Monday, March 24, 2008

Haneke's Funny Games

My emotions and intellect received a shocking jolt the first time I saw Michael haneke's Funny Games (1997). I knew nothing about the film going in, so I was understandably unprepared for the twisted games that were about to be played with my set of expectations. Naturally, I empathized, or at least sided with, the stereotypical bourgeois family, as they were (physically and psychologically) tormented by a pair of relentless young sadists who (as sadists tend to do) take pleasure in the family’s pain (and this very act was their only semblance of motivation). Even when the instigator, Paul, begins breaking the fourth wall—first with a simple look and later with blatant verbal address to the spectator—and the “game” is revealed to be Haneke’s game with us, I still naively desired to see the family overcome this villainous pair. Alas, Haneke’s broad intellectual exercise never faltered or gave in, and the family’s demise was the only clear trajectory for this film to head.

I had known Haneke by this point only by the far subtler Cache (2005), which in itself had one shocking moment that could have easily transposed for a number of moments in Funny Games. However, as I have become more familiar with his work (The Piano Teacher (2001), Code Unknown (2000), Time of the Wolf (2003)), it became evident that ambiguity and endings without closure were a deliberate and essential part to Haneke’s style.

Funny Games, however, stands in stark contrast to these other films because of the comparatively “obvious” way in which the film conveys its meaning. It still contains Haneke’s typically deliberate ambiguity (the boys are given no origin or motivation for their actions) and the ending brings no “satisfying” narrative closure (the boys, after killing the whole family, go onto play further games with other families, thus there is no significance to why this particular family is the one we watch), but Funny Games also seems to have very little subtext compared to his more restrained efforts. It becomes evident by the film’s end that it was not “about” the family or the boys, but was simply the filmmaker’s meta-textual exercise in deliberately subverting the normative audience expectations conditioned by Hollywood cinema (the protagonists do not win; in fact, they are helpless throughout), thereby making the spectator aware of those conditions. It is a commendable exercise—it tries to expand the possibilities of narrative by making us aware of the redundancy and similarity of so many films by breaking the “rules” that those films usually ascribe to. However, because of this deliberate approach, Funny Games is never more than an exercise—never a “film” in any traditional sense. It does not stand on its own within its narrative framework. It only “works” once the spectator understands its true intention.

Hanake has made clear his disdain for the “rules” that Hollywood (or simply “American cinema”) has created. He sees all his films as attempting to usurp these expectations and thus expand narrative filmmaking as an art form (Code Unknown does this by showing us only the scenes of a series of incidents that do not directly relate to the “narrative”—we see everything between the inciting incidents or “main events”). Yet Funny Games is his only film that seems to aim simply to subvert those expectations, and achieve nothing more. The rest of his canon, by contrast, have self-containing narratives, no matter how unconventional or ambiguous they may be.

Ten years later, Haneke has remade Funny Games shot-for-shot in English, with English-speaking movie stars. While many pondered, baffled, over why the hell Haneke would do this, I was ecstatic by the news of this remake. Haneke, after all, is not making a shot-for-shot remake of an American classic (like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998)), but a film most Americans aren’t familiar with. Haneke has defended his most recent film in the context that the original Funny Games (made in the filmmaker’s home country of Austria) was always an “American” film because it sought to subvert those very expectations created by mainstream American filmmaking. Thus, the Funny Games remake seeks to attract a typical American audience and give them a discomfiting shock to their senses (as I experienced with the first film). In this context, it’s not hard to imagine that, had the new Funny Games opened in wide release to packed houses, and all ticketbuyers left the film an infuriated mob, Haneke would be satisfied that his film achieved exactly what it sought to (and whatever exec at Warner Independent thought this was a good idea obviously has a huge respect for real talent, but s/he is a dumb, dumb businessperson).

And what a perfect time to release this in America! Funny Games aims to interrogate the way in which American spectators equate violence with entertainment, and many critics have pointed out the appropriate timing of imposing such an exercise during the tail end of a surge of nihilistic “torture porn” horror films. In fact, a trailer made for MTV.com edits the original trailer to make the film look like a torture porn horror flick (thereby “tricking” the ideal audience into the theaters) Needless to say, I eagerly awaited the release of Funny Games. I felt like I was inside on the joke, with Haneke, regarding the prank he was about to pull on the audiences, and I could be there, separated from the typical spectator who knows not what they are about to get into, and laugh hysterically alongside the filmmaker as angry audiences left the theaters.

