Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2008

Funny how? Do I amuse you? Do I make you laugh?

Haneke's return to old territory sparks newly invigorated debate

Funny Games
Warner Independent Pictures
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet
Rated R / 1 hour, 47 minutes
Opens March 14, 2008
(out of four)

It was either a calculated provocation or a complete misunderstanding, one of the two. Allow me to explain:

The entries at the annual Sundance Film Festival are divided up into several categories. American dramas and docs are split up; their foreign counterparts, the same. Movies that already have release dates are in the Premieres section. The most experimental films have their own groups. And then there is the "Park City at Midnight" category, which is by-and-large reserved for niche horror movies - midnight movies for the next generation. Exploitation, sexploitation - you want it, that's where you'll find it.

Placed conspicuously at the center of the category at this year's festival was Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a self-reflexive examination of the relationship between a film and its audience, but framed as a horror movie. Indeed, the mechanics of the plot - an upper-class family of three gets methodically (and all too kindly) captured, tortured and killed by a pair of extraordinarily polite home intruders - suggest that it belongs in that group. And the marketing plays along, serving as a litmus test for audiences who crave the thrill of sadomasochistic horror.

Of course, Funny Games is not that - and, in fact, works very hard to subvert all of the conventions that we have come to expect from horror, in any form.

That's where the major divide comes in -- between those who think it's shallow or wrongheaded manipulation and those who think it's brilliant. I happen to belong in the latter category, but a fascinating debate has been sparked on the subject, particularly in critical circles. Jim Emerson's great Scanners blog (blogs.suntimes.com/scanners) has had an excellent ongoing discussion on the subject.

Emerson, the editor of RogerEbert.com and one of the best voices on film you'll find, awarded Funny Games a mere half-star (on a four-star rating system). His review is a great read, even if I profoundly disagree with his conclusions.

One of the fundamental issues I have with the way some people have perceived Funny Games is the insisting on lumping it in with the "torture porn" films like the Saw and Hostel franchises. Such comparisons are absurd - are, in fact, completely missing the point. A film like Hostel and a film like Funny Games are polar opposites. Their intentions and strategies for their intended responses are completely at odds.

The most important thing to note about Funny Games is that virtually all of the violence takes place off-screen. The two young men (including an Oscar-worthy Michael Pitt, by the way) unassumingly slip into the vacation home - under the guise of needing to borrow some eggs - and just as unassumingly begin to gradually torture their captors.

It's more emotional than physical, but when it does become physical, we don't ever actually get to see the violence being committed against them. Contrast that with, for instance, Saw, where the entire point is to see just how gruesomely the filmmakers can kill people, and just how much you will enjoy it. "Torture porn" (already a tired phrase, I'm aware) is capitalizing on our ability to be grossed out and horrified yet simultaneously amused and, worse yet, involved in the carnage we're so gleefully egging on.

With Funny Games, Haneke shows us exactly how we are involved, but doesn't give us any payoff. To explain how far he goes to make sure we don't get the visceral catharsis that we want and/or expect, I would have to spoil a major event in the film - so I won't say a word. Those who have seen the 1997 original know exactly which scene I'm talking about.

The film takes the same approach toward nudity, especially as fits in with the cinematic culture of violence. There is a scene in which Naomi Watts' character is forced to strip naked in front of everyone, an act of complete humiliation. She does so because she has to - but we never get to see it. We remain on a close-up of her face the entire time she's undressing.

To reinforce Haneke's message about the way we react to the violence we take in (embrace it, anticipate it, love it?), Paul (Pitt) periodically addresses the audience itself - be it with a sly smile or an actual query about what we think is going to happen next, or what we want to happen.

Haneke's not being subtle. But what makes it work is both his own cynical conviction to his calculated plans, and his performers' convictions. When Pitt turns to the audience, he's delightfully charming and genuinely scary - like so many movie villains we've come to fear and love. Only he's accosting us directly, insisting that, whether we like it or not, we are complicit. We want to be entertained, yes?

So, too, do the polite young men. In one scene, while the victims struggle, Peter (Brady Corbet), bored, turns the TV on. Paul decides to go into the kitchen to get himself something to eat. We follow him into the kitchen as the TV blares, he makes himself a sandwich, a shotgun blast kills someone in the other room, the TV continues to blare, and he goes about his business without a second thought. The symbols are obvious but it's a fantastically disturbing sequence of events.

Whether or not you agree with the totality of Haneke's message is not the issue - I, for one, do not. While I feel his can be a potent message (and one that has been examined with equal or greater weight by other filmmakers as well), it is only a critique - an insistence on putting certain things into context. It is not a definitive answer. What Haneke is doing is simply drawing attention to it and asking us to examine how we feel about violence and why - is that such a bad thing?

Yet the torture-porn comparisons persist, with many accusing Funny Games of the same brand of sadism. How can that be? If it's sadistic at all, it's sadistic only toward those who get off on watching gratuitous, inhumane violence - not toward the victims themselves. Indeed, the very lack of violent, dramatic payoffs - the refusal to visually express any real sadism - is the film's purpose.

Some have brought up Natural Born Killers as an example of a film that tried to accomplish the same thing -- but that movie is actually the opposite of Funny Games. NBK satirized the media's obsession with violence, making it horrific and over-the-top by gleefully bringing us along on a relentlessly sadistic ride that was gratuitously (and scarily) engaging. Is Funny Games still an exploitation film? In a way, yes. But it takes a different - if no more subtle - approach.

There have been excellent arguments made against the film, and there have been arguments made that entirely miss the point. Some people are put off because the movie "thinks" it's so very, very clever when it might be only telling us what we already know.

I can understand that point of view being projected on a film. I've held the same view of certain films that many thought were intellectually or artistically clever, and I thought were mindless and/or shallow - among them Dogville, A History of Violence, Dead Man, Gabrielle, Irreversible, Saved!, thirteen, The Savages, just about everything from David Lynch (yes, even Blue Velvet), and even my beloved Godard's Week-End.

Emerson, in particular, brought up Rear Window and Psycho as more effective and more intelligent cinematic critiques of some of these same issues. What he neglects to mention is 1) in all likelihood, very few people who saw either of those movies came away with it having "learned" anything new about movies, about violence, or about themselves; and 2) certainly Hitchcock was banking on the films being used primarily for entertainment purposes, and crafted his films first and foremost to put his audiences on the proverbial edge of their seats - even if he was doing some rather fascinating deconstruction in the process.

I disagree in this case because, regardless of whether or not we may have already explored/analyzed the ethics and implications of violence in society - be it in reality or in entertainment - the fact is the vast majority of movies still only reinforce the same old conventions, for better or worse. I will not apologize for my love of many violent movies and many violent filmmakers, nor should anyone. But if we can sit through decades upon decades of revenge movies that reinforce the same form of distorted morality, then no one should begrudge Haneke for continuing to examine what it is we see in such movies - and why. Funny Games is cold and chilling in its attempt to reconcile art and ethics - and it's far more horrifying and disturbing than any number of other films with a higher body count. Even if it's not "brand new" (what is?!), there's no harm in taking another look.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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