After the Gulf War broke out in 1991 we were “treated” to its live footage in India, courtesy CNN. All one could see were glowing green projectiles and I could never understand what the fuss was about but it was a watershed moment in our consumption and assimilation of news.The dish antennas which cropped up on rooftops were like inverted umbrellas, instead of protecting us from bad weather they funnelled violence into our homes. The process of the bombardment of flickering images into our homes had truly started.
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance( henceforth 71) looks penetratingly and precisely at a set of characters, who come together in a senseless shooting in a bank in Austria, at its anticlimactic end.But we are never their stories, they are as unimportant as the victims of violence we meet everyday on prime time news.In 71, the master director Michael Haneke intercuts his already fragmented narrative with varied news footage, ranging from the concentration camps of Bosnia to Michael Jackson’s defence of pedophilia charges via a telecast from the Neverland ranch, to create a truly disconcerting cinematic mosaic.
He also gives us some sequences which test us, a prolonged static shot of a ping-pong match between man and machine, young men playing pick-up sticks which is probably a metaphor for an interconnected and fragile world order, a child looking at a magazine rack where porn and Disney comics are casually juxtaposed, a shocking act of violence from man directed to his wife while they have dinner and a 9 minute static shot of an old man carrying on a largely one-sided conversation with his uncaring daughter. When Haneke stitches together these fragments of cinema and television footage we get a picture of a modern wealthy society in atrophy.
Today films which highlight the dehumanizing effects of technology have become largely banal, in 71 save for the absence of smartphones we clearly see the present day world of 2015. While watching this film I was reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Winter Light in which a man in a small Scandinavian village is profoundly affected by a newspaper article that nuclear war may break out. Gus Van Sant’s superb film Elephant, about the Columbine School massacre in the US also floated into view.Elephant was criticised in some quarters for not explaining the reasons as to why the young boys killed 13 people in cold blood and the media tried to blame violent films like The Basketball Diaries for their acts.71 perhaps is a good explanation, even though it was made almost a decade earlier. Haneke has developed his thesis about the damaging effects of sexed up violent images over his whole career and indicted the media, mainstream movies and the audience, in almost equal measure.
Live telecast of the most gristly events has since evolved into fine tuned entertainment, giving us the comfort of not having to change the channel as we slurp our colas.I am constantly amazed by the sangfroid of TV news anchors as they switch between news of small children being molested and wardrobe malfunctions meticulously reverse engineered by celebrities.It was refreshing to note the outrage of a small section of online commentators about the large-scale attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria being ignored in the media, while the world obsessed with #JeSuisCharlie.
I particularly admired the way Haneke injects his views on religion into 71 beginning with its title. He shows us three scenes where a Christian cross made of cardboard has been cut up into a puzzle that must be pieced together in limited time.We see the puzzle being attempted twice in its physical form and the third time its been developed into a computer game.These kind of images are beyond commentary, they either affect you or they don’t.The use of black-outs between shots is another artistic device that Haneke uses to subvert film language, to keep us from grasping any particular fragment in a conventional way.We are constantly at his mercy for the duration of the entire film, even though the end is known.
This film is the third instalment of what he called his “glaciation trilogy” and represents an early phase of his career where he clearly placed ideas above story and tried a new kind of politics. Since then he seems too have changed his approach and mellowed his dialectic but that did not stop him from remaking his own Funny Games, almost shot by shot, which is a scathing indictment of our love for consuming senseless violent images.71 dissects modern western society with clinical precision and is as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1994, when it was made.