On this episode of the podcast, we're talking about the films of Michael Haneke. He sometimes seems to be making the same film over and over with intriguing variations. His latest, Funny Games — the story of a family that is tormented for a few hours by a couple of white-gloved hooligans — has even fewer of those variations than usual, but the obvious repetition certainly fits among his usual obsessions.
2:58 Clip: Funny Games (2007)
3:47 Funny Games Remade
9:07 Caché (2005), Serge Daney on Perspective
17:37 Benny's Video (1992)
19:35 The Seventh Continent (1998)
21:03 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994)
23:18 Time of the Wolf (2003)
32:30 Time of the Wolf and Funny Games
36:16 Funny Games as a Loop
39:41 Examples of Rigor
44:05 A Different Kind of Watching
49:47 The Piano Teacher (2001)
50:17 Code Unknown (2000)
52:58 Places to Start
54:06 Revisiting Funny Games
56:52 Misremembering Movies
58:37 Revisiting Benny's Video
1:02:38 Absorbing Violence
1:06:13 Cleaning Up
1:08:42 What are we really like?
Coming Up: A discussion of Errol Morris's new film, Standard Operating Procedure and an interview with the filmmaker.
I love the way Michael Sicinski ticks off all of the concepts that are "built in" to the movie -- "that's the point" -- that make it almost immune to criticism.
And above all, if any and every reaction or justification is already built in, and to go anywhere near Funny Games is to throw oneself into a kind of critical deadlock, well, there you go.
He concludes that the film "may well be a fine piece of conceptual art, but one that works just as well or even better in theory."
Indeed. He also mentions reservations with the acting, which is an approach that I can't really take, having seen them in reverse, that is, having seen the second one with knowledge of but no experience with the first one. As I mentioned in the podcast, though, I love the use, in the original, of actors from Benny's Video.
After my discussions with J. Robert, I found the interview (link above) in which Haneke raises the topic of using actors from Benny's Video and says that viewers can take that as they wish. And he smiles.
In fact he smiles a lot more than I expected him to. I figured he'd be scowling and punching his finger into the interviewer's sternum.
Also in the interview, he points out that the family in Funny Games is thwarted more than once by their own security systems.
One more addendum: when I wrote my review of Funny Games for pastemagazine.com, I went on a little too long and, to correct my verbosity, I had the editors lop off the final paragraph.
For posterity, here's that final bit:
... In Funny Games, Haneke seems content to ram his thumbs into our eyes and then ask us why we were foolish enough to get within arm's length of his gray, grizzled visage.
Fool us once, Mr. Haneke.
But adding to the perverse effect of a film that's already structured as a loop is this: Funny Games is a remake of Haneke's own film from 1997. And although I've yet to subject myself to the original, by all accounts the two films are so similar that the remake is nearly a duplicate, with the minor variation of new actors speaking a different language. In that sense, Haneke has let his keen sense of negative space expand beyond the bounds of the film. With an impish streak worthy of Yves Klein, he has resold a ten-year old film to America by simply deleting the distracting subtitles and putting faces we recognize into his diorama of malevolence. You could read that act alone as a cynical comment on the industry, but more broadly he provokes the question of why the film remains relevant, or why it is perhaps America's turn for these funny games, which should be obvious. It's important to note that all but one of the violent acts in the film take place off-screen, just barely, and I suspect he made that decision not to cater to the dictates of good taste but to seal off that particular corridor of base enjoyment. Haneke the scientist is often Haneke the visiting lecturer.
I mentioned at the end that San Franciscans will have a chance to see some of Haneke's early TV work. I got that bit of info from Michael Guillen's interview with Joel Shepard of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Great podcast again! The movie is just out this week over here and I really wanted to write a movie review again to detail the beauty of this manipulative mise-en-scene after I watched it.
Incidentally, you can listen to an interview with Haneke on the France Culture website until next show (Wednesday!). Haneke is laughing all the time, and show a remarkable serenity and confidence about what he does and what he knows it accomplishes even when asked silly or disconcerting questions.
You know, I'd been thinking of Funny Games mostly for how the remake works for an English-speaking audience, but I hadn't considered the reverse. I imagine that when/if the newer version plays in, say, Germany, the changes will introduce more distance instead of less.
It would be interesting to compare the reactions of audiences for whom both German and English are unfamiliar. The screenings in France probably don't count since so many people understand English.
