Monday, October 20, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 18 - Funny Games

#7 (Tie) - 7 Votes

Before I get into the problems I have with Michael Haneke and Funny Games, his 1997 meta-thriller about a family held captive and tortured by two sneering upper-class teenagers, I should acknowledge that the movie demonstrates his considerable skill at crafting scenes and moments intended to provoke his audience into questioning their relationship to onscreen violence. The film does an excellent job of putting us on edge even before its smirking Leopold and Loeb (they call each other a variety of names througout, but we'll go with "Peter" and "Paul") announce their intentions. The prolonged scene where they repeatedly ask to borrow, then "accidentally" break their neigbors' eggs plays brilliantly on the question of when vacationing couple Anna and George will be provoked enough to stop being polite. Here, as elsewhere in the movie, Haneke maximizes our discomfort by letting scenes play out in fixed, static shots that go on for much longer than average. After the couple and their son Georgie have been taken hostage, most of the movie's violent and dramatic moments occur offscreen, and it's very disturbing to experience some of the most brutal moments entirely through the reactions of other characters. He's capable of both wringing as much tension as possible out of a protracted, real-time attempt at escape and determining one character's fate in a coldly off-handed gesture.

Brian De Palma has said that it's important, with a horror movie, that the audience not know if they can trust the filmmaker; that's definitely the case with Haneke, and his precision and mercilessness would make him an excellent horror filmmaker if he were so inclined. Except that, according to Haneke himself, Funny Games isn't a horror movie at all, but a self-reflexive criticism of the representation of violence in movies. By denying us conventional dramatic payoffs and the keeping the worst bits mostly offscreen, the movie is meant to make us question the entertainment value we get from onscreen representations of violence. Many consider the film a layered, complex exploration of the negative influence of violence in the media; however, I find it frustratingly obtuse and self-contradictory, its detached style in the service of a didactic, scolding message. Worse, Haneke seems uninterested in examining his own role in employing exactly the sort of emotional manipulation he means to condemn, or how it reflects on his career-long tendency towards bludgeoning the audience with moments of brutality that, apparently, we're supposed to blame ourselves for reacting to. While I don't know if Haneke himself is truly sadistic, Funny Games often feels like a session with a dominatrix who believes that we're the true perverts and he's flagellating us towards moral enlightenment.

It's tempting to cite the many quotes where Haneke contradicts himself about the movie's intentions, but I'll stick to the evidence in the movie itself. So what are the supposedly brilliant devices he employs to make his point? The killers explicitly reference the fact that they're in a movie; there are a few points when one of them addresses us directly, like a psychopathic Zach Morris; and there's one scene where an act of violent retribution is undone by one of the characters picking up a remote and literally rewinding the film. The first two devices have been used repeatedly in other movies, often in more subtle and interesting ways; the last, frankly, is very silly. Not only does Haneke fundamentally not understand the psychological experience of horror movies, where even fans who primarily enjoy the blood and gore undergo a complex process of identification with both the killer and the victims - he'd do well to read Carol J. Clover's writing on the subject - but his methods of advancing his argument are actually more crude and obvious than many straight horror filmmakers' own approach to screen violence. There are countless examples of horror movies, from Psycho to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to most of De Palma's filmographythat demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of our relationship to cinematic horror than Haneke's, films that actually invite us to explore the nature of onscreen and real-life violence instead of punishing us for being interested in the first place.

I also have to take exception with Haneke's low opinion with fans of the genre - while, yes, some horror fans just want to see fucked-up shit (who are, ironically, largely responsible for boosting the movie's reputation), most of us are far more interested in exploring the subtext of the films than he gives us credit for. This includes those of you who will disagree with my take on the movie and, I'm sure, are capable of intelligently explaining why. I must remind you, though, that Haneke himself famous said of Funny Games that "Anybody who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does" (presumably, anyone who saw his shot-by-shot English-language remake needed a double dose). So one might argue that those who praise Funny Games are the depraved ones and, as I think it's well crafted but kind of stupid, I'm actually demonstrating greater moral enlightement (though not as great as Michael Haneke, because nobody is as enlightened as Michael Haneke, obviously). Put another way, anybody who doesn't need my thoughts on Funny Games stopped reading two paragraphs ago, and anyone who is still reading does. And all of us need Michael Haneke's fake Twitter account.

U.S. Release Date: March 11, 1998 (Also released that weekend: The Man in the Iron Mask, Chairman of the Board)

What critics said at the time:

"Symptomatic of the fascist mindset is the self-righteous application of a strict code of civility from which the ruler himself is naturally exempt. Thus, Haneke despise's the mass audience's pleasure in make-believe mayhem while demonstrating his own capacity to dish it out. The most honest aspects of Haneke's movies is the evident satisfaction the director derives from the authoritarian aspects of his position - demonstrated most spectacularly in Funny Games when the worm, as it were, finally turns. The wheel is rigged so that only Haneke can win." - J. Hoberman, Village Voice
"'Funny Games' is an intellectual's suspense film, which ultimately tries to critique and demystify violence. But, since our responses are never all cerebral, that's not entirely possible. Especially with villains like these: Giering, amusingly, recalls the lumpishly likable Beau Bridges and Frisch's sang froid suggests Patricia Highsmith's 'Talented Mr. Ripley' (and Alain Delon in the film version, 'Purple Noon'). The beleaguered family is truly sympathetic, especially Susanne Lothar as clear-headed wife Anna. And the form is so transparent, the storytelling so expert, that this film becomes unnervingly lucid. We always know where we are -- even if we're on the road to hell." - Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

1 comment:

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