Entertainment

Column: Netflix didn’t win best picture, but ‘Parasite’ couldn’t have triumphed at the Oscars without it


None of the three acceptance speeches Bong Joon Ho made at the Oscars on Sunday night included a shout-out to Netflix, which is a shame; it’s tough to imagine “Parasite” making its much-deserved and historical wins at the 92nd Academy Awards without it.

Not because, as some have suggested, the antipathy many film academy voters feel toward the streaming service made them reluctant to bestow cinema’s highest honor on Netflix’s best picture nominees, “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story.” Netflix spent an estimated $70 million on its Oscar campaigns this year, a significant amount even by Hollywood standards, that resulted in 24 nominations and two wins, for the documentary “American Factory” and Laura Dern’s supporting performance in “Marriage Story.”

Bong certainly understands the ire Netflix can generate among academy members — he made his 2017 movie “Okja” with the streamer, and when it screened at the Cannes Film Festival that year, audience members booed when Netflix’s logo appeared in the opening credits.

“Okja” and “Snowpiercer,” perhaps Bong’s most universally known movies before “Parasite,” are currently available on Netflix, which has most certainly broadened the filmmaker’s popularity (his other pictures, including “Mother” and “The Host,” are scattered on other platforms), but that’s not how Netflix helped “Parasite” become the first film to win both best international feature and best picture.

The most important thing Netflix has done for “Parasite,” and the art of cinema in general, has more to do with television than film. By exposing its audience to a panoply of international television shows, including but absolutely not limited to, “Elite” (Spain), “Call My Agent!” (France), “Dark” and “Babylon Berlin” (Germany), “Kingdom” (South Korea) and “Atelier” and “Terrace House” (Japan), Netflix has made Americans comfortable with subtitles.

Which, as Bong said himself last month when accepting his Golden Globe for foreign language film, are “the one-inch barrier” that has prevented far too many people from exploring the wonders of non-English language cinema.

Netflix did its level best to break this barrier specifically for academy voters with last year’s “Roma,” for which Alfonso Cuarón won in the directing, cinematography and foreign-language (now international) feature categories, only to see “Green Book” take best picture. This year, the streamer had two acting nominations for the often, though not entirely, subtitled “The Two Popes.”

But more important, the streaming service has proved that all sorts of people, especially young people, are not afraid of subtitles, especially when they accompany story forms with which they are already familiar — police procedurals, workplace comedies and sci-fi thrillers.

When the 2010 Danish political drama “Borgen” premiered on KCET in 2013 (two years after it was made available to some American viewers through LinkTV), it was an instantly buzzed-about anomaly. Subtitles? On television? Later that same year, the French zombie drama “Les Revenants” appeared on Sundance TV.

The very first Netflix original series, “Lilyhammer,” revolved around an American gangster trying to find his footing in (and learn the correct pronunciation of) the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer. Not a huge hit, but big enough to launch Netflix into original content, and the international marketplace. That necessitated the acquisition and creation of series and films in many languages, all of which became part of the often alarming pile of content confronting American audiences (which, in some cases, had the option of an almost always inferior dubbed version.)

Other television platforms, streaming, cable and even broadcast, followed suit. Suddenly, subtitles were no longer the province of the (alas dwindling) art house, where audiences were often confronted not only with language barriers but also the complexities of Italian neo-realism, French New Wave, Swedish existentialism and other forms of high cinematic art.

Powerful, beautiful, important but not always readily accessible by a large population, many of whom are looking for entertainment to help them unwind, “foreign films” were often seen as too much work, like poetry or avant-garde theater. If you didn’t understand them, or you weren’t looking forward to a “let me impress my date” conversation about metaphor, tone, technique or whatever, you just wound up feeling stupid, and who wants to pay cash money to wind up feeling stupid?

Netflix, more than even the most beloved and elucidating film critic or even the increasingly international makeup of the motion picture academy, proved to a growing number of people that subtitles are not a barrier but a bridge — to people, situations and artistry that may look different but that share the essential desire to illuminate reality through storytelling. And, by the way, are also terrifically entertaining.

This is the world, with all its various beliefs, social quirks, manners of dress and social mores, its glorious smorgasbord of specific triumphs, injustices, heroes and villains. This is what we, the true collective we, look like as we solve crimes, compete with coworkers, fall in love, betray each other, contemplate the meaning of existence and the foibles of the human soul.

“Parasite” is a great film, with characters, themes and action instantly recognizable by anyone who has ever coveted what they perceive as the better life of another, anyone who has ever raged against the collective cost of the social hierarchy and the oblivion of those who ignore it, anyone who has ever thought that personal rule-breaking is mitigated by a greater and inarguable injustice.

Which is to say, everyone.

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