Tuesday, January 28, 2014

ENG 282 2nd Week: Code Unknown (France/Germany/Romania: Michael Haneke, 2000)

Ebony Nava's response:

The fact that two viewings of "Code Unknown" (directed by Michael Haneke) were needed before formulating this response/review speaks to the thought provoking detail(s) of this film.

In retrospect, during my first viewing of “Code Unknown” I interpreted the film, in my opinion, superficially. I noted the credits at the beginning that rolled silently and assumed implied suspense, then, proceeded to expect some sort of climax. I noted the personality traits of the characters and attempted to analyze them. I was emotionally invested in every scene, even those that were later revealed to be “fabricated” (the casting call/the pool scene). I tried to decipher who the main character was.

Thus, I was left 1) frustrated by Haneke’s choices regarding what to/not to show the audience, 2) wishing each set of characters had been developed into their own respective full-length films, 3) attempting to fill in all the gaping blanks that were left hanging between the scenes and 4) feeling cheated (“it’s ALL fabricated, ” was my exact thought).

I started into the second viewing well aware that “everything was fabricated,” yet found I was still drawn to the various scenes with the exception of those that I knew had previously been revealed to be “fabrications” – even though the acting was equally “genuine” (and fabricated) in both. This puzzled me. How could I still connect with a film that Haneke had so clearly implied was a fabrication?

I decided to back up and look at the larger picture and consequentially began to see parallel experiences among the characters; Anna in her casting is told to “show your true face/a true expression” something Georges sets out to capture through his photography later in the film, this comes up again when Anna and her “high society friend,” Francine, could care less for the gore and raw emotions a war photographer documents, while Anna (at least), herself, is in the business (drama/acting) of recreating gore/horrors and raw emotion; both Maria (the Romanian) and Anna were disrespected by a young male; Anna’s career seems to be taking off, the farmer’s ending; Maria’s humiliation of the Gypsy and her subsequent humiliation by a wealthy man; Maria’s loss in a familiar place in Paris – and then Georges; . . .

I don’t think the parallels found throughout “Code Unknown” were accidental; instead, I saw them as a way to connect the characters of the film (beyond their chance encounters). Characters that Haneke went through great lengths to humanize – a french farmer and his sons, an actress, a Romanian illegal immigrant/beggar and her family, a young man and his family (African) dealing with racism . . . these are characters that are not often humanized (much less featured) in the same film, yet, this film goes even further and expresses that they – that we – are not all that different (aside from the perceived culture clash); we often share experiences as humans.

The editing style of “Code Unknown” must be credited for its role in provoking thought and engaging the audience. Scene segments were continuous, so a viewer had to slow down and process exactly what was taking place; then at the end of the scenes (which seemed to be cut mid/end sentence and scene at times) there was an obvious cut (blacked out screen) between each switch. This made the film’s segments memorable [to me] as I was thoroughly engaged in each part, and able to recall most of the film.

I don’t think “Code Unknown” is so much about the “whys” concerning what was “left out” (although filling in the blanks led me to find more parallel connections between the characters) because contemplating the details of the nature of relationships that are created and exist among people can be interpreted by outsiders just as many ways as there are viewers. Also, getting lost in the characters diverts from the deeper messages Haneke, I believe, was attempting to deliver.

Haneke took his characters, humanized them, connected them, and connected the audience to his characters (the actors/actresses appeared to “live” their roles); no small feat for a director, and I assume for no fickle reason. The messages I took away from “Code Unknown” are (in no particular order) a) be more thoughtful and kind/compassionate because our actions DO hold the potential to impact lives, b) unknown details can make all the difference, c) be aware of/care about other’s differing narratives, and d) we, as humans, have more in common with one another than not; we share similar experiences throughout the course of our lives . . . we share our humanity.

I will continue to think about “Code Unknown” and look forward to seeing it for a third time; to pick up on more detail, and to reevaluate what I took away.

