THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
THE WHITE RIBBON
Tired of writing about popular mediocrities, I recently decided to do short series about the films I really love, the films that have demonstrably meant something to me in my life, that have changed my thinking about the world and made me into the person that I am. I wanted to write about these movies and explain them, explain how film as an art-form can hold a deeper meaning and how the art has the ability to get down into a person's soul and do something to them. I wanted to write about films I struggled with and returned to, the decisions I made in life and the ideas I have floating around in my brain that can be directly traced to movies. And not just my belief that I never drive faster than I can see (besides, it's all in the reflexes.) The 6 films I am going to write about in this series changed the whole history of my life.
<< part one: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE >>
<< part two: NAKED >>
<< part three: THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD >>
<< part four: METROPOLITAN >>
THE WHITE RIBBON
"I gave God a chance to kill me. He didn't do it, so he's pleased with me. He doesn't want me to die."
Writing about politics is a losing proposition. There's one side that agrees with you and one side that disagrees and if either contingent smells even the slightest scent of the other on your work, then forget it, your whole thought can be disregarded. It's even more futile to write about politics from the perspective which I currently subscribe: I'm not sure. It's not that I don't care or don't have ideas or wouldn't prefer if specific outcomes were possible, my problem is that I have little certainty about how to move towards my ideals for the world. On almost every subject, even if I know what I think would be the best outcome, I am tenuous about how to achieve it. I honestly don't know what should be done about Libya or how to repair Italy's democracy in the wake of Silvio Burlosconi's scandals or if anyone from the financial sector should be prosecuted in the wake of the recent economic collapse. I'm not sure if low-income housing is a conceptual disaster that should never be repeated or a worthy idea in need of re-tooling. Re-tooling - what should that even entail? And North Korea? An insane dictator starving his people to death: sanctions, invasion, military pressure, international diplomacy, wait it out until the man dies? I'm not sure. It's not that I haven't thought about these issues, it's not that I haven't attempted to develop a political philosophy, the problem is that the longer I think about the political dimension of reality, the less certain I feel about my role in guiding the flow of history. Even the things that seem so obviously stupid and wrong - the war on drugs, the criminalization and sub-human cruelty directed towards sex workers - I have few ideas about how in the larger scheme of things to move towards a positive resolution of those issues and what my role in resolving them could possibly be. And that's even before I can begin thinking about if there's any way to ameliorate the undeniable negative aspects of those issues.
History as it is now practiced, has a way of vilifying most of all those who were uncertain: those who stood by and watched while atrocities were commited or allowed (through their complacency) vicious men to seize power. Throw in the fact that I am standing in a privileged position as a middle-class white man and I am all too aware that the majority of people in this country don't believe I have the right to "I'm not sure." Stability is one of my many luxuries and the complacency of "I'm not sure" becomes a political philosophy in that context: I reap the benefits of the world as it stands, whether or not I understand how it came to be or what might be the best course for the future. As I said, it's a losing proposition. And don't get me wrong: I'm not cynical. I haven't mentally check out. I'm just not sure what I believe in regards to a litany of problems. And "I'm not sure" has a funny way of getting assualted as the most strident, ridiculous and dangerous of political philosophies - nowhere moreso than in a democracy built on the ideas of self-determination and the implicit freedoms therein: to opt out of the democratic process is to attack freedom at its root. At least, that's the feeling in the contemporary U.S. At very least, uncertainty can be shat upon as a convenient way to reap the benefits of the current political reality without taking any responsibility for its negative aspects. My Nestle candy bars are delicious even when I have no idea to stop that corporation's use of slave labor in its factories in the Ivory Coast. But I have often wondered why the opposite seems to be true in the case of art: artworks asserting an ironic (if not uncertain) point of view have a tendency to age much better than strident, politically certain works: is there anyone who wouldn't prefer if Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith's work weren't drained of their aggressive moral certainty? A defiantly political filmmaker like Pasolini is at his best when dealing in irony (like Gospel According to Matthew or Mamma Roma) not embarrassing 60's radical pseudo-Marxism like Theorema or Porcile. The same basic idea goes for Godard or Makavejev or even Chaplin (ugh... fucking A King in New York.)
