Sunday, October 21, 2007

The funny games of Michael Haneke

I try not to take films personally. The brutality, violence, melodrama, humor or whatever you might find in films are the prerogative of the filmmaker and part of his or her vision, regardless of whether I like it or not. However, when a director goes out of their way to insult me (us) as a viewer, I bristle. This was exactly how I felt when I first watched Michael Haneke's Funny Games, pointing his finger at me as if I didn't understand that I was an inherent part of the commerce of violence as entertainment. Haneke's tone is patronizing, to say the least, and, at the time, just me in front of my TV, I was unable to intellectualize his abuse. (Haneke would be happy.)

I have gotten over it, and come to realize that any filmmaker that can elicit such a visceral response is unique. I sought out his other films either on hard to find VHS and DVDs or as they were released theatrically. After seeing The Seventh Continent, The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf, and Cache it was easy to let my jaded first experience with Michael Haneke fall away. I saw his three most recent film in the theater, and they were all unique experiences. And experiences that were only supplemented by their communal nature. I will never forget the collective gasp from the audience during Cache (one of the best out-of-nowhere moments I have ever seen); or the circumstances of watching Time of the Wolf with a handful of people in the Bell Auditorium on a cold winter day.

I might have felt differently about Funny Games had I experienced the abuse in a group setting. At least I would have some sort of camaraderie in the assault, even if they were total strangers. I still feel that Funny Games is divisive to a fault, but, in retrospective, I appreciate Haneke's point. In a recent New York Times interview, Haneke explained that "Funny Games was always made with American audiences in mind, since its subject is Hollywood's attitude toward violence." Unfortunately Funny Games was far from a mainstream film, at least by Hollywood's standards, and his message was lost on his so-called target audience. Most people who saw Funny Games (i.e. the festival crowds) are more than aware of their roles as viewers and as a result, Haneke ends up preaching to the choir. With this in mind, it is no wonder Haneke agreed to remake his own film with an English speaking cast.

As the story goes, Haneke was approached because someone else wanted to do an English language adaptation of Funny Games. To which he said, 'No way, but I'll do it.' So he took on the remake, and signs Naomi Watts and Tim Roth on as the couple and Michael Pitt and Brandy Corbet as the mischievous youngsters. Reports from the London Film Festival, where it debuted, are that the film is almost a shot-for-shot, word-for-word remake. You can even see this in the trailers for the old and the new which are almost identical. Pretty crazy. Funny Games is getting more interesting all the time. I know it is sadistic, but I am actually looking forward to sitting in the theater with a group of people to watch Funny Games.

The real question is how this film will be marketed. As a ruse to a mainstream audience? Or an arthouse audience that made made Cache a success? Either way will be interesting. Cache did brisk business for a foreign language film in the US, and I was surprised at the number of people it drew at the screening I went to at the Edina Theater. As brutal as Cache was, it doesn't hold a candle to Funny Games, and an unsuspecting audience (the role I played not to long ago) is probably exactly what Haneke is after. Haneke's films are very self-reflexive, and gain their energy from a rebound off a backboard that Haneke provides. Of course, sometimes that rebound comes right at your face with a ferocious speed, as with Funny Games, or it comes back as a playful toss (Cache). In a recent interview in Time Out, Haneke stated as much: "I always say that a film has to be like the ramp for ski-jumping. The film is the ramp. After that, you’re on your own." I'm going to try this ski jump again when it opens in February.

Let the Funny Games begin!

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