Emily Hensley

“Code Unknown” is a compelling yet refreshing multinational film directed by Michael Haneke. In the beginning credits there is a caption at the bottom of the screen that states “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” this sheds light onto what the audience is about to see as this film actually follows the “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys.” An unexpected opening scene starts out with a class of deaf children playing a game of charades. The camera focus’s in on the little girl with braids acting out some form of emotion. She looks startled and scared as she slowly crouches down, although it’s not all the way, but at least into a half fetal position; she could be shielding her body or preparing herself for something terrible as she has the look of fear in her eyes. Just when the audience is engaged the camera then switches onto the other children as a group, and then one at a time as the children begin to guess. These children use sign language, serious intent and extraordinary facial expressions to communicate their thoughts. It is evident with each child and each guess that the children really think they know what the little girl with the braids is trying to convey. These complex guesses don’t resemble the thought processes of young children, such as being alone, a hiding place, a gangster, being sad, having a bad conscience, and being imprisoned. The little girl with braids just shakes her head “No” as none of these guesses are correct. However, the answer is never known which sets the tone for the film “Code Unknown.” Watching this scene the audience is being sucked into the film, as there is already a question without an answer; leaving the audience wanting and needing more.

This masterpiece sweeps in and shifts… from clip to clip following several different people in their everyday life and how they collide with each other while doing so. There is an actress (Anne) and her boyfriend the war photographer (George), a farmer and his teenage son (Jean), a music teacher of African descent (Amadou) and his father the taxi cab driver (Youssuf), and an illegal Romanian immigrant (Maria). This film is set in Paris with only short meaningful clips into every character’s story. With these short clips the audience is brought into their lives, seeing and living for that moment and what makes each individual character tick. They surprise, enchant, confuse and at times enrage the audience. Every clip has something so real and humane about it that it can shake the audience to their core.

The style of this film is ironically rough around the edges but yet it somehow charms the audience bit by bit following its own time line of events. Every clip portrayed in a widescreen view allowing for angles of the background, environment, facial features and physical gestures portrayed by the actors. When the actors walk at times it feels as if the camera is briskly walking with them, trying to keep up. A great example of this is the 2nd clip of the movie where Anne and Jean are walking and talking down the street and the same feel repeats throughout the movie again and again.

On the contrary there are also scenes where the camera doesn’t follow the actors through the set. An example of this is when Jean’s father brings home a dirt bike, the camera stays put on the outside view of the barn. The shot shows his father walking into the barn but does not follow him, it only shows Jean coming out. Jean walks out and then he is no longer visible, the audience hears the dirt bike start up and then once again Jean is in the camera’s line of sight and it is visible that he rides away on the dirt bike. This is an interesting style that adds some mystery and is used more than once during the film. These scenes are captivating as the audience doesn't want to take their eyes off the screen, just waiting and longing for something to happen; although the camera never moves and the characters are only seen when they return to that particular view.

Another rare form is that directly after each scene the screen goes black before opening up to the next. Why does the Haneke do this? There are prevalent reasons for the screen to go black, first for the audience to take a split second to process what they just saw, next to guide the audience into the realization that the scene is over and that another is about to begin but also because the director wants a different feel for this movie, a raw appeal that he most certainly accomplishes. This movie has a real true grit gut feel to it. No overbearing or mind-blowing special effects here but this film flawlessly carries many imperfections. After the farmer killed the bulls, as he begins to walk out the barn one of the bulls turns its head. Was this intentional? Could it have been a reflex reaction of a dead bull’s muscles? Or was that a mistake that was just left untouched? Either way it doesn’t matter it just added to the realism of the film.

The most surprisingly genius component of this film is the twists with the actress Anne who is played by Juliette Binoche. This actress has the ability to make the audience believe something that they almost already know to be untrue. Several of the clips with Anne are films within a film where she is acting in her movie, on stage or attending her acting call. Especially riveting was the scene in the pool with her male costar. This scene has a way of distraction in the sense that the audience begins to believe that Anne is romantically involved with this man, when the audience knows that she is involved with George. Then abruptly this child unintentionally is trying to leap to his death; wrapped up in the rush of excitement the audience believes that this child is hers. The audience is fearful for her that this child is going to plummet off this skyscraper to his death. These trappings are crazy it is so innovating, impressive and by far one the most distinctive parts of the film. Just the fact that this scene, actress and director can take hold and grab the audience like this is truly amazing.

