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Are American Moviegoers Torture-Porn Freaks?

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Michael Haneke thinks so. Who is Michael Haneke? He's the Austrian director of Funny Games, the movie you'll see this weekend if you read this blog. The rest can line up with the kiddies for a comfy ride with Dr. Seuss in Horton Hears a Who! Funny Games isn't comfy at all. It's as brutal as a buzzsaw. Just the way Haneke likes it. You may not want to stay for the whole movie? Good. Or you may stick it out to the end and go out with your friends to discuss it. Even better. Take a good look at the photo above. You see two preps (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) in tennis whites who drop in on Naomi Watts at the lavish lakefront home she shares with husband Tim Roth and their ten-yearold son Devon Gearhart. A rampage of brutality follows. Is the purpose theft, rape, murder? No, just torture for the fun of it. You don't see everything, but you know what's going on. Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Caché) is a skilled filmmaker. If he wants you to squirm, you'll squirm. Film buffs know that Haneke told the same story in German in the 1997 film also called Funny Games. So why do a shot-by-shot remake in English? Because Haneke says the film is aimed at Americans. We're the ones who see Natural Born Killers or Saw or HosteL for the brutal fun of it. There are moments when Pitt's psychoboy turns to the camera and tells us — the audience — that he wouldn't be about his dirty business if we weren't watching. We're the ones who get off on torture porn.

Aside from Haneke being a snotty, superior son of a bitch, does he have a point? Is Hollywood feeding us a steady diet of fast-food violence that we consume without thinking? Maybe. But there are filmmakers who take on violence as a subject fit for artistic investigation. And Haneke seems to be throwing those babies out with the bath. I'm thinking of those films that get our blood up and then pull us up short. Films that make violence real so that we can't ignore the root sources. I can think of many films that tackle violence responsibly and minus the smug attitude. Here are a few of my candidates. Feel free to jump in.

A Clockwork Orange 1971

Who can forget the rape attack to the tune of "Singin' in the Rain" in Stanley Kubrick's brilliant cinematic dissection of Anthony Burgess' novel? Kubrick makes us recoil to reveal a soul-sick future that looks a lot like the present.

At Close Range 1986

I've never forgotten the scene in James Foley's criminally underrated drama in which Sean Penn watches in horror as his gangster father Christopher Walken drowns a harmless informer in a swamp. Raising a silencing finger to his grinning mouth, Walken with one "shssh" and a demon wink asks for his son's complicity in evil. And ours as well. You can't shrug it off.

GoodFellas 1990

Martin Scorsese's masterpiece about a boy who grows up in a mob neighborhood in Brooklyn echoes his later work in the Oscar-winning The Departed by showing the effect violence has on childhood. Ray Liotta's character has seen so much criminal activity that he stops being able to really see it. Scorsese makes sure that we do. No flinching.

Reservoir Dogs 1992

Quentin Tarantino's calling card features a scene where a cop gets his ear sliced off in a garage by a sadistic Michael Madsen while ''Stuck in the Middle With You'' plays on a radio. What Tarantino handles so well are the moments when Madsen leaves the garage revealing the existence of a real world outside. We can even hear faint sounds of children playing. Suddenly, the repurcussions of violence cannot be ignored.

No Country for Old Men 2007

This Oscar winner has been labeled violent in every quarter, yet the Coen brothers dig into Cormac McCarthy's novel to expose a soulless America, not to revel in it. Wake up, Haneke. Watch a movie like this and see how it's done.

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Peter Travers

Rolling Stone senior writer Peter Travers has reviewed movies for the magazine for more than 20 years. Send your comments and questions to him here.

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