Posts Tagged 'joker'

Reclassifications: Parasite, The Million Pound Note, and My Man Godfrey.

Since I cancelled Netflix a couple months back I’ve been keeping myself busy watching old movies for free on YouTube. You can find quite a few, once you know where to look.

Among the vaguely recognized names to whom I’ve finally been able to assign faces are two that have always blurred together in my mind, Hedy Lamarr and Dorothy Lamour. I’ve now watched three or four movies starring each, and I’ll have no trouble identifying Lamour in future: she had a very distinctive face.

But I’m still not sure I’ll recognize Hedy Lamarr.

Nowadays Lamarr is more famous for her side career as an inventor, which led (in collaboration with some other fellow, whose name is politely deprecated) to a radio dingus that anticipated the development of modern wireless technology. Hardly anyone watches her movies any more, but she’s lately become a figurehead for women in science, a twist that would no doubt have surprised audiences in the 1930s who knew her primarily for, as she put it, standing still and looking stupid.

She’s gorgeous, of course. The problem is she doesn’t really look like anything in particular. She’s so flawless that there’s no one feature for your eye to rest on. Watching her movies, I find that only when she opens her mouth – she had a pretty heavy Austrian accent – can I say definitively, “Oh, there’s Hedy Lamarr.”

hedy lamarr weight loss ad life magazine 1952

Hedy Lamarr, in a 1952 issue of Life, promotes a “safe, healthful” weight-loss solution called – no joke – Ayds.

I have this trouble a lot watching old movies. I think I’m only averagely bad at telling faces apart, but when a movie is full of square-jawed, clean-shaven, dark-haired white guys wearing hats, if there’s not some quirky mannerism or distinctive article of dress to differentiate them, I tend to forget which is which. It’s somewhat less difficult with women, because more variety was permitted in their hair and clothing; also, there were usually fewer females in the cast, so fewer opportunities for confusion.

Now, there’s much to be said for suits and hats – they’re more flattering to the male figure than the cargo shorts and flip-flops that fellows slouch around in these days – as well as much to be said against them, at least in the heat of summer. But one of the side effects of living in a society where everyone has pretty much the same wardrobe and hairstyle, I imagine, is that you become more attentive to distinctions that would be invisible to outsiders. Where everyone wears the same suit, you learn to pay attention to the tie.

As I’ve discussed before, I’m not sold on the many miracles attributed to the modern-day holy trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. But there is at least one concrete benefit to populating our movies with a wider range of physical types. It’s not that racial diversity is necessary to helping audiences tell the characters apart: watching Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, with its 100% Korean cast, I never had a problem keeping track of who was who. But Parasite is an unusually well-constructed film. If Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive casting makes it easier for Hollywood hacks to project their overcaffeinated visions onto the screen in a way that still lets us tell at a glance which henchman is hanging off the side of the helicopter firing a machine gun at our jetski-riding hero, then I’m for it.

But diversity can increase confusion, too. My favourite of the recent Star Wars movies, Rogue One, was hard enough to follow with its dialogue full of pronouncements like, “We have to go to [random alien planet] to give the [random sci-fi gadget] to [random alien name].” Then someone made the decision to cast a number of non-native-English speakers to garble these nonsense words.

If for some reason it was deemed essential that the Star Wars universe contain not only the full range of earth’s skin tones, but the full range of its foreign accents, at least they could have taken care to assign the bulk of the space gibberish to the Brits and Americans in the cast.

***

Recently Robin Hanson wondered why last year’s arty supervillain origin story Joker was reviewed so much more negatively than Parasite, even though both are well-made, well-acted films that deal with themes of poverty and class rebellion.

Among other theories, Hanson proposed that left-leaning critics resented being asked to sympathize with Joker’s “white male lower class” antihero:

[H]e just appears culturally too close for comfort to their max disliked prototype of loud resentful gun-loving smoking “incels”, 4chan fans, Trump supporters, etc.

Whereas the poor family of Parasite, who insinuate themselves into the lives and household of a rich family, are articulate, well-mannered, upwardly-mobile Asians of the type that media folk are likely to be personally acquainted with. Although lower-class, to Western eyes the Parasite family are not culturally lower-class: in fact their apparently self-disciplined habits raise the question of how they wound up poor in the first place, as Steve Sailer pointed out in his commentary on Hanson’s post:

I really didn’t understand why the poor family in Parasite was inept at doing simple jobs like folding pizza boxes, but then suddenly turned into the Mission Impossible squad when they got a chance to edge in on the rich family.

