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The funniest thing about Funny Games is how spitting mad it made Roger Ebert. Ebert is one of my favorite movie critics. He’s concise, he’s passionate, and he judges big budget movies and independent movies by the same criteria (although sometimes I wish those criteria were a little harsher). On average he finds nice things to say about more movies than anyone else, but this particular film prodded the little fellow with a red hot poker. The venom that pours from this man’s pen regarding Funny Games is actually a reason why I, Susan Howson, self-proclaimed peer of Roger himself, feel as if you should see it.
Of course, I will tell you why. Michael Haneke is an Austrian director who made this exact film (in German) ten years ago. When I say exact, I mean shot-for-shot exactly the same, so if you’ve seen the original, you already know the deal and it’s probably not worth your time, dollars, or sanity to sit through it again. The fact that the guy makes the exact same movie twice just to be able to show it in a fully appreciable manner to multiple audiences is a perfect example of both the scientific manner in which Haneke is performing experiments on filmgoers but also the smug, self-satisfying, filmmaking that caused Roger Ebert to turn red, shriek like a train whistle, and smash his glass coffee table with his bare hands in a fit of rage.*
The funny game, you see, is not only the psychopathic torture game that two young men in pristine white golf clothes play with a wealthy, vacationing family, it’s a game that Haneke plays with US! This is where Ebert gets feisty. He resents the fact that he is the lab rat in this situation. And who wouldn’t? Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, of whom clean-cut torturers Peter (Brady Corbet ) and Paul (Michael Pitt) are certainly reminiscent, we’re being punished for our own sick fascination with violence by having our eyes pried open to view scenes of painfully tense anticipation of horror, with very little actual payoff. Sure, dastardly deeds happen, but they are almost completely off-screen. Haneke instead lingers endlessly on the faces of Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, who go from obstinate to angry to terrified to determined to defeated and back again. If you get uncomfortable, you can always ruminate on the fact that only excellent actors could have pulled this off, and thank goodness Naomi Watts was having one of her good days (let’s not talk about The Ring), because facial expressiveness drives this film. As a result, we spend a good amount of our viewing time aware of ourselves as watchers, wondering why we are disappointed when people die at times we don’t expect.
This is just what Haneke wants. The huge Ebert-enraging flaw, though, is that HE KEEPS TELLING YOU ABOUT IT. It’s like looking at a beautiful painting and wondering what it’s about and forming your own connotations and opinions and interpretations, until you notice that written across the bottom of the canvas is “IT’S ABOUT MY MOTHER.” It’s called telling instead of showing, and it separates good art from bad art a lot of the time. Unfortunately, Haneke chooses to tell us all about his plans via Paul, who looks directly into the camera and tell us how we want the film to end. Well, jeez, I was coming to that conclusion myself, you don’t need to spell it out for me. The worst part about this ridiculous device, besides the fact that without it the film would be near-perfect, is that not only did he do it once…the guy had ten years to mull over the film before making the same mistake twice. That’s double obnoxious.
Anyway, I believe these flaws can be swept aside. At least, the rest of the film is powerful enough that I think you’ll be able to forget about these moments as soon as they happen and dwell instead on the effect that Funny Games will most certainly be having on you. I sure as hell have double-checked my apartment’s deadbolts about fifty times since I saw this film, because the worst part of it all is that this sort of unsolicited, unmotivated, illogical violence seems the most realistic.
NOTE: After a closer look at rogerebert.com, it appears Ebert’s editor, Jim Emerson, is writing his reviews while he is recuperating from some surgery. I tried and tried to make this review work without my hilarious Ebert Going Insane theme, but I couldn’t give it up. So I left it there, but let’s assume that as Ebert’s official representative, Emerson would reflect his views. But hopefully not his fashion sense.
*Conjecture, but my new favorite mental video.