pause. The celebration of the radicalism of contemporary “leftish” cinema would be just as misguided and premature as has been the celebration of the rise of neo-social democracy.1 Instead of reflecting a new progressivism, both films reveal in opposed ways the limits of the political imagination of what I will call the “cinema from below”, as well as that of the Left that would affirm it. If, as Robert Pippin has recently put it, cinema is “filmed thought”,2 then the cinema from below embodies a historically distinct kind of thinking. As attempts to peek behind the curtain or – to use their metaphor of choice – to look beneath the surface of life under capitalism, the two cinematic works typify a socially general way of “seeing” late neoliberal reality. In this article, I want to call our attention to the limits of the depth metaphor as a way of representing capital and show how both films – but Parasite in particular – actually fail to ever penetrate capital’s most surface appearances. They thereby fail to use the peculiar capacity of cinema to illuminate precisely what cannot be seen, the status of capital not as a person or thing but as the form of our lives, the way in which we relate to persons and things.

Parasite opens with a shot that recurs throughout the film and immediately frames its world, signaling for the viewer how it is meant to be seen and the standpoint we are meant to occupy. We are looking out a street-level window from within the “semi-basement” apartment occupied by the film’s protagonists, the Kim family. Small shops line the street above, while sunlight reveals a thick layer of dust coating the panes. The view is partially obscured by what looks like a mobile of socks, hung up to dry; the title itself appears briefly in the rightmost pane, as if to identify this point of vantage as that of the film itself. As Bong himself has remarked, Parasite is his “stairway movie,” in contrast to the earlier Snowpiercer (2013), his “hallway movie,”3 which tells of a globe-spanning train segmented by class that contains the remnants of civilisation following a climate-control experiment gone awry. In both films, cinematic form – the way the story is told, the techniques that are employed – is shaped by its social function. In a certain sense, in Parasite, we never leave the Kims’ “semi-basement” and its window onto the world, as the final shot of the film, mirroring the first, drives home.

The “upstairs-downstairs” genre has a long history, from Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) to Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948) to Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). Robert Altman’s Gosford Park from 2001 and the internationally-beloved Downtown Abbey series (2010-2015) are some of its most well-known recent incarnations. Julian Fellowes fare aims to transport us to an idyllic world in which the discontents of labor figure as inessential side-plots (Branson’s socialism) or running-jokes (Daisy’s dawning awareness of the limited horizons of the cooking staff at Downton) and servants are happily interpellated by the feudal ideology of the honorability of their preordained roles. The utopian function of such programming lies in its projection of an integrated society, in which everyone finds meaning in their labor. Bong’s “stairway film,” by contrast, eschews nostalgia for a bygone (and truth be told, nonexistent) age and instead depicts the false harmony of master and servant in the era of flexibilised labor and bullshit jobs.4

Yet it is important to note that labor and capital make no appearance in the film. The Kims do not produce surplus value, and the Parks are not capitalists (not, at least, in the domestic sphere). Indeed, Parasite is not a film about class but a film about caste, in that the world it depicts is one of rigid social hierarchies defined by cultural and temperamental in addition to economic difference.5 Hence the Kim mothers’ remark midway through the film that the Parks are not nice despite being rich, as her husband suggests, but nice because they are rich – because “richness” is treated as a quasi-anthropological rather than an economic attribute. The film goes to great lengths to emphasise the dissimilarity of the Parks and the Kims, most memorably with respect to the latter’s smell, which the Kims themselves identify as “the semi-basement smell.” Indeed, the film’s now-infamous climax – a rather tame depiction of enacted class resentment, so far as these things go6 – revolves not around a work-related dispute but around the moral injury sustained by Ki-taek when Mr. Park is unable to bear the stench of Geun-sae, the “underground man” hiding in the Parks’ fallout shelter.

Parasite

Parasite opens with the Kim family earning piece-wages from part-time work assembling take-out boxes for Pizza Time, a fast-food chain. While neoliberal-specific work makes an appearance and the specter of unemployment haunts the film, eventually even appearing as a “ghost” (as Geun-sae, the “underground man”), the film’s preoccupation with the anthropological abjectness of the poor and the anti-egalitarian sentiments and behaviours of the rich progressively works to conceal what Bong has committed himself to illuminating, capitalist reality. Bong’s films are expert at engendering in the viewer feelings of both sympathy and disgust towards his lower-class anti-heroes, who are often both lovable, oppressed underdogs and conniving worldly operators. We are meant to despise what society has done to them and to recognise what is despicable in them as a product of society. The moral arc of Parasite is such that, following the intra-class conflict of the second act, we are supposed to begin to see who the real parasites are –not the Kims or the housekeeper Moon-gwang and her crazed husband Geun-sae, but the Parks themselves, the ones who treat their employees as disposable and fungible means.

