Never one for understatement, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said, “Directing in the cinema is literally being able to ‘separate light from darkness and dry land from the waters.’” According to Tarkovsky, cinema, like its close cousin music, is an “immediate” art form, one unencumbered by any kind of “mediating language.” In literature, for instance, readers must cross a linguistic boundary that, however legible and vivid, remains an inescapably singular experience. The author supplies us with the raw syntactical materials, of course, but we must co-labor with her to “separate the light from darkness and dry land from waters” in the crucible of our own imaginations. Boo Radley looks different to every one of Harper Lee’s readers; he looks identical to all of Robert Mulligan’s viewers.

In the end, I suspect it’s our casual attitude that most disturbs Haneke, the fact that amusement, titillation, and media buzz continue to cover a multitude of sins.The birth of so-called “reality entertainment” added the possibility of a new level of immediacy to artistic expression—namely, the ability to craft a facsimile of life from the dust of actual events. The formula is so bewitching that we often overlook its artificial nature.1 Whether we’re talking about Cops or The Bachelor, the immediacy of the action frequently keeps us from asking some fairly basic questions about privacy, embellishment, what’s being included and excluded, and, most importantly, the long-term consequences of viewing the circumstances of another person’s life as entertainment.

In recent years, a new kind of reality entertainment has emerged, one that fuses passive observation and artistic expression in a manner that is truly sui generis. I have in mind shows like Netflix’s Making a Murderer and The Keepers and podcasts like Serial and S-Town. While each of these reality programs displays consummate craftsmanship, their most radical maneuver consists in elevating the audience to the position of both judge and jury.2 Not only do we get to sit on our couches and gobble chips and sip beer as we watch Steven Avery being shuffled from prison to prison; but we also have a hand in deciding his fate. Witness the remarkable proliferation of protests and re-trials that have followed these shows. We might christen this new recreational hybrid “interactive reality entertainment,” a form of entertainment that allows us to play god, to separate the light from darkness and dry land from waters in a manner that actually influences (and possibly changes) the course of a person’s life.

As usual, a horror film is helping me process my growing unease surrounding this new trend. In 1997, the Austrian director Michael Haneke ambushed unsuspecting audiences with Funny Games,3 a film so relentless and unforgiving that it’s little wonder the critical admiration for its technical precision was matched only by hostility for its message.

Disgusted by the cartoonish nature of most onscreen violence, Haneke set out to implicate his audience by making them complicit in the atrocities taking place in front of his lens.4 This is not a very flattering move, and understandably most viewers didn’t appreciate watching an innocent family being mercilessly tortured at great length, only to be chided for having sat through the whole grueling ordeal in the first place. It’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t setup: Flee the movie and concede that you’re unwilling to fess up to the true nature of your cinematic bloodlust, or simply confirm it by sitting through the whole thing.

For those of us who don’t naturally equate torture horror with moral high ground, the philosopher Jeremy Morris offers a compelling thesis: “Here is the genius of sadistic torture horror: it transforms the source of fear from a distant other to something familiar in ourselves. The terror of the victim is supplanted by the delight of the torturer, which is being consciously shared by the audience: that is the source of horror.” Torture horror is bad enough, but Funny Games is a movie that also tortures you: it steadfastly refuses to let you forget that watching it is tantamount to surrendering to the same impulse that once drew people to gladiatorial arenas and public executions. Concealing this unsavory aspect of their appeal through the swift deployment of manifold stylistic flourishes is the stock-in-trade of most commercial films.5 Haneke has since gone on to make much better films, and most critics are content to dismiss Funny Games as a kind of malicious exercise in postmodern moralizing, the seeming work of a film school prodigy.

I know I’m not exactly selling the movie here, but I do think that the emergence of what I’ve called interactive reality entertainment underscores Haneke’s concern about an audience’s culpability. Funny Games employs a number of clever devices6 to create the illusion that viewers are directly participating in the events taking place onscreen.7 If Funny Games succeeds as a kind of ferocious lecture by putting its fictional victim’s lives in viewers’ hands, interactive reality entertainment can and does put literal lives in our hands. That this kind of thing passes as entertainment nowadays is equal parts fascinating and disturbing—something that might have showed up on an episode of Black Mirror if it weren’t so firmly cemented in reality.8

Am I recommending torture horror as the antidote to the current reality entertainment hybrid? No. In fact, I’d advise most people to steer clear of Funny Games. What I can tell you is this: Haneke has helped me to see that my current entertainment habits are serious business—deadly serious business. Sadly, it took a piece of extreme cinema to get this crucial fact through my jaded head. Not only am I now much more circumspect about tacitly accepting the circumstances of another person’s life—no matter how seemingly trivial or benign—as entertainment; but I am also unwilling to engage any form of entertainment that normalizes the prospect of playing games with other lives, no matter how seemingly noble the motives behind such an endeavor.9

Am I recommending that you follow my lead and desist from watching The Keepers and listening to something like S-Town? Not necessarily. I would, however, like to challenge our habit of simply accepting these trends at face value, especially those of us who put a lot of stock in the importance of pop culture artifacts.

In the end, I suspect it’s our casual attitude that most disturbs Haneke, the fact that amusement, titillation, and media buzz continue to cover a multitude of sins. How often have I pressed the mute button on my conscience just to “stay in the conversation”? Again, I’m not arguing that it’s necessarily incumbent on you to expunge these programs from your life. I am arguing that a casual attitude toward this kind of entertainment is wrong. People can be, are, and indeed always have been entertaining, but people are never entertainment. Anything that fails to make that distinction is dangerous.

1 Sure, the self-conscious parodying of reality entertainment conventions is the métier of mockumentaries like The Office and Park & Recreation, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of us simply switch gears when we watch a show like The Keepers.

2 While it’s true that The Thin Blue Line set a radical precedent for the influence of documentaries on public opinion and legal rulings as early as 1988, this dynamic has only recently become a staple of contemporary entertainment.

3 Thrill-seeking cinephiles beware; this movie reserves its most jagged punishments for morbid curiosity.

4 As if that weren’t enough, in 2007, Haneke made a shot-for-shot counterpart for English-speaking audiences just to ensure that everyone got the memo about the thorny ethical problems posed by our cinematic bloodlust.

5 How many of us pause to consider the ethical merits of lex talionis when we’re watching Uma Thurmon’s character skidding through a literal bloodbath in Kill Bill: Volume I?

6 Be advised, these devices look like postmodern gimmicks only in retrospect. The visceral intensity of the film precludes any kind of ironic side-glances in all but the most jaded of viewers.

7 A recent video essay highlights some of Haneke’s subversive techniques for exploring the complex relationship between viewers and cinema. That said techniques are frequently graphic and unsparing should go without saying at this point.

8 Real reality, that is.

9 Making a Murderer, for instance, wants to put our justice system on trial. Far be it from me to suggest that the U.S. justice system doesn’t need reform. However, entertainment seems a faulty vehicle for such an undertaking? Pursuing this crucial task through a binge-worthy show is a bit like controlling actual events through a video game.

1 Comment

  1. That said, I’d steer more toward filling my mind with what is pure. As a cultural critic, Care over our hearts and minds must be maintained as it goes. An example reminds me of this necessity. A man in Europe once made a life of studying the horrors of the Holocaust, which in the end claimed his own life thru suicide. Enjoyed the read.

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