Wednesday, December 10, 2008

metaDRAMA: Funny Games (2008)

I've always been a little startled by writers like Stephen King; as The Blood Brothers pointed out in an adaptation earlier this year, fiction can be inspirational. (Just look at A Million Little Pieces--people may be loathe to admit it, and try to hide in memoir, but fiction can be life-changing.) The problem is that with King, sometimes violent and graphic works inspire the wrong sort of people. There would still, obviously, be violence without the endless games and movies and books (just look at the Middle Ages), but is there something more sinister that we're feeding into with all of our self-satisfied torture porn? A new play at the Flea earlier this year, The Footage, questioned how media itself could actually implicate us in the crimes it described, and while I don't condone blissful ignorance, I think we do need educational awareness. Instead, shows like 24 dull our perceptions, and the constant shouting of television pundits numbs us to the point where we don't question their actions. Naomi Klein wrote The Shock Doctrine, describing the way in which we can be made to accept things when our bodies shut down--haven't the latest crop of horror films done exactly that? We take pleasure in the formulaic (even Scream, the best of the last bunch, fell prey to its own admonishments), because it allows us to simply go along for the ride.

In this circuitous fashion, I arrive at Michael Haneke's frame-by-frame adaptation of his 1998 film, Funny Games. Haneke is open about his disgust for the way we've stopped thinking about films; when he saw American audiences backlash at his masterful Cache (2005) simply because it did not resolve in the classic Hollywood fashion (think of Insomnia's ending, or even of Irreversible's backwards resolution), perhaps he figured it was time to make his message more direct. To do so, he cast Naomi Watts, a ridiculously endearing actress, as Ann, and set her up with Tim Roth, as George, in a loving, happy marriage, with a loving happy son (Devon Gearhart): in other words, American Values, up on the chopping block.

In true form, it begins politely enough, with two young men, played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet innocently intruding on Ann's home, and then slowly growing more and more violent through the use of childish games. (For instance, Pitt's character, Paul, leads Ann to the dog he has killed by giving her "warmer" and "colder" directions.) As he does with his cold filmmaking, he then refuses to give these villians any motivation (Haneke is perhaps the only filmmaker who could faithfully adapt A Clockwork Orange): "Why are you doing this?" asks George, his leg broken. "Why not?" responses Paul. He goes so far as to have Paul make up stories for his partner, Peter, and then to actually turn to the camera, asking us how we feel about the game: "Oh, you're on their side," he says, casually making a bet that by 9:00 the next day, George's family will be dead. Later, he'll be far more direct: "Don't you want to see a plausible ending?" In other words, one of these two groups of people must be dead--they can't simply walk away.

Unfortunately for Ann, Paul and Peter aren't real characters, and Funny Games isn't a real film (the suffering is generated purely for our own shallow empathetic needs). When Ann appears to have turned the tables, Paul rather cheesily "rewinds" the film, thwarting our satisfaction, but also reminding us of how often devices precisely like this are used by "the good guys." The film even refuses to deliver on the graphic horror: the worst bits happen between scenes, or off to one side, while Haneke remains focused on what truly interests him: the reaction shot. Perhaps his next film will use the abundance of digital media to project our own faces up on the screen as video subtitles to accompany the horrors. So far as a face goes, though, Haneke was right to hold out for this cast, particularly Watts: through their humanizing eyes, it is not so easy to sit back and enjoy the gore.

Of course, we don't like to have the mirror reflected back on us, any more than we like people to question our hedonistic pursuits. Our anonymity entitles us to a certain measure of savagery, and if some people cross the line, fine, so long as they don't do it in my backyard, or my house. I can understand audiences not liking this film, but I can't understand the critical response (42% on Metacritic, and A. O. Scott of the New York Times gave it a 0%). How could anybody think that this message--with Saw VI and Hostel III on the way--is outdated? Sure, Disturbia is a lot more palpable (much like Arlington Road's paranoia): there are clear-cut justifications there, and we're not being lectured to through the pretense of film. But what they miss is that all the media out there are now subject to endless amounts of pretense: Haneke has no choice but to lash back in the very medium--nay, in the very genre--that he abhors. He does his best to handle it, by building unbelievable tension out of the long stretches of the unknown, and by turning the old tropes of horror films (the foreshadowed knife, the symbolic golf ball) on their heads.

I spoke earlier this week about the importance of truth to art: here is a film that lies constantly, from the characters up, and yet retains all of its integrity by being true to its message, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with pure entertainment, but when we sacrifice thought for comfort (the rise of chick lit and beach novels), these games stop being quite so funny. The tagline for Funny Games (2008) puts it best, repeating the catch-phrase of its villain: "You must admit, you brought this on yourself."

1 comment:

lindsay said...

I love the concept of 'thought for comfort.' There's a lot of that going around these days, in all genres. When did the arts equal comfort?