March 14, 2008

"Funny Games"

You have to check out A.O. Scott's review of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's
new film, Funny Games.

Here's a taste of it:

It is likely that Mr. Haneke would take the last two adjectives as praise — it’s fine with me if they show up in advertisements — or at least as the acknowledgment of fulfilled intentions. His is an especially pure and perverse kind of cinematic sadism, the kind that seeks to stop us from taking pleasure in our own masochism. We will endure the pain he inflicts for our own good, and feel bad about it in the bargain.

“Funny Games,” Mr. Haneke’s first English-language film — and a compulsively faithful replica of his notorious 1997 German-language feature of the same title — subjects its viewers to a long spectacle of wanton and gratuitous brutality. So, of course, do countless other movies, though few of them can claim this one’s artistic pedigree or aesthetic prestige. And indeed, the conceit of “Funny Games” is that it offers a harsh, exacting critique of vulgar, violent amusements, a kind of homeopathic treatment for a public numbed and besotted by the casual consumption of images of suffering. That the new version takes place in America is part of the point, since Americans — to a European intellectual this almost goes without saying — are especially deserving of the kind of moral correction Mr. Haneke takes it upon himself to mete out.

Bravo. But what's strange is that Scott was not so tough on Tarantino's Grindhouse. That film--gory, campy and masturbatory as the day is long--won Scott over, it seems, because he saw it as a hearkening back to the good old days of midnight showings of tasteless B movie:

“Grindhouse,” soaked in bloody nostalgia for the cheesy, disreputable pleasures of an older form of movie entertainment, can also be seen as a passionate protest against the present state of the entertainment industry.

It seems to me that Haneke's film hits a bit too close to home for Scott's likening. Throughout his review he passive aggressively attacks Haneke's implication that Americans are intellectually shallow, have coarse (or at best) unrefined tastes, and are driven and derided by blood-lust.

Here is Scott ranting about the film's self-awareness--the killers in the film look into the camera and address the audience:

At these moments, using techniques that might have seemed audacious to an undergraduate literary theory class in 1985 or so, the film calls attention to its own artificial status. It actually knows it’s a movie! What a clever, tricky game! What fun! What a fraud.

So why does Scott see metaphor and meaning in Tarantino, but film school pretension with Euro-trash B.O. in Haneke? It's tricky to parse, but I'll give it a shot. First, Scott is right on the money with his assertion that Haneke's film engages in the "kind of cinematic sadism . . .that seeks to stop us from taking pleasure in our own masochism." He is also dead-on with his sense that a tied-up Naomi Watts hopping around in her underwear is, as academes say, problematic. Scott wonders aloud at the possibility of audiences finding this titillating.

And to give Scott further credit, he is careful to say that Haneke is trying to evoke such problems and effect, not that he has successfully done so. Only a handful of film masterpieces like Lynch's Blue Velvet and Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour have, I think, successfully entered and dabbled in such dark territory. In Blue Velvet we become voyeurs and detectives along with Jeffrey and learn how the two are, to say the least, in conflict. In Mon Amour we are told that we (Westerners) have actually seen nothing and know nothing of Hiroshima--don't even try.

However, ultimately (ostensibly), Scott is reviewing the film, not Haneke, right? Well, Scott is subtle about it, or maybe even unaware, but his reaction to Haneke's film seems tinged by a cultural clash. American film is big-budget, slick, sexy, garish--the term embarrassment of riches springs to mind--violence is lovingly and spectacularly (sublimely!) rendered. Haneke's film and filmmaking--an English language remake of his own 1997 film with Hollywood actors (though the leads are not American)--is "immaculate," "manipulative, "clammy" and "repellant." According to Scott, the camera remains still, steady, gazing on the violence. Something anathema in Hollywood film. And while I'm sure Scott can name many films, foreign and indie, that share these same anti-Hollywood, anti-American qualities, I can't escape the feeling that calling Haneke a fraud is an easy way out. If he is a fraud, then he has no strength of conviction. His ouvre is not driven by vision but by pure intellect. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing I hate more than art that comes with a prerequisite reading list in order to understand it, but Scott sounds here in his appreciation of Tarantino and scorn for Haneke, like one who still refers to french fries as Freedom Fries.

March 08, 2008

Depravity, Upheaval and the 'Good War'

If you're anywhere near Charlottesville, Virginia in late March have to check out Second Street Gallery and their exhibition of LA-based painter/illustrator Sandow Birk's work on the Iraq War, straightforwardly titled "The Depravities of War."

And if you happen to by passing through at the end of the month you can check out a panel discussion at Second Street Gallery featuring Sandow Birk, myself and composer Judith Shatin, moderated by Bill Cleveland, author of the forthcoming Art and Upheaval. The panel is titled "Depravity, Upheaval and the 'Good War'" and is a part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, which is a big to-do replete with high teas, luncheons and banquets feting famous writers.

Should be a great evening. Hope to see you there.

March 06, 2008

Up in Michigan

So I did a reading at Hope College in Holland, Michigan two weeks ago with Lewis "Buddy" Nordan, my mentor from grad school. Here are pictures of the marquee outside the theater where we read. We learned just before taking the stage that Harry Houdini once performed on the very same stage.

If you don't know Buddy's work, please please please do yourself a huge favor and pick some up. His novels Sharpshooter Blues and Wolf Whistle are devastatingly funny and tragic, and his short stories Sugar Among the Freaks and Music of the Swamp are necessary reading if you consider yourself an connoisseur of the short story. Those of you into memoir should read his genre-bending book Boy with Loaded Gun.