Serial Filmmaking

Michael Haneke has brought his maniacal art horror to the United States, remaking his 1997 film Funny Games for American audiences. What he has given us, however, is not your average Hollywood remake – snipped and streamlined for the more delicate stateside viewer, much as Ron Howard’s imminent remake of Haneke’s 2003 Caché is likely to be. No, this is what they call a shot-for-shot remake – a genre that, to my knowledge, only includes one other film, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

Critics have often compared Haneke to Hitchcock, or at least cited him as a reference point. This does seem an apt comparison, especially for Funny Games. The two filmmakers share a common instinct: to deconstruct and parody the family, often by putting a murderer in their midst (usually a stand-in for the filmmaker), and softly – or not so softly – suggesting a question: Who is more morally repulsive – the transgressive murderer or the repressive family members?

But the question of softness is key. Hitchcock has been canonized and revitalized again and again precisely for the softness (or subtlety) with which he conveys multiple meanings. For those of us who are interested in the movie medium’s capacity to be democratic, Hitchcock has long seemed the poster-boy – a director who was able to speak to the intelligentsia and the masses simultaneously through a coded “dual address.”

On this score, Haneke lays no claim. The harshest criticism of his work tends to be that of obviousness. A.O. Scott accused Haneke’s ideas of being “facile encapsulations of chic conventional wisdom.” It is here that Haneke begins to resemble Kubrick, the auteur par excellence who tends to be most potent during adolescence, when Big Ideas are especially impressive. And while there are few critics who feel the need to reopen Kubrick as a discussion-point, only the most obscurist among them will dare to dismiss him. The reason for this, I think, is that when you go back and watch a Kubrick film – any one will do – it is likely to have the exact same effect on you that it did when you first saw it. It is different from reexamining a Hitchcock film when one is older and capable of uncovering more meaning. With Kubrick, one gets the same meaning both times – but it is the force with which it is felt, the mastery of the medium, and the hubris that assures you that you will never see a more definitive film about War, Communication, Technology, Criminality, Sex. In this sense, Kubrick becomes the more populist filmmaker, for he is uniting disparate audiences – teens and adults, and presumably the educated with the less educated – by conveying powerful meanings that can be understood by anyone. The ease and universality of his meanings make them no less true or powerful. Hitchcock, on the other hand, may allow disparate audiences to share the common space of a movie theater, but they are not seeing the same movie – one audience is seeing a whodunit and the other is seeing an existential Freudian fever-dream. Critics are more likely to prefer the filmmaker who gives them a challenge, or space to do their job. In this sense, a critic’s chief enemy is obviousness.

With both versions of Funny Games, Haneke is making a rather obvious statement on Media Violence and he is using Brechtian distancing devices that anyone who has seen a film parody (Wayne’s World, say) will understand. But no filmmaker since Kubrick has conveyed such obvious ideas with such perfect formal mastery. (Admittedly, Paul Thomas Anderson is also a candidate for his treatment of Greed and Religion in There Will Be Blood.)

There is a moment in Funny Games when the patriarchal victim tells the murderers to stop what they are doing because he “gets it,” a comment that is likely to resonate with viewers and critics who by now “get” what Haneke is doing but don’t really feel like sitting through the rest of the torture. “Getting it” and continuing to watch, however, is, for Haneke, the correct form of viewership – it is about the process with which we are forced to endure these uncomfortable situations.

A.O. Scott goes on to compare Funny Games to movies like Saw and Hostel, accusing Haneke of getting pleasure out of violence even as he condemns it. I don’t doubt that Haneke is getting pleasure out of something here, but to say that it is the same as Eli Roth’s pleasure is inaccurate. There is not a single image of hardcore violence in Funny Games. Okay, there is one, but it is quickly taken back (literally, rewound). The shooting, the knifing, and even the golf club to Tim Roth’s knee are methodically displaced off-screen. When Naomi Watts is forced to strip, all the viewer sees is her face. The reason these sequences are torturous to watch is not because of the visceral response to a disgusting image, but because we already have seen these images and can fill in the blanks with our own vile imaginations. (Spoiler Alert: Skip to next paragraph to avoid.) Haneke’s scenes are composed of uncomfortable long takes, in which a bourgeois family is undone – a father emasculated, a mother denigrated in front of her son, and the son deposed of all together. The most impressive scene in the film is that long, unbearable set of static shots after the son is shot, the killers have left for a joyride, and the parents are now forced to choose between mourning and survival. These are not your average torture-porn killers; these killers are also therapists.

But why do it again?

This notion of a shot-for-shot remake has always struck me as a kind of filmmaker’s vertigo, Gus Van Sant and Michael Haneke cast in the role of Scotty Ferguson, obsessively trying to reanimate that which is long dead. It’s also a great thought-experiment… For people who maintain that art should be evaluated for its own sake without context, try to ask them which Psycho is better, the old or the new, and then to justify their assessment without context.

The remake of Funny Games, all of these things aside, seems to be a unique perversity that enriches the original and should ideally be viewed alongside it, if not as a double feature then perhaps with a few years in between to keep sanity intact. Haneke has said that he would never remake any of his other films, but that Funny Games is a special case. Some have speculated about whether Haneke will go on to remake the film again, bringing his brutal gospel to different countries in different languages once every 10 years. Just as the film ends with Peter and Paul on their way to enacting an identical killing, Haneke – a serial killer in his own right – subjects us to an identical film. In an age of media-saturated violence and subsequent numbness-at-home, it is not enough to “get” Funny Games, or even to see it once all the way through. We must watch it again and again and again.

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