Saturday, September 29, 2007

Funny Games: Norms and Decadence in The Western Intellectual Establishment

It is rare to come across a robust admission of the deep decadence of the West, especially of the variety that has engrossed a portion of its intellectual elites in its modern form for over half a century. But in a rare convergence of honesty, low and high culture among the Euro-American intelligentsia, it is possible to appreciate both the exquisite nature, and the enormity, of this decadence in somewhat disturbing but fascinating detail.

 I am referring to an interview with Michael Haneke, the director of the recently released movie--Funny Games--a film about a white, middle class and vaguely mainstream religious origin family (the cultural ideal), visited by two well dressed young men appearing for all intents and purposes to belong to the same socio-cultural circle. "Over the course of the next hour [of the movie] these two polite, articulate strangers force the family to take part in progressively more sadistic contests, periodically stepping outside the film's action to speak to the viewer directly." John Wray, Minister of Fear, The New York Times Magazine (Sept. 23, 2007) at 44, 46. The movie ends mostly badly for the model family and for the perpetrators, and for the audience as well. Everybody loses when cultural structures provide no satisfactory support for action, or guides to conduct

We are told by Haneke that Funny Games "moves like a thriller, it has a thriller's structure, but at the same time it comments on itself. A movie is always a manipulation, regardless of whether it is a biopic or a romantic comedy, and 'Funny Games' takes this manipulation as its primary subject." Id. The conceit of this movie is the disdain the "protagonists" have, for both their victims on the screen and those watching from the audience. "The young men make no secret of their disdain for their victims; but the bulk of their contempt is reserved for the audience." Id. And disdain as well for the evils of "hidden" manipulation. "Heneke tells us that "political manipulation is rampant in the American political media. . . .It's present in movies, too, of course." Id., at 47. That political manipulation was a hallmark of National Socialists in Germany, Bolsheviks in Russia and American in the United States for export to a gullible global market. Id. For Haneke, "What is terrible about the Harrison Ford film [Air Force One], though, especially terrible, is that it represents itself as simple entertainment. The audience doesn't realize there's a message hidden there." Id., at 47. Haneke likes his manipulation overt--and meant to undermine the political value system through which, through manipulation, is reinforced. As such, there is an element of the "hidden" within the exposure that Heneke seeks. But no matter--the principal target--overt political manipulation through movies reinforcing certain sets of values, is undermined in favor of a set of either "anti-values" or a competing system of political values--but one which itself remains hidden from the viewer. Id. Thus, the audience that sits, paralyzed and subject to manipulation through the simple entertainment of the Americans (or Soviets or National Socialists, etc.) is apparently also as easily subject to manipulative anti-manipulation. For Haneke also tells us that this gullible audience is not: "People in the film industry underestimate their audience. . . . . I believe the viewer is fundamentally more intelligent than most films give him credit for, but only if you give him the opportunity to use his brain." Id., at 46.

These sorts of artistic endeavors have won a substantial and deferential following--not so much with respect to what the film is about, but with respect to the truth of the feeling of disdain which the films interrogate. Each is an exercise in self loathing from asocial and cultural level, telescoped down to the ordinary terrors of individuals in hyper exaggerated (for effect) but basically ordinary circumstances. His "stark studies of violence and alienation" Id., at 48, with substantial and suggestive socio-cultural overtones designed to interrogate the foundations of the social order in any of its variations, "earned him a measure of admiration outside the German speaking world. It was his next film, however, that made cinephiles the world over take notice. That film was 'Funny Games.'" Id.

Manipulation, disdain, self-loathing, the end of possibility, and--dare it be suggested here--a certain narcissistic nihilism, appear to be at the center of this intellectual universe. But Heneke is merely representative of a trope, a stance embraced by those who stand at the epicenter of cultural self-confidence and continuity. And he understands this. In a long comment pregnant with meaning, Heneke exposes the self aware character of the sort of terminal decadence, the death wish vectors, of a certain strain of modern Western "high" culture:
"'At the beginning of the 20th century,' he told me, 'when film began in Europe, storytelling of the kind still popular in Hollywood was every bit as popular here. Then the Nazis came, and the intellectuals--a great number of whom were Jewish--were either murdered or managed to escape to America and elsewhere. There were no intellectuals anymore--most of them were dead. Those who escaped to America were able to continue the storytelling approach to film--really a 19th century tradition--with a clear conscience, since it hadn't been tainted by fascism. But in the German speaking world, and in most of the rest of Europe, that type of straightforward storytelling, which the Nazis had made such good use of, came to be viewed with distrust. The danger hidden in storytelling became clear--how easy it was to manipulate the crowd. As a result, film, and especially literature, began to examine itself. Storytelling, with all the tricks and ruses it requires, became gradually suspect. This was not the case in Hollywood.'" Id., at 49.
Where to start! It is all here: loss of cultural confidence, cultural death wishes in expiation for the sins of National Socialism, the love-hate relationship with Judaism--seen as both all powerful and powerless, the great cultural manipulator and its victim, the remnant of which is now resident in Hollywood, the reactionary nature of telling stories, the wrongness of any mechanics that replicates or continues culture and cultural values (at least as practiced in the West, the difficulties of the underlying values of that culture itself, the transference of guilt from the masses to the elite (through the "trickery" of storytelling), the inherent falsity of stories, the hypercycles of self reflection (literal narcissism) as a substitute for culture as praxis, and the principle utility of intellectual efforts as a destructive mechanics.

Undoing culture seems to be the only way to overcome the mortal sins of National Socialism (the Central European disease), Bolshevism (the Eastern European version), and consumptive commercialism (the American variation). And each of these is no more than the end product of the tendencies of Western civilization toward bad practices. And destruction is the only and inevitable course of Western civilization. The solution is destruction and the task of the intellectual is to unmask that task and to lend a hand.
"'I had a dream last night,' Heneke told me toward the end of our lunch in New York. ' A nightmare, to be exact. Maybe you'll find it useful for your piece.' . . . He finally said: 'I was sitting in a bus, and suddenly it went out of control . For some reason I was responsible for every body's safety, but I couldn't get the steering wheel to work: perhaps it was broken, perhaps someone else was preventing me. People were wandering up and down the street, and the bus ran them over, unavoidably, one after another. Somehow, I was responsible for this, but I was helpless to prevent it.'" Id., at 49.
Thus at last a proper task for the intellectual elite, the flower of Western civilization--to preside over its destruction, though with enough modesty to avoid taking credit for the job. There is nothing like the passive voice in the project of nihilism. "He tool a slow, thoughtful sip of coffee. 'A pretty terrible dream, but to me it seems representative of our current situation in the world. All of us are responsible but unable to change the direction of the bus--everyone in Europe, everyone in the so-called first world, is in that same predicament'" Id. "Funny Games" provides the necessary and self consciously manipulation in that direction. It provides the bus with which our elites will undo us. Welcome to the real "Funny Games" where large groups play for enormous stakes and for keeps. And it is with this as foundation, that the West approaches the defense of its legal, social and moral systems.

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