Sunday, 6 April 2008

Funny Games US

Contains spoilers for Funny Games

Despite feeling as if I’ve been harangued by a bionic liberal, Funny Games is actually pretty enjoyable. That said, perhaps enjoyable is the wrong word to use. Just what is it that makes us want to watch violence on the big screen? Just exactly what is wrong with us?

Paul – one of a pair of white gloved psychopaths responsible for terrorising a wealthy young family – constantly breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly; we are in absolutely no doubt that what we’re watching is a fiction (at one point, when the narrative veers into less choppy Hollywood waters, Paul grabs a video remote and rewinds the film so he can pre-empt the action). Reflexively post-modern it may be, but there’s more to it than Mark Kermode thinks (bearing in mind his interview with Neil Young on the Culture Show back in October 2007, I find it difficult to read anything by Mark Kermode: I’ve come here to New York to interview Neil Young. Now this is something of a surprise for me, because for years I’ve been telling people that I didn’t like Neil Young).

Not pandering to your audience’s baser instincts is a brave thing for any filmmaker to do – instead, Michael Haneke rubs our collective noses in the aftermath of violence without showing us any gore whatsoever. Ann (Naomi Watts) stumbles around in her underwear trying desperately to free herself from the parcel tape that binds her arms and legs; the body of her ten year old son lies on the floor behind her. ‘Entertaining’ is not a word that comes instantly to mind, and that’s the whole point.

Ann: Why don't you just kill us?
Peter: You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment.

From a screenwriting perspective, I don’t think you’re going to find many aspects of Funny Games that conform to what we are all told a ‘good’ script should comprise of. If Haneke is guilty of lecturing his audience and making them feel lousy, then surely his off-handed dismissal of established screenwriting tropes is just as cynical (which is what made the film massively enjoyable for me). Character motivation as far as the two tennis-white wearing psychos are concerned is non-existent: there is no reasoning for what these people are up to here - no explanation, no complex back story, nothing. Paul and Peter even joke about the issue at one point. There is an extended riff on a non-functioning mobile phone: Peter accidentally (on purpose) knocks Ann’s mobile phone into a sink full of water. Later in the movie, Ann and her severely injured husband, George (Tim Roth) attempt to get the phone working – they try and try, but the thing simply refuses to function, a detail that only increases the sense of utter helplessness. Of course, in ‘normal’ screenwriting parlance the phone would work; the fact that it doesn’t is a real kick in the teeth, not only for George and Ann, but for the audience as well.

The knife on the boat is another case in point: George forgets about the knife that he has left on board his little sailing boat, only for Ann to come across it later when Peter and Paul proceed to sail off to find their next victims. She uses it to try and cut the ropes from her hands, but as her hands are tied in front of her, the two white gloved psychos notice immediately – Peter grabs the knife and throws it overboard: Ann soon follows. Funny Games really is an exquisitely cruel film to watch, not least because screenwriting itself gets a good kicking.


Pat Powers said...

Well, of course, Funny Games is an exquisitely cruel film to watch: Haneke made the film just to enjoy torturing three wealthy people onscreen. I think Haneke is just one of those European art house twit directors who likes the idea of torturing wealthy upper middle class people. I think that's why Haneke worked the ending the way he did.

Haneke's unwillingness to make any moral distinction between family members using violence to defend themselves and their loved ones, and the violent attacks of the two sociopaths is the dead giveaway that this is just torture porn. It seems to me that if he were the hotshot intellectual some of his supporters think he is, he could deal with that issue strongly and powerfully. But he just ignores it, because it just gets in the way of what's important to him, which is the torture porn. He's like a standard porn filmmaker who isn't about to let the plot get in the way of the action.

The fact that the pornographic payoff is leering enjoyment of the character's suffering vs. gory images of the characters being beaten and so forth, doesn't change the fact that it's torture porn.

The lack of character development of the two psychopaths didn't bother me at all. They're psychopaths. Their minds are broken. That's the way real psychopaths are. They are like mad dogs, there's no understanding them, you just have to defend ourself from them as best you can. (This is why I don't care for movies about serial killers -- any character development for them is fakey and unreal. They don't have personalities as we understand them, they have pathologies.

