Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) are great works of art, but they are both a tough pill to swallow. Both of these stories thrust the audience into a senseless, nihilistic world of violence, and while their themes might be somewhat similar, the nearly everything about the book and the movie is different. Besides the medium, the way the stories treat the audience, its characters, its world, and its narrative couldn’t be more diametrically opposite.
Funny Games (I’ll refer to the original Austrian version here, not the American remake, although I’ve heard it’s a shot-for-shot remake) is not a horror movie as much as its premise might suggest. The movie follows the vacation of a family as it is interrupted by two nihilistic psychopaths. Blood Meridian is not a Western novel as much as its premise might suggest. The book follows a young man as he becomes involved with a group of nihilistic mercenaries out to scalp as many Native Americans as they can find. While pigeonholing both of these works into a genre proves to be a pain, both of them are concerned primarily with the way humanity deals with violence. But what do these authors have to say about it anyways? For Michael Haneke, violence is a grotesque taboo — intentionally harming another human being is beyond justification. For the filmmaker, the only thing more baffling than the will to harm others is the willingness (and seeming delight) that audiences have in witnessing the act itself. As a protestation to the world’s love of violence in the media, Haneke created Funny Games; a movie that is a passive-aggressive exercise against its audience (more on that later). McCarthy, on the other hand, doesn’t view violence as taboo. Instead, Blood Meridian treats violence as a way of life — war is as natural to the human condition as eating or breathing. The book is a bloody mess, but it tries to show how much of the American way of life is a product of said violence and aggression.
Both of these works display an interesting twist on convention. For Funny Games, the narrative relies on the audience’s pre-existing knowledge of storytelling. By assuming that the audience is familiar with the medium, Haneke meddles with conventions in order to make the audience uncomfortable in a variety of ways. Here are a few of the tropes that are subverted:
- all of the sympathetic characters die
- the antagonists win (i.e., no real resolution)
- a child is shot in the face
- animals are killed
- characters speak directly to the audience
- characters speak on the nature of movie narratives
- a red herring (the knife of the boat) serves no purpose to the plot (i.e., “Chekhov’s Gun” doesn’t go off)
- the film reverses its narrative by “rewinding”
Blood Meridian has its own devious narrative twists as well. Rather than establishing a central plot early on, the narrative meanders along with its central character for hundreds and hundreds of pages. It isn’t until much later (perhaps within the last 100 pages) that a very clear sense of who the antagonist is, and even then, there’s not a clear plot or message until the story’s final pages. The book is essentially a “coming-of-age” story that never allows the audience into its protagonist’s mind. Additionally, the protagonist (“The Kid”) disappears frequently throughout the novel — he may be the quote unquote main character, but he’s not the one moving the story along. The Kid, the Galton gang, Judge Holden, and the story itself are only moved forward by violent acts. One may characterize the book as being “one violent act after another,” and the sentiment would be true. While the violence may be mindless, its purpose is anything but.
Funny Games blatantly treats its audience with disdain. There are moments in the movie where it looks as if the sympathetic family has a chance to escape only to have these hopes dashed. The above list of subverted conventions are used specifically to punish the audience. Haneke treats his audience like a petulant child: “oh yeah? You like violence? Well how do you like it now?!” The passive-aggressive approach that the writer/director takes places the audience in a similar position to the family in the film. The beginning of Funny Games hides most of its brutal intentions, but it isn’t too long until Haneke forces his audience to play along with him. Theoretically the family isn’t the only people being tortured here: the audience is as well.
On the other sides of things, McCarthy doesn’t treat his audience with such contempt. Similar to its thesis that violence is as old as humanity itself, Blood Meridian treats the subject with a cold objective lens. There’s no reason to spend more time detailing the raping and pillaging of the Native American savages than the western sunset — neither is really more or less significant than the other according to the philosophy as told by the novel. As such, the audience is less treated than ignored. There are moments in which elements of the story are purposefully obfuscated (the fantastic ending comes to mind), but for the most part, McCarthy doesn’t pander to or punish his audience.
Neither Blood Meridian or Funny Games are particularly fun to sit through. While in the moment, both of these stories can be painful to witness — it isn’t until after the fact that the audience is able to completely enjoy themselves. It isn’t until after the final minutes of the movie or the final pages of the book are reached that we can look back and take in what the creators set out to accomplish. Classically, both of these stories are pretty terrible. In Blood Meridian, some nondescript guy follows a bunch of miscreants around the desert for no good reason, and in Funny Games, all of the good guys die while the bad guys laugh at the audience’s face. What makes both of these narratives so memorable, enduring, and important is the way that both the creators express their worldview, and that changes everything.
There should be a post coming soon about the ending to Blood Meridian if I can ever get around to it.