Rightwing Film Geek

Ha-ha

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FUNNY GAMES — Michael Haneke, USA, 2008, 5

Rarely does a single number so poorly sum up my reaction to a film as this one. It doesn’t mean, as “5” usually does, that I think the film is passably mediocre, with good points and bad points in about equal proportion. I’ll be writing about two such “5-grade” movies next. Not this time — FUNNY GAMES is a brilliantly done thesis that frankly flirts with moral depravity (and in a certain sense, it simply IS depraved). But there’s one big honking question that I never got satisfactorily answered:

Why?

funnyhaneke.jpgHaneke himself, who I count as one of my three favorite foreign directors (the Dardennes and Von Trier being the others), made this movie 10 years ago, when he was still a barely-known director in Austria. And I don’t mean that he made another movie titled FUNNY GAMES; I mean that he made, to the extent that one can, the exact same movie, with nary a change in the shots, in the angles, in the decor, in the story details. I’ve seen the Austrian movie twice — it’s #4 on my 1998 list, though it only moved up on a second retrospective viewing.¹

But FUNNY GAMES, whether 1.0 or 2.0, is a deliberately repellent movie — a couple of well-mannered and -dressed teens insinuate their way into a bourgeois family’s vacation home and proceed to play a game of tormenting them, unto death. And the point … well, there isn’t one, and that’s the whole point really (which is ultimately what makes this morally-indefensible film morally defensible; it’s as morally ugly as pointless nihilism should be). Haneke denies all meaning, all narrative logic, all social criticism, all context to its violence — in fact, the film explicitly mocks those very ideas.

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He even refuses the pornographic pleasures of violence itself since the “money shots” are all offscreen and seen only in their effects — it’s all psychological torment in which the dread of the family as it realizes what is happening matches our uneasiness at watching this spectacle and the futility of our efforts to assign it meaning. The only real “pleasure” either film offers, though it’s a considerable one IMHO, is the spectacle of Haneke’s formal mastery and masochistically being under its control. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that so explicitly identifies its director and its audience with different onscreen characters and then have those characters be so explicitly and radically differentiated.

However, that’s when the film, either version, is viewed “meta” or viewed as discourse. Because viewed as a film-on-its-own-terms rather than a thesis, the only morally acceptable response to FUNNY GAMES is to walk out, as Haneke himself has said, which is part of why the current version has inspired such a hate-filled reaction. At a certain level, if the film weren’t widely reviled, it would be a failure.

funny2invaders.jpgThere are some casting problems in the American version though. Michael Pitt as the lead invader is not Arno Frisch (i.e., he didn’t star in BENNY’S VIDEO and I think that matters) and Brady Corbett as his companion looks too much like Pitt (Frank Giering didn’t look at all like Frisch) leaving an inadvertant impression Haneke just doesn’t like round-faced dirty-blonds (vjm gulps). But more importantly, Pitt also is far too naturalistic when he delivers the camera asides that are *absolutely crucial,* in fact the film’s whole raison d’etre because they are what turn the film into discourse. And he also isn’t sarcastic enough when saying things like “he came from a broken home” that while, not Brechtian asides, are clearly intended for the audience of FUNNY GAMES in the theater — “do you actually think this morally disgusting movie would be improved if I told you some such claptrap?” Haneke says. To be effective, these moments have to throw you out of the movie. In fact this is why The Moment late in the film (and if you’ve seen either movie, you know what I’m talking about … the air is let out of the audience) is such a moment of perverse and perverted genius — it’s the ultimate indication of how arbitrary and “closed” a completed film is. Speaking vaguely, and to use a metaphor from another audience member that I refer to below, the invaders cannot lose the game. But the director can’t either, because he created and controls the universe of the film.²

But given that they are the same movie in every important respect, though, the American film never transcends it basic redundancy. It cannot give a convincing need for its own existence in a world in which the Austrian film also exists (and yes, I do wonder what my opinions of the two films would be if I had seen it in English first and German later).

When asked “why?” in interviews, Haneke himself has been pretty consistent: he wants Americans to see it and sees movie violence as an American. But then, that reduces the movie to getting a particular reaction from a particular audience. And at that level, FUNNY GAMES fails completely:

funny2watts.jpg(1) it’s not playing to “the audience” (in general terms) who didn’t see the original, instead showing largely at art-houses or limited-run theaters. It’s playing on eight screens in the Washington area, only four of which I would call multiplexes (the casting of Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt ensured this). It also happens to be doing poorly at the box office, not even cracking the Top 20.

(2) its point, and the only terms on which the film is morally defensible (i.e., as a meta-film or what Jim Emerson at the Sun-Times calls a thesis), is too elusive for the multiplex. The audience with whom I saw FUNNY GAMES had 4 other people, two groups of two … and when the movie was over, the four just looked at each other and said aloud among themselves “what was that all about.” They couldn’t make sense of the film until I did it for them.

