Not-so-happy Haneke

October 8, 2009

I find Anthony Lane’s recent New Yorker profile of Michael Haneke lazy and mostly unenlightening to anyone familiar with Haneke’s work. The majority of the piece is preoccupied with illustrating the difference between films that entertain and films that are intellectually engaging, and why the latter are important. Now, the average New Yorker reader may not be especially film-literate, but he or she is probably versed in the arts and has a generally thoughtful and perceptive outlook on the world. Surely he/she doesn’t need an extended explanation of the difference between diagetic music and a score that manipulates viewers’ emotions (which is a token contrast cited between Hollywood and art films). I often complain of Haneke’s condescension towards his audience, and this is another kind of condescension from Lane—wasting our time explaining things that don’t need much explanation, and not taking his profile subject to task for his already outspoken artistic attitudes. Even the title, “Happy Haneke,” broadcasts both the subject’s and writer’s complacency.

Haneke is an extremely provocative director, and Lane did not approach any of the meaty controversies that his films provoke in favor of a bland, flattering retelling of Haneke’s surface interests and philosophies. He brings up one argument from Haneke’s “detractors,” that in order to condemn societal evils, Haneke must indulge them to portray it in his films. But Lane brushes this away with adulation from Haneke’s formidable leading lady Juliette Binoche and a favorite moral tale of Haneke’s of when he intervened in a cowardly display of child abuse.

My main issues with Haneke are his didacticism and his arrogant attitude towards his audience. The first topic Lane totally ignores and the second he dismisses with a surface quotation from Haneke about how he respects the audience member that feels uncomfortable during his films. These films are not supposed to baby you, Lane reminds us over and over. Why didn’t he probe Haneke deeper on the subject, perhaps on the belief he reveals in the video interview on the Funny Games DVD that if a viewer stays and watches the whole film he/she has been complicit in its violence? That he expects the morally sound audience member who does not want to be a participant in the violence to walk out of the theatre during his film? This attitude deeply troubles me. Walking out of a film is a fairly radical act, especially for the average movie-goer (it would seem to me), and to reprimand your audience for staying to watch your whole film is disgusting.

One major dilemma with Haneke’s work, as my former BU professor Roy Grundmann has voiced eloquently, is that often his views on participation in violence are aimed at the type of audience member who most likely will never see his films. He tries to show us the dangers of portraying violence romantically or playing it for laughs, and yet his audience is limited to the art house crowd. This point of intended audience seems especially relevant here, since Lane quotes Haneke as saying how much he hates going to multiplexes and what sorry establishments they are, and how the whole communalism of movie-going should be corrected. Wasn’t a major motivation for remaking Funny Games in the U.S. with stars to get closer to his target audience? The ones who would learn their lesson the most?

Over and over Lane says how Haneke challenges his audience, but never does he investigate Haneke’s tendency to use film as a means of making statements, devoid of warmth or sympathy. Haneke identifies evils in post-modern society, and does not so much explore them as construct a platform through which he can show us what we do wrong. From Benny’s Video to Caché to Code inconnu and even to The Seventh Continent (which I feel is a magnificent film and Haneke’s best), there is always the sense that we the audience should share the guilt of the characters’ perversions of morality. I think of him looking on smugly as he conceived the scene in Funny Games where, after a character finally wrests control away from the boyish villains and shoots one of them, the scene suddenly rewinds and the victims are left more hopeless than ever. It displays such utter disrespect for his audience (of course, the responsible ones have walked out by this point) to create a trap for them to fall into so that he can lord it over them and self-righteously prove to them, “See! You were complicit in this violence! You have condoned murder!”

I obviously have an empassioned reaction to Haneke’s work but I can’t write him off or refuse to engage with his films anymore (tired as I may be). I wish Anthony Lane hadn’t been so preoccupied with explaining how people should approach Haneke’s films, and instead investigated Haneke’s own approach, which is endlessly provocative and interesting.

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