8 08 2008

Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES U.S. (a remake of his own film of 1997) explores (inexorably) the precariousness inherent in bourgeois lifestyles, especially in the world of those Reaganite winners whose summer enclaves–gated, cloistered within high walls of shrubbery, alienated from the dark forces of social life in a constantly degraded America and also from contact with neighbors–conceived as bastions of liberty and independence, easily convert into prisons. The Farbers (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, Devon Gearhart) have retreated for a spate of sailing and barbecuing, with the dog, the cellphone, and the blithe attitude that bespeaks a complete denial of Wordworth’s line, “The world is too much with us, late and soon.” The world is not with the Farbers at all, except as snippets of opera they can quiz one another about as they shuffle along the interstate. Unctuously insinuating themselves into this pristine little world–not really so little, perhaps, but more than utterly pristine, with its polished cabinets and lush broadloom, its flatscreen, its refrigerator full of sirloin–are two sweet-looking preppies (Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet), schizophrenic, perhaps; or gay; or just plain full of hate for everything that American success means–even though they are nothing if not success stories themselves: clean as kleenex, decked out in tennis whites, well-spoken, polite to a fault.

These two do horrible things to the Farbers, and–to void the film of just a tiny bit of its mystery–finally kill them all; but not before demonstrating, through Haneke’s golden touch, a richly analysed vein of duplicity and arrogance in what Christopher Sharrett calls the “American civilizing project.” The etiquette, for instance, which becomes almost painful, would be required in a tightly packed island society (such as England) as a way of buffering possible interpersonal and class collisions (preserving the prerogatives of class here meaning keeping the uppers from having to actually produce friction by rubbing against their “inferiors”). In the Farbers’ summer spot, however, the neighbors are separated by the lake, or by high shrubs, and do not really interact; each man is in his castle. Etiquette is hardly necessary–as in the golden days of the West. Yet brushed young Paul and Peter apologize and “please/thank you” their way through every depraved torture they inflict, disconnected from the violence the commit and watch much as the Farbers are disconnected–willfully–from the violent world in which they live.

If there is redemption here–and my sense is that there is not–it lies somewhere in the consciousness of the viewer, with whom Paul (Pitt) exercises a peculiar bond. “You’re probably siding with THEM,” he says snidely at one point, staring into the lens, “We’ll see.” He knows we’re watching. He knows we think watching is good. In the end, it’s not the victims we link to at all (as they perish before our eyes), it’s the boys who make them victims, as at dawn, sweet as sugar in their tennis whites, they find the next door to knock upon.
What I find myself wondering about as I think back on FUNNY GAMES U.S. is not the actions of motives of the blithe young killers, or even the smarmy silliness of their victims, but what could have moved Haneke to make a film as desperate as this, what question could have plagued him to which this cold escapade was some hint of an answer. Is he “going postal” on his audience, to show affiliation with the “new cinema”? Are we all, always, already, “too protected,” just as the Farbers clearly are, and do we need this assault, or deserve it, because we have walled ourselves off in movie theaters from the violence outside? The audience always deserves to be moved, but not raped. Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du printemps,” for example, stunned and enthralled real listeners, but aggravated those for whom the symphony hall was a flimsy formality–as it properly should have. In FUNNY GAMES U.S. there is no deep, true music of the Stravinskyan kind: just blows upon blows.



One response

14 08 2008
David Edelberg

Two interesting points.
Apparently the original version, in German, was loudly booed at by the audience when shown at Cannes and Haneke was surprised by the hostility of the reaction. Nevertheless, the DVD sold (according to Haneke) so well in English speaking countries that he decided to reshoot the whole thing, scene by scene, with English speaking actors.
In the States, this new version was a critical disaster, disappearing from the screens only days after it opened. Those who had not been around to vilify the original version got their chances in newspapers and online, Roger Ebert leading the pack with a 1/2 star. Of course, this is the same critic who chose “Juno” as picture of the year. I doubt if the total U.S. gross was little more than $1,000,000
Of course, all of this anger may be that (a) “Funny Games” is really VERY painful to watch, and (b) here in the States, it’s about us, and we don’t like that one bit. Life is cheap, guns are everywhere, people can be just plain mean.

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