Rightwing Film Geek

The world’s greatest pure director comes to DC


The American Film Institute’s Silver Spring theater will have a complete retrospective starting Saturday of the films of that man, Michael Haneke (yeah, yeah, he’s only made eight theatrical films — but they ARE all here, so it IS complete). But yes, that’s the Michael Haneke to whom my blog header refers. The Michael Haneke who is simply the best pure director in the world — the moniker I’ve consistently used about him for several years.

I’ve seen all eight of the films in this retro, and every one I’d rank 8 or 9 (curiously, no 10s, though). I’ve already written quite a bit about Haneke. I reviewed TIME OF THE WOLF for The Washington Times here in a piece that was also a expanded, edited and slightly reworked from the 4th capsule that I wrote at the 2003 Toronto fest. I also reviewed CACHE for the Times early this year. I wrote a short capsule on LA PIANISTE for a private board after seeing it at Toronto in 2001. (See the heavily-cached material here and here and here) On that same private board, referring to Haneke as the world’s best “pure director,” I was challenged on what I meant by that by Adam Villani. Here’s what I wrote in response, which collects all my thoughts on why this man is such a master, with a formal control of the medium that is nothing short of staggering. It is slightly edited, and with a few clauses added in italics.

There has been no doubt in my mind for a couple of years now that Haneke was the answer I’d give to “best director in the world,” even though Von Trier has the 10-grades on Haneke by 4-0. But now that you ask … I honestly had to think about this for a while and then look at a few Haneke clips to answer your question, Adam.It’s that Haneke seems to have the most precise, ever-present and complete formal control over his movies of any director I can think of. He both frames and defines his images perfectly (i.e. what he shows) and makes great creative use of offscreen space and sound (i.e. what he doesn’t “show”). And yes I do realize that, by these lights, a great mannerist like Haneke (or Dreyer or Hitchcock or Kubrick) is by definition a greater director than a perhaps equally great artist with a more naturalistic style (say, De Sica or Renoir or Hawks).

For example, at the start of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT, you don’t see a human face for about 10 minutes, but you DO see continual (and often jarringly cut) images of things and stuff, while family conversation goes on like a rite. He’s baiting a trap about the framing (Heidegger’s “gestell” and don’t think that’s not part of Haneke’s point) of the world, that he pounces on in the second half in a near-identical set of shots of stuff, only having other kinds of behaviors performed upon them.

There’s no greater tribute to how masterfully Haneke builds dread and fear in FUNNY GAMES than the realization that there’s almost no blood in this movie and almost all the violence occurs offscreen (though often with offscreen sounds). Haneke also uses offscreen sounds, both short, piercing sounds and long, low sounds — think also the glass-in-pocket from LA PIANISTE, Binoche ironing clothes in CODE UNKNOWN, the various radio shows in SEVENTH CONTINENT and BENNY’S VIDEO. Everything in FUNNY GAMES is in how the two thugs are framed, increasingly obtrusively throughout.

There is a 10-minute unbroken shot in FUNNY GAMES, one of the greatest in film history, in which nothing really happens, but the placing of the four or five key elements in it, the very slight movements of a couple of them, the utter stillness of the frame, the silence on the soundtrack gives you nothing to do but reflect on what has just happened, how you now feel, the catharsis achieved and the loss therein. The subway scene in CODE UNKOWN and the cabin confrontation at the start of TIME OF THE WOLF have a similar tightly-wound tension to them. Meanwhile, the similar appearance of fire on the horizon in TIME OF THE WOLF, incredibly, seems to have almost the opposite effect, yet it doesn’t really because of all the associations Haneke brings to that style.

Then there’s the way the central crime in BENNY’S VIDEO is shown — the shot selection and the setting has the inevitability of a mathematical proof and conveys a whole universe of Oliver Stoneisms in 2 minutes (I’m being vague here I realize … I really don’t want to spoil the utter surprise of the crime for anyone; it’s almost identical in come-out-of-nowhere effect to CACHE’s best-scene winner in last year’s Skandies). Haneke portrays commodity exchange, several types of them, in that movie, and somewhat in THE SEVENTH CONTINENT as well, in a rhymed, consistent manner — from above, in one-second shots, still frame, cuts on movement within the frame. It gives a busy-busy, clinical, antiseptic quality to the alienation of labor.

In CODE UNKNOWN, he cuts off nearly every single-take scene in mid-line, a jarring, uncomfortable gesture that, like nearly everything in Haneke, calls attention to itself. He uses slo-mo and reverse to vicious effect in BENNY’S VIDEO and FUNNY GAMES. He also plays with cinematic convention and mixes in other styles for meta-purposes (the heavily edited material Binoche is performing in CODE UNKNOWN, the documentary pig footage and the TV shows in BENNY’S VIDEO) and to call attention to his own style as a deliberate provocation, as a choice, and a psychological tool. He’s playing the audience like a piano.

