Gee, Ain't It Funny? Horror and Bertolt Brecht Don't Mix: Funny Games (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, March 23, 2008 10:43pm | Post a Comment

Depicting beauty gets a free pass compared to depicting violence.  Mankind's history of brutality indicates that violence is as much -- if not more -- a determining factor in the creation of what now constitutes civilized self than our love for beautiful things.  Why, then, no "that portrait of the beautiful Contessa is pure exploitation?"  Accusations of exploitation only enter when there's a gaping wound involved (or prurient nudity, which is objected to on the grounds that it does violence to its subject -- an objection that is, in practice, limited to pornography for heterosexual men).  It's assumed that there's something wrong with you for taking any sort of pleasure in the the depiction of the violent side of our cultural constitution.  Despite that, I had a real enjoyable time the other day at the moving picture show thanks to Michael HanekeFunny Games is a good, psychological thriller that's no more gruesome than Psycho, largely due to Haneke's mastery of Hitchockian prestidigitation.  Just like Morrison in Florida, the meat of the matter is more suggested than shown.  Many critics were distraught over Haneke's hooks-on-the-eyelids sadism anyway, referring to his film as another instance of "torture porn" and/or that it's nothing but a misery to sit through (at least for right-thinking folk):

  • The “Hostel” pictures and their ilk revel in the pornography of blood and pain, which Mr. Haneke addresses with mandarin distaste, even as he feeds the appetite for it.  -- A. O. Scott
  • To a healthy human mind, however, it’s one of the most repugnant, unpleasant, sadistic movies ever made. No matter what virtues of craft one can find within, no matter what themes lie beneath, Funny Games is aesthetically indefensible. -- Andy Klein
  • Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there's no reason why you should. -- J. Hoberman
  • The joke is on arthouse audiences who show up for Funny Games, which is basically torture porn every bit as manipulative and reprehensible as Hostel, even if it's tricked out with intellectual pretension. -- Lou Lumenick
  • [T]he film itself inched close to the sort of exploitational detail that it was supposed to abhor—a proximity that only gets worse in this later version, which adds a definite carnal kick to the sight of the heroine being forced to strip to her underwear. -- Anthony Lane

In truth, Haneke brings much of that kind of moralizing on himself.  In an interview with Scott Foundas, he gives his reason for remaking his German-language film in English, namely to better address its target audience: "For the consumers of violence — in other words, Americans."  Evidently, Germans and other Europeans aren't the ones who come first to his mind when it comes to enjoying the representational infliction of pain on others.  Maybe he believes his countrymen don't consume specular violence when they have a recent history with the real thing ... but I doubt it.  Rather, it's due to a moralizing European arthouse pretension, as can be read in an interview he did with Jim Wray: "Funny Games['s] subject is Hollywood’s attitude toward violence. And nothing has changed about that attitude since the first version of my film was released — just the opposite, in fact."  He'd probably suggest turd-munching served a real aesthetic purpose when Pasolini used it, but not so much when John Waters did -- if Haneke ever contemplated the aesthetics of coprophagia, that is.  Not to be outdone by the Europeans -- and as a function of their culture-envy -- the middlebrow American critics attempt to prove their highbrow bona fides by turning the table on Haneke, dismissing his film as another instance of the (sub-)genre he was himself purportedly condemning (cf. the video above).  Haneke isn't above the Americans, say they, he's just as bad.

For my money, no one does abjection like the Europeans (well, maybe the Japanese); they have a rich tradition in specular depravity that has not only pushed art to the edges of humanity, but sexualized and intellectualized the cruelty along the way (for starters, look at  the writings of Foucault and Kristeva).  The words 'sadism' and 'masochism' weren't derived from Americans, after all.  Nothing in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the oeuvre of Herschell Gordon Lewis  makes my toes curls like Dali and Bunuel's razor across the eyeball or induces a dry heave like Bataille's orgy in a puddle of urine, blood and feces.  Of more recent vintage, one barely dips the toes in the toilet by watching the so-called torture porn of Saw or Hostel compared to the baptism by sewage in the films of Breillat and Noé.  Really, Pink Flamingos is one of the few American films that holds a candle to the European tradition -- with Waters' challenging commitment to cinéma-vérité -- and he and his "actors" did it for laughs.

Violent depravity in art tends to be called ''transgressive" when the Europeans do it, but "pornography" or "exploitation" when the Americans do it.  However, this isn't due so much to intercultural biases as it is to a class bias.  The American suburban teens like Ricky Kasso aren't staving off ennui with angst-ridden readings of Les Chants Des Maldorer and 120 Days Of Sodom.  It takes a just-right combination of naiveté, boredom, and border-line personality disorder to treat the pseudo-rebellion of Ozzy lyrics and Anton LeVay's charlatanism as a prescription for a way of life.  The same remains true of the moralistic middlebrow's current bête noires -- videogames, rap music and "torture porn."  It's not that suburban moralists wouldn't call for a banning of Lautreamont's writing if it registered on the pop cultural map, only no one but intellectuals read his stuff.  And intellectuals are secure in their own cool-headed ability to handle such transgression; it's the other, more red-blooded types, which are cause for worrying.  Thus, when the moral concerns of a leading European filmmaker happen to line up with those coming from commentators on the mainstream news channels, elitist condescension and stirring up mass fears for ratings overlap: the masses are too ignorant to distinguish between fiction and reality.  As movie and videogame ratings, book burnings, obscenity trials, et al. demonstrate, the masses will often come around to believing it about themselves.

