Allegories are stories where a sociological, historical, religious, or political theme is seen through the primary theme or story which provides an aesthetic presentation for the secondary theme. One theme does not equal the other; there must be an analogous structure of ideas and events paralleled in both. The parallel and analogous structures of storyline are what makes an allegory work. Outstanding aesthetics are what makes an allegory memorable.
Fight Club scene with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, courtesy of Den of Geek
Consider the still controversial film Fight Club directed by David Fincher and released in 1999. The movie was a box office and critics’ flop. Later, with the DVD release it slowly became a cult movie.
The surface story traces the friendship of two men who become members of a secret society of “fight clubs.” The fight club is like a self-help group but with blood. One friend is an insomniac addicted to self-help groups and cannot find a mate. The other is a sado-masochistic anarchist.
The film was interpreted by society with two diametrically opposed allegories. The first allegory comments on the debasement of masculinity, consumerism, corporate culture, and the American Dream. The film triggered a second and misogynist interpretation featuring themes suggesting that men are in a spiraling downward identity crisis and must return to “better days” when it was socially acceptable for men to be violent and where women were seen but not heard.
The subsequent sub-cultures Fight Club spawned are disturbing.
Night of the Living Dead scene with lead Duane Jones and unidentified actor, courtesy of BFI
In 1968, director George Romero released Night of the Living Dead which is now so revered that it is often referred to as a manifesto for the modern horror movie.
The surface story is the home invasion by a mysterious community of zombies.
However, as we always try to point out at Cedarhurst, when we study art, pay attention to the historical moments from which the art emerged.
Night of the Living Dead appeared during one of America’s most tumultuous years – 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. George Wallace ran for president. Nixon was elected president. North Korea seized and held hostage the entire crew of the USS Pueblo for a year. North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive. The H3N2 flu virus turned into a pandemic leading to a million deaths worldwide. The Democratic National Convention turned violent as police clashed with antiwar protesters.
Romero’s movie was credited as an allegory reflecting the racial and political turmoil in America at the time. But the film became an icon not for its allegorical reading but for its first-rate aesthetics. It overturned conventions; it wasn’t set in a gothic castle with bats and cobwebs. It dramatized the average, everyday farmhouse that could have belonged to anyone.
The lead role went to black actor Duane Jones and this too broke convention.
Romero upped the ante again by making his zombies flesh-devouring creatures. This was read as society cannibalizing itself, an aspect many felt was already happening across the nation.
The combination of ground-breaking directing, casting, writing, and cinematography led to an understanding of Night of the Living Dead as breaking genre molds while reflecting its times in innovative and allegorical ways.
Parasite scene with Choi Woo-Shik (son), Park So-Dam (daughter), Song Kang-Ho (father), Jang Hye-Jin (mom), courtesy of Movie Insider
My third selection may be too complex to summarize adequately as director Bong Joon Ho has perhaps allegorized allegory. Parasite could be a (humorously dark) synonym for allegory. As a parasite is a creature that lives inside another taking its nutrients from the host, so the allegory functions by one story living inside the host story.
Bong’s film Parasite debuted in 2019 and earned the Oscar for Best Picture and a Palme d’Or.
The surface story is a poor family scheming to replace the tutor, housekeeper, and chauffeur of a wealthy family. The movie morphs seamlessly through comedy to horror tale to epic tragedy to an ending with yet another aspect of life to consider.
Perhaps what made this film so intriguing is the way Bong presents his themes—class, status envy, aspiration, materialism, the family—by showing an allegorical comparison, but leaving resolution with the viewer. No judgements are made by the director. For example, you see both the wealthy and poor families exhibiting the same tendencies, but extenuating circumstances complicate resolution. It’s complicated and brilliant to watch the stories interlock, unfold, and interlock again. Bong called it “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.” “I’m not making a documentary or propaganda. It’s not about telling you how to change the world.”
And it is Parasite’s convention-breaking excellence of the directing, story-telling, writing, acting, cinematography, set designs, and production values that make the film such a cultural and aesthetic phenomenon.
Without outstanding aesthetics allegories and movies would be just another story.
This blog is research for the upcoming Cedarhurst exhibition The Rapport of Beauty: Book Design by Ken Botnick & Collage by John Fraser opening May 15.