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Funny Games (1997)
Chilling, disturbing but disingenuous
'Funny Games' is certainly not a pleasant film to watch. As the title implies, this film is about Michael Haneke playing games with the audience rather than simply telling a story and this artistic strategy is borne out in the interview added on to the latest DVD edition.
I don't want to give too much away, so I'll comment on the interview with the director. Haneke takes a rather mocking view of the audience by chastising viewers who would object to his film yet stay to watch the end of it; he implies they are perhaps sick for doing so. He also says that the scene where the female hostage shoots one of the torturers, caused many people at cinema screenings to clap with relief, only for them to fall into silence when the scene is rewound like a videotape and the woman is returned back to her terrible predicament. Haneke says that they were applauding murder by cheering the woman's actions. In essence they were not. Her actions were not an act of murder but of desperate self-defence, but, hey, this is only a film. However, Haneke seems to think that screen violence is the flip side of real violence. To the director the audience's reactions to the shooting are more than a reaction to a narrative, but a condonation of an act of 'murder', which it is not. The woman's actions can be judged as justifiable self-defence whether as part of a narrative or real life itself.
Haneke vainly congratulates himself for 'manipulating' the audience with this scene. However, this suggestion of manipulation is rather pompous of Haneke, as almost all films, in fact all forms of storytelling, manipulate the audience; it is part of the cathartic pleasure of watching a film and what makes cinema such a uniquely rich and rewarding experience, but this 'manipulation' ends the minute a film is over. We are perfectly capable of emotionally and intellectually distinguishing between a depiction of fictional violence and the real thing itself, and I think Haneke is mistaken to believe otherwise. This is a film everyone should watch or attempt to watch (it certainly isn't pleasant viewing), but I would take Haneke's thesis interlinking screen and real violence with a strong pinch of salt.
Los bastardos (2008)
Subtle and chilling depiction of the predicament of 'illegal aliens'
Amat Escalante's 'Los Bastardos' (2008), which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Tate Modern in December 2009, fits into the existential 'buddy narrative' of films/plays like 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' and Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot'. The long opening shot is of a desolate urban landscape on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and shows two wandering figures in the far background. Escalante sets the scene for the film and introduces us to the broader social predicaments of the characters, who are illegal Mexican labourers in the United States.
'Los Bastardos' opens slowly and the two main protagonists, Jesus and Fausto, don't come to the fore till at least halfway into the film. They have been contracted to kill an American woman. The woman's life is portrayed as rather drab. She lives with an uncommunicative and awkward adolescent son, with whom she can barely hold a conversation, and she seeks solace through drug use. When Jesus and Fausto break into the woman's home is where the narrative begins to unfold. 'Los Bastardos' is very similar, stylistically, to the German director, Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games' (1989) - Jesus demands food from the woman and she is constantly watched over with a shotgun. Whilst Haneke's film is very much a modern, dystopian fairy tale with the nice middle-class family being tortured and imprisoned by two sadistic sociopaths from nowhere, Escalante portrays believable characters in Jesus and Fausto. Jesus and Fausto are not 'natural' friends Jesus is in his 30s, while Fausto is an awkward and reticent teenager. They are two people thrown together by their own social and economic deracination neither of them can speak English; they are illegal aliens; and the very thing that has driven them to cross the US border namely, money for a better life is something they can only acquire in any substantial amount through killing another human being, whom they know nothing about.
The incarceration of the woman is gruesome and harrowing to follow. Though the two Mexicans are not brutal to the woman, she is still their prisoner and when she is told to strip down to her underwear to go swimming with them, she takes on a clown-like character and adds an 'absurdist' element to the drama. The woman cannot speak enough Spanish to plead or bargain with her kidnappers, and they take advantage of home comforts such as food, swimming pool and TV whilst holding her captive. Escalante could be mocking passivity and consumerism when showing the kidnappers aimlessly lounging around in their victim's home indifferent to her basic humanity, but on the other hand they could be seen as taking advantage of what little comfort is available to them both in America and their home country.
The narrative of 'Los Bastardos' in many ways becomes larger than the sum of its parts. Whilst a writer like Samuel Beckett was seen as hinting at the existential, philosophical alienation and deracination of post-war Europe in 'Waiting for Godot', Escalante's film opens up channels of discussion about the very real human and existential void created by irrational preoccupations in the Western world with issues such as illegal immigration and the notion of the 'economic migrant'. The United States is so determined to keep Latinos out that it is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on border security and perimeter walls. The inhuman consequences of these policies result in Latin Americans seeking even more dangerous routes, such as through desert, to get across the border leading to tragic consequences for those who perish at the cruel hands of nature.
There is no proper debate about immigration in America or Europe. The real human issues are ignored and immigration is reduced to a merely economic and technical problem of numbers albeit, a very expensive one in terms of the social and financial expenditure required to contain it. The ingenuity of Escalante's film is that it makes us think about what is happening in front of us. He avoids endowing the film with an explicit social message, but you can't watch and fully appreciate a film like 'Los Bastardos' if it doesn't make you question why these things happen to people and why it is wrong.
How Not to Live Your Life (2007)
What is the point of this?
I'm always baffled why some people find the most dire comedies funny - 'Teachers', 'Game On' and now the hideous 'How Not To Live Your Life'. The character of Don is simply a straw man; he is a purely invented stock character with no development. All he does is say stupid things and act like a complete tosser.
This poor offering is incomparable to a stroke of genius like Gervais and Merchant's 'The Office'. Whilst David Brent may be a prat; he's a real prat. He's someone we've met before and we can cringe at him and pity him in equal measure. The character of Don is a nondescript cipher; there is nothing real or tangible about him. David Brent is pathetic (which makes him human and believable) whilst Don is beyond pathetic. The whole programme is one wretched, excruciating bore that makes me want to eat my own hair. Waiting half-an-hour for a bus on a cold, wet Sunday afternoon in rural Lincolnshire would be less boring than watching this execrable pile of dross.
La sombra del caminante (2004)
A haunting allegory of a divided and lonely society.
'La Sombra del Caminante' (The Wandering Shadows) is a remarkable piece of cinema. This film is set around the wide streets and narrow barrios of the Colombian capital, Bogota. Mane (Cesar Badillo) has no work, a wooden leg and is subject to the cruelty of his landlady's brother, a former army sergeant, who scorns and berates him for his disability and his wretched poverty; and the barrio thugs who regularly taunt him and beat him up.
In spite of his harsh treatment, Mane is determined to keep his dignity. He begins to recover his dignity when, after being badly beaten up by the barrio thugs, he is aided by an enigmatic stranger, who makes a living by carrying people around the city on a chair strapped to his back. The good samaritan gesture by the chair man (silletero) begins a unique friendship between the two. The silletero (Ignacio Prieto), who wears dark goggles that conceal his eyes, will not tell Mane his name, nor disclose anything about his past, despite Mane's attempts at befriending him.
Piece by piece the silletero learns small details of Mane's life and this begins the process of opening up the terrible secret that links these two men and their respective fates on the streets of Bogota. The silletero depends greatly on drinking tea which he makes from an unusual plant from the Colombian jungle. This plant turns out to be the Holy Grail of the film's narrative, and we finally discover that the silletero carries a much greater weight on his shoulders than worn out Bogotanos.
This is an important film that rewards the patient viewer. It is a tale of human beings struggling to maintain their dignity in the most wretched ofcircumstances. This is a film that explores the terrible predicament ofthose affected by war, poverty, crime and displacement in Colombia, butits message is hauntingly universal.