17 January 2010

Robin Wood on Michael Haneke

At the end of the his life, Robin Wood was, according to various biographical notes accompanying his later essays, working on a book about Michael Haneke's films.  I don't know how far along that book was at the time of Wood's death last month, but knowing that he had written some essays about Haneke's work through the years, I fired up the ol' Google to see what of Wood's writings on Haneke were available online.  Quite a few, it turns out, and they're very much worth reading:
Those all come from issues of CineAction that are available via Findarticles.com, and you'll discover plenty of other essays by Wood therein (sometimes bylined with his full name, Robert Paul Wood, by Findarticles) as well as other CineAction essays on Haneke, especially from the Summer 2006 issue.

[Update 18 August 2011: Alas, it seems CineAction is no longer available via Findarticles, so the links above will no longer work.]

For more on both men, Film Studies for Free is the best single place to check, with posts on Wood and Haneke.

I've seen all but one of the Haneke films available on DVD in the U.S., and thus all of his major feature films except his latest, The White Ribbon.  The one I have not seen is the American version of Funny Games, mostly because the original is my least favorite Haneke, and Wood gets close to my feelings about it, calling it a "minor work", lamenting how it has tainted people's perceptions of Haneke, and pointing out the nonsense in the statements Haneke has (repeatedly) made about punishing his audience for sitting through the film.

As for Wood, you can ignore his bizarre statements about Kafka at the beginning of the excellent "Beyond Compromise" essay -- when not writing about film, Wood was sometimes embarrassingly obtuse, but his sensitivity to film was astounding.  His essays and books are particularly valuable when he writes about what he sees as successful and meaningful in particular films, and that is especially so of Haneke, a director who can be very difficult to appreciate -- read Wood on The Seventh Continent or Code Unknown (my own favorite among Haneke's films).  Let's hope that someone is putting together a collection of Wood's uncollected essays and/or that, before his death, Wood was able to finish the manuscript of his book on Haneke.  Either would be a treasure; both would be bliss.

    2 comments:

    1. I'm clearly biased, but I don't think Funny Games is particularly unrepresentative of Haneke--it's extreme and unpleasant, yes, but I don't see how it differs substantively from Benny's Video or The Seventh Continent...i.e., they are all self-righteous exploitation films. Ray Davis at pseudopodium likened them to elaborations of Wes Craven's early movies and other like-minded 70s flicks, and I think he's about right.

      (But as you know, I'm not a Haneke fan, so perhaps not the best assessor of his work.)

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    2. There's definitely a self-righteous element to everything Haneke does, and I'd agree to some extent with Ray that there's a connection to Haneke and early Craven (Wood cites Last House on the Left as an effective version of what Funny Games might have been trying to do), but while I'm not as much of a Haneke admirer as Wood was, Funny Games differs from the other films for me partly in its relation to the audience -- there's a complexity to the other films that seems to call for an audience that is engaged with and thinking about the material, while Funny Games seems to be contemptuous of its audience, cynically using all the tried-and-true methods of manipulating an audience to say nothing more than, "Look was a morally bankrupt sheep you are! I knew it all along!" Certainly, most, if not all, of Haneke's films are about moral bankruptcy, some of which may be our own, and there's an element of trying to push the audience to agree with this (thus, the self-righteousness), but that's common to all sorts of different arts, and isn't in and of itself invalidating for me, especially when other effects are stronger -- I find The Seventh Continent, for instance, profoundly sad more than anything else, one of the most desolatingly sad films I've ever encountered, and that sadness leads to complex emotions about the characters, and that's something I can respect in any narrative. Benny's Video differs from Funny Games for me beyond just the difference in how I perceive (construct?) its attitude toward me, some guy watching it, but also in the situations, what I perceive as a story about lost people in an alienating world who find some sense too late (or do they? I don't know -- the ending is one that is vivid in my memory but I have no resolved meaning for it).

      This is not to deny a certain truth, too, to something Jonathan Rosenbaum quoted Richard Combs writing in Film Comment recently, calling Haneke a "pious admonisher" and the European Stanley Kramer. For somebody like me who does admire a lot of Haneke's work, even if warily, those comments sting because they've got some truth in them, especially when you take into account some of Haneke's own obnoxious explanations of what he thinks he's up to.

      And yet I just keep coming back to certain scenes and shots that have stayed with me even after a single viewing of a film -- scenes of the daughter at school in 7th Continent, the final shots of that and Benny's Video and The Pianist and Cache, the fire and the railroad tracks in Time of the Wolf, scene after scene of Code Unknown... I can't entirely explain what I find so moving and entrancing in these shots and scenes, but they deeply evoke some sort of simultaneous feelings of deep despair for human beings and tentative belief in moments of, for lack of a better word, grace. Even when, exasperated with him for one reason or another, I sympathize with criticisms of Haneke, I still can't deny the powerful, complex effect of many of his films on me.

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