Monthly Archives: February 2015

Home invasions – A discussion of Haneke’s Funny Games

This is a brief consideration of the film Funny Games. It contains the essential plot lines and is intended for those who have already watched the film.


It is true to say that I did not want to watch Funny Games. Like the film, my recent work* concerns anxieties around the invasion of the home, a project which has generated unsettling images, ideas and prospects in my own life. I knew the film was about a family who seem to be randomly selected by two young men who appear without notice, initially polite, the dialogue moves to a position in which social conventions are stretched before it is realised that something is deeply amiss. The householder’s prerogative to expel intruders is dismissed by the intruders and the viewer’s stomach knots at the realisation of the frailty of the family’s situation. Haneke sets-up the affluence of the gated home, the perfect family trio and their comfortable lives against a random moment. All are ready for a great fall into terror that will puncture the assumptions that they (and we) might have about the relative safety and sanctity of domestic life. As the ‘plot’ of the pair is revealed the mask of shared manners and expectations is pulled aside to reveal a calmly executed experiment both by the director and the protagonists themselves; the ‘game’ of mentally torturing and physically destroying the household step by step.

Funny Games probes a number of contemporary issues, the story of an invasion into the home life of an affluent family might itself be taken as a story of our times, probing deep anxieties and primal fears of social intrusion (the home as a place of escape from life outside the front door) and violence (home as the key but potentially vulnerable place of refuge from danger). In fact this is only one of the levels on which the film operates, the lengthy build-up of fear and abject terror appear as an enormously cruel and surgically presented exercise (the feeling that we are being ‘wound-up’ by the director is palpable). This feature of the film pushes the viewer into a deeply uneasy position, are we not complicit with a project that offers nothing more than spite against vulnerability? What makes the film more than another project in torment of the kind increasingly on offer (Saw, Hostel, Audition) is that the direct violence of the film is clearly not an intrinsic aim. The most brutal moments occur off-screen and the sound designers are used to convey the horror of these moments. Is it possible then that the kind of visual extremity on offer in our popular culture might itself be the target of the film?

The most startling points in the film reveal the deeper project of the film through the deployment of straight ‘to-camera’ asides by one of the protagonists who asks whose side we are on, what might happen next and so on. Haneke is asking us to interrogate our motives for watching such films, to consider the banalisation of violence in our filmic culture and to initiate a searching query into the emergence of torture as an on-screen phenomenon (the archetypal terrorised female, the threat or use of extreme violence, the humiliation and power exerted over the fearful). Even a moment of potential catharsis (the use of a shotgun to kill her husband, lying off-screen in agony after being stabbed to put him out of his misery, is used to kill one of the assailants) is literally rewound by the other attacker by using a remote control. This moment of fantasy highlights the insubstantiality of images and events more generally – we are unclear as to what is real, what has or is happening, what apparent truth might be unwound in favour of another’s reading of the situation. Yet these moments come as a kind of relief, revealing the apparent objectives of the film and rendering an unbearable and persistent assault as an instance that raises wider questions about the nature of entertainment in our culture.

Images of suburban life run through the film, undermining images of idyllic lifestyles by alluding to a threat that has been placed in its midst. The presence of the two attackers is ominously foretold as we remember a socially stilted encounter with neighbours where two additional figures stand in a group on a lawn. Their faces unseen from a distance and lacklustre responses to shouted greetings are later realised to signify that they were unable to reveal their entanglement with the same impostors. So danger comes to the impregnable comes of the rich with smiling faces and plausible social connections. Violence quickly appears from behind a veneer of respectability and assumed safety. Other points are made about our urban and residential life by Haneke. The (briefly) escaped wife is unable to get help from neighbours (we may speculate that they have also been killed) or whose gates and insulated homes make it impossible for her to get assistance. These events point an accusing finger at expanding suburban and gated residential lifestyles and its apparent links to diminished social contact and neighbourliness.

