One of my scariest childhood memories is my grandmother taking me to our neighborhood movie theater to see the Disney animation Little Red Riding Hood.
I even forgot how old I was at the time but I remember the shock of watching the big bad wolf eating up both the grandma and the little girl with the red hood! It was the most violent thing I had encountered up until that age.
I remember most of the other kids somehow cheering and having a good time at precisely those scenes where I was trying to hide under my seat. That’s why I suppose I always had a rather different take on the issue of “violence in movies” and thought about it for some time.
A lot of movies, including cartoons for children and slapstick comedies, have always been violent either at their core or on the edges.
What’s Tom and Jerry if not an endless chase between a bully and a potential victim? Find me a single minute in any Three Stooges film where nobody gets kicked in the butt, hit in the face with a pie or slapped hard on the head.
Jaws was violent but it was an “us versus nature” sort of “unifying violence.” It was a bonding experience for us humans to root for the destruction of a white shark. I bet even the animals’ rights advocates liked the punishment dished out at the end to the big bad fish.
Who cares for that human-eating slimy Alien’s right to life? In that context, again, a violent death is justice well done.
Violence was Hitchcock’s bread and butter (Psycho, Birds, Dial M For Murder, etc.). He invented the “reaction shot” in which the reaction to the violent act is as dreadful as the deed itself.
The lesson is well-learned and ratcheted up to new levels of adrenaline rush by Oscar-winning directors like Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park), Coppola (Godfather, Apocalypse Now), and Coen Brothers (Fargo, Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men). The list is a very long one.
Violence, in one form or another, has been a part of a majority of all movies ever made.
Violence has been not only merely accepted but also applauded, promoted and rewarded for a very good reason, as I’ll try to establish in the second part of this meditation.
A History of Violence
Since the day our earliest ancestors pressed their hands on a cave wall in Altamira and Lascaux and sprayed paint on them we tried to improve the control over our fate by manipulating it first in a symbolic domain.
We proved to ourselves that we could hunt that mammoth or the saber-toothed tiger by first depicting it killed in a cave painting.
We always trusted that life imitated art; that we had to have faith in our symbols first before we could have faith in our technology.
We instinctively understood that if we got the Narrative just right, there would eventually be a mechanism to translate it into reality. Magic had always been our Ace in the sleeve in the poker game of survival where winner takes all.
One of the most efficient cultural devices ever discovered to cope with the dread of survival is to deal with violence on a controlled symbolic platform.
Yes, the big bad wolf eats up both the grandma and the little girl but then the Brave Hunter (Joseph Campbell’s Hero) shows up and cleans his clock big time. “Justice” is restored and our world is safe once again.
We are redeemed and assured through the way we deal with violence in our movies.
That’s why even in David Cronenberg’s aptly titled A History of Violence, we are still allowed a way out. There is still some light, however feeble, at the end of the tunnel. There is a context of justice challenged and restored, and a sub-text of hope and redemption.
Secondly, we are always passive spectators trying to learn how Life solves “these issues.” We are not perpetrators. We, as audience, do not participate in the crime. That’s one taboo all directors respect and observe because they understand the true restorative function of violence in motion pictures.
Not Michael Haneke, the Austrian director who earlier gave us the very disturbing Piano Teacher (2001). Now he inflicts his Funny Games (2007) upon us and crosses the last threshold separating narrative art from an “interactive” kind of violence that amounts to unfiltered evil without a context.
We’ll look into how Haneke has missed the whole point in the next two sections of this essay.
Michael Haneke‘s Funny Games (2007) can be approached at three different levels of analysis. He wins hands down at the second level but loses badly on the first and (the most important) third levels.
Level 1 is obvious
This is not a film but, as the New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott has called it, a “gruesome spectacle of senseless cruelty” and “pornography of blood and pain.”
Pornography is love and lust taken out of its local social context and reduced to its sheer physical universality.
