Monday, 3 December 2012

Treat One: Hidden

My 12 treats of xmas are back. This year it's going to be a bit  film themed I think as I have a clear out of some of my film journalism. This was an article I wrote for Splice magazine on Michael Haneke's Hidden. It's aimed at teachers of A level Film Studies so hence the title and some of the address in the article.

If there’s only one film you use in the classroom, make it... Caché (Hidden)
by Robin Bell

Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) is a versatile film to teach, having elements to it that fit into most parts of the WJEC A level Film Studies syllabus. When introducing the film to students I like to begin by showing them the following quote by Jason Solomons from the article ‘We love Hidden but what does it mean?’ in The Observer:
Hidden (Caché), directed by Michael Haneke, has become the topic of heated conversations around water coolers and over dinner tables across the country. It is on its way to becoming the defining film of a generation.’[1]
Most students when confronted by this are infected with a shocked expression and a ‘What? But I’ve never heard of it.’ It’s a real eye opener that the film culture they’re aware of and involved in is only a small portion of what is available, it shows that there exists a whole other film culture that they haven’t touched upon yet, and gives them something to work towards to understand about The Film Industry for Section A of the FM2 paper at As level.
(A word of warning if using Caché at any point of teaching Section A, please remember that the focus for this paper is the American and British film industry; only use Caché to introduce themes which can then be expanded upon and made relevant by examples from the British and American industry.)

Hidden in the industry
The quote from The Observer sparks off a substantial point of debate, that of the importance of critics. In the summer 2009 WJEC FM2 exam paper there was a quote from critic Mark Kermode as one of the stimulus statements from Section A pertaining to this area. His quote concerned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ( 2008), of which he states, ‘I heard some bad reviews of the new Indiana Jones movie but it had one of the biggest opening weekends of all time’[2], thus bringing into question the role of the critic: why have critics for film if it still goes on to achieve massive box office takings after being critically panned? In the second part of the quote, Kermode states that the role of the critic is to bring the audiences attention to lesser known films; independent cinema, documentaries, classic re-releases and foreign language films. ‘A critic can draw your attention to a movie you might not have seen. Half of a critic’s job is praising movies. Critics getting behind obscure films can help them find a space in the market’[3] (ibid.). In conjunction with the Hidden article this Mark Kermode quote works perfectly, and shows that independent and foreign language films do have a specific and large audience that maybe the students would have previously overlooked.
The critical status of the film can be further explored by the its appearance in many national newspapers’ film of the decade lists, even topping The Times’ 100 best films of the decade list. This suggests that the film’s themes are the most relevant of the decade, and how ‘presciently the Austrian director Michael Haneke tapped into the uncertain mood of the Noughties’ [4].