Geun-sae’s braining of Ki-woo and stabbing of Ki-jung in the final, ultra-violent sequence is meant to make vivid the barbarism and dog-eat-dog nature of the free market. The scholar’s rock (a symbol of opportunity) is revealed for what it really is: a cudgel. In the zero-sum game of neoliberalism, someone’s luck is another’s misfortune. But the deadly eruption of what belongs below into the sunlight above is not the illumination of the capitalist essence that Bong takes it to be. Reminiscent of Kurosawa’s post-apocalyptic creations in Dodes’ka-den (1970), the “underground man” worships the master of the house and is blind to his own unfreedom. Yet the real violence of capitalism lies not in the most extreme cases, which a market economy aspires to prevent, but rather in the ordinary cases in which labor power is successfully exchanged for a wage. When Ki-taek murders Mr. Park not just because of his neglect of Ki-jung, but because he recoils from the fetid odor of Geun-sae, the film gives away the game and mistakes elitism and classism – effects of capitalism – for its cause.

Yet what Bong’s film is missing is any sense of the deeper structural dynamic driving capitalism, and the metaphor of surface/depth it employs is deeply distorting. Workers are not just exploited by greedy capitalists (which, it ought to be noted, the Parks are not in relation to the Kims) but are dominated by the surplus product of their own alienated labour, in the form of new technologies that replace workers (robots) and that cheapen labour (sweatshops).7 Likewise, owners of capital do not simply “choose” to exploit workers but are themselves beholden to an abstract and impersonal dynamic that necessitates the extraction of surplus value at an ever-increasing rate if they are to remain competitive and survive. Exploitation is not the cause of capitalism but one of its effects. To quote Marx: “The worker perishes if capital does not keep him busy. Capital perishes if it does not exploit labour-power.”8 Workers depend on the growth of capital for their own employment, but the more capital grows the more superfluous labour becomes.

Parasite

If Parasite has a saving grace, it is its final scene, in which the brain-damaged Ki-woo writes a letter, never to be sent, to his father, who has succeeded Geun-sae as the new “underground man.” Ki-woo’s letter writing occurs as a voiceover, over images of the family reunited in the modernist house in which the film’s action has unfolded, now owned by a financially successful Ki-woo. The letter at first seems to have an almost proleptic quality, the happy family we see on screen an actual image of the future. Our expectations are quickly dashed, as the camera returns us to the basement apartment and we are reminded of Ki-woo’s hopeless position. In a film that has sought to overwhelm the senses of its viewer, by making us see, hear, feel and even smell poverty, this brief glimpse of the immaterial and non-actual comes as something of a shock. While the logic of the film would seem to require that we treat this moment as a final poignant reflection on what is being withheld from the Kim families of the world, at a deeper level, it is a cinematic image of what binds the Parks and Kims. Ki-woo’s unshaken faith in the promise of capitalism – in the possibility of real success, of financial security, of a truly free life – is a reminder of the bond that capital and labor share.

Some have argued that the discrepancy here between Ki-woo’s dream and his tragic reality confronts us with the harsh truth that the Kims are simply doomed to fail within the capitalist system, unless luck should happen to intercede. But is important to remember that, as I have noted, the Kim’s semi-basement apartment window is the “lens” of the film itself. The Gogolian depiction of a wily and cunning neo-peasantry eventually gives way to a more straightforward portrayal of the parasitism of the upper on the lower class, and the promise of capitalism is cynically rejected as a lie. This reinforces the notion that Parasite is a film about caste instead of class, since the poor are taken to be locked into their fate. As a kind of perverse Pangloss, the brain-damaged Ki-woo cannot help but to smile at his fate, to imagine that his world is the best of all possible worlds: his optimism, the film tells us, is a sickness. The helplessness thus registered in Parasite is one side of an antinomy, whose other side finds expression in Bong’s Snowpiercer. If Parasite succumbs to fatalism about the ineluctability of class domination, then Snowpiercer entertains an apocalyptic voluntarism in order to envision a total escape. In this cinematic universe, the only possible solution lies not, as Walter Benjamin famously put it, in pulling the “emergency brake” (in stopping to collectively rethink whether what we count as progress is actually progress) but rather in derailing the train of history altogether (in abandoning corrupt civilisation once and for all).9 According to the logic of Parasite, a prequel of sorts to Snowpiercer, there is nothing redeeming about this world: even the beauty of the house – a key preoccupation of the film’s – is mere semblance, a cover for the monster down below.