Basically, the reason I would say Haneke is the world’s best pure director is that nothing enters his frame except as he wills it and every thing you see you know you were meant to see, to see that and no more and no less. Even if you don’t *like* the results, I just don’t see how there can be any denying Haneke’s formal mastery, his pure director-ness.

At the time of writing that, CACHE had not been made and I had not seen 71 FRAGMENTS OF A CHRONOLOGY OF CHANCE. But nothing I have written about Haneke was altered by them. He’s been fully formed in his aesthetic and themes from the very beginning of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT.

Haneke’s the heady, brilliant misanthropic director of your worst nightmares, the director who gets under your skin (I deliberately chose that picture of him for that reason). He’s a combination of Hitchcock, Bunuel and a pedantic German philosophy professor. We get the extreme formal control (airless and stifling, say those who don’t like the two men) of Alfred, combined with the bourgeois-baiting and sadism of Luis. Haneke has the same interest (obsession, say those who don’t like the two men) in the dark thoughts and sins of men. I think LA PIANISTE is more than this, but it certainly has at least the surface appearance of a denunciatory catalog of perversion — a Kino Krafft-Ebing. I also mentioned Heidegger above in re THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. There’s undoubtedly a cold, chilly, forbidding tone to Haneke that seems so utterly Germanic.

His two great themes are “communication” and “intervention” in all their senses — social, foreign policy and familial — and the way souls are constructed by the media age. So, unlike Hitch and Bunuel, Haneke often attacks his audience and assumes their complicity. FUNNY GAMES, for example, is a film to which the only moral response is to walk out because it offers absolutely no catharsis and absolutely no point (or rather, it starts to do both and then … well, let’s just say I’m looking forward [sic] to seeing it with as full an audience as possible). Now the fact that FUNNY GAMES has no point IS the point, but it’s only discernible or meaningful in a meta-way. I described CODE UNKNOWN this way in private correspondence with a skeptic:

In one paragraph — CODE UNKNOWN is about the first dramatic scene (the street altercation) and all the reverberations of that one event in the lives of the principal parties. It’s like watching a hand grenade explode and then following all the shrapnel. Thematically, it’s united by the theme of intervention, broadly construed, i.e., to what extent are we (or are we not) our brother’s keeper, not just military intervention (though the latter is there too). It’s also about how is this duty constrained by communication, or more properly the refusal and/or inability to communicate. It’s not a perfect film (some of the material in Romania is a bit pro forma), but it’s also formally dazzling. Wasn’t it awesome when we finally go to a conventional editing pattern and it turns out it’s a movie-within-the movie? I guess you think not.

At his best, Haneke disturbs you more than he “entertains” you; he’s not anybody’s idea of “good time” and communicating with him presupposes a certain amount of emotional masochism. So … see as much as you can stomach, because Haneke’s style makes its greatest effect when seen in a theater. Incidentally, I really DO intend this post to be a recommendation for a favorite director, but I don’t want to create false illusions. A co-worker saw CACHE on her own based on my Times review and some conversations I’d had with her since Toronto. When she left the theater, she actually called me on her phone demanding to talk about CACHE. It’s not that Shibani was driven insane or anything; she said it was just not the kind of movie that you could leave behind without discussing and making sense of your emotional reactions.

Unfortunately for me, the only film I can definitely go to that I haven’t already seen in a theater is FUNNY GAMES (so I will move hell and high water for that one). But one interesting thing about this retro is the order of the films. It’s not chronological and does “front-load” Haneke’s (relatively) better-known films and give them more weekend slots. This is a business move no doubt, but I think it also happens to be the best way for people coming fresh to Haneke to get acclimated to him. There’s some overlap but, measured by premieres, the order is CACHE, 71 FRAGMENTS, CODE UNKNOWN, LA PIANISTE, FUNNY GAMES, BENNY’S VIDEO, TIME OF THE WOLF and THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. Move WOLF up to before 71 FRAGMENTS, and this would also be IMHO, the approximate order of the films, starting at the top, in terms of emotional accessability.

August 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

My weekend plans

From Thursday to Sunday, I’ll be at Arlington’s Rosslyn Theater for Slapsticon, a festival of slapstick comedies, mostly from the silent era (with live musical accompaniment), with some films from the early sound era. You don’t have to be a complete dork and plan on spending all four days, and so I encourage anyone in the DC area (or anywhere close enough for a day trip) who has an interest in classic films to come sample at least one of the programs.

