Friday, September 26, 2008

Funny Games (2007)

Dir - Michael Haneke
Viewed From: The Couch


And I was just about to go download some John Zorn.

Let's see, is there anything I want to talk about apart from the coolness of the opening credit scene that lists MUSIC BY: Bach, Mozart, John Zorn? In a movie this full of gimmicks, explicit discussions of the nature of reality, and a willingness to fuck with the rich, there really should be something more to say. Director Haneke certainly wants to get you talking with his story of two sociopaths (played by an okay but hammy Michael Pitt and the Jokeresque Brady Corbet) who torture wealthy couples, but the presentation here doesn't match the ideas. Haneke probably does have a lot of interesting things to say about the nature of media, of entertainment, of class, of cowardice, but you wouldn't know it from this film.

Maybe if Funny Games had been committed to breaking down the fourth wall though a sustained involvement of interaction between actor and audience, it could have been interesting. But no, instead we get a few random moments when traditional narrative is broken up, moments that appear to be those when Haneke got bored typing the script.

Maybe if Funny Games was not the remake of an earlier film, I could have excused the failings of the film to an inexperienced director. But no, aside from one brilliant shot in the middle of the film, nothing here approaches the the clever and philosophical camerawork from Cache, the director's last effort.

Maybe if Funny Games hadn't drastically miscast the lumpy and ever-suffering Tim Roth as the husband, it could have resonated more. But no, we have to endure Resevoir Dogs 2, as Roth writhes around in the role of coward that, if Haneke wanted to be subversive, would have been cast with a leading man type.

And maybe I've been too desensitized (Haneke's point), but the violence wasn't much, powerful at times, but nothing that causes more than a few flinches, and tame in comparison to the violence and gruesomeness found in your average horror flick. Haneke's intention is to make you link your own desire to be entertained through violence to that of his sociopathic killers, but given that this particular viewer gets quite bored during violence in movies, the killers' sly intonation of "you're enjoying this too, aren't you" went unappreciated.

Of course, thinking about it, I'm probably not the intended audience for Funny Games. This was released by the main studio division of Warner Brothers (man it's been a long time since I've seen that logo), and was subsequently marketed for a wide audience. Why else re-do the movie other than the chance to get wide distribution in America? I don't think he was interested in making a film for critics or even for sophisticated adult movie goers, but instead making a film for Hollywood's bread-and-butter: idiot kids and shallow adults who lap up movies like the Hostel and Saw franchises. Lure the walking consumer dead into the theater for a few hours on the pretense that it's just another slasher film, but end up delivering a meta-morality play that associates the passive reception of senseless violence with it's perpetration. Hmm...

Well fuck. If that's right - that Haneke is trying to sneak in some severe cultural criticism to the people that most need it - then it's brilliant. And if it's brilliant, than I should really go back and change some of that earlier stuff, even if it is all still true. So what if the film is random and uneven; that's the point. This might not excuse Roth, but maybe (big maybe) it was a sly poke at America's premier director of entertaining violence. The movie might have done very poorly among critics, but that's because they, like me, were expecting something like Cache: a film that is made for patient, understanding, and attentive film goers interested in examining larger themes and characters through film. But Funny Games doesn't do any of that. It just strips away the music and stylized violence of bad Hollywood films to reveal what gets people in the seats to begin with - violence committed by the evil upon the innocent. Shit Michael, nice work!

The following point is condescending, but I wonder what the average Friday night movie-goer - one whose conscious interaction with film usually ends the second they hit the bathroom - thought of Funny Games. Did they get it? I would hope so, but I think Haneke's point will likely be lost. Instead of getting audiences to recognize their complicity in violence, it's more likely to inspire banal complaints (kinda slow) or worse, cheers. The fact that it only grossed a little over a million is a good sign that Funny Games missed it's target audience. Hell of an effort though, even if my latent "understanding" of Funny Games has provided me far more enjoyment than the film itself.

Well Sean, how'd you like that 180?


You certainly ended up at the right point, I think. There is enough going on in this movie to base a lengthy essay on the topic of violence in film and what attracts audiences to sit in a dark theater, or in my case on the couch, and watch an "innocent" family get tortured for two hours. That's a good question and one that deserves essays and films like Funny Games to kick the question around. Also, I think Haneke in fact delivers some of his most clever and philosophical camerawork in this film.

