Thursday, June 26, 2008

An Artful Preacher

On the fabulous you can read a review of Michael Haneke's 2007 remake of his FUNNY GAMES. Very much like reviewer Bryn, I realised I had changed since I saw the original 1997 version at the Ghent International Film Festival premiere screening (For that occasion I interviewed actress Susanne Lothar afterwards in front of the bewildered festival audience.)

I was mesmerised by the 1997 original and thought it was one of the most intelligent and though-provoking movies I'd ever seen.

Today - without having seen the remake - my thinking about movies is very different.

I'm entering dangerous territory here as Michael Haneke has a solid reputation as an intellectual and an artist.

If FUNNY GAMES is to be seen as a statement against a certain type of violence in movies, I assume Haneke would prefer to see the world without it. As an artist and intellectual, did he search for a way to do something about it? I guess the answer is that artists shouldn't provide solutions. They just flag the problem.

However, just because he is using the medium that has caused the problem in the first place, there is an opportunity to address the very target group involved in creating and perpetuating the problem. The first step could be to create awareness of the issue with an audience that can make a difference.

But the audience of Haneke's type of cinema is not that. They're already converted.

When you want to make a critical or philosophical statement, it works better to respect the rules and principles of the format you do this in. In a way THE SIMPSONS has always done this perfectly. To a degree Michael Moore understands this, too. George Carlin did.

In any case it goes against reason to make a statement about society in a specific format - here: cinema - and then break the rules of that format. Essentially this is what the story of FUNNY GAMES does: it directs itself to a cinema audience, then tells them they're idiots for wanting the resolution they expect. Not a good way to get a point across.

Possibly even more so if that audience is American.

Recently I have been referring to the movie PRINCESS as an example of a sharp cinematic statement about a dark aspect of our society. The movie does this using the conventions of cinema narrative and it succeeds in a frightening way. It doesn't shock by leaving us confused, but by addressing the issue head-on using a story structure we are all familiar with. The filmmaker has used all his intellectual and artistic powers to create an incisive document that makes a point without frustrating the audience that is willing to listen.

When you make a movie, you enter in some sort of agreement with your prospect audience, promising them you are going to tell them a story. That could be any sort of story with any sort of characters about any sort of subject. What it can NOT offer is just any sort of narrative structure.

You may argue that Haneke didn't just use 'any sort of structure' but one that was deliberately designed to make a point about genre cliches.

When you destroy a cliche, you need to offer an alternative. Haneke leaves a void. This void causes the audience to be shocked and confused, wondering about the point of the entire exercise.

When Alfred Hitchcock killed Janet Leigh's character in PSYCHO, he didn't just end the movie there. He took the audience to a new place by bending the rules and creating a story to fill the void left by Leigh and the film became a classic. Not just a cult classic.

All storytelling has its own emotional logic. To deliberately frustrate an audience can be seen as arrogant and perverted, even an abuse of the storyteller's power. How much of a point would I make by interrupting my son's bedtime story just before the happy ending, switching on the bright bedroom lights, and with the radio at high volume?

In all cultures, stories fulfill an emotional and psychological need. Filmmakers who deny an audience this fulfillment by turning what is inherently an emotional format into an intellectual one, may not be working in the most suitable medium. Perhaps, instead, they should write books, give lectures, go into politics.

When ten years ago I watched the original FUNNY GAMES, I didn't realise the film was preaching to the converted because I was a convert myself. I watched it on an intellectual level and enjoyed its brain tease.

But doesn't this preaching to the converted really defeat the purpose?

And forgive my preaching here, but if Haneke is really the artist he is claimed to be, why then would he ten years after FUNNY GAMES make the exact same movie again? Shouldn't he be doing other, newer, bolder things? Shouldn't the artist reflect the changing times?

Surely over the past ten years cinema has changed. Audiences have changed.

I certainly have.