This inconsistency is hardly unique to Parasite. Off the top of my head I can think of three famous American movies where poor people are elevated serendipitously into the realm of the upper classes:

  • My Man Godfrey, from 1936, in which William Powell’s garbage-dump-dwelling hobo gets a job butlering for a rich family;
  • The Million Pound Note, from 1954, in which Gregory Peck’s penniless American, granted temporary custody of the titular banknote, is promptly embraced by London’s upper crust;
  • Trading Places, from 1983, in which Eddie Murphy’s homeless grifter is installed in Dan Aykroyd’s cushy home and investment banking job.

In all these comedies, as in the semi-comedic Parasite, the poor folks prove themselves adept at mimicking the manners and customs appropriate to their new social positions. By contrast, when a movie concerns a rich person tumbled by fate down among the working classes – say, Ally Sheedy’s narcissistic scenester in Maid To Order – the role usually proves more challenging than he or she expects.

In My Man Godfrey the hero’s effortless mastery of upper-class etiquette is explained when we discover that he is a formerly wealthy man who let himself go after a messy divorce. The movie ends with Godfrey leveraging his recovered social standing to open a fancy nightclub on the site of the former dump, where all his homeless friends are taken on as bartenders and waiters and valets. As he puts it when pitching his scheme, “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.”

In a sense that’s true, but if solving poverty were as simple as offering poor people jobs, we’d have licked it long ago. (See point #5 here.) Joker is more realistic in this respect. Arthur Fleck, the mentally damaged hero of that film, can barely maintain the level of decorum appropriate to riding public transit, let alone butlering or investment banking. When Arthur confronts arrogant plutocrat Thomas Wayne, whom he blames for his poverty, we might wish the rich man were more sympathetic, but it’s hard to blame him for being standoffish when accosted by a twitchy stalker in the men’s room.

Like the poor family of Parasite and the dump-dwellers of My Man Godfrey, many of the men and women who spend their days slumped along the storefronts of Vancouver’s Granville Street would prove to be competent and valuable workers, if anyone would take a chance on hiring them. However, employers are understandably reluctant to gamble their reputations, their physical assets, and the safety of their other workers on the ability of their HR personnel to sort out the merely ungroomed from the drug-addled and deranged.

Like Arthur Fleck, these hard cases might feel, with some justice, that they were never really given a fair shot. Many of their problems could be mitigated with the right combination of therapy, medication, and cash freely disbursed. But even with their psychological and financial burdens eased, they’d still be stuck with all the unconscious habits, built up over years of scraping by, that would remind potential employers of the scuzzy, scary subculture to which they belonged.

***

Prejudice gets a bad name, probably because in many people’s minds it’s conflated with race prejudice. Most race prejudice these days is really prejudice against cultural markers like dialect, clothing, customs, and so on; when such prejudices don’t cross racial lines no-one worries too much about them. I can safely flaunt my contempt for mullet wearers, sozzled St. Patrick’s Day revellers, and inbred yahoos from West Virginia, but the rules are different for dreadlocks wearers, Puerto Rican Day parade-goers, and inbred yahoos from Waziristan.

Going by how often I find myself suppressing the urge to roll my eyes at my fellow citizens’ appearance and manners, I’m as prejudice-ridden as anyone. I try to override my prejudgements where they concern superficial traits like garish hair, outlandish clothes, or visible tattoos: I remind myself that, as a middle-aged person among the young, I’m a tourist in a foreign country, where the rules of fashion are different from my own. But where manners are concerned, it’s harder to know where to draw the line. Should I merely shrug and mutter à chacun son goût when I encounter someone littering, or pissing on a wall, or hollering obscenities – or should I adhere to my prejudgement that such a person is likely to be prone to other antisocial and criminal behaviours?

While I know that my prejudgements about the aforementioned denizens of Granville Street are, in many individual cases, wrong, it would be foolish to say that I can deduce nothing about a man’s habits and manners from the fact that I find him stretched out in a sleeping bag in front of Starbucks. People likewise make prejudgements about me. I was approached by two young women in a coffeeshop not long ago. “Would you settle a bet for us?” one asked me. “What do you do?”

“Do?” I said, puzzled.

