Deeper Into Movies: "Funny Games" and the Hypocrisy of Irony

Courtesy of Nicole Rivelli © 2007 Celluloid Dreams Productions – Halcyon Pictures – Tartan Films – X Filme International

With great power, of course, comes great responsibility. But who holds that power, and where does responsibility rest? From A.O. Scott’s fine review of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games:

“Why don’t you just kill us and get it over with?” George whimpers. His would-be killer’s reply — “What about entertainment?” — carries beyond the screen, where the voyeuristic masses are implicated in the gruesome spectacle of senseless cruelty. Are we, though? What if the guilt trip never takes off? Or, even worse, what if the American audience, cretins that we are, were to embrace Mr. Haneke’s vision not for its moral stringency but for the thrill of, say, watching Ms. Watts, bound at the ankles and wrists, hop around in her underwear? Who will be implicated then? I started out by calling Mr. Haneke a sadist, but it seems to me that he may be too naïve, too delicate, to merit that designation, which should be reserved only for the greatest filmmakers.

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At least with the remade “Funny Games,” Mr. Haneke shows a certain kinship with someone like Eli Roth, whose “Hostel” movies have brought nothing but scorn from responsible critics. (If Mr. Haneke wanted to break into the American market, rather than take solace in the ambivalent embrace of the intelligentsia, he should have undertaken not a remake but a sequel.) The “Hostel” pictures and their ilk revel in the pornography of blood and pain, which Mr. Haneke addresses with mandarin distaste, even as he feeds the appetite for it.

Like Peter and Paul, who wear immaculate white gloves as they go about their awful business, “Funny Games” tries to insulate itself from its own awfulness in the fine cloth of self-consciousness. On a few occasions Mr. Pitt turns to address the audience directly, mocking us for rooting for Ann and George’s survival, deriding our desire for neat resolutions. At these moments, using techniques that might have seemed audacious to an undergraduate literary theory class in 1985 or so, the film calls attention to its own artificial status. It actually knows it’s a movie! What a clever, tricky game! What fun! What a fraud.

Emphasis mine. Scott’s analysis is similar to my own feelings upon seeing Borat at a screening at UCLA filled with ostensibly liberal, open-minded college students. They laughed…at the Jew jokes. The movie’s relatively light-hearted homophobia sequence fell flat. The bit in the church didn’t go over well, either. What does this say about the audience, or worse, the real effect of Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie-film? His over-the-top satire is meant to condemn all varieties of prejudice as ridiculous, to challenge the audience to review their own unfounded beliefs; moviegoers leaving the theater with a tacit condonement of anti-Semitism (which, by the way, is on the rise) and a sense of self-righteousness at having taken offense at a butt sex joke haven’t been challenged. They’ve been reinforced. This is not Cohen’s fault, though he is not simply entitled to simply wash his hands of his audience.

In fairness, Borat is more a comedy than it is a piece of social criticism, while Funny Games seems to take the opposite approach to the horror/suspense genre. I haven’t seen the film and don’t plan to, but the issues raised by both films can be distilled into this question: How does one walk the line between communicating to a mass audience in a language they can understand and communicating that that very language is bad? Haneke relies on breaking the fourth wall to inform the audience that they are watching a movie and their thoughts should be provoked accordingly, but that’s a cheap trick — one that (perhaps necessarily) patronizes the audience while heavy-handedly excusing the director’s use of the same evils he’s decrying. The irony is that a film like Funny Games, as Scott notes, is hardly a box-office bonanza waiting to happen. Its audience, small and intellectual, should get the picture without prodding. Then again, this is America: Maybe next week we’ll see an outbreak of tennis whites-wearing murderer duos. I sure hope not — at least Jew jokes I can live with.