Ironically, Austrian filmmaker's Michael Haneke's pointed sense of irony draws the ire of critics and audiences for its supposed stridency, condescension and moral turpitude: films like Funny Games and Benny's Video are called out for tsk-tsk-ing their audience and, most inexplicably, looking down their nose at the medium. That a man who has devoted his life to making violent movies might not be creating artworks demanding the end of violent cinema seems lost on a lot of folks. But, truly, if Haneke doesn't approach his subject from the position of "I don't know," then he's at very least determined to elucidate how the answers to the questions he raises appear to be in conflict with each other. Funny Games, at bottom, concerns the strange fact that audiences go to some films to see violence that disturbs and upsets them: audiences are attracted to what repulses them. What Haneke is not doing is telling audiences they should be ashamed of themselves for being attracted to violence, despite how critics insist that simplistic point of view is his endgame. With Funny Games, I'm not sure his intent is anyting more complicated than drawing attention to and pulling apart that central irony, but he's certainly not out there issuing a moral directive. Or as Haneke has written, "I do not think that my opinions on these 'themes' are of much interest to anyone - nor should they be - I am not a 'forger of opinions.'" He's not trying to tell you what to think. Sure, you can goad him into saying what he thinks in interviews, but his films are fortunately better than pat little moral directives.
At this point in my life, my political thinking consists almost entirely of asking questions and very little forging of opinions. That is why Haneke's most recent film, the World War I era mystery The White Ribbon, has become the locus of my political thought-process: it asks the most useful questions about the most difficult to fathom moment in the history of Western civilization. While many critics forged opinions on Haneke's behalf in regards to the film, its value lies in the fact that it does not lay out a roadmap for defeating the rise of evil the "next time." By exploring all facets of the question "how did this happen?," it most certainly does not arrive at the answer "I'm not sure;" but for dealing with a moment in history that has been subjected to endless scrutinty and speculation, Haneke's film properly considered should shake the certainty of the most "sure" of audiences. If I don't think Haneke is interested in providing a blueprint on how to defeat evil in its pupal stage, what do I think he is saying with The White Ribbon and why should that upset an audience? How is his non-answer more shattering than a clear dissection of moral failure would have been? That The White Ribbon answers the question of "why weren't the Nazis prevented from seizing power and committing the horrors of WWII and the holocaust?" with "I'm not sure," it isn't an evasion - it's a deeply considered and troubling answer that should give pause to anyone who harbors utopian ideals... or even dreams of a modestly brigther future.
Let me back up.
The first I ever heard of Michael Haneke was back in high school: on the weekends, my mom would pay me to go down to the University of Delaware library and xerox copies of political science journals that she needed for her work as a copy editor. In my moments of donwtime from this thrilling activity, I would hunt down the library's stash of film journals to which I otherwise had no access (like Film Comment, Senses of Cinema and Film Quarterly) and read them from cover to cover, taking careful note of all the obscure movies I wanted to seek out. This is when I read about Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games, something of a break-through film for the Austrian auteur who had already made 4 feature films since 1989. Reading about the movie, it struck me as another one of those artsy ultra-violent provocations that were enjoying critical popularity at that moment. The arc went roughly like this: Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction blew open the doors for a level of violence and depravity in mainstream cinema, it spawned legions of imitators that imitated mainly the violence (and the ridiculous pop-culture-satured dialog) and also brought closer to the mainstream all of the underground films from which Tarantino was cribbing - Hong Kong heroic bloodshed, Italian crime exploitation cheapies and sleazy low-budget horror movies all found a real place at the cultural table. As violent content began to dominate the world cinema stage, the world of Serious Film responded by upping the ante on violence and depravity - pushing the envelope of nihilism, gore and shock value moved from the Drive In to the Arthouse.* If getting raped by the gimp or stuffed in a woodchipper was acceptable content for Best Picture nominees, then what did "crazy" and "totally out there" visionaries have to do to blow some fragile little minds? That films like Fargo and Pulp Fiction had a cartoon-y sense of fun to their violence only made more "difficult" fare intent on seeming indifferent or gleeful in the face of horrific violence. Reading about Funny Games back in 1997 made it seem like the nadir of this tendency, a winking "you know you like it" to its audience: its captive viewers not victims of horrifying images forced upon them, but willing co-conspirators in a fantasy murder-spree: a more dour and brutal Natural Born Killers. The whole thought of Funny Games made me angry.