In Caché, George and Anne, a middle class couple, begin to receive surveillance tapes of their house, followed by childlike violent drawings. They go to the police but receive no help. The film then becomes a mystery, conforming to a straightforward thriller genre, with George following clues to locate who is sending these packages, who is filming their house, who is silently terrorising the couple?
George follows the clues, a childish drawing of a chicken with its head cut off being the final piece of the puzzle. The puzzle which has gradually become more personal and associated with George’s past. He reconnects with his adopted brother and confronts the guilt of his past, this being the fact that when George was younger played a cruel trick on Majid to ensure that he was taken away from the house ensuring that the attention didn’t waver from himself. Unfortunately George  doesn’t disclose any of this to his wife, as their relationship and family life crumbles. The guilty secrets from the past have a habit of catching up with you, as George finds out in the most hideous of circumstances.
Michael Haneke
Caché is Michael Haneke’s eighth film (not including his made for TV films), and it picks up on many themes from his previous films. It is typically Haneke in style also. It feels like the culmination of Haneke’s themes to date. This makes it imperative to examine Haneke’s previous work to reap dividends in seeing where Caché has come from.
Haneke’s name is synonymous with intellectual, austere cinema; measured, cold and intelligent; films that have been said to target the head instead of the heart. His first film, The Seventh Continent (1989) is a drawn out, microscopic insight on the final day of a family’s life, as they decide to commit suicide en masse. Taken from a story in the national papers, Haneke unflinchingly recreates the final hours and the deed, as a formal, clinical occurrence. Causing a media controversy by burning a large stash of money, Haneke was amused by the outcry this caused when it was only a small part of a story of a family killing themselves.
Media plays a big role in all Haneke films, taking stories from the news as he did above in The Seventh Continent, a method he used again for 71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance (1994) whilst the portrayal of violence in the media is confronted in Benny’s Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997). Haneke appears to be especially fascinated with the mediated image. In most of his films TV’s can be seen and heard in the (often middle-class) protagonists’ houses, with themes on the television that correlate or inform the action. In Benny’s Video the titular character’s relationship to the mediated image is his downfall.  The lead character is obsessed with a video of a pig being slaughtered, even though he was actually present when it occurred. For 14-year-old Benny, anything recorded on videotape is inherently ‘better’ and more ‘real’ than what he can see with his own eyes. His constant renting of Hollywood no brain horror films and repetitive watching of the pig slaughter, as well as filming his own life and editing it lead to a blur between reality and the mediated image for Benny – a blur that is fatal when he invites a girl around to his house and coolly murders her whilst the camera is rolling.
Violence is often linked to the media. The example from Benny’s Video above makes the media complicit in the violence; Funny Games assaults its audience by making the spectator complicit with the violence. At one point the perpetrator of violence within the film turns to the audience and winks, breaking the ‘fourth wall’ of the screen and involving them within his deeds.
An aspect of Haneke’s films which stands apart from most film-makers is the way he demands the audience engages with the film and place themselves within the text and consider their role in the problem within society that he is depicting.  No one is safe when watching a Michael Haneke film, especially not the audience.   His spare style creates a sense of paranoia in whatever the proceedings, and also creates a tightrope of non manipulative suspense which makes them feel singular and different to usual mainstream fare.

