Political Culture: The Bush Administration’s Funny Games

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Py Korry’s excellent piece the other day about the John Woo torture memo got me thinking about, of all things, a movie trailer that I saw repeatedly over the holidays while haunting the local art houses. The trailer is for an upcoming remake of the 1997 Austrian horror film Funny Games; the new version stars Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt, and was directed by the same guy who did the original, Michael Haneke. It’s due in theaters March 14, and it looks like nothing so much as a feature-length extension of the “Singin’ In The Rain” scene from A Clockwork Orange.

The original Funny Games, hailed for its harrowing portrait of youthful nihilism and a random breach of middle-class security, was an early harbinger of the subgenre that New York magazine critic David Edelstein affectionately labeled Torture Porn. That subgenre, descended from a line of Italian frightfests in the 1970s, experienced a swift rise to popularity during the mid-Noughties via the Saw and Hostel series. The torture films have proved a boon to cultural critics of both the professional and armchair variety, who have blathered on about a “coarsening of the culture” and a “deficit of values” the same way they always do when the culture…well…coarsens in one way or another (gangsta rap, dirty dancing, insert your favorite Bill Bennett-hackle-raiser here). Here’s the trailer for the Funny Games remake:

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I must admit that these films make me squeamish as well, though I’ve only seen a few of them, and those in pieces (thank you, pay cable). It’s not the films themselves that bug me; I’m nobody’s idea of a moralist—if you check out my bio, you’ll see the telltale phrase “ACLU Arts Censorship Project,” which signifies that I’m willing to brook just about anything. I’m actually kind of a fan of Hostel, in particular (though I do spend a lot of time with my hands over my face); it’s intriguing for its dark atmospherics, its sexual politics, and the way it taps into our uncertainty about the societies that once hid behind the Iron Curtain. (I’ve had a screenplay in my head for years about an American guy who goes to Prague in the first flush of post-Communist euphoria, exploits the cheap liquor and willing women, but then is stopped in his tracks by the difficulties of the transition to capitalism. Nobody loses an eye in my story, though.)

It is, rather, the timing of the Torture Porn boom that distresses me. The original Saw, which really opened the floodgates, burst into theaters in October 2004—the same weekend that my wife and I dressed up as Lynndie England and Charles Graner to tweak our right-wing friends at a Halloween party in our way-too-conservative L.A. suburb. It would be disingenuous to make too close a connection between the content of the Torture Porn flicks and the photos and stories that have emerged from Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and the black sites. However, despite my absolutist stance on the freedom to create and consume these films, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the fact that they emerged right around the same time our government got into the torture business.

I’m uncomfortable with the idea that a fan of the over-the-top violence in these films—or merely of Jack Bauer’s heroics on 24—might have been de-sensitized to the Abu Ghraib images or to descriptions of interrogation methods that, no matter what the Bushies say, have long been defined as torture. I’m worried that too many Americans hear about waterboarding or stress positions or Korans in the toilet and—with visions dancing in their heads of Bauer, or (more dimly) of David Caruso on NYPD Blue, or of the pit full of hypodermic needles in Saw II—think to themselves, “Well, that stuff the CIA’s doing doesn’t sound so bad.”

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Hostel director Eli Roth told Ain’t It Cool News last year that he considers his films a commentary on current events, and that he’s heard from soldiers in Iraq who tell him they find his films cathartic—that after a day/week/month of needing to respond unemotionally to the horrors of war they find it liberating to be terrified by the movies. I think that’s great. I just wish I felt more confident that those soldiers don’t have another voice in their ear, filtering down from the Vice President’s office through the chain of command, that tells them it’s OK to treat the Iraqis they encounter as inhumanely as the victims are treated in Roth’s films.

Interestingly, the fortunes of the Torture Porn subgenre seem to have mirrored those of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies. The surprise success of Roth’s Cabin Fever in 2002 came just as the CIA began burning a hole in the sky between Kabul and Krakow, whisking terrorists both real and imagined to secret locations where the Saran wrap was plentiful and the water flowed freely. The megaplex marvels Saw and Hostel followed the revelations of Abu Ghraib and debuted right before and after Bush’s inexplicable re-election, attended as it was by an entire political party’s rationalization of torture as an acceptable American activity.

And over the last year or two, Torture Porn’s box-office returns have spiraled downward in inverse proportion to the number of Roman numerals following the films’ titles, even as bipartisan outrage has erupted over those missing CIA interrogation tapes and Americans in both parties seem hellbent on reversing the immoral excesses of the Bush administration. (Sure, Mitt Romney wants to “double Guantanamo” and most of his cohorts on the GOP debate stage are just as rabid. However, it’s telling that the two Republican contenders least amenable to torture have won their party’s first two contests.)

In this new (and overdue) anti-torture climate, could the timing of Funny Games be any worse? Yes, it’s a remake of a well-regarded film, and yes, I’ll see Naomi Watts in just about anything. Still, its distributors have chosen an interesting cultural moment to pitch torture to the traditionally liberal arthouse audience. It would be nice to imagine that interest in seeing Funny Games will be based solely on its merits; however, I expect that much of the film’s intended audience will have trouble separating the art from the politics. I know I will.