But I put it on my list of movies to find. I saw it, loved it and began my long-standing frustration with the critical assessment of Haneke. It's obvious that Haneke is more Robert Bresson than Quentin Tarantino, but for some reason that registers to critics as Haneke hating the genre/thriller aspects of film - as though Bresson didn't make prison break films, petty crime capers and murder dramas! Would anyone suggest that Lancelot du Lac's obsession with violence (a disembodied violence almost free from "characters" in the traditional sense) means that Bresson was clucking his tongue at his audience for coming to see a violent movie? I'm sure plenty of critics have, but that's my point: they're wrong. The tension of the Funny Games derives from the fact that audiences sometimes go to the theater specifically to see "what they don't want to see." Haneke treats this as something of mystery, not an open-and-shut case. When the murderous duo of kidnappers suddenly declare "the game" to be over and disappear from the film for a long stretch, Haneke uses an almost naturalistic approach to the heroine's recovery to advance the idea that movies really are boring without antagonists - but does that mean he feels like his audience is sick, sick, sick for being bored? When the villians just as abruptly return, it gives the audience a distinct charge: but just because Haneke is drawing pointed attention to that jolt, does that mean he's condemning it as well? Of course not. He's asking a question and there's every indication that he finds the viewer/content relationship mysterious - if not unresolvable, then at least something that needs to be considered carefully, without easy answers. And those critics who recognize he isn't necessarily taking a stance on violence in le cinema are more likely to deride him for it than give him credit for being a, you know, genius. It's the same old story: don't take sides in a polemical dispute and you'll get it from both opposite warring parties. But he's lucky to even get critics to understand what he's after:
"Having tricked us into feeling some hope, the movie mocks us for having been so easily manipulated, then punishes us for having been such fools." - Stephen Holden, NY Times.
"[A] masterful home-invasion thriller that's designed to drive people out of the theater. Failing that, it punishes them for staying" - Scott Tobias, AV Club.
"The movie actively starts to attack its audience, as if to say, "What kind of asshole is still watching this thing?" Haneke himself seems to think there's something wrong with people who don't walk out." - Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper.**
Can't you see how a man who exclusively makes violent movies wants to punish you sickos for watching violent movies? That's the endgame. It's obvious! He's a genius! Or a fool. Depends on if you like violent films or not. I know a lot of critics would vehemently dispute my analysis of Funny Games, but considering Haneke's career on the whole, Haneke obviously actively denies answers to the questions he raises. It's no coincidence that many of Haneke's films end with their central mysteries pointedly unresolved: who sent the packages of video tapes in Cache, why did the family tear apart their life in The Seventh Continent, who set the tripwire and assaulted the boy in The White Ribbon? Kafka's The Castle is perhaps the ultimate work for him to have adapted: it allows him to shut down the film abruptly just as the uncompleted novel ends mid-sentence - there is truly no answer to what awaits Josef K. behind the castle walls. He's not playing a trick. He's not avoiding an issue. He's employing a tactic.
(continued on PAGE 2)
* By the end of the decade, pushing boundaries between exploitation and art films had become such the norm that there was an entire crop of films like Romance, Baise Moi and Pola X to feature unsimulated sex (a.k.a. hardcore pornography) for little reason beyond shock value. That many of these films feature violence and hardcore sex but not dialog riffing on pop-culture is a development for which we should all be thankful.
** Maybe most absurdly, Adams asserts that in Funny Games "there's no self-referential humor" - which is just straight-up stupid: the film's most famous shot is the villian literally winking at the camera. It's not just a self-referential joke, but the ultimate self-referential joke (and a joke about self-referential jokes.) Even if the joke is sick, it still counts. Incidentally, a lot of critics cite interviews Haneke has given about his films to support their point of view, but Haneke is generally weird, bombastic and self-contradictory when talking about his work: he himself said it best: "I made a film. If I could clearly express in words my ideas, I would have written a newspaper article." The one thing that Haneke has emphasized over and over again is his desire for open-ended, questioning work. Still, I'm always hesitant to use what he's said as a guide because so much of it makes almost no sense. And the films themselves are perfectly clear.
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