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Thursday, Mar 13, 2008

In many ways, Funny Games is arthouse for the aesthetically stunted, a 2008 too cool for school signpost to unwarranted hipster status.


Like getting smacked in the face? Of course not - no one does. Aside from the physical pain and assault, there’s the demoralizing effect on one’s dignity and pride. Such an attack is a psychological affront, a meta- and physical reminder of every bad time you’ve ever had, every bad thought you’ve ever harbored. Yet this is the exact sensation one gets after suffering through the pointless ‘revisionist’ thriller Funny Games. While Austrian director Michael Haneke may be doing little except revamping his 1997 foreign language film for US distribution, this shot for shot retelling of a family vacation gone gangrenous is actually an outright assail on audiences.


You see, Haneke dislikes America. He specifically hates our love affair with violence. He believes - and perhaps, rightfully so - that we are obsessed with it. He thinks we get a vicarious, even erotic charge out of seeing individuals suffer on screen. He’s stunned by the brutality leveled in the name of entertainment and he thinks that such a sickening bloodlust needs a direct and slightly sarcastic denunciation. The result? Funny Games. In the serial killer playing mind games narrative, the filmmaker fiddles with genre expectations. Actions happen off screen or in long, laborious takes. Murder is undercut with cruel humor. Our heroes are weak and our villains smug. And above all, all sense of right and wrong is retrofitted into an ambiguous, grossly dissatisfying cinematic arrogance.


It’s clear that this director would love the above scribed dressing down. He sees similar criticism as the proper effect of his film. He wants viewers to question the logic and logistical set-ups. He begs that we fall for the formulas and champion the stereotypes. He wants to peak our inherent sense of vigilante justice and bemoan the lack of true criminal comeuppance. In part, this is aggravation as overly intellectualized confrontation - like creating a monster movie only to filter it through a partygoer’s everpresent camera POV. But the disastrous element of Funny Games is this blatant obviousness. Instead of trying to fool you with the preplanned perspective, it simply stands there and sucker punches you - again, and again, and again.


It’s the main facet of the film, and one that has both intrigued and repelled critics. Some have praised Haneke as taking a brave, even bravura tactic. By making the audience’s own reaction as important as that of the characters onscreen, Funny Games breaks down the fabled Fourth Wall and turns the viewer into a participant in the pain as well. Their distress and unease is all part of the maker’s intention. But this begs a significant question - does a filmgoer really want to be made uncomfortable? Now, we are not talking about the intrinsic reaction that comes with most genres - comedy/laughter, horror/fear, melodrama/sadness. Funny Games is not working in free association. It’s about rubbing your nose in your own morbid curiosity and enjoying the sour smell.


Again - is that a viable element of the motion picture artform? When rape is depicted as part of a director’s vision, some find it powerful. Others feel it’s provocative. And there are those who see it as exploitative, unnecessary, and gratuitous. Haneke seems to be suggesting that murder - one of Funny Games and the movies in general most fervent pastimes - be treated the same way. Of course, our cultural love affair with violence means that we have to be tricked into taking notice - thus his “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” approach. By busting through convention, this director wants you to acknowledge it. By thwarting your anticipated reactions, he hopes to undermine you appreciation of dread.


Yet all of this fails to address the initial premise - is it something cinema should do? Is something that is essentially amusing supposed to trip up our sensibilities so? The answer appears to be generational. Those raised on traditional ideals despise this kind of grandstanding self-centeredness. A filmmaker should never call direct attention to himself or his style - unless your name is Hitchcock. It’s like explaining the joke before you’ve told the set-up and/or punchline. But the younger demographic of movie lovers, the ones raised on hours in front of the VCR and endless premium cable reruns dig this new breed of brazenness. They will mistake a con job for con artistry and scream for more, more, more.


These are the Funny Games apologists, the ones reading way more into the movie than probably exists. They don’t mind the tension breaking asides directed to the audience, or the moment when a remote control literally rewinds the action to benefit the bad guys. To them, it’s all manipulation with a purpose, a full disclosure dance between the old guard and the fresh faces. But there is a flaw in this reasoning, something that stems directly from what Haneke wants to do. When a child suffers a horrendous shotgun blast, his viscera strewn around the living room set like so much Leatherface graphic design, Haneke keeps the event offscreen. Yet we still see the gore, the insinuation as nasty as seeing the act itself.