Caché reading
What is most fruitful for students when first confronted with learning the main distinctive micro elements is to view something far outside their usual experience, allowing them to analyse the micro elements from a new, fresher perspective.  Caché, especially, is good for teaching editing in comparison with a mainstream summer blockbuster.
To begin with, the opening sequence is a great start to bemuse the students, and to make them look harder at the film making process. Audiences are used to openings of films to introduce plot, characters, locations and foreshadow the narrative of the film. Screenwriting guru Syd Field states that the narrative structure of a film should adhere to the rule that the first 30 pages, or thereabouts, of a script (roughly 30 minutes of screen time) should be structured under the heading of Set Up, with the plot kicking into gear around the end of this with Plot Point One. Watchmen (2009) had a music video-like title montage that functioned as a prologue to set up its world and Star Wars (1977) has its world explained through a brief section of opening text, so that the action can commence.
Caché goes for something entirely different, and much more elliptical, but which ends up functioning in exactly the same way. The opening shot shows a street with cars and the focus on a house across the road. The surrounding shrubbery and peacefulness, with only bird song and the sounds of a front door shutting and a solitary cyclist passing, (you can even hear the breeze on the soundtrack it’s that peaceful), suggests a pleasant middle class suburb. The startling aspect of this opening sequence is that the shot holds its position, a fixed camera shot, the credits appear over the top of the image and fade, and the image continues to linger.
What is the point of this shot as an opening? Why has Haneke chosen this? And why does it linger so long? It’s over two minutes of this static camera shot, supposedly filming nothing, just a house in a middle class suburb. Yet, even though there’s nothing in the shot to suggest so, the fact it outstays its welcome creates an unnerving and uncomfortable atmosphere for the viewer, therefore placing the spectator in the position of the lead characters, George and Anne, as they watch back the footage that forms the opening sequence, and we realise that someone is secretly filing their house and then sending them the surveillance footage they have gathered. Somebody knows their every move. This wouldn’t seem so sinister if it wasn’t for the way the opening section is edited and paced, working together with the other micro elements.
Firstly, the mise-en-scène works to achieve setting, and set up the location to match the characters, when we see them after the long opening shot. The expensive, peaceful location shows us the relative comfort of their daily lives. The sound also contributes to the serene effect, turned up really high, enough to pick up distant bird song and quiet footsteps, emphasising the tranquility of the area and the luxury that the couple live in. In isolation these two micro elements create quite a different atmosphere from what becomes apparent when cinematography and editing are thrown into the mix.
The absence of editing is what startles at first. Choosing not to cut away and shoot from different angles showing different perspectives and intensifying the action, is still an editing choice. The decision not to do any of the above is a key decision to making meaning in the opening sequence of Caché.  The length of shot and its lack of movement is what create the discomfort.  The security provided by the mise-en-scène and sound is undercut by the creeping paranoia provided by the cinematography and editing creating a highly uncomfortable mix for viewer.
The lack of camera movement or editing is a trick used again later in Caché, which this time creates an even more unsettling effect in a moment the whole film builds to, an exceptional creation of shock, but a shock with lasting undercurrents that resonate throughout the rest of the film.
I use this scene in comparison to Reservoir Dogs’(1992) infamous ‘ear slicing’ scene to consider how films depict violence; it is also the most talked about scene from Caché. To deviate away from Cache for a moment to look at how Tarantino uses the camera in Reservoir Dogs. The camera is constantly positioned to tell the story, and to relate to the two opposing forces in the scene. When shooting from the policeman’s perspective the camera is stationary and behind him at a low angle, in the frame you can see the chair that the officer is strapped to, we’re close in to the back of his head, which is a vulnerable position for the character and we’re looking up at the predatory Mr. Blonde. When the camera identifies with Mr. Blonde we are at eye level and constantly moving, following him as he nonchalantly dances belittling the degrading situation the captured officer finds himself in. When the assault actually takes place the tension has been cranked to such a level that the audience are prepared for it, and it’s the fact that the audience are denied the guilty pleasure of witnessing the violence as the camera pans away that causes the discomfort in this sequence. What a spectator can create in their imagination is surely far worse that can be shown using prosthetics and effects. This scene is all about audience identification with the characters, hence the stylistic use of the camera to re enforce character positioning, and building tension to create the shock. You could also refer to the juxtaposition of emotions created by the use of the Steeler’s Wheel song ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’, a breezy MOR pop tune soundtracking brutal torture.
In comparison Haneke’s lack of musical score throughout the whole of Hidden adds to the intrigue, in the opposite way to Reservoir Dogs. In any type of thriller the audience is kept on track with the action and even given audio clues to what is happening by means of the soundtrack. This is a luxury taken away in Caché; with no non-diegetic sounds apparent the viewer is left to decipher the action themselves, leaving Caché a thriller that can create confusion and in the passive viewer.
This lack of soundtrack does help to create tension in the film’s standout scene, an hour and twenty four minutes into the film. By this point the plot has unraveled, we know about George’s adopted brother, Majid, and have been informed of George’s shameful deed in horrifying flashback, to understand their past. George suspects that it is revenge that has made Majid send the offending items and uncover the hidden secrets of the past to George’s family.
After walking purposefully up the corridor towards Majid’s flat, George greets Majid with a threatening ‘What’s going on?’. The tone is already sour, in what the audience feel will be the climax of the film containing the reveal.
George is invited in for a scene which offers much more. Once in the flat the camera is in a fixed position, viewing Majid’s sparsely furnished flat. There are two plastic chairs by a small table, grotty wallpaper, replaced in one patch by a piece of wood. The mise-enscène suggests something only slightly above squalor, the opposite of George’s luxurious abode.
Majid enters, already looking dejected, he holds the door for George who strides in and snaps, still with an aggressive tone ‘What’s this all about?’ Without a musical soundtrack the audience is left to decipher the body language of the characters for clues. George refuses Majid’s request for him to sit down and is impatient, whilst Majid hovers at the door. As the two characters stand facing each other conversing Majid reaches for something in his pocket, but because of the fixed camera position there is no cut away to a close up of it. Before we know it Majid lifts the object – a razor – up to his neck and slits his throat, a spray of blood erupts and shoots up the wall behind him and Majid slumps to the floor.
It’s a sudden moment of intense shock, and it’s over before the audience can register what has occurred. The camera stays fixed as George stares down at Majid’s body. George is rooted to the spot, he can’t move, much like the camera; in contrast to Reservoir Dogs, here a static camera is used to emphasise the shock, and unflinchingly show the after effects.
 Haneke challenges the Hollywood norm of focusing on the violence, to instead concentrate on the aftermath, and make you stare at the grief, the confusion and the hard hitting facts of death. In the scene from Caché George paces the room and begins to feel ill, gagging and the coughing as the realisation of what has happened begins to form, in George’s and the viewer’s mind.
The other reason to use a static camera in this scene is a narrative decision, relating back to the opening sequence, causing an active audience member to consider the way the footage is filmed as a clue that maybe we’re seeing  a recording of this happen, which will then be sent to George.  Whichever way you look at it, it’s the understated use of the micro elements which make this effective. Total Film magazine voted this scene the second most shocking in cinema in the past decade (behind Leonardo diCaprio’s death in The Departed (2006), which is maybe more of a shock because of the star status of diCaprio rather than the way it’s presented). It’s the realism of this sequence in Caché which makes it so effective.