I'll have to see what I can pick up from that interview. Thanks for the link. His films always seem confident, but I'm surprised how confident Benny's Video, his first theatrical feature, is. I didn't have a chance to mention the "pyramid scheme" motif in that movie; the violent acts are spread across people (the family members) like the monetary losses in a pyramid scheme, making them more palatable. It's also like Serge Daney's comments about authorship being shared across multiple image makers (I got Daney's sports arena analogy from Serge Daney: Journey of a Cine-Son -- although my memory could be hazy on the details).
BTW, this ties in with our discussion of language in My Blueberry Nights.
Hey hey, I found acquarello's comments in the Wayback Machine:
I think that the key difference is that Haneke operates as a scientist, not as a humanist (although one is not mutually exclusive of the other) when he makes a film.... Another one in this filmmaking vein is Shohei Imamura; they both have a very clinical view of society as an organism, and their approach is a variation of scientific method: introduce a catalyst -> observe the organism’s behavior to the catalyst -> record results.
In this sense, their humanity can be seen indirectly in their choices of catalysts, but intrinsically, their modus operandi would be completely different if they were operating from a humanist framework where the exposure of the injustice would be the “point” of the film, rather than a social anthropologist where showing the reaction to the injustice is the point.
I wish one of the questions the film raised, aside from violence, would have been the criticism of Hollywood's obsession with "remakes"! Haneke plays the game. why critics don't take this invite to open a debate on the aversion of the American audience to foreign films?
So that's the fate of successful non-English auteurs? They are condemn to remake their own films if they want to dialogue with the American audience? Considering the fact Hollywood spams the world market with English (or dubbed versions) movies and sue everyone trying to copy their films, the unilateral exchange looks quite absurd!
Another radio podcast (for French lovers only) when Jean-Marc Lalanne (Inrocks), who has an interesting theory on this film: Hanake has borrowed Michael Pitt (Last Days), the prayer (Elephant?) and the self-remake (Psycho) to Gus Van Sant because Elephant outplayed what Benny's video originally did with teen violence and video.
Ha, interesting comment about Van Sant. I didn't notice the prayer being lifted from Elephant, and the connection with Benny's Video seems loose, but it's something to consider.
I agree with you about the inherent absurdity of Haneke "needing" to do an entire remake of the film just to get it to a slightly larger portion of the American audience. That's what I was getting at by saying that it was a cynical comment on the industry.
Sometimes the problem seems to be the low expectations of the studios and distributors. Caché, for example, grossed quite a bit more in the US than the Funny Games remake has so far, and it's in French. (Of course, box office receipts don't prove much, but that's what the studios are after.)
Well Lalanne didn't like it. And I don't agree with his preference for Elephant either.
Isn't Funny Games typically the format to appeal to teens? Its intellectual subtext and the social criticism is subtle enough not to rebuke the populist audience. This kind of thriller could become a cult movie just like Cube, Identity, Phone Booth or Ringu... The only down side for horror movies lovers is the absence of onscreen graphic violence and sexy nudity.
Yeah, and probably the lack of a rousing conclusion hurts it, too. BTW, another difference between the 1997 and 2007 versions is that Lothar is wearing more clothes than Watts in the long scene we were talking about in the podcast.
Didn't Hannibal get away in the Silence of the Lamb series? Or the guy from Phone Booth? or Chigurh in No country for Old Men? It's not unusual to let the baddie on the lose by the end of the movie, without a satisfying conclusion. Teens don't mind as much if the ending message isn't very morally correct... And they like being taken to task, challenged by the movie (that's usually cult material).
not you, you liked the film. But isn't it basically what the detractors blame on the film?
I'm not sure who you're referring to. I haven't heard that complaint, myself.
What do you call a "rousing conclusion" then?
Well maybe I assumed too much from what critics didn't spell out clearly. But when they suggest that the victims "deserved" their fate, I understand the happy ending denouement (the punishment of criminals by death) is missing in the film to wash out the guilt of enjoying the horror. Aren't they overanalyzing in assuming that Haneke meant that this helpless family deserved to die??? It's a treatise on MOVIE genre viewership, rather than on the evilness of the actual American bourgeoisie...
AO Scott would have prefered a "sequel" to a remake! Doesn't he need a new ending after the ending?
Hiram Lee (WSWS): "Viewers looking towards either version of the work for insight into violence in entertainment will be left very much in the dark."