But, as a friend of mine noted, Funny Games opened in limited release, thus sought out the “elite” NY/LA audiences that would most likely already be familiar with Haneke’s work. And in seeing the remake, I realized a glaring contradiction in Haneke’s rebooted exercise: if his intention is to subvert audience expectations by making a shot-for-shot remake of a film that subverted audience expectations, isn’t he merely delivering on exactly what audiences expect? Once one succeeds in changing audience expectations, they cannot be subverted by repeating the process in the exact same way.




Knowing exactly what is going to happen takes all the wind out of Haneke’s exercise. The result loses its shock value, as the alternative now becomes the conditioned norm, and process becomes not weighty and engaging, but redundant and even (I hate to say it) boring. I became numb to it all, as if I were an hour into seeing the gratuitous violence and gore of a torture porn: I just didn’t care anymore, and was biding my time until it was all over with.

If you know what you’re getting into, the film is devalued as a cinematic experience, yet it still carries some intellectual meaning, and I made some observations I didn’t realize the first time I saw the original. Here are some things I felt Haneke was trying to say:

1) When the son receives a bag over his head and the mother is forced to strip naked, yet the son has been allowed to witness the brutally violent attacks on his father and mother, the bag over his head works as an analogy of practices in American film censorship: violence is predetermined as more acceptable than simple nudity. Also, the notion that he needs to be censored from seeing his mother naked as not to disturb him, while he has already been exposed to several scarring incidents involving his family, is absurd; likewise, film censorship (the enforced ratings system) cannot successfully shield youth from potentially offensive material that is pervasive in all other forms of media, notably violence (this concept becomes evident when the son’s death results in blood on the television: the unavoidable nature of pervasive media violence). When the father urges the Paul and Peter to keep their language toned down in front of their son, it comes off as ridiculous, even comical, that the father would be worried of his son hearing some bad words after he has been involved with several incidents that would inevitably scar him for life.

2) The use of music in the film is sparse, but important. We are introduced to the family as they drive to their summer home, and the father and mother listen to classical music and categorize it according to year, composer, composition, etc. But this is interrupted with jarring heavy metal music, the type that goes beyond categorization and normal expectations on what “music” is supposed to be. This introduction is analogous to the film itself, as it aims to structure itself beyond the categorization ascribed to and conditioned by typical mainstream narrative filmmaking (I should note that I was not the first one to make this observation—it comes from separate writings by film scholars Brian Price and Christopher Sharrett). But when Peter (for no apparent reason) plays this same heavy metal music on the stereo as he hunts down the son, it is one of many ways in which Haneke shows that these two villains are in full control of where the narrative goes, as this music shapes the exercise they are taking part in (this becomes most evident when Peter takes a remote and rewinds the very film we have been watching).

Okay, observational tangent over.

I don’t speak German, so the language barrier of the Austrian original was essential to my experience of the first incarnation of this exercise. So when the original Peter addressed the audience, it broke the fourth wall, but did not remove me from the film (as it was intended to do), for the direct address was not as direct because I received it through subtitles. I don’t watch foreign films the same way I watch films of my own country. They often don’t abide by American “rules,” so I approach them with a different set of expectations (Haneke’s assertion that Funny Games was always “American” is now understandable). Thus, I was able to be fully engaged with the original Funny Games throughout, and therefore shocked throughout. But, in English, this direct address did take me out of the film. It made Haneke’s exercise all too evident, and thus I was not able to be engaged—and therefore, not able to be shocked—by it, because I suddenly found myself in the same objective position as Haneke himself (I noticed one minor difference between this and the original film is that Peter did not remind us of the film’s running time—no idea why).

It seems that after creating the deliberate schism between audience and screen, Haneke allows us to once again immerse ourselves in the film when the two young villains temporarily leave. In a hardly forgettable (in both versions) ten-minute long take of father and mother attempting to recuperate and escape while they have time, Haneke uses the uninterrupted nature of this shot to immerse us back into the illusion of reality, or suspense of disbelief, with which we experience most of film. Yet, even in the school of long takes, ten minutes seems mighty excessive for a scene in which relatively little “happens.” Thus, Haneke is not drawing us back into the film, but making us aware of the lack of temporal ellipsis that would normally be the form of such a sequence. Haneke refuses to let the cut spare us from the devastating helplessness and (simultaneously, by contrast) banality of the parents’ recuperation. As this sequence unfolds in real time, the mother and father do not plan a daring escape, but waste most of their brief window of freedom trying to blowdry a drowned cellphone back to life. After several minutes of this, father finally says, “We’re wasting time,” and even this takes on self-referential significance, as Haneke seems to deliberately be wasting the spectator’s time. Although this sequence may be a more “realistic” portrayal of this highly improbable situation, its meaninglessness becomes evident as one of Haneke’s less obvious “games.”

