Funny? Games and the ultra violence

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(Photo courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures)

If you thought Michael Haneke's 1997 Austrian feature Funny Games was an exercise in sadism, then you should check out the ad campaign associated with his current Hollywood remake of the film starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt centered on a vacationing family tortured by a pair of privileged teenagers reminiscent of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. In a certifiably sick movie tie-in, viewers can go to the Funny Games website:

Click on "Play the Game."

Go ahead. I dare you.

Customize an e-mail message and a phone message using the name of a friend or loved one and receive a message for your friend delivered in the voices of the film’s killers. It's an incredibly creepy promotional gimmick.

It's strange to see this diabolical device used to promote a film by this exceedingly smart, subversive director. Does Haneke know? If I had his e-mail address and phone number, I might have to customize one for him.

I have written about Haneke a number of times and his brilliant cinema of contemporary dis-ease. Like other admirers of his work, I was a bit put off by the notion of him remaking Funny Games, a film so thoroughly disturbing it haunted me for weeks following my first viewing. Fans of Haneke’s work won't be able to stay away from his virtual shot-by-shot American remake of Funny Games, though it will probably feel less creepy and shocking the second time around, as local filmmaker Mike Brune, who attended a press screening, noted.

But the American version seems to have fulfilled the director's mission to assault desensitized Americans with their taste for violence as entertainment. The couple seated in front of me had all of the usual horror-movie reactions to the movie: "Get out of the house!" "Why is he eating, now!?" but by film's end seemed to have been lulled into a creeped-out stupor. We'll see if the film reaches beyond the art-house crowd or is perversely embraced as "ironic" by the same thrill seekers who sing the praises of amoral gore hound Tarantino.

Many, as my editor noted, will think of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange when they see Funny Games. There are so many shared elements: the cold, ironic teenage killers, the white outfits, the home invasion, the dispassionate sadism. But as Haneke noted in a 2007 profile in the New York Times, Kubrick’s use of violence in Clockwork was in some ways an ugly affirmation of sadism’s dark allure. I think Haneke is coming from a far more solidly moral, subversive place, where Kubrick’s approach to violence was more about his delight in a remarkable story and the apparatus of cinema. According to Haneke, Kubrick was disgusted by how the ultra-violence was received. I personally love Kubrick. His influence on film (and the art world, too) is immeasurable. But the way he handled violence, especially sexual violence, in this film still repulses me.

There is a slick, tantalizing element to the anti-social cruelty meted out by Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his droogs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that teenage boys from probably every generation since have dressed up as these characters for Halloween. And I won’t even get into the many literal and metaphorical rape scenes in Clockwork, including the one set to the strains of “Singing in the Rain.” It has an ugly, erotic element not unlike the rape scene with Susan George in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (She likes it! She really likes it!), and in some ways seems to illustrate how directors in the ’70s (both films were released in 1971) were dealing with the sexual revolution and the subsequent rise of women’s rights in a not altogether pleasant way.

Watch for my review of Funny Games in the March 12 issue of Creative Loafing.

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