The sounds in this film are also remarkably authentic, for example in the scene where Maria is touring the house back in Romania as they walk and talk the audience profoundly can hear the squeaking of the floor boards. Another undeniable explosion of real sounds is near the end of the film when George is riding the subway photographing his “unknowing” canvases. These intrusive sounds of the subway cart going against the tracks is very loud. In some movies the directors will include the sounds that subways, trains, cars and other forms of transportation make but they are usually not so intense. An unnatural but significant ear shot is the drums, which beat and beat again like roaring thunder that has a clear point to be made.

Amadou the music teacher is shown playing these drums, this young man is a strong and powerful character in the film. He can be misinterpreted as in the scene with Jean he comes off as abrasive but also sensitive and humane. This takes place in the 2nd clip of the film, where Jean parts ways with Anne and begins to walk down the street feeling bitter. He rudely throws his pastry wrapper in Maria’s lap, who is sitting on the street corner begging for change. Amadou becomes furious at this act of indignity and he chases Jean down the street and tries to convince Jean to apologize to Maria. Jean is carelessly unresponsive and Amadou becomes somewhat physical. At the end of scene Jean walks away unapologetic, Amadou ends up in jail and Maria is deported back to Romania. This is a fascinating scene that exhibits many unspoken traits of the human condition. There are too many other scenes in this film that portray this very idea whether it smacks the audience in the face or is just a subtle breath of fresh air that requires thinking outside the box.

Michael Haneke’s brilliant vision was shared with the audience and will live on through this film. He wanted something that was not main stream Hollywood style but that creatively and artistically could touch on real issues that real people deal with. As each clip unwinds it is unclear if the audience is getting closer to understanding or further away from the true meaning of the film. Scenes may seem spaced out and sporadic individually but as a whole they do fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Not that this film ever really gives the audience what they need as questions continue to arise without answers. However, this is the beauty of this film “Code Unknown”, we are intrigued and provoked to think and question what really happened in the film; we are to try and break the code. We live in a society where Hollywood film is one of the highest paid and over publicized industries and because of this we think we know a lot about films, scripts and the messages that they bring to us but after seeing a really admirable film with a valuable message we should walk away with some sense of knowledge, integrity and desire to know more.

Seth Gardner's Response:

After nearly a week after seeing this film I'm still kind of torn. Simply, I didnt like this movie. At all. I completely understand the technical nature of the film and why the scenes were filmed the way they were, but I just simply dont find that entertaining. Long scenes that had nothing to do with one another, other than the cast and the complete lack of any kind of story being told.

The reason that we , as humans, like our stories told a specific way is because the way life happens, the way anything happens, is in a linear clean way and with context. Fact surrounding an event may not be totally clear but how those events happened were from one moment to the next and with reason. Thats why we enjoy being told stories like this. Saying fuck the system is cool with this movie, but the fact is, basic story telling, how we know it, isnt something that hollywood dictated 60 years ago. Its a form thats been practiced for thousands of years. Any book, any religious teaching, any legend has all pretty much the same form in how its presented to us in the form of a story. Something interesting happens. and it happens for a reason, and this is why. If something random happens, for no apparent reason and youre supposed to figure it out is boring.

As a technical exercise I certainly understand the interest one would have in this, but again, that doesnt make the film itself actually good.

Michael Benton's reponse to Seth

Seth, you make a lot of assumptions in this response. It is worrisome when limited to cultural narratives, but even more if you are applying the same type of thinking to political/social narratives (the stories we tell about our world). My responds to your response:

1) Why are you unable to directly respond to even one scene in this film or discuss a single character or one part of the style of the film. It seems to signify an unwillingness to truly engage with the film?

2) This is a college course. Is it our job to entertain you? Would you use this claim to dismiss something you are responding to in your other courses? Is Haneke critiquing a cultural force that creates passive consumers (definitely not critical citizens) who shut down unless they are "entertained" (and what does that concept mean)? Did you expect this was going to be a "popcorn" course?