And yes, I realize I’m citing box-office grosses, screen counts, and “reviewing the audience” — none of which I consider legitimate forms of criticism, except under this specific circumstance. Or rather, if a circumstance other than “a movie that has no reason to exist as a work of art but only as a means to reach a particular audience” would justify such approaches, I can’t think of it. So FUNNY GAMES has to be chalked up as a well-done exercise in pointlessness.
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¹ My first FUNNY GAMES viewing was my first exposure to Haneke and the film needs contextualization in his whole body of work more than most films do.
² … and parenthetically, how silly it is to praise a movie for open-endedness or supposedly freely putting ideas into conflict.

March 20, 2008 - Posted by | Michael Haneke |

8 Comments »

  1. This is an extremely minor point, but how are you defining “multiplex”? I just checked movies.yahoo.com for the greater DC area, and all 11 sites playing the film are multiplexes. By that, I mean that it is not playing at any single-screen theaters. I think by “multiplex” you mean “mainstream theater.” It’s used as a shorthand for “bland suburban theater” but using it that way (by anybody) always struck me as a sloppy shorthand.

    Comment by Adam Villani | March 21, 2008 | Reply

  2. Yes, I did mean “mainstream theater,” per usage rather than strict rationality. The Shirlington 7 obviously has seven screens, but I cannot think of it as a “multiplex.”

    Comment by vjmorton | March 21, 2008 | Reply

  3. I hated this movie. Yes, it was technically great, but I felt insulted by the way the director toyed with the audience. There is a review on rottentomatoes.com that sums up how I felt coming out of the movie: the director hates us.

    Comment by Chris | March 21, 2008 | Reply

  4. That’s not wrong, Chris. And actually, there’s a LOT of reviews at Rotten Tomatoes that say that.

    I know that sounds perverse, but FUNNY GAMES is the only movie I can think of that really “challenges/provokes its audience” (most of the time, when critics say that, it just means the film congratulates the audience/the critic for political or religious thoughts it/he already has)

    Comment by vjmorton | March 21, 2008 | Reply

  5. I saw the original FUNNY GAMES back around the turn of the century, and wasn’t impressed. Or rather, I was impressed, in a way: I don’t think I’ve ever despised a movie as strongly I do this one. (And since the remake is the exact same movie remade, I feel comfortable lumping them together.)

    I hated not only that the “bad guys win” (which after all happens sometimes in life), but that the director was bascially mocking us for wanting to see the family survive/turn the tables on those two sick, evil freaks. I honestly don’t think there’s any lesson being imparted here; I think it’s just an exercise in sadism on the part of the director.

    Comment by Andy Nowicki | March 21, 2008 | Reply

  6. I’d call a theater with 7 screens a multiplex even if it showed nothing but Tony Conrad and Stan Brakhage.
    (edited by vjm for typo)

    Comment by Adam Villani | March 21, 2008 | Reply

  7. Andy:

    I definitely agree that FUNNY GAMES is an exercise in sadism on Haneke’s part. I don’t think that means it has no point though. As I say (and even plenty of the negative reviews note, after their fashion), it’s an essay and thesis more than a movie per se. That said, I agree that you have no need to see the American version; and frankly, neither does anyone else as long as the Austrian movie exists — the reason for the 5 grade.

    Comment by vjmorton | March 21, 2008 | Reply

  8. I think these comments are missing the point. Haneke does toy with his audience, but the idea is to critique our need for violence as entertainment. In my opinion, Haneke’s “Funny Games” is as satirical as Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Was I angry at the film? Sure, because I understood as soon as Paul winked at me, that the joke was on me. As for the movie, I “roughed” it out waiting to see the conclusion while my wife badgered me to turn it off– was I stuck on violence, or was I making an honest attempt to learn something?

    I think Haneke was also making a point that Foucault raised in “Panopticism”, which is the streamlining of discipline by institutions– we watch television and its onslaught of soundbites and quick imagery and “feel” ourselves somehow informed, but are we any the wiser? Hollywood promotes passivity by promulgating action flicks that are always bigger, faster and more– kind of like the way Rome curbed the rougher edges of humanity’s rebellious, questioning nature by implementing Bread and Circuses.
    To use “box office” and “multi-plex” to critique the film only underscores my point.
    That people don’t understand the issue that Haneke is attempting to raise is frightening– “Like, where’s the violence, dude?”
    Interestingly enough, my wife was a work a few days later when a co-worker mentioned that he had seen the film and didn’t get it. My wife laid it out for the guy — gee, I actually have to “think?”– He thought about what she said, but still thought it was a crappy movie– where’s the “entertainment” value in critique?
    It hurts like hell to look in the mirror.

    Comment by Matt Harding | September 22, 2008 | Reply


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