Theodor Adorno once noted that, until Voltaire, satire always sided with those in power, by exposing the supposed degeneracy of the forces of progress. With the emergence of the bourgeois class, satire became a means of holding traditionalists to account, playing on our sense of the self-evident and relying on our unspoken assumptions about what is wrong. But satire loses its force when, as Adorno puts it, “irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, disappears.”10 In the late neoliberal era, when the very idea of a life plan can be rejected by Ki-taek as illusory (“With no plan, nothing can go wrong,” he remarks late in the film), satire just expresses the unanimous view that the system is rigged and democracy a lie. Everyone agrees – including the culture industry managers behind the annual ribbon-pinning ceremonies – that the parasitic Parks are worthy of our hatred, but they also agree that that is simply how things are. Satire and cynicism become indistinguishable, robbing the former of its emancipatory force. Now it might be said that satire once again sides with those in power, granting them the opportunity to laugh at themselves, which has also become the privilege of the last laugh.

Parasite is thus political satire as accommodation. It is protest cinema that subsumes the historically specific crisis of neoliberalism under a historically indeterminate, eternal struggle between rich and poor. As such, its allegory of capital’s hidden depths is the artistic complement to the political posturing of the neo-social democrats, who exploit the language of class struggle and revolution as a cover for a redistributive program well at home in bourgeois politics as usual. Despite the film’s extended architectural metaphor, it fails to capture the structural interdependence of the unemployed Geun-sae, the class-traitor Kims, and the elitist and callous Parks. While it first indicts the Kims for stealing the jobs of their peers, it ultimately condemns—wants us to condemn—the Parks, the pathos of the final scene deriving from the revelation of the “true” parasite: the America-fetishising elites, who force the Ki-woos and Ki-jungs of the world to play the parts of “Kevin” and “Jessica,” as they are re-christened upon hire. The closed and conventional, three-act structure of the film, combined with its potent mixture of symbolism and realism, is designed to furnish a new artistic metaphor for social justice and American imperialism. But instead, the work’s perfectly executed allegory reflects its failure to grasp the historical conditions for its own possibility: that capitalism is a global economic order, indeed a “cosmology,” that is no more “American” than “Korean” and for which we all, as a whole, are collectively responsible, beneficiaries and victims alike.

Just like Parasite, the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems begins with a scene beneath the earth, in an Ethiopian opal mine just following a bloody on-site accident in 2010. The historical circumstances are immediately recognisable as our own, as Chinese foremen attempt to appease the infuriated Ethiopian miners, who gesture angrily towards the machinery that injured a fellow worker. This tantalising opening scene gives way to another. Taking advantage of the chaos, two workers return to the mine and ferret away a rare black opal, which the camera then enters in an instantly classic, Kubrick-esque opening sequence. As if it were one of Leibniz’s monads, the opal appears to contain the cosmos. Reflecting on the origin of the stone later in the film, Sandler’s Howard even notes, “They say you can see the whole universe in opals” – a thought brought to cinematic life in this phantasmagoric scene.

Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Safdie)

But Leibniz is soon superseded by the more Safdie-appropriate Voltaire, who quipped that if Leibniz were right, each drop of urine would also be a cosmos: the walls of the interior of the stone become smooth and organic, and we find ourselves exiting Howard’s colon in a doctor’s office somewhere in Manhattan in 2012. Uncut Gems’s “Kubrick moment” does not share Space Odyssey’s modernist concern with self-discovery and employs instead the postmodern trope of “deep space” or the “cosmos” as an ironic signifier of superficiality, of the absence of depth. The wormhole/asshole continuum connects Ethiopia to the New York Diamond District and 2010 to 2012, when the anti-hero Howard receives the opal he has illegally purchased from the miners. But instead of establishing the way in which information technology has expanded capital’s reach, increased the tempo of international exchange, and decentralised production, Uncut Gems’ opening device focuses the narrative on a petit bourgeois diamond dealer and the seedy network of bookies and pawnbrokers that make up part of the larger 47th street ecosystem.