Then there’s the other brutality. Legs are broken, women defiled (if only psychologically), and animals are rendered into lifeless heaps. Haneke never once avoids a single one of these senseless shocker moments. Sure, we may have to experience the majority of the mayhem indirectly, but seeing a gaping wound or canine corpse remains standard scary movie procedure. To really give us the goose, Haneke would have kept everything out of sight - the body blows, the asexual strip tease. A dead child would have been a sonic cue only, a last act drowning a mere mention between murderers. But that’s not good enough for Funny Games, and the reason why stands as the film’s final undoing.


Haneke is not making this movie for free. He’s not selling his celluloid sermon via a self-run website and a homemade DV-R dynamic. No, he’s got a top flight Western cast (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts), a major studio (Warners Independent) push, and a great deal of ‘then and now’ comparative publicity. While he may claim his movie is all about the message, the truth is it’s all about the money. You don’t cast Dawson’s Creek level actors like Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet unless you’re trying to trade on their youth appeal, and you don’t stress the “darkly comic” edge of the story in ads to try and trap the over 40 crowd. In many ways, Funny Games is arthouse for the aesthetically stunted, a 2008 too cool for school signpost to unwarranted hipster status.


Besides, the movie is reprehensible, obvious, polarizing, uninvolving, and in the end, a waste of talent and time. And even with all that being true, there will be those who stand back and praise such problems. It’s one thing to take a strong statement against violence and its cultural commercialization and translate it into an equally powerful work. It’s another to take the symbolic stance and have the audience do the majority of the heavy lifting. Funny Games is a farce and Michael Haneke is the fully clothed foreign film emperor. Unfortunately, the blood staining such threads is not insightful. It’s insidious. 



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Thursday, Mar 13, 2008

The new Horton ‘toon may be state of the art. But it’s great virtue isn’t the 3-D animation. It’s the good Doctor, whose writing about Whos never goes out of style.


The good news: Horton Hears a Who is a keeper. At least, Roger Moore thinks it is. And after Mr. Moore’s recent pounding of Ben Stein’s Expelled, I’m inclined to believe him just because he’s just so very cool right now. Moore’s view is such that while the animation in the new film, and its performances from Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, are first-rate, the film works best because it keeps Seuss’s facts vs, faith themes:


It’s as if Seuss, the late Theodor Geisel, was straddling two sides of the “faith vs. facts” debate, and coming down against willful ignorance and narrow-mindedness in general.


Travis Nichols at the Seattle P-I liked the film, too, though his summation of the themes within is a lot simpler: It’s about standing up for what you believe in. The Washington Post are fans, but Desson Thomson wonders if Seuss’s message has been too watered down:


In the McCarthy era in which the book was written, people saw pointed commentary in its depiction of the fascistic qualities in the people of Who-ville (who refuse to believe there is a world beyond the mini speck of dust on which they live), and Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) made clear his displeasure over the antiabortion movement’s canny politicization of the book’s best-known phrase, “A person’s a person no matter how small.” In a subtle but effective way, the movie sounds a central message: We shouldn’t be tone deaf to other people’s realities.


He ends up referring to the film as sweet, but guileless.


More vocal in their displeasure, the Canadian Press appreciated the whimsy, but felt it was far too drawn out:


There was barely material enough for the 1970 half-hour TV version of Horton Hears a Who! so imagine the stretching and stuffing that went into this. Everything Horton does drags on rather tediously.



So, Moore’s love is not unanimous, but, at the same time, few reviews I’ve come across are out and out Grinch-style pannings. Even the bad reviews note just how much this new film tries to make its point; tries, you might say, to eradicate The Grinch from our memories by actually having a point at all.


Check out Freep‘s look back at past Seuss adaptations. And while you’re at it, go here to check out five things you didn’t know about Dr. Seuss. My favourite? Did you know Dr. Seuss invented the word “nerd”?


I’ll report on my Who experience when the film opens in Australia later this month.


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Thursday, Mar 13, 2008

This essay by Lauren Berlant at The Nation, about how we denigrate sex in the public sphere, is a good example of something I sort of agree with but the way it’s expressed makes me want to repudiate it and come up with a counterargument.


If her point were that sex scandals reveal how social attitudes about sex are used to control what sorts of relationships people think to create for themselves, I would be on board completely. But she is claiming that sex scandals are at root about erotophobia, the fear of sexuality because of its alleged ickiness. And that just seems flat-out wrong. First of all, prostitution may not even be a primarily a sexual matter, anymore than pornography is about sexuality—they are both expressions of power and control through sexual means, with the sexual overtones serving only to make the thrills of power seem more salient.