At this point, it felt like Haneke (a director I greatly admire) had taken several steps back in the intellectual (though self-righteous and pretentious) movement forward in his career as a filmic artist. As previously stated, his filmography since the original Funny Games has been a diverse, fascinating array of films that reveal engaging, original narratives while simultaneously subverting and expanding traditional rules of narrative. Cache, in particular, addresses some of the same issues of spectatorship as Funny Games (why do we watch? What are the repercussions of watching?), but through the fully realized, engrossing story of an anonymous spectator who sends the family tapes of uninterrupted surveillance of their house. The film works in two ways: 1) as an engaging, though very unconventional thriller, and 2) as an exercise interrogating the nature of watching movies. Why, then, did Haneke decide to remake a film that only achieves the latter goal?

The best way to subvert audience expectations is to not be so overt about it, to contain it within a seemingly traditional narrative structure. Take No Country for Old Men, for example. It’s not near as radically rebellious as Funny Games, and I argue it benefits for it. No Country seems to be a typical action thriller, a cat-and-mouse game of suspense between hunter and hunted. Yet it gives us an ending (one that infuriated many) that only thematically (not pragmatically) resolves everything that came before—the bad guy gets away, the good guys die (unheroically, off-screen) or retire, and there is relatively little closure.

Likewise, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is a remarkably similar villain to the young pair of home invaders in Haneke’s film. Chigurh shares with Haneke’s villains a deliberately ambiguous origin, an unclear motivation for the actions that propel the film (or at least a motivation that runs counter to narrative norms and stereotypes—Chigurgh’s “principles” are just as alien as Paul and Peter’s justification for their actions, which makes their lack of clarity clear when they rattle off obviously inapplicable—yet common, even stereotypical—motivations for villains in mainstream films), and, most importantly, an almost superhuman ability to control the events of the narrative. Both these film’s villains leave the narrative similarly as they entered: going about their filmic world with the will and ability to do what they want when they want to, with little obstacle. Chigurh’s casual escape from a devastating car wreck (that, if this were another movie, would have killed him) can be seen as analogous to Paul’s rewinding of Funny Games to revive Peter from a fatal gunshot wound: these villains are not meant to be three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood “characters” in the traditional sense, but symbols executed within the form of character to serve the film’s thematic need and inform the trajectory of the narrative. In a less obvious way, Chigurh is just as responsible for the subversion of narrative expectations in the film’s atypical ending as Paul and Peter are responsible for the same type of subversion throughout Funny Games.

I recently witnessed a close family member watching No Country for the first time, on the edge of his seat with an engagement in the story that I haven’t seen in his character for quite some time. Then he gave a loud, disappointed scoff once the end credits unexpectedly rolled. Another family member asked him, “What happened?” “Nothing!” he exclaimed in disgust. It’s as if this ending prompted him to forget his enjoyment of or engagement with the past two ours—he left the experience as if it never happened.

This is far closer to the reaction Haneke intended to get with the Funny Games remake (and arguably didn’t get): engagement let down by disgust/disappointment at the conclusion, or an angry ticket buyer leaving the theater. While it’s certainly true that many spectators came away from No Country with varying interpretations of/reactions to its controversial ending, these intense reactions have the potential to start a discourse with what we expect from films, thereby potentially expanding our narrative expectations beyond the “rules” dictated by Hollywood, just as much as they have the potential to divide audiences.

So maybe Haneke’s exercise didn’t work because other films are achieving the same end without merely being an “exercise,” including his own.


In an interesting twist, Ron Howard has expressed interest in remaking Haneke’s Cache, and enhancing its generic thriller aspect to appeal to American audiences (and will no doubt have a more conventional ending). I’m sure Haneke reacted to the idea gleefully imagining the Hollywood bastardization of his complex olriginal film that is to come. After all, Haneke wouldn’t have a career in breaking the rules if he didn’t take part in making sure they were still in place.

(Here are a couple of humorous postcards relevant to this post that a friend shared with me—they also take my uber-serious approach to movies down a peg or two.)



38 comments:

Will Clifton said...

spoiler alert would have been nice... LANDON. exercise failed.

j/k i know there's always spoilers and that movie looked too scary for my frail mind.

cool postcards

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