Jim Emerson : "Haneke's essay fails because he hasn't a clue about what makes American movies tick. "Funny Games" doesn't seduce you with conventional storytelling and character development and then turn them around on you -- like, say, Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' and 'Psycho.'"
Jim Hoberman: "But for all the laughs it pretends to laugh, Haneke's movie is essentially founded on the programmatic denial of catharsis. (...) As a strict exponent of unpleasure, however, Haneke will permit none of the narrative thrills the Coens provide in their funny games. (...) Are you getting bored? Isn't it about time for something to happen? Do you want to see the worm turn? Or simply wish the movie would end? Professional obligations required that I endure it, but there's no reason why you should."
I think you're right that Haneke is not simply punishing the bourgeois family. He does skewer them in most of his films, and even here he takes a bit of glee (I believe) in the way they are hampered by their own fences and gates. But the torturers are not simply his surrogates exacting revenge, either.
I don't think Haneke necessarily wants the film to be conventionally entertaining, necessarily, and that's the complaint of most detractors. Let's take these people one at a time:
I think one requirement for a film to be popular with teens is to have a "rousing" conclusion, i.e. to go over the top with a certain momentum, shock, adrenaline, emotion, surprise, etc. It doesn't have to be morally correct, in fact maybe it's better if it isn't (e.g. There's Something About Mary). You can sense sometimes when an audience that's expecting/wanting a conclusion like this feels cheated when a film doesn't deliver. (I remember seeing Eyes Wide Shut with a multiplex audience on opening weekend, and they were clearly not expecting a weird art film.) These are gray areas of course, but I think Funny Games is not rousing enough to work as a teen cult film like you describe, but I could be wrong. (Similarly, some people who enjoyed Caché as a Hithcockian thriller were disappointed in the inconclusive -- or at least muted -- ending.)
Like those teens, Jim Emerson expects the film to be conventionally entertaining even though he recognizes it as an essay. Hoberman does too, but he more fairly compares the film to "those aggressive modern works designed to affront the audience" such as Un Chien Andalou, and he concedes that the film "is not without a certain artistry," but he wants it to be "pithy, inventive, and comic." I'm not sure the multiplex audience would take to Un Chien Andalou any better than Funny Games, but Hoberman does.
I actually agree with him to a degree. I like Caché and even Benny's Video more than Funny Games for the very reason that they seem to give me more to think about as I'm watching. But I do find the existence of the remake fascinating anyway. (And my first experience with Funny Games was in a world where both versions exist, so that helps me by giving me more to think about -- the loop, the repetition, the audacity. I'm not sure what I'd have thought if I'd seen the first one when it came out.) As I said in the podcast, I like the creation of this chain more than I like any of the individual links.
I think AO Scott's remark about a sequel might be sarcasm; he might be making fun of the American market's love of sequels. If that's not what he's doing, then I don't understand his remark and don't know why he's giving advice on how to make money in America.
Lee seems to be misreading the film by demanding that Haneke explain the source of the violence. That's exactly what Haneke is saying is wrong with what we expect from movies. The two young men disingenuously give several reasons for their behavior, and Lee believes this is Haneke saying the reasons don't matter. But of course the film is not about violence, it's about the depiction of violence in film. More specifically, it's about the kinds of violence that we accept and even enjoy in film. If the violent acts can be explained simply, we're more comfortable with them, even if such explanations are reductive in the extreme. We require very little, he seems to point out, to rationalize the violence in film. He denies us that explanation the way he denies us the violence through clever editing.
Similarly, the logic of the perpetrators is perversely precise: you hit us first, you wouldn't let my brother take a look at your leg, your dog made me drop the eggs, etc. Explanations that seem to align with the feeble moral code that we expect from violent movies. Or, it's OK for the mother to shoot the perpetrator with a shotgun -- we get a rush from the sudden action, finally the film is moving, yeah! woo hoo! We don't need much persuasion to accept it. (In Hollywood, if someone's kid is abducted, we fully expect the father to go on a rampage to get his family back. His moral outrage is justified in the world of the film. Perhaps I should see The Searchers.)
Even Hitchcock followed the rules of entertainment: why does Norman Bates do what he does? The guy's a psycho. Done.
Haneke's denial of simple explanations -- while supplying logic that seems to follow the letter of the Hollywood law -- is similar to what Van Sant does in Elephant, refusing simple explanations for school shootings, almost teasing us by showing the factors that are bandied about in the press (video games, absent parents, bullies) but committing to none of them.
