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Silly Film Olympics: Knock Knock and Funny Games

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Funny Games
Funny Games
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The Silly Film Olympics returns this month with a discussion of two "home invasion" films whose narrative threads entwine themselves around something like morality tales, only moving in opposite directions.

Both Knock Knock (Roth 2015) and Funny Games (Haneke 1997) introduce viewers to the limits of human interaction and the consequences of violating those limits. They do this, in part, by drawing attention to the role of the camera, the position of the spectator and the vicarious pleasure one experiences watching violent acts, but there are significant differences in how each film engages these concerns. One is coherent, circular and reactionary, the other irrational, linear and subversive. One is a lesson, the other a threat.

Both films interrogate an educated, cultured, well-to-do nuclear family --- father, mother. child(ren) --- the center of "bourgeoise capitalism" and a foundation for social and economic stability. If the family collapses, the system collapses; hence the unsettling nature of both films. Whether celebrating Father's Day or spending "a week or two" at the lake house, the notion of a perfect family living in the best of all possible worlds quickly gives way to forbidden desires, gratuitous violence, mayhem and murder.

Take a seat, please.

At first glance, Knock Knock (Roth 2015) appears to be a terribly transgressive film. When his wife and kids go to the beach for the weekend, Evan Webber is left to his own devices, ironically, on a day dedicated to fathers. He has work to finish, he tells his son, or they'll end up living "in a box." Cue the dark, stormy night and two gorgeous young damsels in distress knocking on the front door. Unfortunately, the moment Evan invites Bell and Genesis inside and tells them to "make [them]selves at home," he lets loose his own sexual fantasies, stirring just below the surface, and the craziness begins. With the two women soon walking around in bathrobes and dropping hints about sex with "older guys," it doesn't take long before Evan crosses over to the dark side. That is, the shower. By the time "Daddy's Girl" and Bible Barbie depart, video of the affair has been uploaded to the Internet and Evan's home has been destroyed, his career ruined and his marriage severely challenged. But not to worry. The film finds closure when Evan's family returns home, a bookend to its beginning. "Daddy did have a party" seems the half of it. The burial that's intended as prelude to his death is clearly meant to punish, except, since Evan survives, it also signifies the promise of rebirth. After all, they even took the dog.

Transgressive at points, the film actually coheres to a fairly traditional structure: temptation, fall, redemption. While much of the action is played for shock value, with some sideways comedy thrown in, the plot is familiar to the point of cliche'. From start to finish, viewers know exactly what to expect: Evan will be tempted, he will give in to the temptation and, in spite of the carnage, he will (potentially) be redeemed. It's a narrative balancing act that satisfies through consistency and repetition, from Spenser to Dostoevsky. Writ large, it reflects a belief in the fundamental stability of human existence, one that ultimately moves in harmony with the world. Evan's struggle with right and wrong is the cinematic attempt to level an existential playing field, in which romance, betrayal and tragedy are inevitably brought full circle.

What complicates the film is the fact that each of these movements has a counter movement. The Webbers are introduced as a loving couple and thoughtful parents of two adorable kids, all of whom live together in an extraordinary house tucked away in an exclusive neighborhood. But there are cracks. Though Evan is the nominal head of the family, his professional achievements dwarf compared to his wife's, an acclaimed artist. He lacks self-confidence, worries about getting older and flirts with "25-year-olds." He can't seem to finish his own projects, he doesn't help out with the children or around the house, and he throws a minor tantrum after Karen says "no" to sex. The kicker? He claims his life is organized by "design" yet he angrily blames Bell and Genesis for the illicit encounter. Typical white male privilege. He didn't do anything. It was "free pizza," a hilarious bit of spleen that contradicts his denial at the same time it smears women as commodities to be consumed. Foreshadow alert: his nickname is "monster."

The film turns out to be one long cautionary tale, and the lessons are clear. Family is sacred, men are easily seduced, women are beautiful temptresses and the price for violating your vows is paid in hell-fire and brimstone. It reads, in short, like a reactionary wish list. Its purpose is not to eliminate traditional boundaries, hetero-monogamy or the nuclear family. Its purpose is to put those arrangements to the test solely as a way of reinforcing them. The two women are not murderous, destructive harpies; they're morality police. When Bell laments Evan's failure to "resist" worldly temptations, the voice you hear is Paula White's. (Or her sister, Margaret's.) Remember, "cheating Evan-tually gets you killed." Viewers take heed.