Realism vs. Genre
Even though Michael Haneke’s Caché is closer to being a generic thriller than anything else in his oeuvre is to being generic in any sense, it is still regarded as having the aesthetic of realism. Thus posing the question – are genre and realism opposing forces? Many critics praise the realism of, for example, the Jason Bourne films, but this is a more aesthetic realism tied to the particular genre, Haneke’s realism and shooting style share links with Italian Neorealism.
‘The realism of Italian Neorealism manifested itself in a distinctive visual style. This was typified by a preference for location filming, the use of non professional actors, the avoidance of ornamental mise-en-scène, a preference for natural light, a freely moving documentary style of photography, a non interventionalist approach to film directing, and an avoidance of complex editing and other post production processes likely to focus attention on the contrivance of the film image.’[5]
Haneke doesn’t stringently stick to these principles, but you do find certain aspects of them creeping into his work. Especially, as mentioned previously, the lack of complex editing and a non interventionalist approach. By using these styles the films of Michael Haneke become labeled with words such as ‘formal’, ‘austere’, ‘measured’ and ‘cold’, whilst it is my belief that on most occasions he is just using some of the methods of Neorealism. Maybe the confusion is caused by Haneke’s decision of when to use neorealism, and then blurring this with conflicting stylistic, or maybe generic, choices.
In close comparison to Neo-realist classics such as The Bicycle Thieves (1948) there isn’t much difference, in style anyway; the long tracking shots are similar, as is the lack of editing, the understated performances and naturalistic look. The main difference is in setting, the Neorealist films having the backdrop of a poverty stricken war torn Italy that had lost all its main studios to bombings so were forced into location shoots in run down, bombed cities. Caché on the other hand is set in a luxurious, upper middle-class, peaceful setting. The setting for these stories also dictates the type of characters seen in these stories, so in that respect there is a difference, and also in the way Caché teases its audience with genre trappings.
Haneke himself says ‘It’s what I always try to do in my films, to grasp the contradictions of reality.’[6] Reality in the genre of thriller, which must resort to narrative structure and convention in some way, is a tricky prospect for any filmmaker, even Haneke who is well versed in the realism aesthetic, on the subject of which he says, ‘In a thriller, you have to work on rationality.’ Haneke goes on to explain that using the thriller genre framework for Caché was a type of manipulation on the audience, something to help a spectator through the film by ‘telling the story in little chunks which increases the tension’, and to keep their interest by following the structure of a thriller mystery.  Roland Barthes believes ‘that to create suspense in narrative, there must be unanswered questions which will compel the viewer to anticipate action with a resolution’[7], backing up Haneke’s manipulation.

