A Few Cinematic Reflections on The Irishman and Parasite

Parasite Bunuel HeaderGreat films should be savored like fine wine/beer/whatever your flavor and experienced without hesitation and time restraint. I just saw Parasite for the third time and recently did the same with The Irishman – twice each in the theater and once on the very big home screen with fine Dolby accompaniment. Overkill you say – I say not at all. Time well spent, something new comes with each immersion – a fine film will reveal more of its secrets and pleasures each time it unreels. 

Much has been said about these films and it will continue after the award’s season is long gone. I have one particular thought for each, distilled from the twenty or so hours I’ve spent with storytellers Joon Ho and Scorsese. 

First, a response to an annoying critique of The Irishman by folks who feel it necessary to complain about something they do not understand. Then a sort of personal love of cinema note about Parasite.

I was talking with a good friend who writes screenplays about The Irishman, who wasn’t impressed with the de-aging technique that Netflix paid so much for and Scorsese says was the only way the film was going to be made. He watched it on a television. In the theater, as a film should be seen, it works. Most likely on a Macbook/iPhone as well. Who knows what’s going on with a television? Jeez, ‘nuff said about that.

Then he pointed out  a “serious flaw” in the performance of De Niro and – by extension – the directing of Scorsese. You’ve probably heard this one. Frank Sheeran, De Niro’s character, comes home from a hard day on the trucks and his daughter is moping, his wife is looking at him with worry. The guy at the little grocery store down the street “put his hand” on the daughter because she knocked some stuff over. Sheeran gets the daughter to confirm, takes her by the hand, marches to the shop, and puts a heavy beating on the guy. As he kicks the poor fellow when he’s down De Niro, the actor, and Sheeran, the character, has arms horizontal at the waist, his hands kind of hanging there, in a decidedly non-masculine and (implied) old person’s manner. The kicks and stomps are brutal, but the upper body doesn’t scream “youthful gangster”. In the scene Sheeran is probably in his forties. In real life De Niro was at that time most likely 74. The argument, which I later discovered seems to have originated in a well circulated critique of the film, is that you can de-age an actor with technology but Scorsese can’t get De Niro to really “act” like a young man. I didn’t see it this way on first screening, nor on third. It looked like a “real” beating to me, not a polished amped-up thing you would find in the work of a lesser director. But fine, everyone has their own opinions.

Then, not much later, I was rewatching some of Scorsese’s films and there, in the middle of Goodfellas, when by my math De Niro is 46, pretty much the same age as Sheeran in the just mentioned scene, comes a moment in a bar. De Niro, Pesci and Liotta’s characters are having a drink, when a just-released-from-jail member of a rival family, a made man, begins to make fun of Pesci. The scene escalates, as they do in Scorsese’s films, and Pesci slips out, telling De Niro to keep the guy there. So of course when he returns they give him a beating that will lead to him being stuffed into a trunk, driven upstate, shot when he refuses to die, buried and finally exhumed (though not in that plot order). So they kick away at him and the 46 year old De Niro, just like the 40ish year old De Niro in The Irishman, has his arms horizontally at his side, his wrists hanging down, his upper body not giving the viewer the “vigorous macho” look of a classic tough guy. It couldn’t be more similar.

Folks, it is a De Niro thing, not a de-aging “mistake”. It works in Goodfellas and it works in The Irishman. The scenes are shot in very different styles so it makes sense if somehow the critics “missed it”. The Goodfellas beating is all tight shots, in the the cramped bar, with only a few medium shots to show the results. In The Irishman Scorsese sets the camera in the middle of the street and gives it to us in one continuous wide master shot. But the character action is the same, age 46 or age 74. You want to knock Scorsese and De Niro please find something that is defensible. What they do with Frank Sheeran is about character and refusing to be a stereotype. For the stereotypes you see in third-rate films, you have to look somewhere else.