Who are the pair themselves? They play at revealing broken and ‘red neck’ personal histories. Yet both appear in preppy dress, foppish haircuts and college-boy grins; all intended perhaps to make all but untraceable the social roots of their violent dispositions. Haneke himself has spoken of being unsettled at the reported violence of middle-class children who commit violent acts out of a desire for thrills, rather than for revenge or material gain. In this respect the film’s soundtrack (to the extent that there is any music at all) is provided through three punctuations of a deeply atavistic, shattering metal track in which roaring guitar riffs, screams and wails allude perhaps to the unformed emotions and anxieties that might lie behind the passive faces of the two invaders. At the film’s end the closing glance into the camera by one of them is frozen as the same music kicks-in for the last time. The suggestion in this accusing stare appears to be our complicity in seeing entertainment through suffering; an anti-Hollywood vision in which the objects of our natural sympathies are destroyed is completed. All that is left is the indication of an ongoing (unending?) cycle of yet more ‘games’ and entertainment as a new house is invaded, initiated by unthreatening smiles and requests for help. Such an ending points again to Haneke’s critique of the moral emptiness of cultural industries which provide us only with new victims and shocks as the primary means of its sustenance, with little empathy for the real daily terrors and insecurities of the world outside.

Funny Games, directed by Michael Haneke, 2007, original Austrian version 1997

* Domestic Fortress: Fear and the New Home Front, with Sarah Blandy, in preparation.

Shades of Deviance – interview

On the day the film is released that partly inspired the title, here are some thoughts on the collection and what it was intended for.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background?

Well, my doctoral research looked at the ‘invisible’ problem of household displacement in London, I was always interested in social problems and particularly those that hadn’t really seen much attention – displacement from gentrification was often discussed but had never really been measured before. When I finished this work I moved to Glasgow as a research assistant and began to do a lot of contract related research around social exclusion and marginality in the peripheral housing estates there, and in Edinburgh. With John Flint I did work on processes of informal social control; we were both fascinated by the way that residents in poorer communities were stigmatised as being disorderly and antagonistic to the police. Though the story was more complex what we often found was that residents often saw the police as the first line of action against problems. I like to think that my work is always relevant but also trying to work with middle-range theories and ideas. Much of the work I have done on gated communities and the privatisation of public space, for example, has tried to problematize the self-segregation of the wealthy when many policy-makers and the public tend to start from the position that we should look inside poorer areas. We know from such work that many of the problems of ‘poor’ areas is not only about the lack of opportunities but also the discrimination and exit of the middle-classes from such areas as well as the way that higher income groups argue for the kind of defunding and policing measures that characterise many public approaches today.

The cover art

The cover art

What got you interested in deviance as a speciality?

I think that like many people working in and around criminology I like to see my work as being broader than the problem of crime. When Simon Winlow and I organised the first York Deviancy Meeting for forty years I remember phoning Stan Cohen (who died only this year, 2013) and when he asked what kind of things I was working on I said sheepishly that my main interest was in gated communities and that perhaps that wasn’t a key area in criminology, his response was ‘well, surely those kind of issues are absolutely central to criminology!’ I think this gave me more confidence to address the field of criminology with the voice of someone who was interested in crime and harm, but through the background of someone who had emerged out of the field of urban and housing studies, rather than perhaps the more conventional route of a criminology degree (my first degree was at Kingston University, in sociology). Yet the more I have thought on these ‘boundary’ issues I have felt that criminology is in many ways an ‘urban’ field when we look at its primary concerns, and that urban studies has perhaps tended to neglect or underplay a concern with disorder and human harm when, in so many ways, it is concerned with the harm to human potential that emerges from poverty and hardship, the geography of opportunity, inequality, low-skills and housing systems.

What sets this book apart from others in the field?

Shades of Deviance emerged over dinner conversations at the European Group for the Study of Crime and Deviance at Nicosia in 2012. Some of us were talking about the need to translate complex ideas without sacrificing too much subtlety, as well as the need to connect early students to more of the politics and critique that we find in criminology today. In my earlier work I had tried to work on applied areas in social research (such as public housing and gated communities for the wealthy) for a lay audience and so Shades of Deviance became ultimately an attempt to bring together a wide range of experts who were told – look, stop trying to write in a neutral way, write something short (this was a struggle for some of the academics of course!), energetic and authoritative that tells the newcomer something of the lie of the land as well as its political constitution; rather than pretending that complex and contested crimes and harms could somehow be explained without that kind of background. I wrote a very clear brief so that all of the authors wrote to a similar ‘recipe’ and asked each to provide the title of a film that somehow distilled many of the issues for their particular contribution. So I think these elements are distinctive but I also intended the collection to be for students leaving their first phase of full-time education and moving to a degree environment. In my institution many students will ask for some suggested reading before arriving and we often scratch our heads about what to recommend; I would like to think that thumbing through Shades of Deviance would be just a great way of preparing for a degree but I also wanted to achieve something that I hoped Routledge would price in such a way that the audience could be extended to those outside criminology completely.

How have you organised the layout of this book?

The book has 56 entries with a general introduction to the concepts of crime and deviance which says something about the complexity of the debates within the field. At first I wanted to perhaps order all of the entries from forms of social rule-breaking with no real harm, through to the most obvious problems and crimes, but I then realise how fraught with problems this would be (of course this is a great exercise to get some really heated debates going in the classroom!). So I created a series of thematic headings that reflected some attempt to bundle-up groups of crimes, forms of deviance and patterns of harm that made sense but also still retained some sense of severity. I couldn’t help adding a final word about how to be (in the widest possible sense) a student of crime and deviance that stems from the way I teach my students and my beliefs about the need to be well-informed and politically engaged as well as just getting on with studies.

Finally, what do you see as the main emerging trend in the study of deviance?

Speaking really from my interests I would have to say that I think there will be more and more to say about growing urbanization globally is producing a wide range of strains and harms for humanity generally. Not only do inequalities between regions drive many forms of crime like the drugs trade and trafficking but also see a lack of government co-ordination and investment generating problems of ill-health, poor education, unemployment and poverty that criminologists increasingly see as forms of harm that they should respond to. Those complexities come on top of the more obvious issues like urban violence and violence towards women which, I think, is beginning to finally see greater awareness and action globally. I think we will also see a major return to questions about the relationship between media technologies and the kinds of crimes and harms circulating around exposure and immersion in forms of extreme content that include pornography and violent gaming which have become ubiquitous and yet remain denied as the roots of harm by many liberal commentators and researchers. I think that our theories in this area need bringing up to speed given the leaps in processing power and complexity of networking and entertainment today. All of this is to say nothing of the links between climate change and various kind of crime and social pressures that it is generating and which seem likely to get much worse, and rapidly so. Criminologists are certainly likely to be busy in the coming years.

Any colour you want, as long as it sells the house?

Not that long ago I moved into a new home, the developer had painted the entire interior in magnolia, the natural uniform of new homes, the marginally warmer tone of most rented properties and perhaps also the colour needed to help us sell our homes. This inoffensive and warm tone, named after the colour of the petals of the plant, has become the ‘standard’ household paint. Now in the process of having the house personalised by painting it the question remains – what are my motivations for choosing particular colours? Can I be truly personal and true to my own taste (as though that itself were not influenced by social factors, forces and fashions) or should I be more careful, choosing something tasteful but which wouldn’t hinder a sale in the future? The decorator’s advice was implicitly clear on the day – did YOU choose this colour (terracotta for my daughter’s room)? The fact was this was on sale, but I did like the colour. The tone of the question however was clear – are you nuts? I was told endlessly about what how ‘people’ like to paint their homes, the steer was fairly obvious, don’t be too idiosyncratic in your choices lest you offend some assumed middle-ground of opinion. This raises an important question about the way in which social attitudes and norms spill into the domestic interior and the ironic place of our sense of individualism – we THINK this is our place, our very own taste – ok, it is not perhaps unlike that of many others but nevertheless it is ours. Yet at a more subtle level the sense of connecting with what is cool, trendy, off the wall (and therefore trendy) is very much at work in our practices indoors. In another way much interior practice is linked to some imagined future point of sale at which point our own taste may offend or conflict with those of a potential buyer, themselves scripted by ‘property porn’ and sales programmes which tell them to look out for something similarly bland. The truth is that not only are we never really fully ourselves, but our subjective in the apparently endlessly bespoke and personal space of the home is very much influenced by social tastes and by a need to ensure that the home is a maximally saleable asset at some point in the future. We may of course be interested in how we live and use this space, but we also want to make sure it is going to realise the most money if we should sell it. We are told that certain kinds of home improvement may devalue our property, no doubt we will bridle at the idea and think we are behaving as individuals and yet the logic of these influences is powerful. This is a pretty sad state of affairs and perhaps also says something about the national psyche of the UK which is probably really quit different to other nations and housing systems but, since you ask, the kitchen is cinnamon and the hall is Egyptian thread, not too close to magnolia I hope…