Something to puzzle over …

No Country for Old Men: serial murderer, deaf to every human appeal for mercy, goes about his business with implacable dispatch—Academy Awards: best picture, best supporting actor, etc.

Michael Haneke‘s Funny Games remake: serial murderers, deaf to every human appeal for mercy, go about their business with implacable dispatch—back of the critical hand, lots of righteous huffing and puffing, etc.

Not much difference between the two, at least in my opinion, yet one movie’s lionized, the other savaged as exploitive swill. Except arguably the Coens distance themselves more thoroughly from the corpse pile than Haneke ever could, who’s more into closing the empathy gap vis-a-vis. (Or is he?—more on that below.) And if human investment’s lacking it’s the Coens and their (modified) gargoyle brood who seem the more culpable parties. Score one for the vilified Austrian there.

Still I’m wondering if visceral, pandering “violence” is actually the problem. Sadism or cruelty, yes, more a matter of gamesmanship than literally inflicted injury, and a lot of offscreen suggestion, the way both films indulge the audience’s discomfort with sights and actions unseen. But who or what’s to blame for that, the respective auteurs or our own willingness to be self-righteously disgusted? Especially in Haneke’s case, where the deck’s stacked from the beginning. Not only are his human punching bags helpless—and Haneke’s extremely astute about this: not a lot of “blame the victim” strategies available, all the psychological escape routes covered—but so is the audience in relation to the ethical trap the director wants to set. Which, as in the original ’97 version, is this: “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anyone who stays does.” Now there’s a funny game for you!—as if, after plunking down our ten bucks, we’re already planning an exit to avoid the moralizing taint. But even if we do leave, the outcome’s already anticipated, preemptively arranged. Or maybe it’s performance art: paying for the privilege of applauding our own outraged stomachs. But stay or leave, we’re losers either way, another clutch of “victims” in a disempowerment bind.

Like the family in the film—though actually not like them: their cooperation’s too patent, too dramatically foreordained—I kept trying to escape from Haneke’s manipulative grasp, negate the implied assumption that only he can call the tune, define the moral high ground, determine what our relation to the bloodletting and terror should be. So how’s this for equalizing leverage? First scene after the kid’s been slaughtered, blood on the TV, the walls, everything bottomed out emotionally … and why is Naomi Watts being framed like a Georges de La Tour painting, profile an artful nimbus against the surrounding chiaroscuro gloom? What’s the relentless aestheticizing for, especially now when the only credible response seems utterly nihilistic—to give the whole game up, dispense with all the fussy embellishments? And what’s Haneke’s own relation to the designated snuffs: are they worth his (and by extension our) falling apart for or simply another opportunity for aaarrrrttt?

Which seems worse than anything he can accuse the rest of us of doing—or not doing, as the case may be. But exiting the cinema isn’t an option for our moral arbiter in chief—since somebody has to backlight the corpses, make elegant objets d’art from human desolation and hysteria, etc—the only artist’s alternative being to soldier on, on, on …

So much for the everlasting high ground. Is our funny game over yet?