This past Saturday, I hopped the F Train down to the vortex of the universe and visited the corner of 2nd and 2nd in Manhattan (“How can a street cross itself?!?!”). I like Manhattan on a summer weekend; Everyone heads out of town to escape the city, and the usually teeming streets are suddenly sparsely populated by people like me, people who stay in town for the majority of the summer if only to revel in the relative emptiness of once overrun neighborhoods. I find minor pleasures on these days (walking in and out of a store without waiting in a single line, sitting in half-empty movie theaters during afternoon screenings, getting a table immediately at typically overcrowded restaurants), and the cumulative effect of these happy circumstances is that I become relaxed, as if I were on vacation myself. Call it a stay-at-home getaway.
And I really need a getaway. The news these past few weeks seems to be tethered to the soaring thermometers on the eastern seaboard. North Korea launched a long-range missile into the Sea Of Japan, Israel has begun a full scale offensive against an Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq continues to be a blood-soaked disaster which, with every delivery of The New Yorker and the arrival of Seymour Hersh’s latest article, becomes a clearer and clearer picture of a power-mad American administration out of control, another Tsunami hit an already earthquake-devastated Java, New Orleans remains a dioramic monument to government inaction, individual rights, from free speech to academic freedom in research, are under attack as the culture tightens its belt and drifts closer and closer to the punitive, divisive society we all thought would never happen here. The new doctrine seems clear: Foster instability, trade on fear, and chip away at accountability and reason. Shout louder. Rinse and repeat.
As promised, I headed to 2nd and 2nd to visit The Anthology Film Archives and escape the escalating tensions by attending a triple feature of Michael Haneke’s films. I should have known better than to seek comfort in Haneke’s films as, upon first glance, they can seem harsh, unflinching critiques of bourgeois expectations dashed against the rocks of a chaotic and violent world. Well, maybe it’s just me, but having been seated in the Anthology’s memorably disagreeable chairs for the better part of seven hours on a scalding summer’s Saturday, I actually did find a great deal of comfort in Haneke’s worldview. What the fuck should I expect? Violence, cruelty and manipulation seem to be the true forces of nature; it is only justice, the idea that actions can be categorized and responded to by an organized social agreement among men, which suddenly feels arcane. This intersection, where chaos crashes against the need for civilization, is the bull’s eye on Haneke’s dartboard, and in watching Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance and Funny Games back to back to back, the Austrian director proves to be an expert marksman.
In Benny’s Video, Haneke tells the story of Benny (Arno Frisch), a dispassionate teenager who, after repeatedly watching a video depicting the slaughter of a hog with an air hammer, murders a young woman while taping the event on his video camera. Haneke’s obsession with the ways in which video and television foster voyeurism and place us at a remove from the realities and consequences of human activity seems angrily directed against the complacency of bourgeois living, but in not delivering a just outcome to his narratives, he also forces his audience to examine their own expectations. Haneke’s triangle, the relationship between random, seemingly meaningless violence, the crisis of family ‘normalcy’, and the distancing from real emotion engendered by video and television, is the stuff of real life and true horror. The world marches by on the television (and the movie screen) and we huddle closer together on the couch and thank our lucky stars that the parade of victims of disaster, tragedy and crime doesn’t include our family and friends.
Secular Penance: Benny (Arno Frisch) Gets A Haircut
Throughout Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, Funny Games, Code Unknown and Caché (and to a lesser extent Time of The Wolf and an even-lesser extent The Piano Teacher), the audience endures shocking cruelties only to have Haneke round back on us with news clips of war, global violence and mass murder playing on television screens, both in the background and at the forefront of his films. Haneke’s message is clear; In a world saturated with violent images that often pass without a single sigh of compassion, if the harrowing murder of a single innocent girl can be such a powerful cinematic moment, what in the hell do we think is going on in Bosnia or Rwanda, Iraq or Lebanon? The never-ending tension in Haneke’s films between the personal suffering of a few characters and the terrible suffering of the masses around the world comes through most clearly in 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, which details the lives of five people whose lives fatefully intersect during an indiscriminate murder in the film’s final moments.
