Lessons from Parasite: Let's talk about 1917, Marriage Story and the art of Oscar-nominated closeted conservatism

Anna MM Vetticad

Feb 10, 2020 13:21:39 IST

So Parasite won, history has been made, and an international film in a language other than English has finally bagged the Best Picture Oscar.

This momentous victory will of course spawn worldwide conversations about cinema without borders and South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s inventive, startling take on socio-economic divides. Hopefully, it will draw further attention to the subtlety with which Parasite manages to hold the wealthy accountable for their blinkered existence, the blindness to their own privilege and sometimes even unconscious, unintentional cruelty, all without demonising the moneyed classes or canonising the poor.

And if we are lucky, maybe, just perhaps maybe, a discussion will begin on other nominees in the Best Picture category that preferred to speak in binaries while pretending not to do so and that faked nuance while in fact telling a one-sided story.

Have you ever watched a film that completely drew you in, yet even while being thoroughly engrossed by it you were aware of its deeply troubling aspects?

In 2020's Oscar season, 1917 did that to me. Roger Deakins’ cinematography in this British film directed by Sam Mendes has rightly won an Academy Award with its purposeful creation of the impression that the entire story had been shot in one take. It is an experiential  venture, the sort that justifies the existence of giant screens and cinema halls in this age of cellphone viewing, as it transports audiences to early 20th century Europe and the brutality of World War I.

Unfortunately, the talk surrounding 1917 has been focused primarily on its technical achievements and secondarily on its unequivocal opposition to war, without a whisper about the doublespeak in the film’s claims of noble goals.

 Lessons from Parasite: Lets talk about 1917, Marriage Story and the art of Oscar-nominated closeted conservatism

(L-R) Stills from the Best Picture nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards — Sam Mendes' 1917, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite, and Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story. Parasite won the Oscar, making history.

In an interview to Time magazine in the US, when asked why he made 1917 now, Mendes said: “In war, you see human beings pushed to their extremes and forced to confront what it means to be alive, and what it means to sacrifice yourself for other people.”

His co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns informed the UK’s Guardian newspaper that one of her grandfathers told her “understanding history is the only way to avert future catastrophe. The first World War was the stupidest thing humanity ever did to each other”. And Mendes  explained to the same journalist: “People who are attached to some sort of nostalgic vision treat these wars retrospectively as triumphs. In fact, they were tragedies.”

Yet, whether unwittingly or with insidious intent, 1917 repeats the mistakes of the past by taking sides despite making a great show of being objective and neutral. Throughout the narrative, there is no question that the German — evil, scheming and alien — is the other, while the British are helpless participants in circumstances not of their making. This is not the point of view of the characters but the point of view of the film itself.

At the centre of 1917 are two young British Lance Corporals traversing war-ravaged terrain on their way to deliver an urgent message to a senior officer who might otherwise fall prey to German strategy. In the miserable position that they find themselves in, I am not suggesting at all that Mendes and Wilson-Cairns’ screenplay should have found space for well-considered, impartial chats between these two fictional men about the accountability of all the countries involved in WWI. Of course it is very likely that two youth terrified by gigantic rodents might tell each other, as Tom Blake and Will Schofield do in the film, “Even their (German) rats are bigger than ours.” A soldier’s antagonism towards or suspicion of the party responsible for decimating their fellow nationals makes for a believable portrayal of real life. The film reveals its own position though [spoiler alert] by choosing to feature a scene in which a German airman, in the midst of being saved from death by one of our heroes, turns on his saviour with brute force [spoiler alert ends].

World War I was triggered by a complex set of circumstances, none of which was the virtuousness of the countries that fought Germany. To reduce it to that though, to single out one country as the devil incarnate, is a simplistic and lazy recounting of that ugly history. This revisionist retelling, it must be said, is no different from the othering that plagues the contemporary world, overcome as it is by a wave of Islamophobia and hatred for immigrants.

The kind response to 1917 would be to say that perhaps Mendes and Wilson-Cairns are themselves victims of propaganda and conditioning. Perhaps. But no such kindness can be extended to Noah Baumbach whose Marriage Story is decidedly sneaky in the way it purports to give us an unbiased view of a crumbling marriage but pulls every trick out of the bag to lean imperceptibly towards the man's side.

In Marriage Story, Scarlett Johansson plays a woman suffocating in a marital relationship that has revolved around the husband's needs, wants and career dreams. It begins well enough, but just when it seems like it will fairly show us how one partner might, by not openly communicating with the other, end up encouraging his unintended selfishness, it sets off on its actual mission. Having lulled us into buying into its apparent sense of justice, Marriage Story metamorphoses into a tale of how nasty Nicole traumatises and almost bankrupts the well-meaning Charlie through the divorce process. It does so by showing us more of him than her, by highlighting instances of her lawyer’s meanness in contrast with his first lawyer’s incompetence and showing little to none of what must surely have been his own second lawyer’s machinations, and by intentionally suggesting an equivalence between the complete marginalisation of Nicole’s dreams during their marriage with the inconvenience of Charlie forced to live in a bare-bones flat in a desperate bid to get joint custody of their only child since Nasty Nicole spirited him away to a new city.

The really epic moment comes though when Charlie absolves himself of his infidelity by pointing out that he could have done so much more — yes sir, I kid you not, he tells Nicole he had ONLY one affair although he could have had so many more because he was young, hot, successful, intelligent and scores of women were interested. Be grateful I did not cheat more, is all he skips saying, but he may as well have said it anyway.

The problem with 1917 and Marriage Story is not so much that they take sides, but that they camouflage their aims. The problem with them is not that they are prejudiced, but that they are dishonest, clever and dangerous because of how convincing they are.

Somewhere in a cinematic paradise of my imagination, Bong Joon Ho and Taika Waititi, the writer-director of the delightful Jojo Rabbit — which was also in the reckoning for a Best Picture Oscar — are holding a master class in what it means to be non-judgmental and truthful for Messrs Mendes and Baumbach.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2020 16:55:03 IST