Such classism can be heard in the video interview when Haneke discusses the impetus for making the original Funny Games.  He was distraught over reports at the time of teens from good, bourgeois homes committing acts of seemingly random, inexcusable violence.  In a prime example of rarefied cluelessness, his solution was to make a violent arthouse film as a homeopathic injection into the popular cross-cultural bloodstream.  Well, in the words of Gomer Pyle, "surprise, surprise," his attempt failed.  Films are just as just as bloody as they were and their audiences just as bloodthirsty.  Reasoning that his failure must've been due to a language barrier and the lack of big, global stars (as opposed to his films being of interest to a relatively small arthouse audience, who probably already share many of his views), Haneke remade his film in English and set it in New York.

Haneke's own class-based critique is most explicit in the scene where the lumpish Peter is left alone with the traumatized couple while Paul -- the alpha male of the two preppy perps -- has gone off to capture Georgie, the couple's son.  Peter is passively watching NASCAR racing at full volume with Ann (the mom), bound with duct tape in her skivvies, and George (the dad) incapacitated after having been beaten with a golf club, among other things.  Putting aside the innate horror that NASCAR racing must hold for the haute-bourgeoisie -- that it could infect even their children -- Haneke's intuitions and skill as a filmmaker tend to override his snobbish worldview.

spoiler alert!

My favorite scene from the film is where George and Ann are left alone with the remains of their dead child's prostrate body poking out from behind the tv set.  George is unconscious and off-camera and Ann, with her arms bound behind her back, is bruised and kneeling before the tv.  In a long, static shot, Ann struggles to her feet in order to turn off the noxious sound of the racing cars.  It's a morbidly beautiful scene, and I don't feel the least bit guilty for seeing it as such.  Haneke uses a similar technique to David Lynch: a wide angled shot of a room where commonplace objects have become signs of terror.  Real dread occurs when the safest of places (e.g., a home) become thoroughly estranged (by the eruption of violence).  If Lynch can make beautiful films out of horrific circumstances, why not Haneke?

The film only falters in its misuse of Brecht's distanciation, or alienation effect (counter-narrative strategies which push the audience out of the diegesis in order to make them reflect on its ideological underpinnings, e.g. having Paul turn to the camera and ask us who we're siding with).  The most controversial of which is where Ann manages to shoot Peter with a shotgun, only to have Paul use the reverse button on the tv's remote control to change the course of events.  Unlike a transgressive tale where the reader or viewer is implicated by the depraved protagonist -- being pulled along with his or her abject desires, and thereby having to face oneself in the abyss -- the audience of Funny Games wants the couple to survive, feeling cheated when the scene is rewound for an outcome more advantageous to Paul. 

This desire on the audience's part isn't the same as what can found when cheering on Arnold Schwartzenegger as he mows down a bunch of villainous Arabs.  All that Haneke's distanciation points out here is that the audience is siding with the innocent couple, not some ideological bias.  Compare that to the critique of identification implicit in our anxiety as we wait with Norman Bates for the car to sink in Psycho, so as to erase evidence of his murderous crime.  Identification per se isn't the problem, but the purpose to which it's used (xenophobia, among others things, in the case of Arnold).  If anything, Haneke uses the Brechtian technique against Brechtianism by strengthening, or justifying, identification, rather than alienating us from its object (the family).  We want order restored and nothing about the movie makes for a good critique of that wish.  Ironically, Haneke's modernist gimmick creates the same effect as Classic Hollywood's demands for a happy ending -- both lessen the emotional impact that the narrative has had up to that point.  Fear not, clueless viewer, you're only watching a fiction.  Haneke's intellectual condescension and Hollywood's crass commercial concerns turn out to be not all that different-- both sell the audience short.

If Haneke didn't feel shame for his gift as a horror director and hadn't attempted to make his audience share in his guilt, Funny Games could've been a great film, rather than a good one with some serious flaws.  Compare his rewind effect to the one used by Lynch in Lost Highway (or Mulholland Drive).  In that film, a new narrative direction is taken at a crucial point where the strains on the protagonist's psyche have become too great, causing a shift in narrative reality.  What Lynch doesn't do is let his audience off the hook by excusing us from the events that have occurred in the prior portion of the film.   The impotent, wife-murdering Fred's alternate life as a the Noirish stud, Peter, only lasts so long before reality starts to leak through the cracks in the dream.  The diegetic reality and the diegetic dream (the "rewind") reflect each other, holding the audience within the film's moral view.  Haneke, on the other hand, makes it so Paul and Peter could've done far worse to the family without the audience ultimately feeling any worse for wear, since his rewind effect falsifies the story within the diegesis itself.  Whereas the events in Lost Highway only become more tragic with each viewing (fantasy and reality becoming more inextricable), any moral impact of the horror felt from Funny Games will happen only once, since you know it's all bullshit going in a second time.

Relevant Tags

Distanciation (1), Violence (12), Abjection (1), Lost Highway (3), Michael Haneke (1), Funny Games (1), Cinema Criticism (32), David Lynch (28), Bertolt Brecht (2), Transgression (3), Horror (215)