71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Austria/Germany, 1994) * * *
Benny's Video (Austria/Switzerland, 1992) * * *
D: Michael Haneke
The Madison Cinematheque on Saturday night continued its Michael Haneke series, A Cinema of Provokation, with two films from the director's "Glaciation Trilogy," oddly enough shown backwards. (The first film from the trilogy, The Seventh Continent, will be screened on March 8.) All three films are connected thematically, and it would be premature for me to comment on exactly what those themes are since I've yet to see The Seventh Continent - but judging from the second and third films, most evident is Haneke's preoccupation with how families negotiate and respond to violence in contemporary culture, and how television and video package it. Even more than David Cronenberg, Haneke's "thrillers" function primarily on an intellectual level; he is not interested in manipulating the audience per se, but in making the audience aware of the manipulations of cinema (and, by extension, the media). His films are self-reflexive, at times postmodern (as with Funny Games), but they nevertheless seek to restore the impact and trauma of violence, with visceral results. Perhaps the loudest and strongest reactions I've ever witnessed from a theater audience were during two Haneke films, Cache and Funny Games. For the former, it was in horror at a sudden act of violence - the audience had been lulled into a passive state by the carefully-paced film before it was jolted by Haneke's hand, and one woman screamed. In the latter, the reaction was a cheer for a long-awaited vengeance against the film's villains - a gesture swiftly revoked and negated by Haneke (which brought about another loud cry from a few viewers). Haneke's manipulation is more subtle than one at first realizes; although he makes you aware of the manipulation, it nonetheless is functional. His films are absorbing. Yet in many cases they are as absorbing as studying a surveillance monitor. There is an untraceable moment when boredom switches over to hypnosis, before he slaps you into a sharp sense of awareness.
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is the final film in the Glaciation Trilogy, and it begins with an announcement of its ending: that on Christmas Eve, 1993, a 19-year-old student will go on a shooting spree in a bank before putting a bullet in his head. Haneke then cuts to the evening news, which we watch for several minutes, and which will recur throughout the film: massacres in Kosovo, organized protests against United States policies, the immigration problem in Austria, the child abuse case against Michael Jackson. The 71 scenes cut between the news footage vary dramatically in length, and follow seemingly disconnected characters: a homeless child eating from the trash and stealing from train station vendors, an unhappily married couple, a couple looking to adopt a child, a grandfather scorned and isolated by his family, and a pair of students working on a puzzle for a computer programming class and handling a stolen weapon. The moments seem to be selected at random, but we become slowly aware of the rhyme and reason: all of these characters are ultimately headed toward the fateful encounter in the bank - though Haneke refrains from commenting. We focus our attention where we like, although some characters prove more compelling than others. Most naturally one will be looking for "warning signs" in the student who will become the killer, although we're given scant clues; he holds up a cheery veneer to friends and family, although we know he's stressed by his training to be a table tennis champion (there is an exhaustive four-minute, uninterrupted sequence of the young man robotically smacking at the ping pong balls launched by a ball machine, and later his coach forces him to watch repeated video playback of his loss in a game). When the act of violence finally comes, at the very end of the film, we are unsurprised but nevertheless feel unprepared. The shooting now seems senseless because we see that it didn't have to happen; there is no real motive. We may be conscious, in the 90 minutes leading to it, that Haneke wants us to see that it's pure chance that these characters would be victims - that they would arrive at the bank at just the wrong moment. But once we have seen it unfold, we realize it was chance that the shooting happened at all. Nevertheless, those 71 scenes depict a contemporary culture that effects an intense psychological strain against its populace. One gets the feeling that random acts of violence are inevitable when society creates barriers to leave every person in a state of emotional isolation. The film's trump card is its final scene, when we see the bank shooting as processed (like a McDonald's hamburger) into a brief thirty-second snippet on the evening news.
Haneke's earlier film, Benny's Video, has a more linear narrative, as well as a structure like a Hitchcock film, although it is more disorienting and disturbing than 71 Fragments. The title character is a spoiled middle-class adolescent who spends night and day watching rented videos and maintaining a surveillance of the outside street through a video monitor. (The central ironic metaphor of the film is that Benny watches a video of the outside rather than simply looking out the window; it is somehow more important that reality get processed into pixels.) He is obsessed with video he took on his parents' farm of a pig getting executed. It's this footage, played once at regular speed, then rewound and played in slow motion, which opens the film, initiating a series of re-viewings which are threaded through the film. When Benny's parents leave him alone for the weekend, he invites a teenage girl over to his place to watch movies. With a strange fascination he shows her the pig video, and then the gun used to shoot the pig, which he keeps in a drawer. He dares her to pull the trigger. She won't, so he does, shooting her multiple times in an extended, agonizing sequence whose brutality is expressed from the point of view of the video monitor, where we can only get brief flashes of movement while the sounds of the girl's screams and pleas burn into our ears. It's a violent scene, but the paradox is that although Haneke places it within a doubled frame - within the video monitor, within the film we are watching - it is somehow even more disturbing than if he had just shown everything to us directly. True, the best suspense directors know that sometimes it's more effecting to not show, but to imply. But Haneke is not after suspense. He is after "nausea," to use one of the key words spoken in the film. And somehow to watch this scene as filtered by the imperfect eye of the video monitor is to render the action more real. It becomes a documentary.
Haneke is not interested in "torture porn," a trend that wouldn't emerge for another decade, and what's most surprising about Benny's Video is that there's so much left once the murder has been committed. Benny cleans up after the body (but not until he's videotaped the corpse, to complete his snuff film), then attempts to resume his normal life. He almost tells a friend, when he sleeps over at his house that night, but resists; he goes to his sister, and we're not certain if he would have told her if she'd been in that day. He defiantly shaves off all his hair. He gets into an altercation with his friend at school. If his rebellion seems like a cry for help, it's blunted when he actually sits his mother down and shows her the video of the murder. Her reaction--and his father's, when he enters the room--is the film's centerpiece. She is watching with horror and fascination. Her expression suggests that she is watching it as one might watch a thriller--as a passive viewer held in suspense; she is struggling to grasp that what is on-screen has actually come to pass. She doesn't switch off the video and call the police. She and her husband watch it to the end. And in the interest of double-framing everything, Haneke has us watch the footage for the second time, but the conditions upon which this video is being viewed seem to transform what we are seeing and how we react to it. We are watching the film through the parents' eyes, and we are also watching the film through Benny's eyes, watching his parents watching the video. This might all seem hopelessly intellectualized if it weren't for the visceral reaction the scene provokes. It's as though Haneke isn't just interested in indicting the viewer's voyeurism; he wants to study the texture of it.
There's more to Benny's Video, which I won't spoil, except to say that it may sacrifice believability for the sake of making a point about the fractured values of the contemporary family. Ultimately, what the film might present most successfully is a portrait of an emotionally disconnected youth (the parents are less convincing). It certainly has a lot more plot than 71 Fragments, although both films are more interested in theoretical explorations than storytelling. As cinematic sticks of dynamite, they're noteworthy: angry, shocking polemics which avoid the sensationalism of directors like Todd Solondz and Lars von Trier, substituting instead pungent doses of reality. Or Reality TV.