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“Upstairs, downstairs” is a common expression referring to an unequal, class-bound society divided between the rich and the poor.  It was popularized by a BBC drama (Upstairs, Downstairs, 1971-1975) set in the early part of the 20th century about an upper-class family living “upstairs” in a London townhouse above their servants “downstairs.”

“Upstairs, downstairs” is a common expression referring to an unequal, class-bound society divided between the rich and the poor.  It was popularized by a BBC drama (Upstairs, Downstairs, 1971-1975) set in the early part of the 20th century about an upper-class family living “upstairs” in a London townhouse above their servants “downstairs.”

Curator's

Commentary

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“Upstairs, downstairs” is a common expression referring to an unequal, class-bound society divided between the rich and the poor.  It was popularized by a BBC drama (Upstairs, Downstairs, 1971-1975) set in the early part of the 20th century about an upper-class family living “upstairs” in a London townhouse above their servants “downstairs.”

Curator's Feature

by Derek Lam

“Upstairs, downstairs” is a common expression referring to an unequal, class-bound society divided between the rich and the poor.  It was popularized by a BBC drama (Upstairs, Downstairs, 1971-1975) set in the early part of the 20th century about an upper-class family living “upstairs” in a London townhouse above their servants “downstairs.”

parasite_2_edited.jpg

“Upstairs, downstairs” is a common expression referring to an unequal, class-bound society divided between the rich and the poor.  It was popularized by a BBC drama (Upstairs, Downstairs, 1971-1975) set in the early part of the 20th century about an upper-class family living “upstairs” in a London townhouse above their servants “downstairs.”

Curator's Feature

by Derek Lam

“Upstairs, downstairs” is a common expression referring to an unequal, class-bound society divided between the rich and the poor.  It was popularized by a BBC drama (Upstairs, Downstairs, 1971-1975) set in the early part of the 20th century about an upper-class family living “upstairs” in a London townhouse above their servants “downstairs.”

This vertical imaging of class hierarchy – both literally and as a metaphor – can be seen throughout the history of movies, from classics like The Housemaid (1960) or The Servant (1963) to contemporary films that are part of our symposium such as ROMA (2018) and PARASITE (2019).

MEN

WOMEN

SYSTEM

MYTH/

DREAM

KIDS

HOUSING

INDIVIDUALISM v
​COLLECTIVISM

VIOLENCE

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Economists studying the problem of inequality from Joseph Stiglitz to Thomas Piketty have stressed its dramatic increase since the late 1970s over four decades of neoliberal economic policies, undoing the historical anomaly of a relatively equal meritocracy during the Keynesian mid-20th century and making upward social mobility nowadays increasingly an impossibility.

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Never mind climbing the social ladder: the incline is so steep today that it becomes a long slide downwards.  This shift in the zeitgeist can be seen when we compare the imagery of stairs in recent cinema to an iconic Hollywood film sequence from the mid-1970s, a moment shortly before the ushering in of neoliberalism when it was still possible to believe in the American Dream.

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Never mind climbing the social ladder: the incline is so steep today that it becomes a long slide downwards.  This shift in the zeitgeist can be seen when we compare the imagery of stairs in recent cinema to an iconic Hollywood film sequence from the mid-1970s, a moment shortly before the ushering in of neoliberalism when it was still possible to believe in the American Dream.

2019

1976

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2019

1976

Never mind climbing the social ladder: the incline is so steep today that it becomes a long slide downwards.  This shift in the zeitgeist can be seen when we compare the imagery of stairs in recent cinema to an iconic Hollywood film sequence from the mid-1970s, a moment shortly before the ushering in of neoliberalism when it was still possible to believe in the American Dream.

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The indomitable fighting spirit of Rocky in the celebrated training sequence (Rocky, 1976) where he triumphantly makes his way up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art comes from a time and place when it still seemed credible for a “nobody” from a working-class, ethnic community to stand up to money and big business through hard work and determination without being defeated.

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The indomitable fighting spirit of Rocky in the celebrated training sequence (Rocky, 1976) where he triumphantly makes his way up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art comes from a time and place when it still seemed credible for a “nobody” from a working-class, ethnic community to stand up to money and big business through hard work and determination without being defeated.

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Cut to today and the gentle incline and welcoming sunrise that greet Rocky give way to the dismal ambience and dauntingly steep stairs that Arthur Fleck (JOKER, 2019) climbs as part of his daily grind.  But there’s no way up.  Stairs recur as a motif that Fleck can only make his way down on: when he loses his job, discovers his mother’s mental illness, and during his dance embracing Joker’s persona.

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Cut to today and the gentle incline and welcoming sunrise that greet Rocky give way to the dismal ambience and dauntingly steep stairs that Arthur Fleck (JOKER, 2019) climbs as part of his daily grind.  But there’s no way up.  Stairs recur as a motif that Fleck can only make his way down on: when he loses his job, discovers his mother’s mental illness, and during his dance embracing Joker’s persona.

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INT. STAIRCASE TO BASEMENT -- NIGHT

In ROMA, the maid Cleo likewise descends a long, steep, and dimly-lit flight of stairs from the well-appointed mansion of the masters at a hacienda to the servants’ quarters during New Year’s celebrations.  Violence and death resulting from class conflict are alluded to, building up to the moment Cleo spills her milk-like pulque beverage, a premonition of her child’s stillbirth.

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INT. STAIRCASE TO BASEMENT -- NIGHT

In ROMA, the maid Cleo likewise descends a long, steep, and dimly-lit flight of stairs from the well-appointed mansion of the masters at a hacienda to the servants’ quarters during New Year’s celebrations.  Violence and death resulting from class conflict are alluded to, building up to the moment Cleo spills her milk-like pulque beverage, a premonition of her child’s stillbirth.

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And then there’s PARASITE: within the hilltop mansion of the Parks, a hidden staircase leads to the underground bunker where the housekeeper’s husband hides from debtors; the Kims, meanwhile, call home a semi-basement flat in a low-lying area prone to flooding.  In the film’s central set piece, the Kims make their descent from heaven to hell during a heavy rainstorm....

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And then there’s PARASITE: within the hilltop mansion of the Parks, a hidden staircase leads to the underground bunker where the housekeeper’s husband hides from debtors; the Kims, meanwhile, call home a semi-basement flat in a low-lying area prone to flooding.  In the film’s central set piece, the Kims make their descent from heaven to hell during a heavy rainstorm....

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