Monday, March 24, 2008

Funny Games

    Okay, before I discuss Michael Haneke's shot-for-shot remake of his own Funny Games, I have to talk briefly about this trailer we saw before the film, for a movie called Extra Ordinary Barry. This looks like the worst comedy ever made. I watched a full-length trailer and still have no clue what the movie's about, except intensely hacky sex n' fart jokes. Even reading the website and the IMDb page are no help.

    All I know is, it's about a guy named Barry Berry (har!) who loses his job and hanging around with quirky idiots. That's as far as you get with the trailer, which does somehow find time to include an extended sequence in which a dog farts, prompting star Jay Convente to convulse and heave in a way that I refuse to believe could have ever seemed funny to anyone.

    There's no embeddable version of the trailer, but you can take a look at it on the film's official site here. But, you know...don't if your time has any value whatsoever. Otherwise, enjoy.

    Okay, on to Funny Games, which could not really be less like Extra Ordinary Barry while still being technically classifiable as a "film."

    Essentially, even though I was walking into this movie fresh, it was a second viewing, because I have seen the original, and the two versions are identical in most ways. (I was not certain that all the sound cues were the same, and obviously they feature different casts and languages, but the two films provide, overall, very similar experiences.).

    This would seem like a complete waste of time for 99% of films. Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot redo of Psycho was part of this 99%. It makes a bit more sense in the case of Funny Games, which in many ways is a film about mocking the standard assumptions and axioms of film, one of which is that you only make a film once. (Additionally, the story, such as it is, ends exactly as it begins, making the narrative itself cyclical. So, if you were to watch these characters in 1997, and then check in on them again in 2008, they very well might be engaging in an entirely similar situation with an identical outcome.) Still, I'm not ready to entirely defend Haneke's decision to exactly remake a previous effort, if only because it's this effort, which has a lot of interesting ideas and well-executed moments, but rarely probes ideas meaty enough to sustain two films.

    It's also peculiar and, I'll admit, kind of fascinating that a director would chose to work with such difficult and not-particularly-entertaining material twice. I'd think most directors would have to spend ten years doing animated musicals, Bond movies and Scary Movie sequels to recover from the soul-crushing intensity of making this movie. Haneke's done it twice in a bit more than a decade...

    The story: Two strange young men intrude on a family of three in their vacation home, destroy the phone and then spend a night torment their captives. At first, the strangers who introduce themselves as Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) are simply irritating - they borrow eggs and drop them on the floor, they ask awkward or inappropriate questions, they hesitate to leave and generally ignore body language and social norms. But the situation quickly escalates and soon enough, they have broken Dad's (Tim Roth) leg, thrown a bag over Junior's (Devon Gearhart) head and forced Mom (Naomi Watts) to take off her clothes so they can look for "jelly rolls." A wager is made and thus begins a deeply unsettling evening of the titular "games," in which the boys taunt their victims, threaten their lives, strip them of their dignity and generally try to drive them insane.

    Like Cache, I'm fairly certain Funny Games is a fake-out, a funny game itself, in which the director has directly assumed a role in the film. In Cache, a family received videotapes revealing personal secrets, tapes that could only have been made by a supernatural being, or the film's director, with complete control over its self-contained universe. In Funny Games,
    Paul at times speaks directly into the camera or refers openly to his "audience."

    Cache honestly feels like a refinement of this technique. Rather than brazenly calling attention to his presence in his own story, as he does when Paul asks the audience a question or violates space-time, Haneke allows the viewer of Cache to slowly unlock the film's central mystery. He does so with a specific purpose, making a point about French history and the need to look honestly at the mistakes of the past.

    Funny Games is more blunt and more gimmicky, and though Haneke has a point to make, he does so in a sometimes cruel and always adolescent fashion. In essence, we are being implicated in Peter and Paul's crimes, by buying a ticket (or renting a DVD) and watching them. We're first directly confronted by Paul when he's forcing one of his captives, mother Ann, to play a mean-spirited version of the schoolyard favorite "Hot and Cold." As Ann stumbles around, trying to contain her hysterical fear, in the background, Paul turns his head and makes eye contact with us, almost like Daffy Duck when he's indicating that Elmer Fudd is a "screwball." "Can you believe I'm getting away with this?" he's asking us. "Aren't you having a good time?"

    Even more shrewdly, Haneke's discreetly hinting to us that the poor, violated family might actually deserve what they get. (The American poster features the delicious tagline "You Must Admit, You Brought This On Yourself," a quote said by Peter to the family during the film.) If they did not live in tightly-secured home behind a massive iron gate, using their wealth to buy a luxurious vacation home removed from the rest of society, it would be easier to evade their capturers. If they fought back with more tenacity from the get-go, if they were quicker on their feet, if they were just a bit more clever, then none of this would have happened.

    Paul implies at one point that we in the theater obviously side with the family over him, but it's hard to do so completely. It's that little space in your brain that kind of wants to see Peter and Paul abuse these people, or at least doesn't mind so much, that Haneke wishes to explore.

    So the movie is successful, in that it wants to confront the viewer with his or her own bloodlust, and then does so. I'd also call it a technical success, with eerily still cinematography from Darius Khondji and Haneke himself displaying considerable skill at building tension, then cutting that tension with grim humor. (Yes, horrifying though it may be, Funny Games is also slyly hilarious at times, and self-aware enough to make the ensuing laughter feel appropriate). This is not really a movie about performances - the whole notion of violating the reality of the movie kind of works against the actors, who are desperately trying to make their emotions seem real - but Watts and Pitt are still very good. Somehow.

    Still, I can't really recommend it to you. It's clever, but also kind of obvious and not terribly fun. Considerably wrenching, really. Though I appreciated more about the story a second time than the first, I doubt it would ever occur to me to watch the movie again.


          Jordan said...

          extra ordinary barry has left me a broken shell of a man. it disturbed in ways funny games can only dream of. you should put a much larger warning before linking to

          Anonymous said...

          funny games I watched last night, and got what I didn't expect. It was disturbing. The ending was great. The conversation on the boat rocked. Extra ordinary barri I saw, funny and the ending also wrapped up the film. Indie stuff! Warning sigh for funny games, disturbing. Warning for extra ordinary barry, a guy is stressed and he has bowel problems. The acting was phenomenal in both.

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