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Sundance 2008 | Funny Games

Sundance 2008 | Funny Games

Some eleven years later, Michael Haneke’s arguments about on-screen violence and audience complicity are more relevant than ever.

A relatively calm couple of days. Tuesday night’s big event was the world premiere screening of The Deal, Steven Schachter’s comedy about a suicidal film producer (William H Macy) who decides to work the Hollywood system and make a shoot-’em-up action film out of a seemingly impossible script; Bill & Ben, the story of the first Jewish Prime Minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli. The film was warmly received by the audience, which was a nice omen and important to me; Macy and Schachter scored a good deal of financing from the good people of Sarasota, many of them intimately involved with the Sarasota Film Festival (including a Co-Producing credit for our Executive Director Jody Kielbasa). This is the first project that the festival has been involved with on this level, and I am very hopeful we can bring it home in April for a big screening during our event. After a very brief pit stop at the after party (and a quick hello to Sarasota alums Sarah Baker and the always kind Jason Ritter), it was late to bed, late to rise.

But when I did wake up, it was beautiful day…

…the perfect afternoon to take in Michael Haneke’s new English-language version of Funny Games.

First, a note about the programming of the film at the festival; Instead of assuming its rightful place in the festival’s Premieres section, Funny Games is playing Sundance’s Midnight section, a decision so deeply ironic that I can only assume the choice to put the film there was done as a historical corrective to the whole idea of Midnight movies. Maybe it makes sense, though; A film about the voyeuristic guilt implicit in our spectatorship of violence and sexual humiliation in cinema, it might be that the Midnight audiences will be one ones most, well, deserving of Haneke’s smirking middle-finger of a movie. After sitting through films like Diary of The Dead and Donkey Punch, maybe Funny Games will function as intended and make us all feel like assholes for enjoying the bloodshed.

Eggs, Anyone?: Naomi Watts and Brady Corbet in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games

I’ve never written about Funny Games at length before, but I have thought about the movie in the context of Haneke’s work as a whole. To be honest, the film’s story is so close to the original that a re-telling of the plot seems a bit of a waste of time, but there were some significant differences that struck me about the new version; Most interesting is how, some eleven years later, the film’s arguments about on-screen violence and audience complicity are more relevant than ever which, when you think about it, is deeply depressing. In the age of Eli Roth and the Saw franchise, Haneke’s winking manipulations and his rebuke of narrative catharsis hurts even more. This time around, Haneke gets typically powerful performances from Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the victims of the titular games, but the major difference between the two films are the characterizations of the murderers, here played by Michael Pitt as the alpha Paul and Brady Corbet as the nastily submissive Peter/Tom. In Haneke’s original German language version, these roles are played by the ice-cold Arno Frisch in Pitt’s role and the sad but menacing Frank Giering in the Corbet role and the differences are worth noting; While both sets of actors are clearly portraying the home invasion and murder of the family as some sort of comedy of manners (funny only to them), for me, the Frisch and Giering’s performances gave off something of the stench of the nihilistic in a way that only a European film can. Those actors, and Frisch in particular, are haunting because they seem morally bankrupt yet carry a firm sense of rebellion against the entitled bourgeoisie, despite the fact that they probably come from the same class as their victims. The Austrian version works both on the level of cinematic and social critique; The unswayable menace, running wild and without the anchor of reason or social constraint seems, like most of Haneke’s films, to be the stuff of perfect bourgeoisie nightmare. How could young people who look like us, raised in our culture, speaking our language, be so cruel? What have we created?

Bad Boys: Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games

In the US version of the film, and probably much to Haneke’s chagrin, I think the implications of this dread is lost, much of it due to how we understand and feel about class in this country, but also because of the way in which we see the horror in the world as being an unknowable spiritual force, almost not human. Obviously, while I personally agree with this sort of superstitious reaction to a clearly knowable violence, what Haneke’s film never touches is the populist, religious understanding of the incomprehensibility of random violence. Whereas Frisch’s sober smirk and pontifications seemed, in the original, like something one could reasonably expect from a graduate of an Austrian university who took too much 20th Century philosophy and missed all of his ethics classes, the same words coming from Michael Pitt’s mouth seem foreign, words you would never expect to hear from a young American. Our culture is steeped in a whole different set of callous gestures and our national indifference is on a whole different plane of responsibility now, which makes our pair of happy murderers in the film less vital in a way. This country is morally exhausted by our nonchalant relationship with senseless tragedy, and so, while the time seems right for Funny Games to come along again and rap us on the collective knuckles with its giddy sneer, at this point in our history, we’ve become silent and masochistic to the point that the sting has lost some of its bite. Without a sense of the spiritually ridiculous, and I don’t mean the moment when Paul makes Anne (Naomi Watts) pray a little prayer, but a true indictment of the superstitious understanding of the randomness of suffering, Funny Games misses a crucial component in its goal of implicating American spectators.

There are some cultural details that might have made a difference, most of them missing because of Haneke’s wholesale import of the original film’s narrative. Instead of nailing American privilege, Haneke imports his European bourgeoisie milieu and in doing so, paints an off-kilter picture of our culture; Like a crooked portrait hanging above a fireplace, something is just not right here. Whereas a more intimate knowledge of this society, a knowledge of Americana, might have lent more authenticity to the story, the film instead feels just slightly askew; A wealthy couple headed to the Hamptons with their child is probably more likely to be playing rock and roll in the car than opera, the formal politesse of neighborly relations is much more likely to be casual than in the world Haneke’s portrays; The film doesn’t seem to know American casualness. Instead of recasting the small details (the music*, the informal attitudes of the characters) to the proper cultural context of modern America, the film’s relationships feel frozen in amber, something more foreign than domestic, which is why when Haneke gets things right, the critique seems all the more stinging; The murder of a child against the non-stop gibberish of a pair of TV announcers calling a NASCAR race (re-set from the Formula One race in the original) actually adds a layer of interesting conflict. This is a family that would never in a million years watch NASCAR, and this shift underscores their privilege but also detaches them from the culture at large (whereas we could easily imagine Ulrich Mühe watching a Formula One race).

At its heart, Funny Games was always an act of intellectual terror, the story of a culture (and a cinema) reaping what it sowed. But in a post-9/11 world, in a nation whose daily obsession with the sensationalist press constantly keeps the most grotesque and cruel acts front and center in our minds, acts for which we as a nation harbor so much responsibility, well, at this point, Haneke seems to be piling on. Fine and ha-ha, yes yes. But whereas European elites would eagerly go and take their medicine on a night out to see one of Haneke’s films, the fate and impact of the new Funny Games is more cloudy; This is just the type of movie American elites will avoid. Movies about violence featuring young murderers and semi-nude movie stars are far more likely to be seen by younger audiences, and while young people may get the film’s points about the cinema, they will probably see themselves as outside of Haneke’s bourgeoisie bullseye. To be honest, while the film is uniformly excellent and certainly holds up as a movie about movie violence, the social critique will be a very hard sell. Which only makes me wish the Director had considered instead a remake of Code Unknown, a film with deep convictions about the national responsibility surrounding issues of immigration and collective social welfare; Now that’s a movie America needs to see. Here’s hoping…

* I should say, the use of John Zorn’s Naked City, both here and in the original, is still one of the best uses of music in a film, hands down. Decades later, that music still scares the living shit out of me.

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