Haneke’s violence is pornographic in a similar manner. It reduces violence to a universal mechanical act with reason-defying randomness. It becomes a snake that feeds on its own tail; an act that exists only for itself.
Especially cruel and inexcusable are the scenes where the perverts torturing this perfectly beautiful family on their weekend outing look directly into the camera and wink, and ask us, the audience, if we like the plot “so far”?!
That’s when you shudder, realizing that Haneke now makes us a part of Evil as well.
He creates the illusion that we are consenting to torture where in fact no such consent is ever given.
Such debunking of the presentation layer is nothing new.
Alfred Hitchcock did it with that famous original wink into the camera in the very last scene of his last movie, Family Plot (1976).
Hitchcock also made us aware that we were actually watching not a real story “out there” but a movie, a total cultural construct. Good joke. Fine.
But here Haneke launches a direct assault on all movie fans assuming that we are just as guilty and corrupt since we have chosen to watch his movie.
It’s an unfair ambush. It’s like being invited to the screening of a supposedly E. M. Forster movie only to discover that we’re in for a cheap porn flick.
By sealing the tunnel of hope completely and refusing even a sliver of light seep in, Haneke not only violates a time-honored plotting taboo but the best intentions and loftiest aspirations of human nature as well.
So at this level it is clear that Funny Games (2007) is an act of aggression masquerading as a film.
It’s not “funny” and it’s not a “game.”
Its heartless deception and merciless entrapment is perhaps never seen before in art history. It can probably best be understood by talking to Haneke’s psychiatrist, if he’s got one.
The second level though is more interesting.
That’s the same platform from which Marquis de Sade back in the 18th century had launched his unrelenting critique of the bourgeois morality of his day.
At this level Haneke is a true humanist because he is shoving our presumed “collective hypocrisy” down our throats.
He is saying “you want violence, I mean REAL violence?! So here it is! Enjoy it if you can, you evil bastards posing as movie lovers!”
At that level he is forcing us to consider the fact that we might actually be no different than the Roman masses that had a “good time” at the Colosseum at the expense of the slaves torn to pieces by the Gladiators and wild beasts.
We might be heading for Hell in front of our wide-screen sets and we don’t even know it!
At that level I have to admit that we owe Haneke a sincere thanks since he forces us to question our own motivations for watching a film like Funny Games.
There is however another and third level of analysis where Funny Games again fails totally.
Third Level of Analysis
By stripping off the protective layer of redemption within which all crime thrillers and even slasher movies are wrapped, Haneke is actually denying us our human yearning for better tomorrows.
He is declaring that we have no RIGHT to HOPE for anything better in the future.
He assumes the DISCONNECT between his reality and our images is proof enough of our eternal guilt.
The worst point Haneke misses is this – denying us the right to maintain hope through symbols and narration is tantamount to saying that we have no right to ANY art, period.
Why? Because you do not even need any violence in a movie to raise the specter of a similar “bourgeois hypocrisy.”
Imagine a couple falling in love and marrying after watching the delightful and non-violent When Harry Met Sally.
What if for the next 40 years this couple live through the hell of the worst marriage imaginable?
What if their REAL marriage turns out to have nothing in common with the ones depicted in these “silly” and “irresponsible” feel-good rom-coms?
Shall we thus “debunk” such comedies as well and never shoot them in the name of “honesty” and “consistency”? Where would that end?
At that point Haneke is committing an intellectual suicide but apparently he is not even aware of it.
In his adamant fundamentalism, Haneke cannot comprehend that the disconnect that he correctly detects between his reality and our images is actually our best effort to learn from our mistakes at as little a cost as possible, and lead humanly-better lives.
In trying to be holier than all of us he is committing the very same sin that all such characters commit at the end: Funny Games represents a fascism of spirit that tortures and kills the very same souls that it tries to “save” from themselves.
Did you know that “sin” is an old English archery term and it means to “miss the mark“?
Haneke is a bad archer aiming at his own inflamed Achilles’ heel.