Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Pause for Thought

Imprecise observations on the film Benny's Video (1992)
As these notations are intended for people who have seen the film, some SPOILERS will follow.


A crime is committed.  A murder; cold and cruel.  As an audience, we're inherently coerced into becoming a collective witness to this act, but at a distance, unable to interject.  The murder happens off-screen, but the screen is what we see.  The video monitor - a recurring image in Haneke's work - displays a recording of what could perhaps be described, physically, as 'the scene' of the crime, or even literally, as 'the crime scene.'

The implications are clear.  We're watching this murder as we would watch a conventional film.  Only in this instance, the fiction is presented as a reality.

Art, imitating life,  imitating art.

Benny's Video [Michael Haneke, 1992]:

Though the film is called Benny's Video (singular), there are in fact several videos featured in the film that the title could refer to.  The protagonist - a disaffected teenage boy - spends much of the film watching videos or making them.  When he eventually takes the tentative step into cold-blooded murder, his obsession with recording plays a central role in the facilitation of the crime and also of his understanding of it.

He is, like the audience, something of a voyeur.  For Benny (Arno Frisch) , real life is not real unless it is viewed through a screen.  In his bedroom the curtains remain closed, even during the day.  A small video camera records the scene outside his window, which is displayed back to him, on a video monitor.  The television is therefore not just a means of entertainment, but a window into another world.

Here, one could perhaps connect Haneke's presentation back to a particular device used in Jean-Luc Godard's eccentric "thriller", Detective (1985), in which three amateur sleuths hide out in a room at the Hôtel Concorde, keeping a constant watch on the exterior of the foyer via the aid of a portable video camera and an in-room television set.  Although effectively a caper, Godard's film is also an extended thesis on the nature of recording and the role that an audience plays when engaging with the conventions of a genre; inventing and projecting, or even creating their own conclusions from the accumulation of "clues", whatever the case may be.

Detective [Jean-Luc Godard, 1985]:

For Haneke and - to a larger extent - Godard, the television becomes a window and the camera becomes the all-seeing eye.  The characters in both these films are "protagonists" in the conventional sense, but they're also surrogates for a viewing audience.  They watch, they plot, they invent.  When these characters cross the line, eventually taking control of the narrative and dictating the direction the film will take, they are - in a sense - breaking the forth wall, but also inviting the audience to do the same.  The act of viewing makes them spectators by definition, but by refusing to remain passive, by taking an active role in understanding these images and scenes, they become protagonists (legitimately) through the act of viewing.

In this particular instance, the idea of an initial character as a voyeur transcending his own role as a submissive observer to become a genuine protagonist (or active participant) in the development of the plot, the film channels the influence of Hitchcock's great masterpiece Rear Window (1954), giving its themes of voyeurism and the influence of the television as yet another window into the soul a more contemporary relevance in the age of the video rental.

Rear Window [Alfred Hitchcock, 1954]:

Unlike the conventional blink-or-you'll-miss-it mass spectacle of the cinema - which keeps its audience at a reserve - the video format (plainly ,"the home cinema") makes it possible for us to scrutinise the image from a much closer, more intimate perspective.  We can watch, re-watch, pause and re-live moments in a way that was impossible just over a decade before Haneke's film was released.

In the presentation of his central character and the 'video' of the title, Haneke is questioning the motivations of the audience, while also providing a not so subtle critique of the generation of this character, enthralled by the lure of 'the image', but at the same time detached from it; unable to see beyond the representation to the reality beneath.  This is similar to Hitchcock's more subtle critique of his own  protagonist, the disabled correspondence photographer L.B. Jefferies.  A man of action reduced to an inert observer, Jefferies becomes a surrogate for an audience who find entertainment in the lives of others and invent stories from the close scrutiny of the most arbitrary of details.

If Hitchcock's film was also something of an acknowledgement of the filmmakers own position as "ringleader" - the cunning instigator colluding with the antagonist and creating the film, as bait, in an attempt to exploit the most callous and judgemental facets of human behaviour - then for Haneke, the lead-up to the murder, the murder itself and the prolonged and provocative aftermath becomes almost like a macabre parody of the conventional moviemaking process (pre-production/production/post- etc), thus turning the entire nature of filmmaking, as a history, into something almost alarmingly sinister.

