[13 March 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/funny-how/