3) It would have been very positive if you could have tried to even describe one scene, but there is no attempt to explain what you find problematic about them. Point out any scene in this film and I can explain for you how they are connected in multiple ways. In fact we could map out how they are thoroughly connected and how they reflect story/character development. Now, once again, are you asked to engage with the development of the plot and think about the characters - yes! What could possibly be Haneke's intent in doing this? I wish we could find out... I wonder if there is anywhere were we could learn more about this film

4) I'm hoping you really were not thinking about how ethnocentric this statement is: "The reason that we , as humans, like our stories told a specific way is because the way life happens, the way anything happens, is in a linear clean way and with context." Stories have been this way from the beginning of time and around the world -- really, you believe this? Humans prefer linear stories - really? You do understand that linear perception and narrative is a cultural construction and is not a universal perception/preference?

5) When does Haneke say fuck the system? He may say fuck Hollywood's colonization of people's consciousness... well, he doesn't say "fuck," but is concerned about mindless/passive consumption of pandering narratives that encourage people to shut off their brains. Is Hollywood the system?

6) "Any book, any religious teaching, any legend has all pretty much the same form in how its presented to us in the form of a story." -- what, surely you jest?

Seth, I appreciate your honesty in how you feel about the film, my critique with your response is more in the lack of thought involved in the construction of your argument about the film.

Seth Gardner's response to Michael

1) I didn't reference a specific scene because to me they all were similar enough in nature for me to give a blanket statement. After scene after scene I came away feeling the exact same thing. The opening scene, why black dude was so offended. Why his mother has anything to do with anything. His father driving a car in Africa. A farmer shooting his cows or a tractor tilling land for no apparent reason. Do all of those have significance with the movie? Yes. Do they tell a compelling story in any way that's even remotely interesting or thought provoking? To me they don't.

2. You're moving the goal posts on this one a little. There is no where in which you specifically ask us to review the movie in a technical manner and specifically asked us to just state how we feel about a film. You also stated on the first day that films at their basis are entertainment. Even if someone is just making a film to make a political or technical statement, theyre still trying to entertain or stir the minds of the people who would be entertained by it. You ask me how I feel about a film, part of that is whether or not I was entertained by it. As that is, to me is a legitimate criticism given the criteria you gave us. I dont expect any of these films to be standard hollywood smash and bang, but I do expect some of them to move me in some fashion beyond a farmer shooting his cows because hes disappointed, or finding out that the black dude (im sorry I cant remember the name of the character) isnt actually an overly aggressive asshole at all.

3. I think in my previous two points that Ive addressed this

4. Do you genuinely believe that the modern American culture is the first to tell their stories in this fashion and that its JUST cultural and NOTHING to do with who we are as humans an how we interact with the world?

5. Totally a lazy point I made. I concede that.

6. See point 4.

Patrick Reynold's response

The Children playing charades in the opening scene is much the way I felt during the film: trying to figure out a direction or plot: perhaps the intention. Now I think that the idea is nothing more than a commentary on life's non - sterile nature, and how every human action has a significant impact on those around us - most often in a negative way. From how standing up for what you believe (Amoui's defense of someone he does not know), to the crushing impact not following the dreams others have for you has on them (Jean's Father's fateful decision regarding the farm). Even George's ambivalent support of Ann's emotional needs ending in their separation can be seen in this light. The non-sterile nature, and technical difficulty of these type of films is something that is nurturing a new interest. I'm beginning to understand their brilliance, and even their beauty. My job now is to learn how to read and dissect them in a proper fashion - which is totally different than the traditional way I have viewed films my entire life.

Kelly Battiato's Response:

Code Unknown directed by Michael Haneke is a film about the lives of different people, all being connected through a single incident. I found it very interesting that throughout the whole movie there was music/film score, except for the beating of drums that a band plays in the film. The opening and closing scenes were both of the deaf children playing charades, trying to communicate to their classmates. I think that represented how people in everyday life try and communicate with each other and how so often they are misunderstood, or not understood at all. From there the story follows Jean, a farm boy, who goes to Paris to find his brother Georges. Jean meets up with Georges girlfriend Anne, and finds out that Georges is gone covering the story of a war. Jean does not want to return to his dads farmhouse and is upset and drops a piece of trash onto a beggar woman on the corner. Amadou a young black male gets upset at seeing this and he and Jean get into a fight. The police come and arrest Amadou and deport the beggar. From there the story follows how that incident effects the lives of Jean, Anne, Amadou and his family, Georges, and Maria (the beggar). I think Haneke really made this film relatable and captured the everyday nuances that made this movie feel so real and truthful. You can hear everything that the characters are hearing, like the iron hissing as Anne is using it, and food crunching as Jean's father eats. The scene with Anne ironing and not wearing any pants and she over hears her neighbors being abusive was so sad to me, but relatable...the scene for some reason stood out to me. I think because something about it just felt so real...