A trend in recent American films like Hostel and it's bastard children is to have the Ugly American abroad, brutish and unappreciative of culture and paying the price. It taps into our xenophobic nature, and exploits it. What can happen to you when you when you stray too far from home? A lot of these kinds of movies can accurately be described as exploitation movies and often start with a simple question or rote situation and they even used to have titles like Don't Go In the House! or The Hills Have Eyes! and featured normal people crossing a border, leaving the boundaries of their normal lives and entering the forbidden territory. Very xenophobic stuff that taps into a primal fear. Funny Games on the other hand flips that recipe on its head. The fear of helplessness and having the killer step right into your territory and crossing your borders. Interesting. Where's homeland security when you need them, eh?

Innocence is something Haneke loves to ponder, especially in Cache but to a good degree in Funny Games as well. The family in Funny Games is rich. Their trying to spend their first day at their gated, fenced in enormous summer home by the lake. At the beginning of the film they're playing possibly the most bourgeois traveling game ever invented -- name that classical tune. There's a lingering shot of the contents of their refrigerator, filled with the most expensive kinds of juices, water, and cuts of meat you can buy. The first ten minutes of the movie is basically showing you just how rich this husband, wife and pre-teen child are. There must be a purpose to that lingering shot of the refrigerator, right? There must be a reason we're dealing with such a well-off family, no? But just because they're rich doesn't mean they deserve anything bad to happen to them, right? Haneke may have some back story to this family (maybe they got rich by fucking over the poor or something) but I think their wealth is shown more to comment on how it can turn people into impotent captives. Gates and fences won't protect us from the dangers of the outside world more than they'll prevent us from getting help when we most need it. With money and leisure brings impotence is not a new idea (though it is one that was brought to vivid life quite fruitfully in Wall-E) but in the confines of a thriller like this is still packs a potent punch. What is more frightening than not being able to do anything to protect yourself or the people you love? Aren't the worst nightmares the ones where you find yourself stiff as a board and unable to move?

I feel I should come to the defense of the cast here. I admire Tim Roth a great deal. A good portion of the movie hinges on the unspoken husband and wife relationship between Roth and Naomi Watts who brings that same limitless performance she had in Mulholland Drive. I'm sure it was Roth's tenacity to work with the best directors in the business that got him the role. If you look at some of the directors of his movies for the past decade you have Herzog, Coppola, Wenders, you have an actor determined to work with the best. Having seen The Incredible Hulk this summer where he played an agent of destruction created by the military (the best part of the movie really), there was a certain kick in seeing him play an utterly emasculated man. Calling it simply Reservoir Dogs 2 is cutting his performance short. I don't know if anyone else in the business can play The Wounded Man with as much depth of character as Roth can. I agree there could be a sly layer added if he went for a more typical leading man, but even as he constantly makes sure the audience is aware they're being manipulated and that they're watching a movie, having a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt would have been unnecessarily distracting. Also I found the team of Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, playing a riff on Leopold and Loeb by going door to door in a lakeside community and killing the residents for no reason other than kicks, to be extremely effective and more memorable and iconic than the original duo. There's something special about Pitt, he's an actor that I'm fascinated by and another one that seems to be going out of his way to work with the best people he can -- Bertolucci, van Sant, Larry Clark -- all forward pushing film makers. Pitt has a disarming casualness to his acting style that I used to find off-putting in an un-earned confidence kind of way. But I'm starting to really come around to him since I re-watched The Dreamers recently and since Last Days refuses to leave my brain alone some two years since I saw it. That confidence is put to perfect use here and it's the most important performance in the entire movie -- if he doesn't come across as powerful and intelligent than it doesn't work at all. But it's a delicate display, Tim Roth has to believe he can give him a slap like he's a disobedient child one moment and the next he has to cower before him. Pitt pulls it off much better than ok.

On the subject of the fourth wall, I think the movie would have suffered considerably if the technique wasn't used as sparingly as it is -- only when we're about to embark on a new "game". Funny Games still does work as a horror/thriller movie. It still hits those nerves despite Haneke's jabs like these asides to the audience. Due to the intensity of the performances you still loose yourself in the moments and find yourself on the edge of your seat looking through the cracks in your fingers which is what any good horror movie should do and it's the reason why people like them, to fire those endorphins and to get those jolts in that part of the brain that goes off when you get frightened. At least I still did while watching this even when I knew what was going to happen. And I think a lot of people do and it's why some people will have that certain problem with the film. It works as a horror movie and yet it wants to question you every step of the way. It wants to have it's cake and eat it too -- and it does.

