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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Warm TCM Memories

September 27, 2008

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, there was a big snowstorm that happened to coincide with Paul Newman’s birthday. TCM had a tribute that, as I think about it now, must have lasted a couple days or so. Delicious January days home from school when I could spend the day cuddled up on the couch and watch movies all day. I think I probably only had a vague understanding of who Paul Newman was before the series, but in my nascent cinephilia I was eager to let TCM take me anywhere it wanted.

The film I remember that really did it (fittingly, since it was his first starring role) was Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. The dark-but-not-gritty shots of loud trains and dirty buildings (atmospheric bits that TCM later excerpted for their TV ratings clip that would play before each film) with this beautiful brash boy bursting within them were devastating to this preteen. Adding to the magic was radiant Pier Angeli, whom I knew immediately from my thorough research of James Dean’s life as the mythic “one true love” who killed herself fifteen years after he died. Until that point I’d seen a few pictures of her from unenlightening angles, but now suddenly I saw her alive and so inviting. I taped the film (as I did nearly everything on TCM in those days) and would rewatch it in the upcoming years before college when I wanted something warm and comforting.

Until They Sail (also by Robert Wise) was another film they played. Watching it, I was impressed by the cast (Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons, Sandra Dee, Piper Laurie) and assumed it to be fairly well known until I investigated it afterwards and found that it was mostly forgotten. Paul Newman in uniform and all these lovesick sisters! And in the dreamy, far-off location of New Zealand. I don’t think I’d seen Sandra Dee in anything before because I was really struck by what a cute, nice-seeming girl she was, and I wished I could have such big eyes and live by the ocean in quiet grays and whites… The Young Philadelphians was another film I saw then, and this time the blacks and whites were incredibly crisp–heightened by the pairing of Paul Newman’s sharp tux with the white chiffon debutante dress worn by an achingly luminous Barbara Rush. I really don’t remember anything else about the film other than those images, and some nice hunky fist-fights.

After my new crush started I was hungry for as much information as I could get, and what was at first a girlish attraction grew into unabashed love and admiration. I learned about his storybook marriage to Joanne Woodward and watched The Long, Hot Summer, which had all the gratifying tangles and professed hatreds and eventual couldn’t-denys that made my heart soar. (I didn’t even realize until much later that that had been Orson Welles underneath all that sweaty sunburn. And I sought out Days of Wine and Roses for more Lee Remick, though I think this is still my favorite performance of hers, with the wonderful Southern name of Eula Varner.) I wanted to see all the films they did together, and went out and bought a VHS of Paris Blues (Diahann Carroll!) and tried to wade my way through the unpleasantly melodramatic From the Terrace (why would I want to watch them fight?).

Of course this was all before I came to really understand his incredible grace as an actor, but the main reason I was so sad after waking up this morning was that he had really meant something to me personally. During the formative years of my life, as I tried to make sense of the way boys and girls came together and pulled apart, I drew a lot of reassurance from Paul Newman’s proof that good looks didn’t inevitably cancel out kindness, loyalty, good-natured intelligence. And it was a comfort to know he was still around, passionately working to do some good for the world. I will miss you dearly.


I Know You Wanna Say It

September 25, 2008

I named my blog after the Eurodance song by Corona from 1993. Like most (I suppose), I always thought it was pretty silly and indistinguishable from other songs of its kind. So indistinguishable that when I saw Le Garçu for the first time, I didn’t even remember what song it was that Géraldine Pailhas dances to with such quiet enticement. And then…Claire Denis. I’m still not sure what I think of Beau Travail as a whole, but her ending is an undeniable masterpiece. It’s so outrageously humanistic, with a beautiful mix of self-affirmation and desperation. And that’s what I feel in the song itself now, too. I don’t know if these masterful directors just thought it had a great beat or if they could detect something wrenching brewing within it, but I’m forever hooked and I think there’s something wonderfully sad and epic about it. Besides, of course, being irresistibly danceable.