This past Sunday, on a lark, I drove past the part of Hollywood where they hold the Academy Awards. I say “part,” because something like a five-block radius gets shut down to hold the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre. It was quite an operation on the street, and interesting to watch. While some roads north were entirely shut down, another had a line of SUVs and limos waiting to pick up the attendees. Coming in from the west, the police were stopping and checking big box trucks and panel vans heading in, presumably to haul out equipment and stage dressing after the ceremonies ended.
At the edge of this no-go zone was a landmark of Hollywood architecture: Crossroads of the World. Built in 1936, it is a strange little outdoor shopping mall, supposedly the first ever built. It’s a bit of Old Hollywood, in the best respects, with its towering globe and Hollywood Regency garden apartments and pleasant jet-stream ocean-liner contours. As it is beautiful, unique, old, and intensely charming, it is currently being heavily redeveloped, with much of it to be replaced with soulless greedhead developer gallows.
But for now, still, at night, the neon comes on as it always has, crackling red in the night. And bathed in the glow is another crowd of people pushed to the edge in Hollywood on Oscar night. Unlike the movers and limo drivers streaming toward the ceremony, the many homeless Angelenos who find shelter near and around the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, next door to Crossroads of the World, will not evaporate into the night.
As of last year, nearly 60,000 people in Los Angeles County are homeless - living on the streets, in cars and RVs, in tents, along the LA River. Hollywood itself is a focal point for this tragedy, with around 2,000 of the ranks in this relatively dense neighborhood.
It is not a particularly novel observation to note that Hollywood is invaded each year by police, remolded into a stage of self-congratulation befitting the Hollywood dream factory, and transformed before dawn back into the slightly seedy tourist district it was the day before. Nor does it require too much insight to discern there is no similarly urgent, well-resourced, laser-precise initiative in housing and caring for the most vulnerable, traumatized people consigned to the streets there. But it is nevertheless an observation that is true.
Funnily enough, this year, around the time I drove by the people huddling on church steps, the Oscar for Best Picture went to a movie which seemed to grasp how wrong things have gone in the world. When I saw Parasite last year, I was shocked to feel that, despite the foreign language, the unfamiliar setting, the distinct cultural norms, what I was watching was a creative work of more relevance to my life than anything I could recall seeing produced in America as of late. There, in faraway Seoul, I saw my life in Northern New England, and on the West Side of Chicago, and as a child on Long Island.
The facts of life, as they are today in the world, are that after a couple centuries of what seemed like gradual emancipation, the lower classes of the world have been consigned to a series of basements, and must find themselves contented with whatever scraps they can pilfer. The courage of writer-director Bong Joon-Ho seemed, to the man himself, unremarkable. With a modesty not really found, for the most part, in Hollywood, he stated the obvious in one trade interview:
DEADLINE: From your perspective, is the message of Parasite for Korea, or something more global?
BONG: Very global, very universal. It’s almost everywhere, in any country. On the surface, there’s so many funny, very Korean details; so many Korean nuances. But it’s very strongly, firmly based on a universal subject and theme.
If I had to identify what I felt that theme was, it would be: shame. It is not often discussed that, in addition to the physical effects penury has on the indigent, they are almost invariably made to feel like it is their own fault - that their very existence is a shameful act, that to huddle on the sidewalks or under overpasses is a grievous act deserving of violent police action.
This extends right through to the American “middle class,” better described for the most part as “working poor.” A common belief I do not see discussed by many of the pundit class, when describing the strange and inscrutable minds of these working stiffs, is that such folks tend to despise welfare recipients with a passion scarcely imaginable. I suspect that’s because most writers pontificating on the subject never actually work jobs where they encounter such attitudes, the bar to entry generally keeping out anyone below the upper middle class. Regardless, the shame is again cast downwards, projected onto those poor who, for one reason or another, receive public assistance - lest it accrete around those wage workers and poison their own self-image.
Parasite brilliantly captured this instability, the constant fear that fresh misfortune could lead to a further tumble downward. It’s only fitting this is our “Best Picture” today; increasingly, poverty is becoming just such a middle-class phenomenon, as people who would never before have been homeless, people who may still even have jobs, fall into ever more precarious circumstances, victims of an out-of-control housing market.
This is the warped, warping nature of our economy today. The obvious, widespread hostility of our mainstream press and politicians to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders betrays to me no mere disagreement on policies, or tactics, or any gentlemanly dissent. Whatever your feelings on Sanders, the lack of proportion evident in any consideration of his proposed policies and programs - all of which have long been instituted in the most-developed countries on Earth - betrays the true anger his emergence provokes. I increasingly see Sanders as the avatar to such people - be they House Speakers, cables news pundits, or newspaper editors - of the vast, unwashed hordes. And in truth, they’d prefer those people go into the sewers, and die en masse, then ever trouble them with news of their existence and their pain ever again.
That, to me, is the best the liberal imagination can conjure in 2020, the ideology that gave us America and the Constitution and saw no contradiction between such stated principles and committing genocide and commissioning slavery. The Buttigiegian dream - or nightmare, as that psychotic, man-shaped Mentos commercial continues his march to prominence - is to reconstruct the Seoul mansion of the wealthy Park family, in Parasite - perfectly appointed, stately, modern, a perfect-looking, grassy villa on a hill. All it requires is the poor retreat to their cellars, the homeless, to shiver in the shadows under the neon lights of Crossroads of the World, built with such hope long ago that things might be better by now.