Sunday, March 9, 2008

I Started a Joke

(Michael Haneke, US, 2007, 107 mins.)

I started a joke, which started the whole world
crying, but I didn't see that the joke was on me.

--The Bee Gees, "I Started a Joke" (1967)

What a disgrace, just a complete piece of shit!
--Jacques Rivette on the original film

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

In either incarnation, Funny Games is a profoundly unpleasant experience. Originally released by Austrian helmer Michael Haneke in 1997, the film was always meant as a comment on America's insatiable desire for on-screen violence, whether through movies, television, or video games. Now Haneke has transferred his story to its spiritual home, the United States.

Even the Long Island setting in this shot-for-shot remake appears identical. The most significant difference, then, is the cast. Though some will surely describe the central duo as American, they aren't. Or that isn't their country of origin, since the Australian Naomi Watts (who calls New York home) and British Tim Roth (ditto for Los Angeles) play the beleaguered couple in the new iteration. Both are nearly as good as Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Mühe (The Lives of Others). If the Keane-eyed boy, Devon Gearhart (who made his debut in last year's Canvas), is less effective, his role is also less critical.

That leaves the home invaders. Or torturers. Or audience surrogates. Haneke never defines exactly what these malicious young men represent. This time around, they're played by Michael Pitt (Paul) and Brady Corbet (Peter), who was last seen in Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin (and gives a similar performance, though what seems endearing there becomes cringe-inducing here).

Their acting is fine, although Frank Giering and Arno Frisch (Haneke's Benny's Video) were better, not least because they look less alike; Pitt and Corbet are fair-haired, moon-faced fellows, even if the former is rangier.

Like its forerunner, the movie opens with a drive to the countryside. Despite the serene setting, Haneke signals his sadistic intentions by shooting the scene from a God's-eye view, i.e. an aerial tracking shot (shades of The Shining). Consequently, the pleasant voices of the vacationers register before they do. Then DP Darius Khondji moves into their SUV and onto their hands before revealing their beaming faces.

Though the film eschews a traditional soundtrack, it begins and ends with music. First, some relaxing Handel and Mozart, then a jarring segue into the shrieking strains of John Zorn's Naked City. The ending returns to Zorn and the frame-filling title: FUNNY GAMES in bright gold letters. Quentin Tarantino uses a similar typeface for Kill Bill: Vols. I and II, and yet Haneke describes his fourth feature as "an anti-Tarantino film." In both cases, Jean-Luc Godard's distinctive approach to typography comes to mind.

Pitt: nothing but a dreamer

After they settle in, Ann fixes dinner, while George and George Jr. prepare the boat for sailing. Meanwhile, their dog barks and barks.

Peter, who claims to be staying next door, arrives to borrow some eggs. From the start, it's clear something is off about this kid. He's polite, but in an obsequious manner. Ann is disturbed that he was able to enter their gated property; he explains there's a hole in the fence that the neighbor brought to his attention.

After Peter breaks the eggs and knocks her cellphone in the sink, Paul catches up with his friend and asks to test out one of George's golf clubs. Shortly afterwards, the dog stops barking.

Ann humors the twosome until she can't take it anymore, and asks them to leave. They refuse. George and son return. The former repeats his wife's request. Paul responds by whacking him with the club. Hard. And the games begin.

From then on, "Tom and Jerry," as they call themselves, control the shots. They're the hunters to the family's prey--except their rules are as inscrutable as their motives. And just when it seems there's method to their madness, they switch games.

Clearly, they aren't after money. If anything, they appear to be just as well heeled as their captives. And yet, with the exception of their white golfing gloves, they arrive empty-handed.

A knife first materializes while Ann is working in the kitchen. Later, Georgie gets hold of a rifle. Along with the club, these are the means by which the duo maintains order, suggesting the Farbers brought this catastrophe upon themselves. Further, the men refuse to enter the house, during their initial visit, until Ann invites them in. It begs the question: If she didn't agree, would they have left, like good little vampires?

Corbet and veteran Tarantino actor Roth

Along the way, Paul shares asides, like "We have to entertain our audience--show 'em what we've got." His appeals to the camera signal that viewers are meant to side with him rather than his victims, who are denied the opportunity to break the fourth wall. The hijinks of "Beavis and Butt-head," their other pet names, implicate all who observe them.

Towards the end, after Peter is injured, Paul picks up a remote control, hits rewind, and undoes the damage. His mastery of the situation is complete; he can even reverse time.

Life doesn't work that way, of course, but Funny Games isn't meant to echo reality. Most of the developments that transpire are "plausible," to borrow Paul's word, even if he and Peter aren't intended to resemble actual human beings, and Haneke doesn't burden any of his characters with a back story. The context is that which appears on screen. The past doesn't exist, only a present that threatens to repeat itself indefinitely.

Frisch, Giering, and the late, great Mühe

Plenty of other movies about media violence offer more thrills than Funny Games, notably David Cronenberg's visceral Videodrome (1983), but there lies the rub. If a picture about violence is too "entertaining," Haneke seems to suggest, then it just perpetuates the cycle, feeding the need for more and more violent product, regardless as to whether that "product" offers a critique of its own content or not.

And yet Haneke's project is no less problematic. Like Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2006), it's a violent film about violence. Similarly, most movies about sexual exploitation tend to be exploitative themselves. To his credit, Haneke pulls off a more compelling home invasion scenario in Cache (2005), except that film is more concerned with guilt and paranoia, and it does feature one particularly shocking shooting.

Funny Games, on the other hand, is so unremittingly violent--even if the most
graphic scenes occur off-screen--that it becomes numbing, but that's clearly in-
tentional. At the very least, Haneke deserves praise for the purity of his vision.

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in Cache / Hidden.

For those familiar with the Austrian original, there's little point in revisiting this material except as an exercise in compare and contrast. (Though Mühe bests Roth, the character serves the same powerless purpose in both entries.)

Unlike George Sluizer's Hollywood remake of The Vanishing (1988), Haneke hasn't slapped an all-American happy face on his grim tale, and it's unlikely he would've invested the time if he didn't have complete control--thus establishing a neat link between the director and his invaders.

That said, the new movie hits the States in the wake of Saw, Hostel, and their sequels and knock-offs. Does the popularity of such torture-fests render Haneke's provocation more relevant than ever--or more redundant? Further, did it help to influence them?

As Salon's Andrew O'Hehir has observed, "[1997's] Funny Games...has itself become a cult movie among horror fans in English-speaking countries." Will the US version inspire further cheap imitations? In other words: Is Michael Haneke and his post-modern morality tale part of the problem or part of the solution? Or, to paraphrase the Brothers Gibb: Is the joke on him or us? And who started the damn thing in the first place?

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** **** *****

'Til I finally died, which started the whole world
living, oh, if I'd only seen that the joke was on me.

Funny Games opens in Seattle on 3/14 at the Metro Cinemas. The
Metro is located at 4500 9th Avenue NE. For more information, please
call 206-781-5755. Images from Cinematical, OutNow, and Reverse Shot.

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