By S.T. VanAirsdale
I should preface this item with a couple of advisories: First, it contains major spoilers for readers who haven't seen Michael Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games; and second, despite that film's irredeemably offensive stupidity, I have huge respect for Haneke as a filmmaker. I often assume Funny Games was Haneke's Faustian bargain for the decade of terrific work that followed. Or, more realistically, the 1997 version bought him the masterpieces Code Unknown and Cache, while his upcoming American remake paid off the merely excellent Time of the Wolf and The Piano Teacher. (I have yet to see the Naomi Watts/Tim Roth updating, but as a shot-for-shot retelling Haneke gleefully claims to be only eight seconds off the pace of his original, its own bankruptcy is almost certainly assured.)
To my regret, my fandom did not compel visits to the Museum of Modern Art's recent Haneke retrospective, among the most comprehensive of the filmmaker's 30-year film and TV career. I did, however, escape the Reeler HQ rubble long enough to catch Haneke screening and discussing Funny Games, the kick-off event of MoMA's nifty new Modern Mondays program. Rewatching reminded me of the genuine creepiness Haneke sustains over a good 80 or 90 minutes, during which a pair of white-gloved youths (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) torment, torture and kill an upper-middle class family in their summer cottage. Amorality will always be tension's bitch (someone tell Eli Roth, whose films are pillow fights compared to Haneke's), and Funny Games applies its sadism in the most dynamic of ways: by teasing viewers with their own smugness. What we call "evil" can and often does win in this world, Haneke says unblinkingly; bad guys can and often do wear white.
In this way, Haneke loves to think of himself as a master manipulator. (His recent Times Magazine profile crystallized this for the ages.) But adherence to convention is not the same thing as smugness, which is why Funny Games' climactic upshot -- wife Anna (Susanne Lothar) steals a gun and blows one of her assailants away, only to have the survivor grab the VCR remote control, rewind the film, anticipate the coup and wrest the firearm away -- is such a gross betrayal. Almost to the end of his grueling psychological horror film, Haneke introduces a time machine.
In fairness, the MoMA audience clapped in support of her attack, and the filmmaker got the sense of deflation he wanted after its sudden reversal. (More on this later.) But this isn't exactly a spiritual precedent to the paralyzing movie-within-a-movie in Code Unknown, or the surveillance-cum-class war propelling Cache. Instead it's the cheapest, most embarrassing technical stunt of Haneke's career. Worse yet, it epitomized his own smugness Monday night while in conversation with MoMA curator Josh Siegel, who asked Haneke to explain the difference between obscenity and pornography.
"I think 'obscene' is something that breaks the rules," Haneke replied. "So from that point of view, I hope all of my films are obscene. Pornography, to me, is a consumer article." The comment drew an uncomfortable laugh from the MoMA audience, no dummies they, who deduced more overlap than separation between the qualities in Funny Games. But whatever; that ambiguity isn't the point as much the one guiding Haneke's differentiation between rule-breaking and bald-faced cheating. Code Unknown is a rule-breaker -- open-ended, impenetrable, cold to the touch. Funny Games is a cheat -- subverting its own well-established terms for the sake of its director's gratification.
"How do you mean cheating?" Haneke replied through his translator when I asked about the distinction.
"Rewinding the film isn't really manipulating the audience, is it?" I said. "It's a technical device you're using to change the story."
"I'm trying to show that you can manipulate an audience, and how you can manipulate," he said.
"Well, there's a big difference between Hitchcock and that, for example," I said, bringing up Siegel's own comparison from minutes before. "It's narrative versus technical." (More accurately, it's visual narrative as opposed to technical narrative, but such is l'esprit d'escalier.)
"Maybe you think it's cheating," he said.
"Yeah, I do," I said. "But what's the difference for you between someone who cheats and someone who breaks the rules? Or is there a difference?"
"I think cheating is not very nice," he said, smiling. "Actually, [my translator] happened to come in 10 minutes before the end, just at the moment the tape was being rewound. [She] heard the audience applaud, and [she] told me that reaction. And I said the same thing happened at Cannes when the film played for the first time. It was exactly the same reaction: People applauded, the tape was rewound and there was the most horrified silence. And that was the reaction that I wanted. People fell into the trap of applauding a murder -- someone being killed."
Hats off, I guess, for the rousing deconstruction of cinematic violence, but really: What does it prove? That audiences crave catharsis? That's a new one. That moralists are hypocrites? Shocking! That Haneke is a cynic's cynic? Did it really take a time-travel implement to convince you? Maybe the contrivance will be more at home in the American remake, itself a stunt whose very existence blots the accrued nuance of Haneke's complex, classic 10-year run. I wouldn't dream of second-guessing the man, but I can't say I'll miss this kind of bullshit when he's gone -- if he isn't already. I told you there were spoilers.
Posted at October 17, 2007 1:00 PM
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