71 Fragments feels like a precursor to both Code Unknown, sharing that film’s rhythmic cuts to black (also featured in The Seventh Continent, but more on that film later) and its representation of disparate lives converging in moments of personal conflict, and Caché, with its sudden outburst of individual violence shaded in visual allusions to global tragedy. But the film is more than just a signpost to later and arguably better movies, it is a dazzling work in its own right. 71 Fragments‘ final sequence powerfully juxtaposes news coverage of the film’s central murder with suffering in Bosnia and Michael Jackson’s trial for pedophilia. Again, Haneke’s triangle surrounds his message; We could take any one of these stories, plunge down the rabbit hole with our movie camera, and the senseless, harrowing tragedies you’ve just encountered would be magnified one hundred fold. Or, you could continue to spend your days nonsensically worrying about the crimes and misdemeanors of celebrities. And yet, in the boiled-down marketplace of newsgathering and human spectatorship, things quickly become equivocal; No matter what they show you, they will have reduced human suffering and tragedy into the stuff of entertainment.
It feels strange to take comfort in such a difficult philosophy of the world, but I think it has to do with the fact that it feels absolutely refreshing to be told the cold, honest truth. I’ve read other critics who accuse Haneke of cynicism, and point to his detached manipulations as some sort of pessimistic elitism, but they would be mistaking the necessity of the director’s ice-cold detachment for a lack of human concern. Besides, what filmmaker isn’t a manipulator of the story and the medium? Isn’t that the point? The real question is whether Haneke is merely playing funny games with us or, as Manohla Dargis writes in her review of 71 Fragments, if he “realize(s) that his wagging finger is not an arrow but a pendulum”? I believe the answer lies in Haneke’s refusal to romanticize the cruel realities of the world in which we live and his insistence upon stripping pleasure from violence by exposing viewer complicity in seeking cheap thrills and easy answers. By exposing violence as the most terrible form of intimacy and then surrounding that intimacy with the reality of unfathomable global tragedy, Haneke’s “wagging finger” can be seen an even more potent gesture; he’s flipping the bird to those who feed us a steady stream of bullshit about the relative value of human life and showing that, in the context of our own times, the bombs falling on Baghdad are scarring us even more deeply than we would ever care to admit to ourselves. Suffering is suffering, and we must recognize the scope of tragedy in relationship to our own lives.
Tragedy And Family: Haneke’s Caché
What makes Haneke’s films so effective is that he brings the overwhelming indifference of pathological self-interest directly to bear on the family unit, using interpersonal distance to show us how far apart we stand from one another. Haneke’s conception of the family as an alienated unit in both the social and interpersonal spheres has been one of the filmmaker’s central concerns since his first feature, The Seventh Continent, which I was fortunate to see this evening, again at The Anthology.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of it as the philosophical opposite of A.M. Holmes’ darkly comic novel Music For Torching, which appeared some eleven years after Haneke’s 1989 film. In The Seventh Continent (a reference to Australia, portrayed here as the barren mirage of an unattainable paradise), a couple, parents of a school-age girl, spend their days as silent participants in the bourgeois routine of their own workaday lives until one day, no longer able to tolerate the oppressive structure of their self-imposed normalcy, they destroy their home piece by piece, from their photo albums to their furniture, murder their daughter, and commit suicide. Whereas Holmes’ plays the malaise of a middle class marriage for shits and giggles, using the destruction of the family home as a funny metaphor for the decaying institution of the American Family with a capital ‘F’, Haneke is unsparing in his commitment to the notion that such decay is no laughing matter. In fact, his austere examination of the empty, routinized mechanics of modern living is far more powerful for taking the issue as a cause for great concern. For me, the difference between the two, between Holmes’ sassy, entertaining book and Haneke’s fragmented, stark film, showcases a real problem in American culture and art.
I have asked this before, but I still wonder why America cinema has never produced as concise and serious a critic of American detachment and complacency. Yes, Haneke’s concerns are universal, but knowing what we know about what goes on in America’s newsrooms, who is going to be the first among us to step away from the now-clichéd 1970’s conception of screen violence as a “hip” metaphor for American moral decay and stand up to the voyeuristic impact this strategy has had on our culture? . Too often, American artists use snark and satire to underline their concerns about our culture, but our ongoing apathy regarding the pain of others will come home to roost, I promise. It is just a matter of time. It is very hard to see what is going on around you when you’ve blindfolded yourself with the American flag.
I don’t mean to sound like some cinematic Cassandra, but there is something haunting about the lack of introspection and our collective blindness regarding what happens to others, whether it be outside of our borders or right next door. Haneke’s unsparing approach shows us our own complicity in those activities. Of course, Haneke’s rebuke of voyeuristic pleasure could inspire empathy in viewers, but he is sure to remove the comforts and self-satisfaction of that emotion by refusing to provide some ham-fisted, over-arching meaning or message in his films. It’s a cold hard world out there and there are no happy endings here. Shout louder. Rinse and repeat.