Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A funny response to Funny Games

Illustration for article titled A funny response to Funny Games

Can you really think a movie is good (or really freaking good) if you also think it "fails" at what the director intended? I've been thinking about this ever since I saw Michael Haneke's English remake of his 1997 film Funny Games at an early screening last week. I really admired the movie. (I haven't seen the original, but I understand they are exactly alike, so I'll just assume until I see it that I really like that one, too.) Funny Games is a brutally terrifying thriller that's almost too painful to watch, but Haneke is such a master filmmaker you can't turn away. Like all great horror films, Funny Games is a miserable experience that suddenly becomes exhilarating once its over, because a great cinematic artist has so completely sucked you into his make-believe world.

I'm pretty sure if Haneke were to read my glowing praise, he'd come to my house, take my family hostage, and torture us physically and psychologically. Funny Games is not intended to be enjoyed. It is intended to be an indictment of me, you, or any other bastard who enjoys movies like Funny Games. As Scott Tobias writes in his A.V. Club review, "Funny Games punishes the audience for its casual bloodlust by giving it all the sickening torture and mayhem it could possibly desire. Neat trick,that." Haneke thinks we're all sick and depraved to seek out violent entertainment, and he uses his film like a golf club to bludgeon us for our sins. Only his bludgeoning felt good to me. I didn't feel implicated; I felt moved, like I had just seen a virtuoso do something impressive, even if the virtuoso himself didn't seem to understand exactly why it was impressive.

The big gimmick of Funny Games is [SPOILER ALERT!] that the young psychopaths played by Michael Pitt (now officially the best extremely unappealing actor in Hollywood) and Brady Corbet make the audience an accomplice in their crimes. Pitt talks to us directly, like a buddy, asking if we've had enough before committing another horrifying act. The point of breaking the fourth wall is to remind the audience that this poor family is being tortured because that's the sort of thing "we" demand from a thriller. Haneke is "giving the people what they want" in the most extreme, repellent fashion imaginable. Haneke essentially thinks we're a bunch of murderous, antisocial teenagers with bad haircuts, and isn't shy about spelling it out, blatantly and somewhat heavy-handedly.

The implication of Funny Games is that violent pop culture points to a lack of morality in society, and I reject that idea, just as I reject it when it comes from right-wing politicians every four years. I just don't think "enjoying" fake violence–which is stylized, cinematic, and, you know, fake—is in any way like enjoying real violence–which is clumsy, ugly, and, you know, real–unless you're fucking nuts. "Enjoyment" of Funny Games comes from how real Haneke can make the violence he's simulating, not because we long for the actual real thing, but because we love good (or at least interesting) stories that are dramatic, believable, and move us in some way. Which is why Funny Games can be appreciated even if you ignore Haneke's finger wagging because, in spite of himself, he's a master at creating what he despises. And creating powerful screen violence has merit. Funny Games is not a vapid representation of human nature's dark side. It makes us feel the true horror of violence in ways, say, the evening news doesn't. It's only when Haneke (through Pitt) winks at the camera that the impact of the violence is lessened, undercutting what really makes the movie so powerful.

Before he breaks the fourth wall Haneke draws you in and creates instant empathy for the couple, played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, and their young son. (Some critics have suggested Haneke does the opposite, making us identify with the torturers. I think this is wrong. If that were the case, the movie would be a lot more "fun" than it is.) He does what many great directors do–he shamelessly manipulates the audience into believing that what it is seeing is actually happening. We desperately don't want anything bad to happen to the family. And yet, we're pretty sure something bad will happen, which creates an even stronger feeling of dread. Like Hitchcock, to whom he's been compared, Haneke is great at using the threat of violence as a way of creating suspense and strengthening the impact of suggested violence when it's finally doled out. As a result Funny Games feels a lot more violent than it actually is, with most of the punching, stabbing and shooting happening off camera. Because we're constantly expecting something terrible to come down, we flinch whenever Haneke raises his fist. It's a great trick, because obviously Haneke's fist isn't really in front of our noses.

When Pitt talks to the camera, though, the illusion crumbles. (Though Haneke always gets it right back.) I actually found myself feeling relieved whenever the fourth wall was broken, because it was a brief respite from the overwhelming "reality" of the film. "Oh yeah, these aren't real people in a real situation, it's just a bunch of actors pretending to hurt each other." This is fiction, not snuff. So, what am I supposed to feel bad about? That I enjoy letting Haneke make me feel supremely uneasy over imaginary people getting hurt? If that's the case, then all drama–whether the conflict is physical, emotional, or spiritual–is morally suspect. And, sorry, but I don't buy that. If Haneke thinks dumb, violent American films are harmful (though, again, I think he's misguided in that belief) the proper response is to make more smart thrillers like Funny Games, only without the hectoring next time.

So, if I didn't miss the point of Funny Games, I certainly choose to ignore it. Or maybe not–after all, Haneke did get me thinking about the issues he raises, even if I do reject them. What do you guys think? Have you ever seen a movie you enjoyed in spite of what the filmmaker might have intended?