The scenes of Benny gazing with Kubrickian detachment at video-camera footage of a pig being slaughtered suggests the idea of "influence" (however contentiously) - that people are, in some small way, influenced by the power of images, for better or worse - but it also chillingly establishes the character's own (near) inhuman objectivity when he looks back at his own footage from the death.  These sequences are the first to suggest the idea of "responsibility" - one of the key points in the film - as Benny (the character and audience, by proxy) becomes, in the cinematic sense, the "auteur" of his crime.

Benny's Video [Michael Haneke, 1992]:

As the character goes back and forth through the tape, studying the frame, mixing in sounds and other footage to create a ghoulish montage of ideas, the methodology again becomes a kind of commentary on the process of filmmaking, where the "shots" and "cuts" take on an entirely different and markedly more disturbing definition.  In this respect, the film - or these specific scenes - offer an almost acknowledgement on Haneke's part of his own role in this shameful display, his own culpability as a maker of violent images, and the responsibility of the artist to present ideas, even as critique, without having them turn into an example of the very same exploitation that the film was supposedly against.


·          With the central idea of Benny's Video, is Haneke explicitly creating a link between the viewing of violent images and the character's subsequent descent into cold-hearted violence?  If so, do you agree with his opinion?

·          If not, what do you think causes Benny's sudden break in personality?

·          Is Haneke implicating the viewer in this murder by framing it for our "entertainment", or is he implicating himself, as the creator of this scenario?

·          How do you interpret the ending?   Do you think Benny is turning himself in - his guarded apology to his parents an acknowledgement of their attempts to save him from a criminal prosecution - or do you think he has instead shifted the blame entirely onto them, thus proving that his character is now a genuine sociopath?

·          What is your take on the continual new stories that form the background of the film?   There are several explicit references to the Balkans conflict.   Is this simply Haneke providing a cultural and historical context for his film, or is there something more significant going being suggested, perhaps, once again, in relation to the influence of violent media, sensationalism, and social-conditioning?


For me, Benny's Video is very much about the nature of viewing; about how audiences are conditioned to accept and/or reject certain modes of viewing, and how the notion of desensitisation will one day rob these images of their ability to move, amuse, shock or repel, turning them into objects with no real meaning beyond anything presented on the surface.

It's also a film about video and about the process of taking films out of their natural environment - the cinema, where they are watched as part of a collective; as a social exhibition - and placing them in the home where audiences are free to use or misuse the film in a way that goes against the explicit intentions of the filmmaker; a thread that would be further explored in Haneke's subsequent films, Funny Games (1997) and Caché (2005).

Caché [Michael Haneke, 2005]:

Whether or not we accept this particular argument or instead accuse Haneke of hypocrisy - as he compels the audience to engage with the film, only to eventually turn our own engagement against us - will be decided by the individual.  However it's worth spending a moment or two to reflect on the experiences of the film, its contrasts - between the cold, static scenes of Benny's family-life, and the vibrant, exotic travelogue of images as the characters escape to Egypt - as well as the implications of the ending, which possibly posit the titular character as a legitimate sociopath, far closer to the antagonist (also played by Frisch) in the abovementioned Funny Games.

Ultimately, the film for me comes back to the idea of culpability; about the responsibility that audiences and filmmakers share when approaching any fiction that use violence, either to titillate or to provoke.  With the staging of the murder, Haneke seems to be saying that we, as an audience, are a witness to everything we see; that we have a responsibility as viewers to dismiss these films, as a moral judgement (and not simply as an "aesthetic" preference or on the level of personal enjoyment, as is often the case) and to question the intentions of filmmakers who use such measures to provoke a response.

We could argue in this instance that the end of the film is suggesting, figuratively at least, that the responsibility ultimately rests with the parents.  However, I also think Hanake is casting himself in that position; with the didactic, sometimes heavily moralising tone of his films occasionally creating the feeling of a stern lecture or even an academic dissertation on a theme.  Haneke is, in some respects, talking down to his audience, but nonetheless accepts the responsibility, therefore allowing the audience the opportunity to see the film, to reflect on it, but ultimately absolving us from our own implicit culpability - on this occasion at least - on the condition that we take something meaningful from the experience.