Some of the critics you're linking to are just bristling at being lectured to instead of being entertained. This provokes a certain kind of anger that a merely boring movie doesn't. It makes Scott call Haneke a "fraud." Funny Games is not necessarily a fun time, but it's no less watchable than Michael Snow's Wavelength, another film that works on a theoretical level, as an idea, arguably better than it does as an experience in a theater.
Great podcast and resulting discussion, Rob, J. Robert, and Harry! I don't have the focus to add much, but here's a limerick I once penned on Caché:
Has the cinema screen ever bled a more
Perfectly constructed metaphor?
Since George Bush was a boy
Just like Daniel Autiel
He knows what the kid cut the cock's head off for.
Thanks for your long reply.
What I see in this American family is stock characters who react in concordance with what we expect them to do, albeit in a less heroic, more realistic, fashion than in this genre of thriller. So the fact they are wasted is not really a statement on American society (like Lars von Trier would do) but it's just playing around with disposable characters just like in teen horror movies.
That American critics read a "deserved death" in this movies tells more about their Freudian slip : a paranoid guilt to be examined by "anti-Americanism". And I don't think it was Haneke's point at all.
I wish I had a more comprehensive knowledge of teen movies, because I don't watch many of these. But I don't think Funny Games is entirely incompatible with the teen "senseless killing" movie format.
I agree that it's not Haneke's top priority to seek "entertainment". And he denies it many times, which is part of the fun that teens may enjoy too. Not the average multiplex audience, but some adventurous horror fans who are not bored by a psychological thriller with a few twists. We are still in mainstream waters (even if it's a grey area as you say) that could be bankable, even if obviously it will never be a consensual blockbuster (which was not Haneke's goal).
Un Chien Andalou and Wavelength are in a whole different league. Elephant's narration is way more understated than Funny Games (which is criticized for being too self-conscious of its own narrative drive!) I continue to see Funny Games as an "indie" teen flick more than a theoretical lecture.
I don't know how Man Bites Dog fared in the USA, but it was quite a cult movie in France, and it's anything but morally correct, consensual and satisfying. The Blair Witch Project (although a different genre) also denies explanations and cheats the audience, definitely in the margin of the genre codes, and it worked as a cult teen movie. So why critics are shocked by something that teens embrace even when it's unconventional.
I'm not a naive teen, but I don't think the moral police should judge the stock situations and the violence used in Funny Games any more severely than a (good) teen horror movie wasting disposable characters from beginning to end (without character development and/or Hitchcockian twists).
I thought the bookend finish was a cool ending for a thriller (again I wish I could cite other teen movies with such device but I'm sure there are many). This is not Zodiac, it's not a real story. The drama is almost as artificial as in a comic book. The movie doesn't make the apology of serial-killer rampage on bourgeois helpless families... its premise is as absurd as a Stephen King movie, or Halloween. The Scream series was as much a post-modern self-referential caricature of the genre as Funny Games is, in the low-brow range though.
Haneke tells us something about genre storytelling. Part of the statement is to question our irrational empathy with certain onscreen characters (those identified as "goodies", but the life of "villains" is worthless of course and killing becomes OK!). For obscure reasons, critics never wonder if the stock characters deserved to be slaughtered by serial killers in regular teen flicks. But in a Haneke film suddenly it matters...
Like you I take AO Scott's remark as sarcasm, but his cleverness misses the point in so many ways.
Ha, Brian. Thanks for listening. I'm surprised you had the focus to listen at all during the film festival, but thanks. I'd thank you for the limerick, too, but I'm busy groaning. I hadn't thought of connecting Auteuil's character with Bush.
Harry, I've been too busy with the San Francisco film festival (and other activities) to respond to your last batch of comments, but I especially agree with this: "Haneke tells us something about genre storytelling. Part of the statement is to question our irrational empathy with certain onscreen characters (those identified as 'goodies', but the life of 'villains' is worthless of course and killing becomes OK!)."
And I'm glad to see that you've written some thoughts at Screenville.
Austrian cinéaste Michael Haneke is a bleak film maker.He is one of those rare World Cinema film makers working today for whom darkness is a hallmark of aesthetics.One example :one must watch his film "The Piano Teacher".Commented by Lalit Rao (email@example.com)
In the podcast, J. Robert remarked on how visually dark Time of the Wolf is, which obviously matches the themes.
Harry has posted part two of his Funny Games analysis.