08 July, 2010

Movie Review: Benny's Video (1992)

Michael Haneke's second feature film is also the second in his so-called "Glaciation Trilogy," a trio of pictures about the emotional coldness and psychological impenetrability of modern society that began with 1989's barren, antarctic Der Siebente Kontinent. (Calling his first three films a "glaciation trilogy" implies that the rest of Haneke's films don't disturbingly delve into much the same themes, which is an obvious misstatement.)

Benny's Video begins with footage shot on a hand-held personal video camcorder. Farmers straddle a disoriented pig, hold a captive bolt pistol to his forehead, and slaughter the squealing, startled animal in close-up. (Those who have seen No Country for Old Men will recognize the extermination device.) The video pauses, rewinds, and replays in slow motion, savoring the zoomed-in final moments of the pig's life. They say animals differ from humans in that they have no foreknowledge of their mortality, that they are simpler and blissfully ignorant because they do not bear the burden of knowing death. But in slow motion, one sees a horrifying realization flooding the pig's eyes as the bolt enters his brain. This look of awful epiphany could just be a spontaneous reaction to the physical stimulus, but in slow motion and in close-up, in repeated viewings, it's easy for us to project our own feelings of doom, meaninglessness, and vanity on the pig's last panicked expression.

In Richard Linklater's meanderingly philosophical comedy Slacker, released one year earlier in 1991, a social experimenter/cultist obsessed with television images recounts a story of having seen--in person--an angry drunk stumble out of a bar and land on his own knife, an event that means almost nothing to him because he saw it in the chaotic, unpredictable, and vast reality and not within the confines of a structured, symbol-driven, propagandistic television screen. He can't rewind to examine the details. He doesn't know the whole plot, what happened before and what followed after, so there's no context. Maybe he was a bad guy and the death was satisfying or funny. Maybe the death was the result of some cruel, fateful twist of dramatic irony. Maybe he didn't even die--the spectator, after all, didn't even get a close-up of the knife entering the body, didn't get to immediately cut with a sound bridge of ambulance sirens to the emergency room. Even the blood, the real blood, didn't look like the blood he was used to seeing in movies, the blood that carried so much meaning and connotation in his mind. The hue was wrong, and he couldn't adjust the hue.

There's no knowing how many times Benny, the fifteen-year-old cameraman who filmed the pig's death, has watched the snuff film. There's no telling what the video may mean to him, if it means anything at all. Benny doesn't talk very much, nor does his family especially value communication. A typical family gathering involves them seated around the home entertainment system, impassively watching the last grisly news footage from the Bosnian war while muttering the occasional bit of half-hearted chatter. Haneke's lens cleverly remains glued to the television screen during these scenes; just as they'd rather watch the tube than each other, so must we.

Benny also doesn't spend much time in thoughtful meditation or quiet introspection. His life has been arranged so that he constantly has several layers of distraction competing for his attention, a thick protective blanket of white noise to shield him from any troublesome thoughts. While doing homework he blasts loud punk music and watches television. Before drifting off to bed he doesn't stare at the ceiling or at the inside of his eyelids, reliving the day and trying to make sense of it; he watches the latest Hollywood action and horror films, checked out three at a time from the local rental store.

His parents facilitate this thoughtless, high-tech lifestyle, buying him the gadgetry he desires and not caring that his bedroom is a sealed-off, inorganic crypt with a television screen substituting an open window. Benny has trained a camcorder to stare out his window and down to the faceless traffic on the street. Maybe that helps him to attach some narrative meaning to an otherwise meaningless world. Maybe it helps him imagine that some director, screenwriter, or editor is in control of the chaos outside his door.

There's no context for much of the imagery Benny is exposed to, no emotional intelligence or mental maturity to support what he's seen in his young life. Nobody's told him much about death or life, love or hate, rape and murder, responsibility and disappointment, dependability and despair. He knows these things exist, but they all exist in distorted measurements alongside aliens, car chases, mutants, and talking rabbits, and he perhaps understands as much about all of these as he would understand watching a film in a language he's never been taught. One need only look to his older sister for proof; her presence in the film is brief, and we know simply that she is a successful pyramid schemer who lies to her parents to use their apartment as a party headquarters for her scam. When confronted with the truth, her father scolds her only for not letting him know sooner so that he could properly execute the party by hiring a caterer. Maybe she'll be in prison in a year, but nobody in the family seems capable of conceiving this or understanding why.

A typical Haneke shot: people close together physically yet miles apart mentally.

When Benny murders a young girl using the captive bolt pistol he has pilfered from the farm, he genuinely seems not to possess any motive or understanding as to why he has committed the horrible crime. It is a random act of senseless violence, like changing the channel from a boring teen drama to a serial killer thriller. Benny meets the girl at the video store. She also seems neglected and alienated, and she willingly follows him to his apartment for microwave pizza and strange conversation. Benny is oddly dysfunctional throughout their encounter--charming and polite yet also impulsive. When he tackles her while acting out an unfunny joke about cops on the Metro, we realize his complete lack of social decorum, heightened only by his decision to show her (and to re-show her in slow-mo instant replay) his slaughterhouse video. She's just as intrigued and perplexed. What is death all about? He tells her about dead bodies in movies ("ketchup and plastic") and about the dead body of his grandmother, the sight of which he was shielded from at her funeral several years ago. He can see the explosive murder of millions on television, but his parents have prevented him from coming to terms with the sight of the deceased woman he once knew and love.

