Sunday, May 25, 2008

#37: Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)

I'm having a tremendously difficult time trying to figure out how to write about this film. Funny Games analyzes itself as it progresses, so maybe that's what I should do with this post. Here are some possible approaches:
1) The relation of this film to Haneke's other work.
2) The simultaneous appropriateness and wildly aberrant misplacing of Funny Games on a list of overlooked horror films from Fangoria.
3) My own contradictory reaction to the film (admiration at Haneke's and his actors' skills, irritation, dislike of the lecturing tone and simplistic message, glee at being so relentlessly fucked with, questioning of my own reactions, is it really that simple, etc.)
4) Why the shot-for-shot U.S. remake? (Haven't seen it yet, so I can't say much about this.)
5) Horror film? Yes, and no. (Maybe this is the same thing as #2.)
6) Does cinematic violence have any correlation with real-life violence? What's different? What's the same? How do they connect? (This could be a dissertation, not a blog post.)
7) Haneke's own comments about the film.

Let's start with the first one, and see where it leads.
I haven't seen all of German-born, Austrian-raised Michael Haneke's films, but I've seen enough to get a coherent sense of him as an artist. His films tend to be about violence, desensitization to violence by its perpetrators, the privileged classes and what happens when their implied social contract is threatened, destroyed, or made irrelevant or unsafe, and television as constant background presence, and he exhibits an admirable refusal to supply simplistic motives and explanations for violent behavior. (Bear in mind, this is sort of a superficial laundry list.) His films are disturbing and brutal, yet compelling and engaging. His work is simultaneously hard to watch and hard to stop watching. Funny Games is no exception. (Since his American remake is a shot-for-shot copy, excepting a couple dialogue changes necessary to eliminate specifically European cultural references, all I say here can be applied to both films as one entity.) However, unlike Haneke's other films, Funny Games is a deliberate provocation and lacks the complexity and ambiguity of his other work. At times, I felt like I was being lectured, but maybe I deserved it. Reach for that remote, however, and rewind this post to the beginning. I'm getting ahead of myself, and I need to briefly set up the plot to continue.
Funny Games begins with an overhead view of a car driving down a country road, the sounds of a family on the soundtrack (possibly a nod to Kubrick's The Shining?). We know the family are bourgeois before we even see them because the husband and wife play a game in which the wife puts a classical CD in the car stereo and the husband has to name the piece, the composer, and the conductor. The overhead view is then replaced by a shot of the CD case, containing only classical music, and then the family. Predisposed by my class biases to dislike the family, I was caught off guard by the warm, empathetic faces of actors Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Muhe and their relaxed, loving portrayal of the couple. Stefan Clapczynski as their son is no archetype of the spoiled, privileged only child, either. Haneke humanizes these characters while also getting in a few digs at their life of privilege. Soon, the family arrives at their swanky, gated summer home, and Muhe and son put up the sail on the boat while Lothar cooks dinner. A young man knocks at the door and asks to borrow some eggs. He is soon joined by another young man. I don't think I'm spoiling any surprises by letting you know that the two men refuse to leave and proceed to keep the family hostage, torturing them and playing mind games on them until the next morning. I'll refrain from spoiling any other surprises not out of some hidebound duty to plot but because a fresh response to each twist and turn is necessary to fully engage with the film's provocations.
Back to that feeling of being lectured. One of Haneke's two sadistic protagonists will occasionally break through the fourth wall (why doesn't anyone ever want to break the second or third walls?) and directly address the audience. Usually, I'm not a big fan of this technique -- not because I have a specific problem with it, but because it's usually so horribly done and invites heavy-handedness and smugness. It works pretty well in Funny Games, however. The direct address to the viewer doesn't break the narrative flow and somehow increases the queasy terribleness of the torturers' actions. Its brazen artificial stylization mysteriously makes the whole scenario that much more real. It helps that every actor in the film nails his and her respective parts, and that Haneke is such a strong filmmaker. However, each time Arno Frisch looked directly at me (or you) and/or addressed me (or you), it pissed me off. I was being challenged to turn off my television (or leave the theater) or risk being complicit in the continuing torture of this family. Anytime I wanted the torture to stop, they occasionally reminded me, all I had to do was stop the DVD or walk out the door. If I kept watching the film, then I wanted the torture to continue. This provocation made me angry for a couple of reasons. First, I believe that a film needs to be seen in its entirety to be properly judged. How could I condemn or praise what Haneke's doing here if I bailed out halfway through? Secondly, am I really complicit in an act of (simulated) torture just by watching it? Isn't Haneke more responsible for this (simulated) torture by writing and filming it? Third, what does movie violence have to do with real violence? A conclusive link between violent media and real violent behavior has never been proved. And if consumable fake violence can contribute to actual violence, isn't Haneke more responsible than the viewers of his film? The more I thought about it, however, the more I admired Haneke's techniques. When was the last time you saw a movie that directly asked you why you were watching it? Also, Haneke seems to have presciently predicted and challenged Eli Roth and the Saw franchise six or seven years before they came on the scene. An illustration of why Haneke's uncharacteristic sledgehammer approach here and the questions he asks are probably necessary can be found in the many, many, many reviews that claim most of the film's violence happens "offscreen." It is true that the film contains very little blood and gore and most of the physical violence is suggested by sound rather than imagery, but this is one of the most emotionally violent films I've ever seen. And that emotional violence is front and center onscreen for most of the film's 97-minute running time, particularly a harrowing ten-minute single take of the character's reactions to an offscreen act of physical violence.
And how to explain the inclusion of Funny Games on Fangoria's list of 101 overlooked horror films that I'm watching and writing about on this site? It's hardly a genre film, though it uses (and undermines) many cliches of the horror and suspense genres to relentlessly fuck with its audience, dangling catharsis a few inches from our noses before gleefully pulling it away (and in one instance, supplying it and then doubling back to reverse it). Funny Games doesn't really fit in a genre context, but Haneke made it in the hopes of challenging a genre audience who regularly lap up violent action, thriller, and horror films without thinking about the implications of all that sadism. But is a genre audience the same as a Michael Haneke audience? Probably not. Is a typical Fangoria-reading horror movie freak renting this movie on Fangoria's recommendation going to see it as simply another Eli Roth-style torture movie? Probably. But I don't know that for sure, and I'm making a lot of assumptions. After all, I'm a horror movie fan who enjoys violence as catharsis, as well as a lover of film as a lofty, fancy-pants art form that can improve the quality of life if approached with thoughtfulness and an open mind. This film is as contradictory as I am, and as most people are. If you can stomach it, Funny Games is worth taking the time to fight with and consider.

