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.


Anonymous said...

I've always been struck by the status that A.O. Scott himself enjoys among the NYT readers (a constituency composed mostly of democratic-voting, middle- to upper-class liberal white Americans). His reviews are uncritically quoted in movie announcements, or, as he self-consciously says, appear as expert judgments in movie advertisements, with which he thankfully sees no problem.

Your post is excellent, one of the few thoughtful reactions to Scott's rather rambling review (quick recap: Haneke thinks he's "sadistic" like the best directors, but in fact he's soooo conventional, just look at "Time of the Wolf" or "Cache" or OMG "Funny Games." Therefore, he is anti-American and a fraud also.) Like you, I wonder what nerve did Haneke strike so deeply that Scott was moved to pour out such a variety of emotions in his review?

Anonymous said...

I've not seen "Time of the Wolf," but I'm eager to. Again, "Funny Games" might legitimately be a sub-par film, but Scott seems overly harsh and for reasons that aren't exactly uncritical, but ideological.

Anonymous said...

I'd agree that there's an odd whiff of jingoism in Scott's review, which also struck me as somewhat tentative and ambivalent in its convictions.

I've not seen 'Funny Games,' but I've seen 'Time of the Wolf,' 'The Piano Teacher,' and 'Cache.' For my own part - the most charitable interpretation I can give Scott (after rereading this review as well as his review of 'No Country for Old Men') is that there's a desire on the one hand to acknowledge Haneke's condemnation of the vulgarism of the cheap pleasures we derive from aesthetic depictions of violence; but on the other hand, he can't quite fully grant the critique, since a critique of violence that allows no footing for even momentary pleasure, for humor, is no critique at all - it instead leaves us completely at sea, divorcing us from the possibility of connecting up with our better wits and sympathies.

There is a hard distinction to make, as you suggest, and I'm not sure that's my take is accurate to Scott's intentions and even if it is that it's a plausible standpoint. But Haneke's movies, I feel, provide as hard a surface as can be found in films today, and even calling them 'fraudulent' is a lazy criticism it's a fair question whether or not this kind of aesthetic is entirely in the service of its critical aims.

Richard Gilbert said...

I'll tell you why some people, like me, enjoyed The Piano Teacher but hated Funny Games: the latter makes the viewer complicit in utterly meaningless sadistic violence. I suppose someone had to do it but would have thought it would remain at the grad student level. Sorry.

The fact is that audiences/readers identify with heroes and victims, and to do this to them is arrogant and callous and cheap.