The festival is deliberately programmed against the obvious stuff you can get from a good video store or rental service — the canonized classics of Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and the Marx Brothers. Not that OUR HOSPITALITY, THE GENERAL, CITY LIGHTS, THE FRESHMAN, SPEEDY, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, ad infinitum, ad gloriam, aren’t masterpieces. Of course they are. But as the Slapsticon FAQ puts it: “The films being screened were chosen precisely because they can’t (yet) be seen on cable or video.”

But Slapsticon is the festival to really dig deep … to find out what *else* you like, how much there is to love and enjoy beyond the Big Four. To see your first Larry Semon, Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane, Max Linder, Max Davidson, Garvin and Byron, Our Gang, Fatty Arbuckle. And the real obscurities like Ton of Fun, or Ham and Bud, or Dane and Arthur. And to see highlighted the supporting performers like Snitz Edwards, James Finlayson and others. And to make discoveries.

I wrote a bit about Slapsticon after last year’s fest. Here are some other discoveries:

  • Like many film geeks, I had the received notion that Buster Keaton’s career ended with sound. It definitely went into decline, and he never again reached his silent pinnacles. But at the first Slapsticon, there were several of Keaton’s talking shorts, and one in particular, GRAND SLAM OPERA … well, just read the review at the IMDb. At the end of what the reviewer describes (correctly) as the TOP HAT parody, when Buster finished his dance, the audience let out a burst of spontaneous applause, as if everyone was just *happy* with the reassurance that Buster still had “it.”
  • I have literally had my breath taken away by the sheer athleticism and grace of Lupino Lane, a British music-hall star whom I had never heard of before Slapsticon became an annual fixture. And the physical durability of Larry Semon. And what a reliably awkward bourgeois everyman Charley Chase was (here’s G-Money on him). I’m looking forward this Slapsticon to seeing more of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, a team who perfected the husband-and-wife domestic sitcom in the 10s, meaning their influence stretches to this very day.
  • Being immersed in the material also gives you a real sense of the general run of films. So when I saw CURSES!, a Mack Sennett parody from 1924, at Slapsticon 2 in the context of seeing a bunch of other Sennett slapstick and other stuff from the teens, it went from being an amusing film to being gut-bustingly funny. You also find out that so much of your received notions of film and entertainment history (and just-plain-history) just ain’t so. For example, seeing a large program like this gives the lie to the notion that such supposed pomo curses as parody, self-referentiality and textuality (plus such late-capitalist rentierist practices as product placement) are features of a decadent “late” cultural phase.
  • In addition to silents and some sound shorts, last year, the organizers expanded their temporal reach forward last year by showing a rare Danny Kaye feature, and they plan to do the same this year, with a Bob Hope film (other than the familiar ROAD movies) accompanied by one of his rare shorts, and some Ernie Kovacs TV shows. I can’t say I thought THE MAN FROM THE DINERS CLUB was a great film, but I was glad for the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to LET’S FACE IT, CALLING ALL TARS and the Kovacs selection.
  • In the something-for-everyone department, families have brought their kids before, and, provided they’re young enough and innocent enough (or been immersed in it), they’ve generally seemed to enjoy Slapsticon to the limits of their time-endurance. Each year the organizers have devoted the Saturday morning slot to cartoons (Max Fleischer, Betty Boop, early Tex Avery, some of the early live-animation mixes, etc.). This year and last they’ve had special programs of kid comedies, following on Slapsticon 2’s having Jean Darling of Our Gang as guest and an appropriate tribute program, which also really went over well. Like, I had no idea Judy Garland was the *second* act of Mickey Rooney’s career … did you? Silent films have a freshness and innocence to them that kids entertainment today generally doesn’t have.
  • Another ongoing feature has been been discoveries and new prints — last year a new print of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (even for films that have minimal “plastic values,” there’s no substitute for seeing a good print in a theater) and HEAD OVER HEELS, a Mabel Normand film long thought lost. In that “slot” this year, Slapsticon will show the silent version of WELCOME DANGER, the film Harold Lloyd had nearly finished making when he had to rework it as a sound film. I’ve seen the talkie; I can’t wait to see what Lloyd wanted to make.

That was longer than I intended, but … that’s my plans for the weekend and I intend and expect to have a great time. See you there, I hope.