The Safdie Brothers make films about those living on the margins of bourgeois society—the drug-addicted, the mentally ill, the poor, the criminal. They have spent their career as filmmakers probing the “lower depths” of New York in particular. In Uncut Gems, a film that grew out of a projected documentary, years in the works, on the Diamond District, they follow Howard’s attempt to stave off loan sharks and to keep his business afloat using the profits from a planned auction of the ill-gotten opal. As in the case of Parasite, capital appears here in a distorted form, as money and profit, and Howard’s adventurism takes on a political-allegorical weight it cannot actually bear. At the same time, what the “wormhole” opens up is not the deep structure of capitalist accumulation but a frenetic realm of seeming-freedom, the “rhizome” of the black market, to invoke a familiar postmodern avatar.11

Uncut Gems

The film takes off when Howard loans the opal to basketball star Kevin Garnett on game night, in exchange for Garnett’s championship ring. Howard immediately pawns the ring in order to bet on Garnett’s game and to pay off a debt to his loan-shark brother-in-law with the winnings. Howard’s first gamble – loaning Garnett the stone – is compounded by a second, his use of Garnett’s ring to raise cash for a bet, and a third, the bet on the game itself. The second bet is not unlike a future-type derivative, or a second-order speculation on the market performance of some underlying asset. In trading the ring, Howard is betting that his bet on the game will be successful. What is mystified in all of this is the labour time “congealed” in the opal, which is the basis for all subsequent acts of exchange. As Marx notes in the third volume of Capital, which addresses the sphere of price and profit (as distinct from the spheres of production and circulation addressed in the first two volumes): “In the form of interest-bearing capital[…] capital appears as a mysterious and self-creating source of interest, of its own increase. In interest-bearing capital, this automatic fetish is elaborated into its pure form, self-valorising value, money breeding money, and in this form it no longer bears any marks of its origin.”12 The function of the wormhole in the opening is to dispel the “fetish” character of interest-bearing capital, to remind us, as it were, how the sausage is made. Like the scholar’s stone in Parasite, the opal functions as a kind of talisman or charm, which masks the underlying structure of exchange – the constitutive contingency of the market in Parasite, labour time as the source of value in Uncut Gems.

Yet Howard is not depicted as a rapacious capitalist but rather as a good Mensch who more or less can’t help himself. Every decision he makes – from the pawning of Garnett’s ring to the risky bet to the auction-tampering to the sublime final bet on the Celtics – is governed by compulsion. But not a “gambling addiction,” as virtually every commentator has observed. Late in the film, following the disastrous auction of the gem and, finally, the sale of the stone to Garnett for a disappointing $165,000, Howard reveals that he paid a little more than half that, with the hope of making a tenfold profit. “And you don’t see anything wrong with that?” Garnett asks. “Do you like to win by one point or by thirty points, KG?” Howard responds, before announcing his intent to bet the money – which is enough to pay off his debt – on that night’s game. “I’m not a fuckin’ athlete,” he continues, “This is my way. This is how I win. All the fuckin’ work I do, all the dues I pay?” When Uncut Gems is most successful, it is exploring what Marx calls the “character masks of antagonistic society,”13 of which Howard is a powerful example. He is a late modern type, a personification of the subordination of life to accumulation.

At the same time, Howard is a marginal operator whose revenue derives from “buying cheap and selling dear,” from backroom deals and scams. (We see Howard fob off a fake watch on a creditor, steal from his partner Demany, and of course illegally import the opal.) Howard is not so much a capitalist as a petty criminal, and we are encouraged to regard him as a kind of heroic personality. The feeling Uncut Gems systematically works to engender in those watching is less a sense of dread and discomfort (as in Parasite) than it is Howard’s own adrenalised and ecstatic anxiety. There is a “freedom” in Howard’s “liminal” position between the elevated world of the market (represented by the sleek auction house willing to ignore the provenance of the stone) and the underworld of rackets and violence (represented by the brother-in-law Arno and his thugs). If Parasite is a disgruntled attack on the bourgeois “caste,” then Uncut Gems is a petit bourgeois affirmation of the freedom of life on the margins. It is cinema from below not in the mode of a moralising rejection of the social elite, but in the postmodern mode of a conformist celebration of contingency as freedom.

The use of extra-long zoom lenses for the film’s lengthy and frequent tracking shots imbue it with a claustrophobic quality, lending the picture itself a grainy texture reminiscent of another era. As in the Safdie Brothers’ other films, non-professional local actors are used to achieve an authentic “grittiness,” to make palpable the “rock bottom” that their films’ characters have hit.  Despite taking place in 2012, just a few years after the financial crisis, the film trades in eighties nostalgia, invoking the sounds of the era with a strategically employed Madonna song and Daniel Lopatin’s “vaporwave”-inspired score. The film’s nostalgic preoccupation with the nineteen-eighties, moreover, reflects the early promise of neoliberalism and the Reagan years—the promise of freedom from state regulation and intervention. Unlike the mournful Good Time (2017), where the police are a constant presence, the more euphoric Uncut Gems unfolds entirely beyond the watchful eye of the state.

The “rhizomatic” 47th street is depicted as a field of limitless potential, of ways of deferring the constraints of bourgeois actuality. Each new wager Howard makes ensures that he remains in the game – that his family is not “quite” a family, that his career is not “quite” a career, that his life is not “quite” a life. The film thus concludes the only way it possibly can: with the death of a man who wants above all else not to “be” anything but rather to constantly “become.”  In the film’s final scene, Howard wins the million-dollar bet made with Arno’s money, but it is not enough to save him. Phil, the more vicious thug, shoots him in the face and proceeds to rob Howard’s store, killing his own boss in the process. Despite this, the film does not seem to end on a tragic note: the camera enters the bullet hole in the face of Howard’s almost-smiling corpse, and we are returned to the interior of the opal, the cosmos of the film.

Uncut Gems

The question one must ask is where late neoliberal cinema is hoping to lead us. As Walter Benjamin points out in his “Author as Producer”: “The tendency of a literary work can be politically correct only if it is also literarily correct. That is to say, the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency.”14 This maxim applies mutatis mutandis to film. As cinema reveals perhaps more than any other art form, art is technique, a distinctly aesthetic way of disposing over means of production. Every work of art that matters has an “organisational function” that is not reducible to political propaganda: it must teach a new generation of artists how to use and not use the artistic means of production. As Benjamin quips, what is needed is not a new Wilhelm Meister, an especially pointed proscription in the age of the ubiquitous “remake” and never-ending “reboot” cycle. Art organises us politically not by trying to compel us to join a cause, but by trying to compel our conviction that a new organisation of the aesthetic means of production successfully constitutes a regime of social truth. When, in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963), the protagonist Bruno Forestier refers to cinema as “truth twenty-four times per second,” what was meant was precisely this, the art form’s medium-specific way of disclosing the historical shape of reality.

In this context, and by way of conclusion, it is also worth mentioning another recent “late neoliberal” film, Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019). The film traces the self-liquidation of trade unionism in the early years of transition to neoliberalism, following the beginning of the long economic downturn in the early 70s. The central cinematic device of Scorsese’s film – the much-discussed “de-aging” technique – effectively enables Al Pacino and Robert de Niro to play their younger selves playing mob figures.15 In playing themselves, they make explicit that Scorsese’s movie is “about” the mob movie more generally, what such films—in retrospect, in the moment of their decline—have come to mean. De Niro’s voiceovers about mob etiquette and the film’s use of unstylised intertitles to matter-of-factly note dates (and often gruesome causes) of death are ways of laying bare the genre’s tropes, of recalling us to their conventionality.

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

This is “late neoliberal style”, to adapt Adorno’s famous phrase16: in the moment of Trumpism and Brexit, which signal the crisis of the neoliberal world order, cinema returns us to the moment of its epochal birth – the moment when unions became the rackets they were always fated to be and collective bargaining power quietly eroded away. As Adorno put it, “The trade unions become monopolies, and their officials become bandits who call for blind obedience from those permitted to become members.”17 By the end of the film, Hoffa’s utilisation of the mob for the sake of the union becomes the utilisation of the union for the sake of the mob. The end of the film – which allows the camera to displace the author of the book about Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses – shows that cinema itself and cinema alone can tell the mob story, which is not a matter of empirical facts (Sheeran is probably a liar and not Hoffa’s killer) but of social truth (Hoffa’s death marked a turn in the history of American capitalism). In this way, the superhero-and-spectacle-hating director shows himself to be the more cunning wielder of cinematic spectacle and technique: the auteur as producer.18