Right after that scene I really noticed how it was black in between each scene and how the cuts were so abrupt and quick when it jumped back and forth between stories. Kind of like how life is so fast paced and jumps from one moment to another. Amadou's family kept getting in trouble because of a white persons lies. I thought it was interesting that Amadous sister was deaf...and I don't know why his dad left? Jean ran away from his silent father...why did his dad kill his cows? I really liked Maria's family...I know she was Romanian but her and her family reminded me of my Italian side of the family in a way. I liked seeing her family and her. I wish she would have just stayed with her family instead of going back to begging. I really loved all of the pictures that Georges took of the people riding the subway...capturing all different kinds of people. Whenever Anne had an audition or it was showing her movies I got caught up and thought it was real...or I was confused for a minute thinking it was part of the movie and not just a scene of her acting. The scene towards the end when Anne gets sexually harassed was so difficult to watch and struck a nerve...people can be so cruel and ignorant.

I thought all of the acting was tremendous and a great accomplishment for having such long scenes with no cuts.

What does it say about the human heart? The human condition? I think that we all are human, we all have feelings, we all want to love and respect. That our words and actions have a ripple effect whether we are aware of it or not. That our seemingly little lives have a big impact in the long run. I think people are too wrapped up in their own worlds and can be very selfish...only looking out for themselves.

People need to realize that we are all more alike then we think.

Chelsea Toth's Response
The opening scene shows a little girl who proceeds to walk sideways towards a wall in the room and then crouch down beside it and grasp the wall with both hands. In this moment I was pretty confused at the intent of this first scene, and I was even more shocked that the movie started out in complete silence. It is soon found out that the little girl is deaf and so are the rest of the ethnically different kids that she is playing charades with. There is nothing too peculiar about this scene, but there is definitely a lack of thrill on the little girls face as she performs her charade in fact she only cracks a smile when another child guesses gangster. At first thought I did not realize the importance of this opening scene as it quickly cuts to the films title: Code Unknown – Incomplete tales of several journeys.

The following scene quickly introduces a few of the main characters in the film: Anne, Jean, and George. This scene has a lot of different elements to it, setting the groundwork for the rest of the film. We see Anne exit a building into the streets of Paris and Jean soon after approach her as if he had been waiting for someone at that particular place. At first glance watching these two walking down the streets of Paris doesn’t seem to different as to what you would expect an American city’s streets to look like, so far from a visual standpoint cultural differences appear minimal. We find out that Jean is looking for his older brother George, but he is in Kosovo for unknown reasons at the time, and we also find out that Jean has ran away from his home in the countryside where he lives with his father. He is asking for a place to stay with them in the city because he does not want to be a farmer like his dad wants him to be. Anne seems concerned about the boy’s situation, this is clear as they walk down the street and she stops to buy them both something to eat and then allows to him to go rest at her apartment, but is firm with him about the idea of him living with George and her in in the city is never going to happen.

If you are not paying close attention to their conversation and you don’t establish the connections right away of how everyone is related then you are going to be totally lost until later in the film. A misconception that I initially got out of this scene was actually that I thought Anne was Jean’s stepmother and not until many scenes later did I realized what a horrible mistake I had made.

