Friday, March 21, 2008

The importance of entertainment

What is the purpose of the cinema? Is it merely to entertain with sound, movement and color, or should it also disturb you, unsettle you, make you think?

If what you want of movies is pleasant escapism, you will likely find the films of Michael Haneke disturbing, if not repellent. Haneke, an Austrian director and former film critic, uses his films to critique modern society and mass media, particularly television and movies. Benny’s Video (1992) concerned a homicidal teenager who lives through video images; in Caché (2005), a couple receive a package containing disturbing videotapes of their home under surveillance.

Haneke’s films usually involve the introduction of violence into comfortable bourgeois lives. “My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its disempowerment of the spectator,” he once wrote. “They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.”

These ideas are central to Funny Games, Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 German-language film of the same title, in which the lake house of a couple and their young son is invaded by a pair of young men who sadistically terrorize them. The American version is, if anything, more terrifying, perhaps because the theme of the merry trickster more familiar in German folklore (Till Eulenspiegel, for example). The American version offers a shocking (because unexpected) contrast between the soft-spoken, all-American boys, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), and their brutal acts.

One Haneke trademark is characters named George and Anna, or variation on those names. In Funny Games, George, the husband, is played by Tim Roth, and his wife, Anne, is played by the splendid Naomi Watts (who is also executive producer). The film opens with an overhead view of the family’s car heading to their vacation house in the Hamptons. In the car, George, Anna and son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) play a “name that singer” game with opera CDs. The music shifts abruptly from Italian opera to death metal, foreboding the violence that will shatter their idyll.

A neighbor introduces George and Anna to two young men, Peter and Paul, who are a picture of WASP privilege in white tennis shorts and shirts. Paul, the quieter boy, comes to the house to ask Anna for some eggs, and his awkward behavior, including dropping the eggs and knocking Anna’s cell phone into the sink, unsettle her. Peter arrives, and Anna tells George to ask them to leave. A scuffle ensues, and George is assaulted with one of his expensive golf clubs. The family’s long nightmare has begun.

At times the film is almost unwatchable. Although most of the violence is unseen, the depiction of suffering is agonizing, made worse by the boys’ flippancy. They call each other “Beavis” and “Butthead” and devise sadistic “games” for their victims. There is clearly no reason for their hideous acts; they are thrill killers, a video-age Leopold and Loeb. They embody the banality of evil. When one of the suffering victims begs to know why, Peter replies, “You shouldn't forget the importance of entertainment.”

Haneke’s pet theme of the exploitative nature of mass entertainment becomes explicit in a crucial scene in which it seems Anna has gained the upper hand — fulfilling the expectations audience have of Hollywood horror movies. Peter looks frantically for the remote control. The film rewinds to an earlier part of the scene, reminding the viewer that this is a movie, and that the characters know they are in a movie. Paul tauntingly suggests that he is the malevolent director: “We’re not up to feature film length yet. You want a real ending, with plausible plot development, don’t you?”

The acting is superlative, especially Watts, whose agony and courage are authentically wrenching. Michael Pitt is perfectly cast as the malevolent preppie.

Funny Games
is unrelievedly grim, and does not provide a happy ending. It is, however, an extraordinary, provocative film for those who can take it.

Originally appeared in the Cleveland Free Times.

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