And people are not scandalized by Spitzer’s having sex. If anything, they are excited and titillated by the sex in the story. Sex scandals make good press because people love having an excuse to talk about sex in a public forum. If the public is offended by anything, it may be by his breaking the law in a highly hypocritical fashion and spectacularly violating the social contract he entered into by getting married. In the coverage of scandals such as these, sex itself is not made to seem morbid and unnatural, as Berlant argues, but instead it’s the rejection of approved forms for intimate relationships—that one would dare to ignore the strictures of the nuclear family—that is pathologized. That is where the shame is, not in sexual activity itself. Berlant makes it seem as though the problem is that people aren’t having enough sex; but it’s the use of sex as a social tool to control the sorts of relations people can have or even consider having.


This is the graf that annoys me particularly:


Nonetheless, I’m just saying, I really like sex. We have no idea what sex would be like in a world that saw it basically as a good. A weird good. A good that can tip you over and make you want to do strange things. A good that can reveal your incoherence, your love of a little disorder, your love of a little control (adjust the dial as you like). A good that can make you happy, for a minute, before the cat starts scratching the corner of the bed, or the phone rings, or the kids mew, or you’re hungry and sleepy, or you need another drink or the taxi comes.


That last line could describe a beer or a cigarette or Wii. What about the sexuality that’s not conceptualized as a reified product to be maximized quantitatively? What of sex that’s not a part of the experience economy—which is what prostitution is simply the ultimate expression of—but is instead a lived-in process that has no rigid boundaries, that expresses the curiosity that fuels an active attitude toward life’s constructive possibilities, that isn’t just something you do to distract yourself from work or everyday hassles?


Anyway, society approves certain modes of sexual expression precisely because the power of sex is so respected. In fact, that power is cultivated—that’s what Foucault seems to be arguing in The History of Sexuality. The power of the sex drive allows it to be an extremely useful tool in structuring social institutions and systems of control. Sexual morality is not an expression of a “fear” of sex; it’s a honing of sex’s power to dictate the shape of people’s lives. And many welcome this—they are following these scandals carefully not out of horror but out of the satisfaction of seeing sex’s cultural power reiterated. To oversimplify a bit, prohibitions make sex more intense and exciting. It reaffirms that we are right to be thinking of sex so much and that it’s appropriate that sex appeal is used ubiquitously to sell products.


That’s why it’s hopelessly utopian and likely counterproductive to wish for a “world that saw [sex] basically as a good. A weird good.” It’s too powerful an impulse to be ignored in the formation of social institutions. It will always be structured, and therefore regarded instrumentally, not as some end-in-itself, some independent good. For it to be “playful” in the way Berlant yearns for, it must exist within a game with rules. “Who knows what sex could be if people were encouraged to enjoy it as play rather than as a drama,”—but isn’t drama a form of play?—“a genuine test of recognition or tool of unwanted control over selves and others.” I don’t know, but I’d venture this guess: To wish for a world that left sexuality unstructured socially would be to yearn to see sex stripped of its power and made into a mundane, natural and inevitable, strictly personal process, akin to going to the bathroom. And then it truly would be icky.


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Thursday, Mar 13, 2008



Photos and Text: Mehan Jayasuriya




Despite their legendary status in certain circles, Leeds, England’s the Wedding Present appear to have only played once during SXSW this year. Was it worth the flight over? Ask just about anyone who was in attendance for the Wednesday afternoon set at Emo’s Annex and you’ll likely hear that it was. Performing as a two-piece, the band turned in a number of earnest, stripped-down readings of songs spanning their 20-plus year career. “That bloke peeking over the fence there thinks he’s getting a deal,” frontman David Gedge said pointing to a man peering over the top of the fence. “He doesn’t know that this is free and everyone is welcome”. What Gedge didn’t know, however, is that the venue had reached its capacity and large line had formed outside—and rightfully so. While the band’s half hour set felt like a tease, Gedge promised that the band will return to tour the States—as a full band—in the fall.



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Thursday, Mar 13, 2008

Photos and Text: Mehan Jayasuriya



Just a day after the release of their excellent new LP Alopecia, Oakland’s WHY? turned in a matching performance at Emo’s, breathing life into Yoni Wolf’s gloomy, desperate narratives. Performing as a four-piece, the band played some of the best hip-hop-meets-psych-pop tracks of off both Alopecia and 2005’s Elephant Eyelash. Live, as on the band’s albums, Wolf’s presence is by turns intense, endearing and unnerving.



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