Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Funny Game of Suspended Disbelief

Another of those philosophical musings I promised myself. SPOILER ALERT – Movie plots discussed.

Why do we suspend disbelief? Why can we? And what are the nuances?

I found myself asking those questions after stumbling onto the last five minutes of “Funny Games” on cable. I knew what the movie was “about” – more on that later – and I knew that the action was too brutal for my taste. So I’ve never watched it all the way through. I did, however, watch the last two minutes some time ago to make sure that the central home invasion ends as Hollywood likes, with dead invaders, and I was surprised and disturbed to learn that it does not. But I did not know the details. By watching the last five minutes last night, I picked up that one of the victims is casually drowned right before the sociopathic villains start their mayhem over again with new players. It was quite a disturbing scene.

Today, I searched for reviews of the movie to see what there was to like about it – why people actually paid to see it. Many of the reviewers liked that the movie, as an exercise in terror, thwarts the viewers’ expectations of the bad guys getting their comeuppance. But several reviewers mentioned three related (to me) aspects of the movie of which I, having not watched all of it, was unaware. The first is the breaking of the fourth wall – in one scene (or more?), one of the villains speaks directly to the audience or mugs for the camera. The second is a scene where the female victim succeeds in killing one of her attackers, but the other then accuses her of “breaking the rules,” - an ironic reference, perhaps, to the fact that the movie was about to "break the rules" - and uses her TV remote to “rewind” the movie so that he can prevent that particular outcome. The third thing, which seems unrelated at first, is that, according to the reviewers, all of the violence in the movie takes place off screen (though not out of earshot).

What seems to have bothered some reviewers most was the “rewind” scene, the physical impossibility of the action. There we are, all caught up in suspended disbelief, treating the invasion as if it is actually happening, and then, pow, we are reminded by the illogic of the action that we are watching a fiction, and that sucks, at least it does if we are in some sense pretending that it is not a fiction. But should we be?

Have you seen “The War of the Roses”? If so, can you summarize the plot? Hint: it has nothing to do with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner beating each other’s brains out. No, the plot of “The War of the Roses” is “A divorce lawyer tells a potential client a cautionary tale to test his commitment to the process.” The tale he tells, which takes up the bulk of the movie, and which tempts us to move inside its wrapper and suspend our disbelief as to it, is simply incredible. But instead of complaining that the “plot” is incredible, we need to understand that, even within the movie, the story is a fiction, an exaggeration of the perils of divorce litigation. By treating the excesses of the tale as mere embellishments by the lawyer character to make his point, we can dismiss the incredible as being intentionally so without disrupting the flow of the main plot, which, perhaps unbeknownst to us until we reflect on why the extravagance of the story is intentional, is the lawyer’s meeting with the potential client.

So, too, I think, was Director Michael Haneke’s goal in “Funny Games.” The story is too brutal actually to tell as if it were really happening in an imaginary universe. It certainly was for me: so long as I thought that the plot was “Two sociopaths invade a home and torture/kill a family,” I had no interest in watching it. But if the plot is “Some guys make a movie about home invasion to explore how the use or non-use of Hollywood conventions affects an audience” – if that is the plot of the movie I am watching, and not just (but maybe, also) the purpose of Haneke’s making the movie itself, then I can suspend my suspension of disbelief from time to time to remember that I am watching the making of movie, and not that movie itself. But I have to be able to go back into the movie within the movie in order to allow the moviemaker to find out how I would react to such a movie, if he actually made it.

The notion that we are watching what is essentially an academic exercise is heightened, I think, by the low-budget touch of off-screen violence. Yes, there is an inquiry to be made into the effectiveness of such action, but there is also the practicalities of the film budget. “Funny Games” is not necessarily a low-budget movie - $15,000,000 I think – but the film within the film clearly is. The real actors are highly paid in the real world, but the characters, if they are actors, too, within the movie, are nobodies as far as we know. Why waste money on stunt doubles and FX violence, especially when you can use the device to see how off-screen violence plays? Necessity as virtue. Nice.

And if any doubt remains, just listen to the apparently nonsensical jabbering of the killers in the last few minutes of the movie, where they talk about colliding universes of reality and fiction, and which is to be treated as “real.” That’s a lot of writing to be pointless. But the setting and action during that scene are so distracting that we don’t listen. These guys are crazy, right? And they speak so fast…

I think “Funny Games” is a masterful piece of moviemaking. That does not mean that I could stomach watching it, even thinking that it's about what I think it’s about. But I may give it a try, this time with my disbelief firmly in place, if only to see if that’s possible.

Of course, this little movie review doesn’t even address the question of why we can suspend disbelief much less answer it. Maybe next time…

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