In a lot of ways, Funny Games is the anti-horror movie. You're absolutely right, there is little to no violence shown on the screen. I believe there is one all important slap and a couple kicks (I suppose we shouldn't count the moment that is rewound) and that is it - everything else is deliriously psychological. This is all due to the meticulous framing and technique that Haneke uses. It's like a bait and switch, everything that you would find in your average horror film is kept either in another room or just outside of the frame. The camera lingers when it should be cutting to what happens next and it cuts to something else when it should be lingering. Haneke turns the tables on you, which is what the entire movie is about, and he does it down to every last detail of the film. From the music to the camerawork to the role reversals to the killer making the audience complicit -- it's masterfully subversive and certainly one of the more difficult to enjoy great movies ever made. Twice.

I like to think that Hitchcock would love this version of the movie (having also remade one of his own movies). Funny Games was already one of the most perverse things ever made when it came out ten or so years ago. To remake it shot for shot and resubmit the film to the American audiences (unfortunately not under the main wing of Warner Brothers, but rather the now defunct Warner Independent banner, the demise of which I'm sure this movie played a part in) that are most complicit with eating this type of thing up (though the French are beginning to take over this market) is pure unprecedented provocateurism. Imagine after Cache, Warner Bros calling a meeting with Haneke and telling him, We'd love to be in the Haneke business, let us take care of your next movie, you can make whatever you want. And then Haneke gets that twinkle in his eye and decides now's the time. I'll remake my most audience un-friendly film -- I'll take this possibly once in a lifetime chance to give them the bitterest pill they'll ever swallow. Why not? In film these days, aside from Lars von Trier and a few others, the term provocateur was practically made for Michele Haneke.


So you really enjoyed the movie? As you were watching it? Hmmm......

Kidding aside, I think your review was honest enough to say a lot of things that upstanding critics felt reticent about. They were smart enough to know that Haneke was pulling one over on them, so they had to make sure that they didn't fall for the trap. It's funny, because your comment about Haneke "having his cake and eating it too" was exactly the criticism that came up most often at the time of the film's release - reviewers thought it was dishonest to make an intelligent film about enjoying movie violence that at the same time tried to be entertaining through violence. But that, as you mentioned, was the point.

As I said, thinking and talking about the movie have provided more interest than in actually viewing it, so I think it's a limited success at best (this might change).* I had initially keyed into the idea of this wealthy family trapped by modern conveniences like their gate and cell phones, but this, like so many other things, was sort of dropped. Yes we get the fridge and the classical music, but this was kind of a non-starter, unless you think Haneke is trying to associate the same fear of wealth that the Hostel folks are trying to associate with travel. It's pretty interesting, really, because if you follow through the logic of what you said about wealth as the captive, then this is a pretty nasty movie, and not in a good way. You posed the question of does the family deserve it, but don't really answer it. If the answer is no, which I think it is, then the lingering shot of the fridge is irrelevant. But if the answer is yes, then I think you have to say the critics have a point. Just because the target is a bourgeois families rather than sexually adventurous kids, it doesn't make the manipulation any less disturbing.

*My opening of the reivew is now almost a complete joke. I leave it up solely so that the rest of this thing makes sense.

There is a lot here (and in Cache) that also lead me to believe Haneke is working in the same tradition (with the same uneven results) of some of the best 60s and 70s European directors - Bunuel, Ferreri, Godard - in trying to undercut the foundations of what we would call normal civility. This is a very old story: that the rules of manners and decency are not some objective good but a very specific set of morals that favors a particular group of people. And in Funny Games it is in full display. After all, the killers are led from each victim to the next through polite introductions, and gain entry because of standard conventions. In particular, the scene when Brady Corbet tries to borrow the eggs is a masterful set piece in showing the progression of manners, as Naomi Watts becomes increasingly angry - not because she has lost a few eggs, but because her normal mode of action is completely useless. In fact, the crucial breakthrough when you realize something really bad is going to happen (if you didn't know it already) is not so much Roth's slap, but when Corbet comes back for eggs a third time. A silly and trifling thing in the grand scheme of things, four eggs, but it's completely believable when Watts flips her shit. And so maybe Haneke has also given us some good advice: long before our murderers become violent, they will be rude.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great movie and great article, thanks for sharing.