Chip Smith said...

Hello Pat - I take it you're not a fan of Mr Haneke then? ;-)

I really don't think that Haneke made the film to 'enjoy torturing three wealthy upper middle class people' (these people are actors, don't forget - it's hardly a snuff film!). The point of the film as Heneke as stated in interviews is make the audience so angry at what is taking place that the only avenue open to them is to leave the cinema in protest. Of course, this is never likely to happen, so what we are faced with is our own culpability in what is taking place. As I stated in the original post, why do we find watching violence entertaining? Haneke wants to make us feel guilty for this - not exactly your typical Saturday night out at the flicks, but still: I kinda enjoyed it...

'Torture porn' would seem to indicate to me that the film is indeed stuffed full of 'gory images of the characters being beaten' - the problem is that everything gory takes place off screen; all you see is the aftermath of the violence, which seems entirely justified and realistic to me.

Regarding the lack of character development: no, it didn't bother me either. As in my original post, Haneke is making a point here about how it's not really required in this context. In fact, he goes further than this and makes fun of the whole convention (a scene that is initially started off by George asking, 'Why are you doing this?' In standard Hollywood fare, no doubt a tortuous back story would have been offered up as an explanation).

I don't think Funny Games is as good as Hidden, mind you - in many respects, it does seem a bit of a step backwards, as Hidden is far more psychologically complex . Strangely enough, there's also
more gore in Hidden than in Funny Games, but I haven't heard anyone describe the former as being torture porn!

Pat Powers said...

I think the giveaway to Mr. Haneke's intent in making the film is his refusal to deal with the moral issue of the psychopaths vs. the wealthy family. I understand that when Haneke breaks the fourth wall, he's telling us that he doesn't take the underlying story seriously, and neither should we ... he's just showing us some violence and the rationale for it doesn't really matter much.

Well, that's porn for ya, isn't it?

I don't buy your notion that because the violence isn't explicitly shown, it's not porn. Even though he's not showing us the violence, he's explicitly showing the family emotional and physical suffering, and asking us to drink up that suffering like so many vampires -- that's the porn content. Then he's trying to shame us for watching -- that's the bad faith on Haneke's part.

How very European art house twit of him.

In the real world psychopaths get away with the horrors shown in Funny Games ... and worse ... all the time. Regular people know this. Rubbing our noses in it when we go to the theater is a pointless exercise on Haneke's part. It's not something that he's doing because it needs to be done ... it's something he's doing because he likes to do it.

Suppose Haneke had made a film about the last hours of Jessica Lund in pretty much the same way he made Funny Games. Wouldn't that be a hoot? To watch that little girl's suffering and have the monster responsible for it get away, berating us for our complicity in watching such a film? Would everything seem so clever, so art house, so European, if there were a recognizable real person's suffering involved, and laughed at, as Haneke clearly is laughing at the suffering of his hypothetical wealthy family?

Chip Smith said...

Hmmm, I don't think Haneke's handling (or lack) of what you term the movie's 'moral issue' is anything to get too excited about really. I've seen "family members using violence to defend themselves and their loved ones" in movies about a thousand times before (Straw Dogs anyone? Death Wish perhaps?). And besides, doesn't it happen in Funny Games anyway (when Ann grabs the shotgun and shoots Peter, only for his friend to rewind the film to regain the upper hand)?

I think the film is summed up pretty well by Phillip French in The Observer (another example of a critic who didn't like it very much):

"Haneke is fascinated by the effects of modern technology and the media on the human psyche, and his purpose here is to take a popular thriller plot and treat it in such an unbearable fashion that we come to question our own enjoyment of such things and the tastes of those who make them."

An overly 'moral' point of view as far as the movie's narrative is concerned surely isn't the point here? As French's quote suggests, we aren't dealing with a run of the mill thriller here, but something altogether more darker and disturbing, something designed to question exactly why we enjoy watching this sort of stuff (granted, it could be said as having its cake and eating it, but still...)

I sense a good deal of enmity in your comment regarding 'European arthouse twit' directors ;-) You should try watching Hidden - I'm sure it won't leave you in such a froth as Funny Games so obviously has!