That's when he pulls out the pistol and dares her to shoot him. She refuses and dares him. He refuses. She calls him a coward, and so he shoots. Not once, not twice, but three times. Until her screaming and struggling comes to an abrupt end. Haneke films this scene not in close-up nor with any intensified continuity or emotional editing; we see through the lens of his camcorder, off-center and static. The camera captures all. And where a Hollywood scene would end, or where an intense score would be cued, or where a horrified close-up would occur, life instead just keeps going on. He tries to clean up the mess, but as a fifteen-year-old would and not in any calculated, cinematic way. He listens to music and does his homework. He strips off his clothes, not so that he can be sexual with the body--other bodies don't much concern him, despite his age--but so that he can keep the blood from staining them. He gets blood on his bare torso instead, and it is while filming his blood-stained skin and then watching the video tape that he gets oddly erotic--the image charged with pornographic autoeroticism even though the actual event was sexless. He takes a phone call from his friend. He goes to a concert. He gets a haircut and takes in a movie. He goes to school.

He has effectively changed the channel. The murder is behind him, and he's moved on to different scenes, different episodes, different genres.

Except he hasn't. The body's still stuffed in his closet, and the memory's still buried somewhere in his mind. Plus, most importantly, he still has the videotape.

Arno Frisch handles the role of Benny masterfully--a handsome and superficial exterior with a touch of radiant menace, offering glimpses into an interior that's largely vacant but not entirely so. And it's that occasional, subtle glimpse of a tiny human interior, bursting to breathe and break free, that makes this film a masterpiece. As when Benny nearly confesses to his friend but instead says nothing, or when he shaves off his beautiful locks in an act of nazirite penance, starting anew with a damaged and frail look to match his inner turmoil.

Eventually he decides that the only way to confess is to speak in the only language he understands. With no preamble he plays the videotape to his shocked and silent parents, who immediately switch into film noir mode with talk of alibis, witnesses, and the graphic, meticulous details of body disposal. Their response, so logical, clear-headed, and well-planned, can only have come from having seen so many perfect murders on television and in the movies. For the first time in their lives, they are movie stars, and the event merits an actual conversation rather than listless mumblings.

After establishing that there were no witnesses, they decide to protect their child, not merely because he's their son but also to avoid truthful accusations of child neglect that might be lodged against them. The father plans to discard the body by chopping it into tiny pieces, flushing it into the sewage system, and burning the bones, clothing, and belongings. Benny and his mother, meanwhile, will vacation in Egypt under the guise of attending a wealthy aunt's funeral. And when they are reunited one week later, everything will be back to normal, the murder will be forgotten, and Benny's brief life of crime will never be mentioned again. The tape will be rewound, ejected, and returned to the shelf.

Except Benny is tired of living life as though channel surfing. Benny wants to understand the most important and horrifying thing that's ever happened in his life. He wants to learn what contrition, sacrifice, and punishment are. Benny doesn't want to erase the tape of his memory, not least of all because a mind cannot simply be recorded over. Some remnant of the murder would stay in his subconscious forever, inexplicable, surreal, unaccounted for, resurfacing in untold ways. By protecting him from discovery and punishment, they want to deny him any chance of remorse and redemption. They want to permanently deny him the opportunity to make sense of his life, his mind, and his lethal mistake. They want to prolong his attention deficit and his emotional disconnect. They want to murder his barely living humanity.

They send him to Egypt, birthplace of Moses, of countless gods, and of ancient civilizations, and he spends the eye-opening experience behind his camcorder, trying to make sense of ancient tombs, of parasailers, of vivid sunsets and holy wars from a detached point-of-view. When his mother tries to capture him in the frame, he is sullen and scared. He doesn't want to be a part of this confusing and disordered story. The vacation is one that would change the lives of many people, but Benny only remarks on the heat and his sunburn. Will Benny always be schizoid and antisocial? Will he ever come face to face with beauty and truth?

When he returns to his videos, his entertainment system, and his corpse-less bedroom, he pointedly refuses to tell his father he loves him even as his father insists on saying that Benny is loved by him. Love is not a frightened and selfish attempt to rob a child of moral responsibility by shielding him from consequences. Love is not insuring that an unknown girl remains eternally forgotten. This may be the first thing Benny ever figures out for himself, even if he can't put it into words.

He goes to the police. He shows them incriminating evidence of his parents discussing the disposal of the body. He explains that even though he could have gotten away with it, he felt the need to go to the police, even if he's not sure why. And so he consciously, actively takes the first step in making sense of a senseless act.

Benny's Video, titled in English despite being an Austrian film (a subtle suggestion of how alien pop culture can be), is a phenomenal film, intriguingly acted by Arno Frisch, smartly filmed by cinematographer Christian Berger, and disturbingly written by Michael Haneke. Critiquing and exposing videotape and television culture was an overplayed genre in the late '80s and early '90s. Benny's Video is certainly the best of these films that I have seen, but recall also the Slacker scene, the surreal Videodrome, the bizarre Stay Tuned, the supernatural Ringu, the ghoulish Poltergeist, Stephen King's "The Tommyknockers," and several episodes of "The X Files" and other science fiction/horror anthologies, just to name a few, all of which implied the demonic horror that was lurking somewhere between the screen and the cathode ray. Some of these tales seem quaint and moralistic now, but it's surprising that an equal number of cautionary tales aren't being made about the present age. The Internet, cell phones, satellites, and the instantaneous, easy-access nature of the digital age have changed our expectations and the way our minds work, making us less patient, less focused, less appreciative, and less able to remember specifics from the constant blur of noise and details that bombards us from every direction at all hours of the day. Are today's filmmakers less technophobic? Have we all been indoctrinated by the hegemony of Google?

Where are the horror fantasies about the Internet?

Benny's Video (1992)
d: Michael Haneke w: Michael Haneke
(Arno Frisch, Angela Winkler, Ulrich Muhe)

1 comment:

Matt said...

beautiful analysis and amazing review!

after watching this movie my mind was as Benny's :) until i read your review.