Listening to their words is what sets the groundwork for cultural differences, and there are many scenes in this movie that prove this to be true. An apparent truth is that Jean does not want to grow up to be like his dad. This theme of adolescents wanting to find their own personal identity immediately jumped out to me as I’ve seen it plenty of times in American film, but the way Haneke sets it up was a new experience for me. The days of sustainable living in America today are just about gone; for the most part industrialization has taken over the American lifestyle. Since traditional living is no longer a part of American culture, so the mixture of both urban and rural backgrounds throughout this film really intrigued me. Even though I cannot relate to living on a farm and the tasks related to a farm in all the scenes between Jean-Pierre and his father my emotions ran rapid because my own family issues at home were so closely related to theirs. Financial struggles and the aspiration of breaking away from your parents to be independent are two things I could easily identify with in relation to Jean-Pierre.

The rest of this scene includes Anne giving her house keys to Jean-Pierre before she has to go and as Jean walks back down the street past the bakery they previously walked past he gets into a fight with a stranger who stopped Jean-Pierre after he threw a crumpled up bag into the lap of a woman that was sitting down outside of the bakery door. As the fight escalates the police show up and assess the situation, locate the woman in question, and then proposes that everyone go down to headquarters for further questioning. One of the policemen makes an effort to hold onto the stranger as they attempt to go the police station but the stranger does not allow it ungrasping himself from his power telling them that he can and will go willingly with them, but then the police officer attempts to grab the stranger again and this time when the stranger again tries to break away both police men wrestle the man to the ground and this is when I assume that he is definitely going to jail for resisting arrest. The stranger was simply trying to get Jean-Pierre to realize what an awful thing he had just done, humiliating the woman as the stranger suggests but in the end he was the one to get in trouble. Whether or not race played a role in these police officers decision to arrest the stranger is for you to decide, as the stranger is African-American.

A weird thing about this scene is its lack of shots the whole scene is one take as the main characters walk up and down the street. Although I noticed how the camera followed Anne and Jean at the beginning of the scene, the certainty of just one long take didn’t occur to me until Anne suddenly reappears into the scene before the police show up to the fight. I was bewildered by the fact that Anne suddenly was back in the scene as if she had to of heard Jean-Pierre yelling blocks down the street and decided to walk back and find out why, although the camera never showed Anne hearing Jean-Pierre screaming.

The next few scenes broaden the knowledge of how all of the major and minor characters are connected in the film, although I do admit it is quite confusing the first time screening this film. The title definitely does the movie justice because the first seven or eight scenes have a completely different setting and only three of the scenes clearly reintroduce characters previously met. It took a few times of me re-watching this film to understand everyone’s connection to each other. A scene of several different photographs reeled together in a slideshow introduces the voice of Jean’s brother George and it wasn’t until scenes later was I able to figure out that it was George who took these photographs, but I did not notice that the same stranger who got into a fight with Jean-Pierre is the person in the mirror teaching the group of kids how to drum.

Another example of how Haneke visually portrays similarities between American and international cultures only showing cultural differences through audio is the scene where Angie is ironing her clothes. You would not think too much of this scene if you were watching it with the volume turned down. However, everything seems normal until you hear a person’s screeching coming from the upstairs apartment, drowning out the sound of Anne’s television. The fact that Anne does nothing at all, besides briefly turn the television volume down, makes me believe there are huge differences placed on a persons’ privacy in international cultures. . If this had been an American film Anne probably would have called the cops for a possible domestic disturbance and somebody probably would have went to jail. Although Anne appears to be bothered by the sounds that mimic the screams of a little girl she does nothing at that moment to try to help, she simply puts a halt to her chores takes a drink of her glass of wine and resumes her ironing.

Overall I believe Code Unknown was a fascinating way to portray the troubling realities brought about when distinctly different cultures are forced to interact due to proximity. I believe this film is a great tool to help people understand worldwide stereotypes that exist still today stereotypes and Haneke did a remarkable job portraying the straightforwardness of these labels, and even American culture is not represented in this film the same social issues reflected in this are quite comparable to the social issues throughout American society such as racial tensions and lifestyle choices. I recommended this film as a must see to anyone in pursuit of understanding others, although I doubt you are going to fully understand their stories the first time viewing. Since each tale is left unfinished I feel as if there is an infinite amount of times to viewing this film without gaining a greater perspective each time viewing, I personally cannot wait to share this film with as many as I possibly can.

Credit for Chelsea Toth

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