(I haven't seen Haneke's American remake yet, but I think he was too unfamiliar with American culture to reach the genre audience he hoped for. The detached camera and long-shot long takes are not typical American multiplex fodder, and his cast -- Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt -- are indie-film bigwigs but not mega-superstars. To properly fuck with a wide American audience, he should have set up his cameras to match the style of shitty mainstream horror films and cast people like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher, and the guy who played Harry Potter. The remake played in arthouses, just like the original, and didn't make much money. It was probably a misguided venture, but thankfully his next film is an original work that puts him back in Europe.)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

#36: From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1986)

The summer I turned 11, I scored the then-unbelievable sum of 100 dollars from various relatives. For my first birthday loot spending spree, I rode my bike to the convenience store, bought a can of Frito-Lay jalapeno cheese dip, and rented From Beyond. I was able to rent this R-rated film because my family was gone for the day, 40 miles away in Scottsbluff doing some shopping, running errands, and getting some lunch. My mother was a laid-back, open-minded parent who let me read whatever I wanted by the time I turned nine, but she was unusually strict about movies and music. I never understood the distinction, but movies and song lyrics high in violence, misogny, sexual content, and excessive profanity were off limits until I started high school. My friends' parents were almost the exact opposite, with rules and regulations up the wazoo but a laissez-faire attitude about entertainment choices. I'll never forget my stunned reaction to a friend's father telling him to put the porno videos back in his closet when he was done with them so his six-year-old brother didn't watch them. I was twelve, and my jaw didn't leave the floor for the rest of the afternoon. Of course, as soon as my mom and dad were gone, I rented every off-limits movie and purchased every banned cassette tape. Every decapitation, bared breast, and utterance of the word "fuck" filled my heart with joy. I was rebelling against what I perceived as the world's most unfair edict, especially considering how reasonable my mother was about everything else. That was a good summer day. The cashiers at the convenience store had no qualms about renting a movie high in violence and sexual content to an 11-year-old boy, and I thank them for it. I ate my nachos and watched From Beyond happily. "What in the world is this?" I remember thinking.
I've seen From Beyond three more times since that summer. Each time I prepared to re-watch it, I could never recall what the hell it was about. I think I can finally summarize it. Loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, the film zooms through its source material in the prologue and takes off from there. The physicists Dr. Pretorious and Dr. Tillinghast are conducting experiments on the pineal gland. Dr. Pretorious, an impotent gigolo with a serious S&M kink, believes that the pineal gland is a dormant sixth sense that can be stimulated -- with science! -- to open gateways to heretofore uncharted sensual pleasures. The more traditional Tillinghast is interested in the experiment from a purely scientific perspective. Pretorious has invented a resonator that stimulates the pineal gland. When they reach a breakthrough in their research, a crazy portal to another dimension is opened and flying eel-like creatures appear and attack. Then SOMETHING ELSE comes for a visit and all hell breaks loose. No one believes Tillinghast, and he's locked up in a mental ward for schizophrenics. The famous psychologist Dr. McMichaels checks him out and runs a CAT scan on him. Turns out, his pineal gland is growing! Yowzah! She is awarded custody of him to recreate the experiment, and a law enforcement officer (Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree) comes along to make sure Tillinghast doesn't try to escape. Crazy, crazy stuff happens after that. None of it makes sense, all of it is awesome.
From Beyond was directed by Stuart Gordon, the man responsible for Re-Animator, Dolls, and Castle Freak, and the first theater director to stage a David Mamet play. He piles on the weirdness, gore, black humor, and sexual kinks, and I salute him for it. The movie reminds me of an EC comics version of an early David Cronenberg film, particularly the weird body evolutions that begin once the pineal gland starts growing -- the vaginal opening in the forehead where a penis-like third eye comes out -- and the freaky sexuality. The film also contains elements of hammy 1930s mad scientist movies. Re-Animator veterans Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton return as well, playing Tillinghast and McMichaels, respectively. See it four times. It's short.
(From Beyond finally came out on DVD recently in an unrated edition that puts back the 60 seconds of gore that the MPAA made Gordon trim to get an R-rating.)