Parasite is a multi-layered success of story, script, image and acting yet critics again feel it necessary to knock it down and call it out. For instance an accomplished cinematographer I know felt it was “predictable” because during the “dinner scene” in the big house when the four intruders celebrate, he knew that, because it was raining, the owners of the house would be coming home early. Well, yes, we all knew that. This is how classic screenwriting works. It leads the viewer to inevitable conclusions based on clues in the script. We all feel smart to know what is going to happen but – and here is what a well-written script will do – we do not know when the event will happen. When will that door open, that phone ring, that text message go off? This is the nature of suspense and it is very satisfying when it is done well. Parasite does it as well as any film this year.

I love when filmmakers are inspired by other directors. Each generation passes on their inspirations and accomplishments – those who watch and listen to the past are in touch with something that is alive and is nourishment for the very act of creation. We say a film is like Hitchcock, or Tarantino, or Varda – pick your favorite master or mistress of cinema. I’ve had the great pleasure to meet many accomplished directors and actors over the years, including Almodovar three times and Antonio Banderas twice. Talking with Almodovar we seem to always come back to the work of Luis Buñuel, the Spanish master who’s brutal and surreal films spanned seven decades. I revere Buñuel and have not hesitated to bring him up – but I think Almodovar has mentioned him first as well. 

It was during the third screening of Parasite that the sound design and the brilliant use of classical music as motifs for the intruding characters impacted me in a conscious way. There is a new music motif each time the intruders begin to implement their plans. The musical soundtrack is a powerful and almost overwhelming presence in the sound design. When the original inhabitants remember dancing to the records in the sunlight of their past lives or when the layer of piano based classical composition swells over the snowfall/montage when the son discovers the wonders of morse code and has his fantasy, the film reaches a rare and powerful depth of sound and image. And it was during the third screening that I discovered Joon Ho’s nod to Buñuel’s rich influence. One influence, as a friend had mentioned, seems to be Kobe Abe’s play Friends, about a family that moves into someone’s apartment and won’t leave. But Joon Ho is a disciple of cinema history and analysis of his work bears this out. After all, he has created a black and white version of Parasite, just as he did with his earlier film Mother, doing shot by shot color correction with his cinematographer, all to honor that work that has come before him.

Buñuel’s 1960 film Virdiana is a striking inspiration. In this earlier film, the first he made in his native Spain for nearly 30 years, a naive woman invites the homeless into her large lovely house, unaware of what this would lead to. And destruction, just as it does in Parasite, ensues. There are clear parallels between the world of Parasite that trace back to Buñuel and his close collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere – A barely submerged threat of violence permeates Discreet Charm of the Bourguiose, L’age D’or, Belle de Jour and the original offender Un Chien Andelou.

Par dinnerVirdiana dinner 2

The dining scene of Parasite, in which the interlopers ravage their surroundings in a drunken and sloppy banquet, recalls the “Last Supper” sequence in Virdiana in which homeless men and women gorge themselves in a rowdy way on wine and food at the elegant dining table of the wealthy woman who let them in. 

In Parasite, when three of the intruders are hiding under the large living room table while the young home owners, in matching silk pajamas, settle into a night on the couch, we encounter the precise kind of crazy love that Buñuel and his surrealist compadres reveled in.

We shouldn'tGrabbing 2
The young, beautiful and rich home owners watch the rain fall through the massive glass wall, striking the American teepee to which their son has retreated. They settle into an intimate posture, she in his arms, as they lie on the narrow couch. The husband casually puts his hand on her right breast, fondling her through the silk pajama top. Concerned the son might see, she asks him to stop. But he can pull his hand away any time, he assures her. She continues to resist as he reaches into her shirt and massages her other breast. And when she inevitably gives in, it is with the most peculiar of phrases. Depending on the translation she asks him to either “circle the other way” or “do it clockwise”.

Move your head closer

Such an odd thing to say. (Not to mention that she soon pleads for drugs in exchange for sex). Buñuel, who’s work is steeped in the counter-logic of surrealism, showed over and over that L’amour Fou has its own logic. That is, no logic at all. Joon Ho has delved into the world of the surreal, the same world where ghosts come up from basements, ants swarm out of hands, people sit on toilets while dining, and lovers prefer to be rubbed in only one direction and not the other. There is no logical explanation. And for lovers of cinema it is very inspiring.


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