Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Benny's Video (Haneke, 1992)

The universe of Michael Haneke must surely be one of the darkest realms in all of cinema. Not only is it a place where violence and cruelty are commonplace, it is a place where these things seem to be an unavoidable and unexplainable part of the human experience. Those who perpetrate the violence are as much incapable of explaining why they do what they have done as those who are the recipients. Like his later films, such as Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, Benny’s Video is a film that depicts deeds of an excruciatingly unpleasant nature and then prods the viewer to consider how such acts came to be.

Young Benny (Arno Frisch) is a typical teenager in many ways. He enjoys fast food, loud music and violent movies. He also enjoys immersing himself in technology. With a camera and some impressive home editing equipment, Benny documents odd slices from his so-called life. His favorite clip comes from a visit to a nearby farm in which a pig is suddenly and brutally killed with a point-blank shot to the head. With no apparent feeling of compassion, Benny slows the video down to absorb the pig’s frenzied cries as it goes through the throes of death. In this, and other scenes in the film, Haneke makes a distinct suggestion that increased modern technology has had a palpable effect on his central character, encouraging a detached, unemotional outlook on his fellow humans. In one brief, but telling moment, Haneke shoots a bustling group of people, interacting with each other joyfully as Benny stands on the opposite side of the fence looking in. Not only is he apart and uninvolved, he seems completely disinterested.

It will probably come as no surprise that Benny is soon involved in an incident of horrific violence; however, such foreknowledge will hardly prepare the viewer for Haneke’s agonizingly cold depiction of the crucial moments that serve as the film’s centerpiece. The scene calls to mind the virtuoso 10-minute sequence in Funny Games where Haneke captures two characters struggling in the wake of a deed of senseless brutality. Here again, Haneke uses his camera’s apparent disinterest and detachment to paradoxically envelope the viewer in dread.

If all this seems like a simple-minded assault on the corrupting influence of violent entertainment, think again. With the second half of his film, Haneke focuses his attention elsewhere – on Benny’s parents and the way they interact with their son. Note how Benny’s mother and father react when they learn about what has transpired. Note the way they immediately strive to make the problem disappear. Note the utter selfishness and lack of compassion for the victim. Note how quickly they are willing to relieve their son of responsibility. In this film, the stakes for Benny are not simply whether or not he will be caught, but rather whether or not he will be able to rediscover his humanity. Ultimately, there will be consequences to be faced – but not exactly in the way we might expect.

Benny’s Video unfolds in such a way that the second half of the film has no chance of attaining the level of tension we experience early on in the film. Consequentially, the film feels front-loaded structurally, even though the plot develops in a logical and essentially satisfying direction. To be sure, this is an audacious and provocative effort; however, it would be an exaggeration to say that the film is terribly thought provoking. Unlike Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, which used extreme situations to offer complex insight into humankind’s relationship with violence, Benny’s Video settles for teenage alienation painted in broad strokes. Nonetheless, Benny’s Video remains a worthy entry in the filmography of one of contemporary cinema’s most accomplished provocateurs.



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