Funny Games (Haneke 1997) is a different kind of viewing experience altogether. While it shares some similarities with Roth's film, the focus on the family, the fear of invasion, the games played by crazed intruders, the violations that follow, there is nothing cautionary about Haneke's screen drama. There are no lessons to be learned, no unconscious impulses to check, no social or personal boundaries in need of adjustment. The film has no purpose beyond its unsettling depiction of insanity unleashed on both the families in the story and the audience watching. Its narrative unfolds in a linear fashion, which is to say, the threat the film embraces continues unabated throughout. It never wavers. It never ends. It is, by its very nature, anathema to closure or resolution, the very definition of a subversive act, a violent, irrational turning from below.

Structurally, the film takes place in media res, so to speak, between a previous act and a future one. The opening scene sees Georg, Anna and Georgie Schober arrive at their lake house, stopping to speak briefly with neighbors Fred and Eva Berlinger. They notice the Berlingers are acting a little odd, and take note of the two mysterious young men standing with them. Minutes later these same two young men will slaughter the entire family, and then, without a pause, shuffle off to Anna's backdoor, asking for eggs. The continuation of the action is seamless: the Berlingers' deadly encounter with Peter and Paul is ending just as the Schobers' is about to begin. Their experiences overlap. The concluding scene repeats the formula. Peter and Paul quietly dock at Gerda's pier, a neighbor Paul had met earlier. He knocks on the door, introduces himself and says he stopped by because Anna would like to borrow, what else, "eggs." Once Gerda is out of the frame, Paul turns and stares directly at the camera. His gaze is sinister yet playful, as if to ask, "Who wants to bet they survive?" The game is about to get three more players. The carnage rolls on.

In a world controlled by violence, nothing is stable. Not the wealthy, gated community or the fancy summer house, both easily breached from within. Neither is the film, which one of the characters "re-winds" in order to revise the plot. Conversations are full of aggressive non-sequiturs, flat-out nonsense and incoherence veering into the absurd. Prayer and the belief in a celestial being are perverted into games of torture. Normal activities such as watching TV and fixing lunch are carried out within a context of unbearable cruelty, the equivalence of "cinematic sadism." Anna is sexually humiliated for no apparent reason. Georgie is executed because he didn't follow directions.

In the same vein, what sound like serious exchanges, Paul describing Peter's relationship with his mother, for example, are immediately undercut. First, he claims Peter's history of incest is "true." Then he says it "isn't true." Next, he rattles off several motives for behavior that may or may not have even happened. Is it Peter's family, boredom, the "void of existence" or drug addiction? Which one will "satisfy"? All of them? None of them? The point of asking is to uncover a logical explanation for what the two young men are doing. Except there is no logical explanation. The speaker is not communicating in a way so as to be understood. He's unambiguously untrustworthy, and his comments, his words and his sentences are completely divorced from any shared, common-sense usage. They simply can't be anchored to anything resembling "the truth," like the description of an actual event, clear, absolute, unequivocal, because the language itself is subject to contradictions, misunderstandings and folly. The result is not enlightenment but confusion.

That's the point. The film seems to delight in its portrayal of madness, where the normative rules of civilized society do not apply. "Why are you doing this to us?" Georg asks. "Why not?" Paul replies, as if he were experimenting on mice. The same could be said of the film. Massacring a string of up-scale families doesn't lead to an investigation, arrests or charges. There are no legal or social consequences. There is no romantic interlude, no dramatic resolution, no denouement and no whiney "pizza" speeches. Even Anna's brief attempt at freedom, like Georgie's, ends in death. All that remains is the threat, pervasive, relentless, unending. Like the film, it never lets up.

From chaos to comedy and back again, that concludes our discussion of subversion and spectatorship in postmodern cinema. The Silly Film Olympics Board of Governors wishes to thank the White House, the CIA, the FBI and both major political parties for creating the kind of threatening, militarized, carceral environment necessary for viewers to understand fully the harmful repercussions that can occur after viewing films such as the two featured above. On the other hand, they're great for business. Tune in next week for a lively discussion of democracy, sedition and the law. Our panel will host a number of high-profile liars, including John Brennan, Amy "Offred" Barrett, Michael Hayden, Brett Kavanaugh, Neera Tanden and James Comey. Also scheduled to appear are celebrity war criminals Condi Rice, "W," Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What would a conversation about state-sponsored terrorism be without them? In addition, in order to make the evening as realistic as possible, officials from the ICC have agreed to be on hand in case one of the participants should admit to their crimes. The warrants will be signed, the handcuffs real. Don't miss out. It promises to be explosive.

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BK Faunce is a retired Associate Professor of English (UMW / UCSC) specializing in British Romantic Literature, Film Theory and Writing. His recent work examines the use of state power and its impact on visual culture.

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