July 17, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Sincere artifice


DANCER IN THE DARK — Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2000, 10

This film, the best of 2000, finally won Von Trier the prize he had been craving a bit too openly for the taste of many, the Palme D’Or at Cannes along with a Best Actress prize from Icelandic chanteuse Bjork. And he won over a damn impressive competition field — SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, YI YI, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, CODE UNKNOWN, and FAITHLESS all made my Top 10 for the year they won US release, and CHUNHYANG nearly did. Other people I respect (though not me) loved EUREKA and ESTHER KAHN, and I’ve yet to see the highly-regarded DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP and GOHATTO.

dancerhands.jpgThe plot is pure 30s Hollywood melodrama — mother works multiple jobs to save enough money for an operation to save her son from the same Movie Disease that is causing her to lose her own sight. She fantasizes music to relieve the misery, until she loses her job and then all her money is stolen. And then things start to go bad. DANCER is very similar to BREAKING THE WAVES in style (the same washed-out look and dizzying handheld camera for the drama scenes) and in its general “Lives of the Saints book” story arc (although worship of God is replaced by worship of Hollywood musicals, and love for a crippled husband is replaced with love for a son going blind). The musical scenes themselves are shot in a quite different style from the drama scenes, all on static digital cameras, with an oversaturated color scheme and heavier editing.

Von Trier, whose public persona is so puckish and ironic, aims here for a deeply felt, all-out appeal to the emotions — an old-fashioned melodramatic “weepie” with no concessions to po-mo sensibilities (possibly excepting the particulars of Bjork’s music). And it works best by being embraced in a straight-ahead, irony-free, face-value manner and avoiding games about genre deconstruction or meta-distanciation. A naivete as utter as Selma’s; one that ties you to her. DANCER should not have worked on me — I generally wouldn’t call myself a fan of Three-Hankie weepies, and Von Trier took away all the theology that I found so fascinating in BREAKING THE WAVES. And he still made a deeply unfashionable masterpiece.

DANCER uses the plot and some of the conventions of a melodrama, but uses the the particularly contemporary genius of Bjork and Von Trier to produce identification with its heroine as thorough as I ever recall getting from a motion picture. In the normal tear-jerker, things are just a little too pretty … what Roger Ebert calls Ali McGraw’s Disease being one example, weeping violin strings on the score being another. Here what Von Trier does is use the same outlandish plots but treat them with deadpan seriousness, exactly the opposite of today’s fashionably Coenesque smirking. The hand-held, washed-out camera gives these ludicrous events immediacy and reality in the way that 30s studio sets and star lighting and makeup schemes just emphasize the phoniness. As for score, I don’t recall a single snatch of nondiegetic music except in the sequences that are explicitly palyed as fantasies. That music itself is Bjorkish — which is say deliberately nonpretty (which is not to say not-moving or in some sense beautiful).

In altering the melodramatic formula in these ways, so many critics tried to justify it by arguing that Von Trier was playing genre games or subverting this or foregrounding that (and in that sense my reaction is somewhat anti-intellectual). If you don’t resist this movie’s mere existence and formula, it’s unbelievably simple. In my favorite sequence in the movie, when Selma and Bill share their secrets, Von Trier uses the most old-fashioned but still effective camera strategy, he just gets really close to the actors’ faces. I mean REALLY REALLY close — at one point there’s nothing in the widescreen frame but Selma’s face from the eyebrow ridge to the nose — exactly how one acts and feels when sharing deep, dark intimacies (in several senses).

dancervertical.jpgAs for Bjork, I’ll cite Catherine Deneuve’s statement that “she can’t act. She can only be.” There is never an actorish mannerism in her, never a moment when we see Bjork sense that she’s got a great bit of Palme bait in her hands. When she’s singing “A Few of My Favorite Things” to herself in her jail cell or “The Next to Last Song” on the gallows, there’s absolutely no way to question the guttural despair, the depth of agony in that voice. I mean, if Bjork’s performance doesn’t strike one as a brilliant example of naturalistic acting, all I can do is shake my head and wonder what one thinks such a thing is.

To quote a Pauline Kaelism some seem to think is damning, DANCER is the sort of movie that makes you feel protective — toward Selma, toward her son, toward Bjork as Selma, even in an odd way toward the sheriff, and ultimately toward the movie itself. It tweaks your operatic responses until, dammit, you’re Selma up there on the gallows at the end. DANCER exists wholly on the level of this sort of emotional involvement or identification, which is the best of all possible worlds for a tearjerker like this because you then look past the implausibilities and lack of “serious, constructive” social criticism as mere cavilling … “can’t you see what matters here” is the rough thought process.

This IS, as I say, an uncritical or anti-intellectual response, but very few films can achieve these heights of pathos. It’s not so much that just blustering operatic emotion is so *easy* (I think picking at continuity errors or dissecting sociopolitical allegories is every bit as *easy*) as that such blubbering is the right response to DANCER, if the film works at all. But maybe this is not the last song, as Bjork sings a song “New World” over the credits, which doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie and seems to be from the POV of a dead woman. So the movie can just go on forever …

April 2, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment