Thursday, February 07, 2008

Funny Games (1997)

Okay, I've now seen Cache and this, Michael Haneke's original Austrian version with the American remake coming out soon. I'll give him one more movie to prove that he's not completely heartless and smug, and then I'm done with him. Spoilers follow.

The plot of Funny Games is straight-forward. A middle-class family (including the late Ulrich Muhe, from The Lives of Others) is going for a weekend trip to their lake house, which is disrupted by two violent, psychopathic home invaders, a pair of charming young men. Torture and suspense ensues.

Now I'm firmly on record as being a fan of horror movies and movies that feature torture and violence and gore, when used the right way. And indeed, when Funny Games is operating as a suspense thriller, it's very effective: excellent performances from the leads, finely observed details, unfliching direction and camerawork. The third act of the film (out of four) is particularly strong, showing (SPOILERS) the husband and wife recovering after their son has been murdered and the killers have fled, trying to figure out what to do next, how to survive when the killers might come back. It works because the audience is allowed to firmly feel sympathy and compassion for these heartbreaking characters.

The problem is, Haneke repeatedly uses poor-man's Brechtian techniques - a character who self-consciously winks to the camera and talks to the audience, a gimmick that at one point allows the film to be 'rewound' to redo a crucial plot twist - for the purposes of drawing the viewer's attention to the cinematic artifice. Once again, I don't have a problem with cinematic self-reflexivity - when used the right way (see DePalma, Brian). Haneke's intention appears to be to indict the audience (that most tedious of film-school concepts) into analyzing their attraction to violence, and to refresh our sense of outrage, to prevent us from enjoying the spectacle in traditional ways.

That's not how the film actually works, though, if you ask me. By breaking the cinematic illusion, Haneke's effect is not to undermine our relationship with the violent spectacle of the film, but rather to undermine and mock our emotional connection with the characters and their victimhood. When Haneke shows a killer torturing a wife by forcing her to choose whether she or her husband will be murdered by shooting or stabbing, and then looks at the camera to ask, "What do you think?" The effect is to spit in the face of anyone who would have a normal, human reaction to a another's dehumanization.

Let me put it this way: if you kick me in the balls, and then say "just kidding!", you still kicked me in the balls.

It's as if Haneke is trying to undermine the entire narrative tradition, not just in film but in any medium, in which characters are developed, go through emotional rises and falls, and through their journey the author conveys meaning to the audience. The only meaning I get out of Haneke's smug manipulations are that audiences are fools for processing and enjoying conventional narratives, and while I'm all in favor of shaking up the audience, or confronting people with unpleasant stories to shake them up, I can't get behind Haneke's nihilistic, anti-cinematic agenda. As far as I'm concerned, the best way to make horrifying images impactful to an audience that's grown numb by Hollywood violence is to play it straight and honest, in films from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre to United 93. I don't need these post-modern head games to teach me how to feel when I go to the movies.

Anyone else? The guy keeps getting called a genius, so somebody must like his stuff.

PS: At least I also know that, if the remake is shot-for-shot faithful to the original, that at some point I can see Naomi Watts draping the world's worst sweater over a transparent bra.

15 comments:

Wreckin' Ball said...

Hey Jeff...

Funny, I was just thinking about this film the other day. Based on the reviews I've read, yours included, I've determined that I will respond to implications of audience complicty with onscreen violence by declining to see either the film or its re-make, ever. I'm sure Haneke would have a clever response, but I'm not going to watch (or be complicit in) that, either. Result: I win! Suck it, Kraut!

Jeff McMahon said...

I think Haneke's reaction to that would be to call you a bourgeois weakling. If this movie had been directed by Uwe Boll, though, he'd challenge you to a wrestling match. Not sure which is more insulting.

cjkennedy said...

I'm tempted to read this review, but there's a good chance I'll see the movie so I'll wait. Question is, should I see the original first do you think?

Jeff McMahon said...

Craig, I saw the movie because I'm kind of anal about seeing originals before seeing remakes, but a friend who (I think) has seen both says that the movies are basically identical, so it depends on if you feel like reading subtitles or not.

RoyBatty42 said...

Was wondering if you got banned from Wells' site as well. He removed a lot of posts from the Valentine Days reading thing and then seems to have blocked several people.

Just as well, after the COYLE incident I was already leaning towards leaving the site as these days it's only 30% film (the rest being politics & gossip-like navel gazing).

Of course, someone should call him on it - if you have thin-skin don't have a comments section, it's that simple.

Feel free to remove this, but I didn't want to use email.
RB

Jeff McMahon said...

As a matter of fact, I was banned by Jeff Wells from his site on Wednesday, over something really petty and juvenile. I made a reference to his age, which apparently he's massivelly insecure about. He indicated I could be un-banned if I apologized (which I didn't mind doing) and if I agreed to never bring up the subject of his age ever again under any circumstance (which is ridiculous and unreasonable).

He's a baby and I don't really mind because I've wasted too much time at his site in the last several months anyway. Someone else will have to tell Daniel Zelter that he's an idiot.

RoyBatty42 said...

So glad I made the decision early on to go with a handle on his site after Poland warned me following some early incidents. When it comes to films, he does know his stuff and it's refreshing to see someone with the access he has avoid pandering to the fan boy crowd.

But he does have this reputation around town (and A-lister PR acquaintance rolled her eyes at his name) for backbiting and just plain bizarreness. In person he's fine and you never want to burn a bridge, so I realized it was best to wear a mask online. One also comes to realize there is this pattern with people who are friends with him early on then shut him out.

Jeff McMahon said...

Intriguing, Poland gave you warnings regarding his site or Wells's? Apparently I'm too arrogant to learn that lesson and will continue to stockpile enemies as I make my name in Hollywood. Oh well.

A friend of mine who works in marketing at a mini-major (the kind of company who routinely buys ad space from him) says that he has a reputation in that world as well for being strange.

Daniel G. said...

Wow, I didn't realize subversive HE activity led to actual repercussions offline. Since I have no friends in Hollywood, I have no friends to lose. Of course I don't have any enemies to go after either, so no reason for attacks. I'll just continue to watch the fireworks form afar.

Nice prep in seeing the original Funny Games before the new one comes out. Like Craig I couldn't read it yet, but it might help me make a decision in whether or not I even want to see the new one.

J. Ott said...

If you go see it just to see Naomi in the transparent bra, Haneke wins.

Jeff McMahon said...

Life is too short for me to worry about whether being honest and opinionated with Jeff Wells and calling out his bullshit is going to hurt my Hollywood career. For the record, while I'm at it, Pat Dollard is an asshole too.

cjkennedy said...

I'm slowly an quietly weaning myself off of H-E. I've checked in on a couple of the movie-related items and commented on a couple in the last few days, but at least three times I've found myself writing something snarky and shitty and then just deciding to delete it. It's not worth it.

For a long time in the early days of my own blog, it was my primary means of pimping it quietly, but I think I'm really ready to let it go and movie on.

Jeff McMahon said...

Join me in exile! I went on and used an alias to post a few times, but it really is a waste of time. Wells is a smart guy, but he's a total hit-count hog at this point.

cjkennedy said...

I didn't comment at all yesterday and today I haven't even visited.

It feels good.

Matthew Lucas said...

I wouldn't call it "poor man's Brecht." Brecht would have loved this...much of his work was harsh and often borderline unwatchable...and I've been trained in the Brechtian style...trust me, it's just as hard to perform as it is to watch.