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James Cameron and Michael Haneke walk into a bar …

Here’s something that sounds like the beginning of a bad awards season joke but is actually a halfway serious question: what are the differences between James Cameron and Michael Haneke?

There are some obvious ones we can tick off at the outset: budget, the ability to direct actors (maybe Sigourney Weaver rivals Isabelle Huppert as an actress, but not under Cameron’s direction), subject matter, the intellectual and artistic traditions they rep, their national and political origins (Haneke as a post-WWII Austrian and Cameron as an American Baby Boomer), their position on “the Na’avi Question” etc. 

A lot of differences, no doubt.

But I think there is one incredibly important area in which they overlap, and that’s the role of audience in their films. I’ve argued elsewhere that Cameron is truly a master of manipulating his audience, and that is one of the reasons we actually go to his movies: to be toyed with, emotionally. I’ll just quickly point out that this is one of the hallmarks of Haneke’s films as well: they don’t just assault their audiences — the assault on the audience is part of the thematic fabric of the film itself. This is clearly true in something like FUNNY GAMES, but no less true in THE WHITE RIBBON, which ends with a shot of a church full of people looking looking just like an audience in a theater (parents on the bottom, their soon-to-be Nazi children on the top), and his next film AMOUR, which begins with a nearly identical shot of an audience at a concert.

In these films, and in probably all of his films from BENNY’S VIDEO on, Haneke shows us things that seem designed to make us feel terrible. That alone would make him a sadist, but his films go further. They ask us not just to think about the relationship between aesthetic experience and cultural complicity but to live through it over the course of a couple hours, right there in the theater.

Let’s note that this is essentially what TITANIC does, albeit in a clunky, ham-fisted way and without Haneke’s moral complexity and seriousness. But, if you’re a certain kind of filmgoer, the experiences of watching both of them are comparable in an important way; they’re not totally alien to each other. Whatever thing makes Haneke’s critics accuse him of abusing his audiences is the same thing that makes Cameron’s critics accuse him of manipulating his.

Maybe that’s why Haneke, with his wobbly English and grim Austrian smirk, didn’t look as out of place as I thought he would onstage at the Golden Globes last night. He could have been the highest grossing filmmaker of all time. Instead he’s just one of the greatest.

Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Wildly Inappropriate Laughter

I saw Django Unchained this weekend, and like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about it in tandem with Inglourious Basterds. And obviously the comparisons have to do with vengeance, violence, and atrocities on a world-historical scale. IB gives us plenty of violence but no Nazi atrocities after the murder of Shoshana’s family in the opening scene. The Holocaust is conspicuously absent, providing all of the moral background for the film and none of the content, at least until the movie house is turned into an ad hoc crematorium. DU, on the other hand, presents us over and over again with all of the most brutal, dehumanizing aspects of slavery. Humiliation, whipping, dogs, etc. (even though “Mandingo fighting” was not a real thing, compulsory slave-on-slave violence certainly was).

But one of the interesting things DU does that IB doesn’t is present us with a moral agent with whom we can (and are meant to) identify in the person of Schultz. In IBwe see vengeance for past wrongs, whether those wrongs are personal (Shoshana) or political/racial/ethnic (the Basterds). Shoshana kills Nazis because Nazis killed her family, and the Basterds kill Nazis because the Nazis would kill them (or worse) if they got the chance. But in the case of Schultz killing Candie, we finally see someone kill not because they’ve been wronged and not because that person would kill him if given the chance, but because of moral revulsion. Schultz kills Candie because he finds slavery not just bad but disgusting, just as he helps Django because “when a German finds a real, live Siegfried, that’s kind of a big deal,” not because helping Django will get him anything.

I’m not quite sure what to do with that. On the one hand, part of me feels a little weird about the agent of deep moral sensibility in the antebellum South being White. On the other, Django is consciously aligned with the mythical Siegfried and (what amounts to the same thing for Tarantino) the Blaxploitation protagonist — he’s something more than human. But in a film this concerned with providing this much screen time to the brutalizing effects of slavery, are we looking for “more than human”? Shouldn’t “human” be enough? Tarantino obviously isn’t the person to look to for realism, moral or otherwise,and that’s fine — there are plenty of other people to produce that kind of work. But when I heard the audience at Sunday’s screening laugh, chillingly, at the wrong places,  I suppose I have to ask what kind of imaginative/cultural work DjangoUnchainedis doing and what kinds of passions it’s engaging.

DFW and The Bros. Karamazov

While it’s probably not a good idea to do this kind of thing while trying to finish a dissertation, I started readingThe Brothers Karamazovearlier this month. I’m still thinking about DT Max’s excellent bio of Wallace, and passages keep leaping out of the novel that suggest how deep an influence Dostoevsky really was on DFW’s fiction and thought. Perhaps that isn’t surprising to people better versed in Dostoevsky, but it is to me. Here’s one snippet that seems to state in capsule form one of the central dilemmas of Wallace’s writing (and his life, it seems):

With old liars who have been acting all their lives there are moments when they enter so completely into their part that they tremble of shed tears of emotion in earnest, although at that very moment, or a second later, they are able to whisper to themselves, “You know you are lying, you shameless old sinner! You’re acting now, in spite of your ‘holy’ wrath.”

Video I shot of Psychic Paramount destroying minds at Basilica Music Festival last weekend. Note the entrancing interplay between Raver Robot Person and Metal Hippie Dirtbag.


Birds of hideous divine

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