Where Caché deviates away from the genre, other than the mentioned Neorealist aesthetic is in the narrative conclusion. In most thrillers the audience expect a closed ending, with every question resolved; another narrative convention of the thriller is the twist ending where a shock occurs that propels the film into the resolution stage. Caché, it could be said, doesn’t even offer a resolution, but
the ending does have a twist, revealing something previously hidden, something that also has larger social and political relevance. But, this is not made clear; in fact the film works just as well without noticing what is in the corner of the final wide shot. Even if you do notice the hidden clue in the final shot, it still leaves an ambiguous ending for the audience to come to their own conclusions over.
The final shot of Caché is, like the first, a static camera, wide shot, here focused on school steps packed with students. The credits appear over it slowly, so many audiences might not be paying attention at this moment. It is now that Haneke subverts the thriller by placing a twist at this precise moment.  For on the steps, in conversation, are George and Anne’s son, Pierrot, and Majid’s son, both of them symbolising the next generation. Are they, or have they been plotting all this together, or is Majid’s son confronting him with what has occurred, bringing the lies and what has been hidden to the fore?
To quote (and in part paraphrase for clarification) from an interview with Michael Haneke conducted by Serge Toubiana, on his reasoning for the ending of Caché, to help clarify the points outlined above:
‘The final shot is completely mysterious. It’s completely ambiguous. I always ask people, ‘What did you see in the last shot?’ There are those who say, ‘I’ve understood it’s about the next generation who are going to inherit this problem, and others who have seen them but wonder why they are meeting, but I won’t say what it is, the question must remain for the audience. Only half the audience recognise them, because it is quite a wide shot, the other half hasn’t noticed them, but they liked it for that. A doctor friend of mine who I showed the film to told me for ten minutes how great he thought the final shot was, then I realised he hadn’t noticed them. I think that’s a great success, because I wanted to find a position with people in front and behind who you might see or you might not see, and it works. It provokes discussion afterwards. You can imagine a lot of things. You could imagine that they are accomplices, or that Majid’s son comes along and tells Peirrot some lie to lead him off somewhere, and it’s up to the audience, not to choose between the possibilities but to understand that there are lots of possibilities to a story like this one.  The ending can be irritating, because if you are used to everything being resolved at the end of the film, you’re naturally [adopts shocked expression]. There’s still work to be done. It’s not the preference of a lot of people who go to the cinema. It can be a problem for people brought up with mainstream cinema, who want to know that they can come out at the end of the film and be able to forget what they have seen.’[8]