“Are you a librarian or a professor?”

Based on my appearance – greying beard, rumpled cardigan, pen poised over a crossword puzzle – it would have been surprising if they’d taken me for an up-and-coming rap star, or a corporate lawyer, or a long-haul trucker. No doubt they could have ventured other guesses about my habits and personal history, some correct: I am a vegetarian with an interest in old movies who maintains an obscure blog; others flat wrong: I have only a high school education, my politics lean more right than left, and as for what I do…

“I’m unemployed,” I said through a tight smile.

“You’re a what?”

Un-em-ployed,” I icily enunciated. I could have told the girls (who giggled nervously and hurried away) that I was a writer, which would have been just as true and less embarrassing for all of us; but like most people I resent being stereotyped, even when I have invited it by knowingly presenting myself as a stereotype.

The world is marvelously variegated, and somewhere out there is an aspiring rapper who wears rumpled cardigans and enjoys crossword puzzles. In our daily lives we leave some wiggle room in our prejudgements to allow for such anomalies. Those who leave insufficient wiggle room, who draw conclusions too broad from outward appearances, will soon get a reputation for cloddishness; but those who leave too much wiggle room, who ignore or overlook the signals sent by strangers’ accents, clothes, and manners, will wind up stuck in a lot of pointless and frustrating interactions, and occasionally get themselves into danger.

***

Besides the practical matter of figuring out who’s who, it’s sometimes hard, when watching old movies, to tell what subtleties of behaviour and social class are being communicated by a character’s wardrobe and accessories. Why is the doorman giving that guy’s overcoat the cocked eyebrow? Is that dame’s low-cut gown meant to appear glamourous, or tawdry? What is the meaning of that hat?

When we’re introduced to Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note he’s clean-shaven, with slightly shaggy hair, and dressed in faded blue jeans, an open-collar shirt, and a black pea coat. Something like this:

robert redford three days of the condor pea coat

Some fella in a pea coat. Image source.

You caught me: that’s not Gregory Peck, it’s Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. Redford plays a low-level CIA analyst, a “desk-bound ex-military bookworm” who gets swept up in a spook civil war. He looks so sharp getting chased around Manhattan in his pea-coat-and-sideburns combo that a half-century later the film still gets referenced in fashion blogs like the ones linked above.

In The Million Pound Note Peck plays a hobo. Granted, his coat is somewhat shabbier than Redford’s, and he has neglected to flip up its collar, as pea coat suavity requires:

gregory peck the million pound note

Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note. Image source.

The difference is that The Million Pound Note is set not in laid-back mid-1970s New York but in uptight Edwardian London. We can readily discern Peck’s lowly social standing by how much less natty he is than all the other gents in the movie.

A couple years back, in another extremely discursive post inspired by Hollywood, I made the mundane point that a story is not a solid object but a cloud, whose shape varies when viewed from the perspectives of different cultures and eras.

When we repurpose old stories we gather in armfuls of cloud, believing we’re taking the parts that matter; but the further we are from wherever and whenever the story was created, the likelier we are to remake the cloud into forms the creator would find unrecognizable.

I gave as an example Spider-Man, who, whatever else may change about him – his costume, his superpowers, his skin colour – has thus far always been a New Yorker:

We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King’s adventures take place.

Like his pea coat, Gregory Peck’s accent means something to the plot of The Million Pound Note: when he flashes his banknote, waiters and shop clerks conclude that the shabbily-dressed foreigner must be an eccentric American millionaire, of the kind they’ve read about in the papers.

To the modern viewer, Peck’s American accent is obvious, if a little antique-sounding. (I have a friend, a native English speaker not much younger than me, who claims to have trouble following the dialogue in Hollywood movies from the 1940s and earlier.) But future film historians may have to resort to creative subtitling to get the point across, just as translators of Lysistrata or Cyrano de Bergerac must find ways to deal with characters speaking in Doric or Gascon dialect: should their speech be recast into hillbilly or Scots, or is that likely to confuse matters even more, by forcing new and incompatible stereotypes to stand in for old and incomprehensible ones?

M.

In November I gazed across the class divide on the patio of my neighbourhood coffee shop. Last May I chuckled as the hero of Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning mangled the vocabulary of yuppie enlightenment. In 2018 I discussed Steve Sailer’s Dirt Gap and one harried mommy blogger’s Trail of Tears.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker