Friday, May 2, 2008

Subversive Cinema and War-Ache

The following column in reprinted from the May issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

Funny Games
A few years back filmmaker Gus Van Sant confounded industry friends and foes alike by following his first out and out commercial success (Good Will Hunting) with a literal shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 Psycho. Now Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke has decided to up that ante and follow his most widely viewed effort (Cache), by trotting out a scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, remake of his own 1997 film Funny Games. Haneke is a self-declared cultural provocateur, and he’s claiming in interviews that his project was always intended for the jaded, overfed eyes of the American public, and, that in fact, the movie’s very narrative is a thinly disguised critique of the penchant for violence in American movies. One way or the other, the new, set-in-America, version of Funny Games is easily the squirmiest movie to sit through from the lens of a legit filmmaker since Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers or Marty Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.
The plot is a simple variation on the 1955 The Desperate Hours, where thugs descend on an all-American family in their safe suburban digs, the ultimate middle class nightmare. In the new Hollywood version, Mom and Pop Whitebread are played by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, with a tow haired son (Devon Gearhart) and a doggie misnamed Lucky on hand for the fun and games. Haneke’s intruders aren’t exactly cons-on-the-run or snarling baddies, instead they appear as blond preppies clad in tennis whites (Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet), boyish and well scrubbed. More importantly, these particular domestic terrorists are characters blatantly devoid of psychological underpinnings and any sort of clear-eyed motivations. That’s the filmmakers twist--the family is fair game simply because they are moneyed, and the psychos-on-the-loose are they because, we, the fat assed American audience, demand them.
Ironically, when Haneke delivered this film to a howling and divided Cannes audience some ten years ago, the craven genre of horror-porn had yet to coalesce into the commercial and critical behemoth is it today. Funny Games is weirdly behind the times—there is some variation of this combo of voyeurism and onscreen catharsis released to movie houses every few weeks or so, albeit without intellectually subversive agenda Haneke the self-proclaimed cinematic artist has attached to his versions. The director also makes sure to stamp his film as a recognizable postmodern work by having Pitt’s blond Nazi youth break down the fourth wall periodically and directly address the audience about the terrorized family’s plight, a device that comes across like a professor waving his chalk in your face. You are meant to leave the theater drenched in the sweat of complicity and pondering the critique of culture masquerading as a popular film. Haneke is extremely talented, but, as the evidence of this release’s almost immediate exit from the multiplexes, audiences are either too dumb to accept the movie’s subversive layering, or too smart to sit through the lecture.

Despite drawing flies at the box office the Iraq movies keep coming-Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, and now Stop-Loss, keep coming. Much has been made of talented writer-director Kimberly Pierce and the long wait after her acclaimed 1997 Boys Don’t Cry, and it’s obvious she’s put heart and soul (and one incessant, all-over-the-map soundtrack) into this home-from-the-war tale, yet it remains to be seen whether audiences will follow, and in particular, follow this well-intentioned but ultimately tone-shifting and essentially fallow exercise in simultaneous flag waving and tearing.
Ryan Phillipe plays a natural born leader and actual Army Sergeant, temporarily ensconced back home deep in the heart of Texas, alongside his parents (Linda Emond and Ciaran Hinds), his also returned soldier buddies (Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and their respective honeys (Mamie Gummer, Abbie Cornish). One of the boys is waking up at night and digging a foxhole in his backyard while the other decides to take target practice on his newly received wedding gifts, so when the Sarge gets ordered back to Iraq, he stuns himself and his intimates by making the decision to desert and head off to Canada.
Of course, the civilian troubles (a litany of familiar woes-night sweats, missing limbs, over-drinking, domestic violence, aberrant behavior) and the external complications (ineffectual politicians, inefficient policies, impotent government) are all prefaced (and buttressed) by the now rote DIY digital footage of chaos and triangulated violence caught on the run in Iraq. Sure, there are a plethora of similar images flowing around the internet, but does every single Iraq movie have to include yet another dose of jazzed up and jangled video images as a demonstration to what’s really happening over there? The movies shifting tones are bothersome, as it jumps and jags from the casual to the frenetic, from characters choking on their own inarticulateness to scene chewing bits of rage and vehemence, while the soundtrack pounds and pummels away. The film also suffers from its own tentativeness, as it strains too hard to be a pro-soldier film wrapped in an anti-war fable.
Ryan Phillippe, in what has to be his most grown up performance to date, tries to get at the inherent dilemmas of today’s youthful warriors, but he doesn’t veer off a highly predictable acting path. When all is said and done he remains a blue-eyed GI Joe, and we just don’t get a true sense of soul. As impassioned and well-intentioned as Pierce’s direction is she also never manages to color outside the well drawn lines of her own formula, and Stop-Loss winds up veering into sentiment and closing out with an empty ponderousness. One of the lessons learned from the movie past, well documented if one looks closely at the film releases of the Vietnam era, is that the best so-called Vietnam films were more often than not the ones that either played out in the shadows of that conflict or came far after the troops had long been home. It’s tough to get a clear look, even a cinematic one, from the eye of the hurricane.

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