Caché works especially well if used in conjunction with The Battle of Algiers (1966), a film about the Algerian War of independence that covers the period between 1954 to 1957. One of Caché’s themes is how this conflict continues to resonate. Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian calls Caché ‘a parable for France's repressed memory of la nuit noire, the night of October 17 1961, when hundreds of Algerian demonstrators in Paris were beaten and killed by the police.’[9]  Caché uses this huge story of nations and boils it down into an individual’s story, making the audience relate to the guilt and feelings involved and using these characters to symbolise the bigger picture. The nation’s guilt is symbolised through George and all his secrets that he keeps as close to his chest as the nation’s secrets.  Haneke explains the theme of guilt in the film, by stating it is the main reason for making it: ‘The film is a moral tale. On the theme of how can I bear the fact of being guilty. Do I accept it? And if I don’t accept it, what do I do?’[10].
George’s guilt is represented through flashbacks which could be either memories or dreams, something Haneke also leaves up to the viewer’s own discretion stating that ‘You can interpret it as you like, but this nightmare is the impression that he has. It’s a dream, not a memory.’ The first of these violent visions has a child beheading a chicken and approaching another child with the axe while the chicken flails around the barn floor. The visions go on to show how George, when met with the prospect of having Majid, an Algerian orphan move in with their family, became jealous and exacted revenge by concocting a plan to get rid of him. Because of his fear of not getting all the attention and being as spoilt and loved by his parents, a rational feeling for a child, George ends up doing the irrational and destroying the threat’s life, meaning that Majid has to leave the house, after George orchestrates a situation in which Majid must take the blame.
George hides Majid’s story from his wife, his family, and refuses to talk about it until the videotape of Majid’s suicide is sent. The unspeakable treatment of Majid is something that tortures George, in the way events from the 1961 riots now embarrass a multicultural France. Although George, an upper middle-class white man who works in the media, is in power he still fears Majid, linking to the insecurities of pampered Westerners against anything different from them, but especially the Muslim world. This is the main focus of Caché, to put this large scale political struggle into a small individual context. As Haneke explains ‘Let’s say it broadens the personal problem onto a national problem.’[11] Caché goes on to show that without dialogue about the past, guilt will grow and what is hidden will destroy any chance of integration in society.
Incorporating Caché into your Film Studies syllabus
Students might not pick up on all the issues discussed here without some background knowledge beforehand, but they should identify Haneke’s use of film form to create an uneasy atmosphere of ominous dread throughout the film. There is no doubt that students should end up taking something away from the film. Below is outlined the myriad of ways in which Caché can be used in teaching Film Studies.
·         FM1- Exploring Film Form- An innovative approach to the micro elements an invaluable lesson in analysing a lack of editing to create an effect and also how micro elements work off each other to create different atmosphere’s and emotions in scenes.
·         FM2- British & American Film- Not to be used too heavily in this section as the main focus is British and American films but it can introduce learners to the culture of foreign language film, and to see how it is regarded critically.
·         FM3- Film Research and Creative Projects- Michael Haneke’s work can be explored in many different ways in this module, as an auteur, through themes in his work, or to pick apart some of the key social and political themes in Caché.
·         FM4- Varieties of Film Experience- Issue and Debate- If  choosing to focus on Italian Neorealism and Beyond for Section A of the FM4 exam in A level film Studies, when looking for what has become of Neorealism, and how it’s style of filmmaking is used in modern filmmaking. Caché could also be used in Section B of this module when looking at Emotional Response, in particular to focus upon the creation of shock in the scene where Majid commits suicide in front of George.

Finally to touch briefly upon an aspect of Haneke’s filmmaking I mentioned earlier, his position on violence, which is overt in most of his films. In Cache violence is used to demonstrate the extremities of what can occur when hiding guilt, and are shown as a heartbreaking consequence rather than something used for an action orientated and ‘cool’ aesthetic.  Violence is rarely shown in Haneke’s films but is very often the device used to bring out other issues. This film making device continues to be used by Haneke, surfacing again in his latest release, The White Ribbon (2009), which won the Palme D’or at last years Cannes film festival. In The White Ribbon the violence is again shown to be passed on from generation to generation, it’s something that Haneke sees as a problem that will endure through the generations, hence his stance on not glamorising it. The lack of violence may be one of the aspects of the film students may find the oddest, isn’t it strange that having a moral conscience may be found at odds with modern film making.

[5] Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City, Mark Shiel, Wallflower Press
[6] An Interview with Michael Haneke by Serge Toubiana, found on the UK DVD release of Caché
[8] An Interview with Michael Haneke by Serge Toubiana, found on the UK DVD release of Caché
[10] An Interview with Michael Haneke by Serge Toubiana, found on the UK DVD release of Caché
[11] An Interview with Michael Haneke by Serge Toubiana, found on the UK DVD release of Caché

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