February 20, 2009

Weekend Horror Flicks: Haneke's Funny Games

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Visiting architect Peter Eisenman ’55 introduced a sceening of three short films by Michael Haneke on Wednesday including Funny Games.
In Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a scene-by-scene Hollywood remake of Haneke’s own foreign feature, two effete young men who claim to be guests of the neighbors visit a family in their vacation home in order to borrow eggs. The shell of the family’s complacent bourgeois lifestyle quickly breaks open, however: The boys, named Peter and Paul, refuse to leave. Playing on the host/hostage dialectic, the boys subject the family to irrational games of “do unto others,” as if parodying the concept of Christian charity in the guise of a sadistic Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
The film uses the trappings of the thriller/horror genre in order to trap its audience into recognizing their complicity with the horror of media and mediation itself. While the violence escalates, the boys speak in occasional asides to the camera as if they were in a Jacobean revenge tragedy. After one nasty run-in, there is a prolonged shot where we are subjected to the deafening sounds of Nascars endlessly revolving on a big-screen TV: The mind-numbing roar viscerally assaults us, standing in for the mutilation that remains too obscene to show directly.
When Naomi Watts’ character finally blasts one of her captors with a shotgun, the other boy — played by Michael Pitt, who can seem both charmingly innocent and knowingly seductive at the same time — finds a remote and literally rewinds the scene to replay it to his (and our) evident satisfaction, as indicated by the eruption of audience laughter.
At this point we realize that it’s us, the audience, who are inside the Panopticon: both being held captive by the film as well as enforcing that captivity by sharing the boys’ delight in cruelty. We, as much as they, find pleasure in seeing Watts brutally stripped, gagged and bound — all while the raffish domestic terrorists keep up a masquerade of decorum and we sit comfortably in our chairs. Haneke has claimed, in fact, “I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.” But that there may be no form of independence except the discomfiting recognition that we reside, inescapably, in a Panopticon, becomes the film’s true vision of terror.