FUNNY GAMES • WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY MICHAEL HANEKE WITH NAOMI WATTS, TIM ROTH, MICHAEL PITT, BRADY CORBETT, AND DEVON GEARHART
Deadpan comedian Steven Wright once joked that someone had stolen into his house while he was sleeping and replaced all his possessions with exact replicas. That line kept coming back to me as I watched Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s new shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 Austrian drama about a bourgeois couple and their young son being terrorized in their summer home by two slight young intruders in golf togs. The dialogue has been translated into English and the actors have been replaced by movie stars, but almost everything else is exactly the same. Haneke even procured the blueprints from the house where the original was filmed and reproduced its interiors on a soundstage. If you haven’t seen the earlier movie, you’re better off watching it on video than seeing the remake, because it’s more convincing and therefore more frightening with the relatively obscure German/Austrian cast than with Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt. If you’ve seen the earlier movie, you can pass on this one altogether.
Other directors have remade their own films later in life, including Leo McCarey (Love Affair as An Affair to Remember), Frank Capra (Lady for a Day as A Pocketful of Miracles), Tod Browning (London After Midnight as Mark of the Vampire), and Yasujiro Ozu (A Story of Floating Weeds as Floating Weeds). But usually they take advantage of the opportunity to address aspects they found wanting in the original. When Alfred Hitchcock transposed his British thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) to the U.S. two decades later, he tried to increase the emotional resonance of a couple losing their son to kidnappers. William Wyler directed These Three (1936), a bowdlerized adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, then returned to the story 25 years later when its lesbian elements could be broached more directly. And Cecil B. De Mille couldn’t resist taking another crack at his silent epic The Ten Commandments (1923) in the 50s, when he could stage the parting of the Red Sea with sound, Technicolor, and VistaVision.
Personally I can’t understand how anyone could return to any sort of project ten years later and not change anything—20 minutes after I finish this piece I’ll be tinkering with it again. As a teacher and an editor I’ve learned that the most talented writers usually improve their work in revision, while the less talented ones invariably make it worse. Many creative professionals will tell you that revision is the most exciting and rewarding part of the process. A painter may approach the same subject from multiple angles, and a composer may write variations on a theme, but in both cases they’re trying to tease as much inspiration out of the idea as possible. To take up the same material a decade later and execute it precisely the same way is to admit that you haven’t grown since then. If you were satisfied with it the first time, why do it over?
The closest antecedent for Haneke’s new Funny Games might be Gus Van Sant’s widely panned 1998 color remake of Psycho, which almost completely replicates the script and shot sequence of Hithcock’s black-and-white original. Yet even that project has more integrity than Haneke’s: Van Sant managed to create something daring, a double-headed coin that functioned as both a crude commercial gambit and an experimental assessment of Hitchcock’s cinema. Whenever I come across it on TV, it hooks me just like the original, which seems to be the point. There’s no Janet Leigh, no Tony Perkins, and no Martin Balsam, and telling the story in color is just plain wrong. But I’ll be damned if I can turn it off.
When Haneke talks about addressing the American viewer, he means it literally, because both versions are dotted with fourth-wall moments in which Paul, the genteel alpha male of the two intruders, winks at the audience. “What do you think?” he asks us as the father, mother, and little boy are being taunted and tortured in their living room. “Do you think they’ve a chance of winning? You are on their side, aren’t you?” Of course the movie’s baldly stated thesis is that we’re not—that merely by sitting there we’ve proved we have an appetite for blood. “Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film,” Haneke told Sight & Sound when the first movie was released, “and anybody who stays does.” Warner Independent Pictures must not share Haneke’s high-minded morality, because its Web site for Funny Games is a typical scary movie come-on that invites visitors to “play the game” by personalizing and sending to friends a video clip of someone tied in a laundry bag and being bludgeoned with a golf club.
Even the original Funny Games wasn’t all that original: its story of a family held hostage in their home recalled William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (1955), and its strategy of implicating the audience, which helped make Haneke a critics’ darling, dated back to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). But the new version seems even more rhetorical and redundant in the wake of torture porn like Audition (1999), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and Hard Candy (2005), not to mention real-life horrors like Columbine, Virginia Tech, the recent NIU shootings, and the Tinley Park clothing store executions, whose victims had their limbs bound with plastic tape just like the family in Funny Games. It’s one thing to make a movie filled with mayhem and then implicate the audience for watching it; it’s another thing entirely to come back ten years later with the same movie, hype it with a marketing campaign, and try to implicate the viewer again. One nice thing about America is that you can’t be tried twice for the same crime.v
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