- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Many critics are asking why Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has remade his controversial 1997 Austrian feature “Funny Games.” It’s a nearly shot-for-shot remake, so the only differences are the actors and the language spoken — the new “Funny Games,” starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as a vacationing couple with child who are taken hostage by a pair of young sadists, was filmed mostly on Long Island.

What I want to know, however, is why it has taken Mr. Haneke so long to make an English-language film. “Funny Games,” after all, clearly was meant to provoke American audiences and shows a deep interest in the effects of American cinema.

Speaking by telephone from New York, the 65-year-old director responds simply, “Nobody asks me.” (Mr. Haneke uses a translator for a little more than half the interview, speaking English the rest of the time.)

It’s a surprising answer because Mr. Haneke’s films are well-known to art-house audiences here. “The Piano Teacher” won the Grand Prix at Cannes. His last film, 2005’s “Cache,” won Mr. Haneke a best-directing prize at Cannes and played in America to mostly glowing reviews.

His films take no prisoners; hence the name of a series running in the District: “Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation.” However, in an interview on the DVD of the original “Funny Games,” Mr. Haneke says, “It’s the only film I made to provoke.”

“Funny Games” is something of an intellectual exercise — a condemnation of the way violence is treated in film — and also an example of what it condemns. It entertains at the same time as it provokes.

“That’s the whole point of the movie,” Mr. Haneke says. “The suspense is the glue which glues the viewer to his seat.”

What led to this provocation? “I was upset, I am upset, about this cynical exploitation of violence in the media,” Mr. Haneke declares. “Violence is something horrible. In the movies, it becomes a consumer article. I abhor that. I detest that.”

In “Funny Games,” Mr. Roth’s character asks his tormentors a simple question: “Why?”

“What would make you feel better?” one responds, coming up with a number of explanations based on the environment in which they grew up. It pokes fun at the easy answers offered by American movies.

“It’s an ironic commentary to these simple explanations,” Mr. Haneke says. “They comfort the viewer that all is OK, because you understand he’s so bad because his mother was not nice to him.”

One might ask whether the people who most need to see this film are also the people least likely to see it. It’s gripping as a thriller, but there’s no hiding the cerebral element.

“The risk is there,” the director says, “but I hope it’s not going to be that way. That was one of the reasons I did make it with well-known American actors, to at least have a shot at it. I don’t think one should start from the premise that this is purely an art-house movie. Let’s wait and see.”

(Actually, Miss Watts is British-Australian and Mr. Roth is British, but both are well-known to American audiences. Michael Pitt, who plays the lead psychopath, is a rising American just named one of Entertainment Weekly’s 30 Actors Under 30.)

If the new “Funny Games” is a success — and with a budget of just $15 million, it might not take much — it’s difficult to know what that would mean. Would it imply that American audiences are eating up the kind of violence-soaked dramas Mr. Haneke is attacking?

“I would look at it as positive because it means that the film would have reached the audience it was supposed to reach,” the director answers.

Of course, not every viewer will see the film in just the way Mr. Haneke intends. That’s fine with him.

“In all my films, I try to be as polyvalent as possible, because after all, I am not trying to prescribe to the viewer how he is supposed to react to it,” he says. “I am making, if you want, a gesture, but the end of the film really takes place in the mind of the viewer.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

‘Blind’ to obstacles

The world often tries to build walls around the blind. Climb a mountain? No, you can’t do that. Travel around the world? Out of the question.

In the new documentary “Blindsight,” we encounter Erik Weihenmayer and Sabriye Tenberken, two blind persons who refused to be confined. The former made history in 2001 when he became the first blind man to summit Mount Everest. The latter founded and runs Braille Without Borders, Tibet’s first school for the blind. In the film, they team up in an attempt to bring six of Miss Tenberken’s teenage students up to a 23,000-foot peak that neighbors Everest.

Viewers may wonder why the twosome chose to take youngsters into such a high-altitude, high-risk environment. While in town to discuss the movie, Mr. Weihenmayer and Miss Tenberken provide some answers.

Mountain climbing isn’t just about physical activity, Mr. Weihenmayer says. “It’s your mind — how much you believe in yourself, how big your expectations are for what you can achieve,” he explains. “Sometimes, with people that are just starting their lives… you’ve got to work on their minds just to get them to understand that they are capable of doing a lot more than they think.”

What makes “Blindsight” so lovely is that it doesn’t just show how big chances might potentially lead to big, positive changes for those involved; the film carries powerful lessons about how all of us might better our experience and understanding of our lives.

For example, what if we allowed each of our senses to fully soak in the world around us the way the film’s protagonists do? Perhaps we would notice, as Mr. Weihenmayer does when he’s hiking, “the smell of sun when it bakes the snow and it rises up as moisture.”

Or maybe, like Miss Tenberken, we’d find ourselves standing in a world “so silent that you [can] hear your blood pumping in your ears.”

What if we knocked down the barriers preventing us from reaching the summits in our own lives? “People make up excuses all day for themselves,” producer Sybil Robson Orr says. She hopes this film will encourage people to stop the practice and start striving for greatness.

“Find out what your weaknesses are,” she says; “find someone to fill in the gaps where you’re not accomplished; build a team around you, and you can pursue your wildest dreams.”

Jenny Mayo

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