Scorsese’s film succeeds precisely by avoiding the illusory metaphor of depth and by instead attending to the appearances themselves – indeed, to what is most apparent, the human face. Whatever the limitations of The Irishman, it recognises that the stakes of its gambit include the very idea of cinema itself. By contrast, the opal mine in Uncut Gems and the secreted fallout shelter in Parasite are not images of the hidden depths of capitalist production. They are rather the cinematic negatives of our own disorganisation and incomprehension. In Plato’s famous cave allegory, the original “depth metaphor,” those down below are held in thrall by the shadows cast by puppets manipulated by those above. The prisoners mistake the spectacle for truth. Despite its limitations as a representation of social reality, Plato’s allegory remains a compelling description of the condition of contemporary cinema.  At its best, cinema is the spectacle that points not to a “truer” reality but rather to the truth of our one reality, the collectively self-imposed nature of relations of domination. While the cinema from below claims to pinpoint our position in the late modern cave, it is instead just a new addition to the repertoire of shadows we project on the walls.

Endnotes:

  1. At the time of writing, Bernie Sanders has not only lost the nomination to Obama-era relic Joe Biden but has also endorsed the former vice president. Evidence has also emerged suggesting that the so-called “red wave” may be short-lived, if it was ever more than an illusion. See, for example: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/30/new-aoc-divides-the-left-150767
  2. See Robert Pippin, Filmed Thought: Cinema as Reflective Form (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
  3. https://www.vulture.com/2020/01/parasite-ending-explained-by-bong-joon-ho.html
  4. Citing Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), Lee Chang-dong’s Murakami adaptation Beoning (Burning, 2018), and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Manbiki Kozaku (Shoplifters, 2018), Bong has noted that his films represent a larger movement in contemporary cinema characterised by a turn towards class. See https://www.gq.com/story/parasite-director-bong-joon-ho-interview.  Other recent films might include Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019). All of these works are instances of the “cinema from below,” and it is no coincidence that each is defined by a certain political indeterminacy, a vague disdain for villainous elites (Burning, Knives Out) or a quasi-affirmation of unfocused lumpen rage (Joker, Us).
  5. For an important analysis of this distinction and for a powerful account of the limits of “class” as a critical category, see G.M. Tamas, “Telling the Truth about Class”, Socialist Register 42 (2006): 228-268.
  6. Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) comes to mind.
  7. Chris Cutrone, “Robots and Sweatshops,” in The Platypus Review 123 (2020), https://platypus1917.org/2020/02/01/robots-and-sweatshops/
  8. Karl Marx, Wage-Labour and Capital & Value, Price and Profit (New York: International Publishers, 2006), p. 32.
  9. Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’”, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Howard Eiland, in Selected Writings vol. IV, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 402.
  10. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (New York: Verso Books, 2005), p. 211.
  11. For the classic account of the rhizome, see the opening chapter of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
  12. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. David Fernbach, vol. 3 (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 516.
  13. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1 (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 757. Translation modified.
  14. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, vol. 2, part 2, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 769.
  15. I am indebted for this point in particular to Ole Hinz, and my thinking about the movie in general was shaped by our conversations surrounding its release.
  16. Theodor Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven,” trans. Susan Gillespie, in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 564-585.
  17. Theodor Adorno, “Reflections on Class Theory,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Can One Live After Auschwitz? ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 100).
  18. And since we are talking about awards, if anyone should have received one, it was Anna Paquin, whose one-line turn as Sheeran’s daughter was the most consequential of the film, its moral and ethical center.

About The Author

Jensen Suther is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University. His dissertation—entitled Spirit Disfigured: The Persistence of Freedom in the Modernist Novel—reads the novels of Kafka, Mann, and Beckett as aesthetic expressions of our contradictory commitment to freedom in capitalist modernity. His second project, Hegel’s Materialism: The Logic of Critical Theory, defends a new reading of Hegel’s Science of Logic as articulating the theory of critical theory. Forthcoming articles include “The Trial of Freedom in Kafka” and “Hegel’s Logic of Freedom: Towards a ‘Logical Constitutivism.’” He has published previously in Telos and Mediations.