Lažni dokumentarac o serijskom ubojici u kojem je sam lik čak strašniji od onoga što čini.
I saw a review online regarding Man Bites Dog as a postmodern look at serial killers. I think the writer is correct in that the origins of the film’s protagonist, Ben, just is – the origins of his homicidal urges don’t receive a full explanation even though his parents discuss his childhood briefly. The film has a clear ending, which is common in modernism, but the ambiguousness of the world Ben and the filmmakers of this pseudo-documentary are definitely postmodern. Ben’s environment is part realistic and part fantasy; a world where people like Ben are part mobster and part homicidal maniac, where factions between people engaging in the same occupation as Ben shoot it out John Woo style. The openness Ben has regarding his job (murderer, thief) is complete fantasy, especially when comparing Man Bites Dog to other serial killer stories like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Showtime’s Dexter. In these other pieces the killer tries to keep their murders secret; Ben doesn’t. He shares the secret of his trade with the filmmakers, obviously aware that eventually people will potentially see the film and know what he does. Any concern with the legal ramifications of Ben’s actions is non-existent in the film. Because of this I can’t claim Man Bites Dog a realistic glimpse into the actions of a serial killer but instead a film looking at the serial killer intimately – a film more concerned with the great social implications of violence and how it affects people living in a society where desensitization to violence is commonplace.
Shot on a remarkably low budget, Man Bite Dog (called It Happened in Your Neighborhood in France) uses its budgeting lack in its favor. The filmmakers and stars (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde) rely on a thorough investigation of Ben’s character for a good portion of the film. The rest features Ben killing people in very inhumane ways. What’s interesting about Man Bites Dog is how the juxtaposition of what’s disturbing is flipped – instead of the violence being the most horrifying aspect of the film, it’s instead Ben himself that’s terrifying. He’s crude, sexist, racist, and verbally violent, in addition to being bizarrely charismatic. Ben has no qualms about discussing his trade or his actions; in fact, he actually gets pleasure from discussing his profession. A scene where Ben is at a ravine dropping off bodies and explaining how to properly dispose of them (a certain amount of rocks is necessary for the elderly because their bones are porous), the zeal he exhibits when educating the filmmakers is frightening. Unlike some serial killers, who are driven by some innate urge they abhor, Ben takes great pleasure in his killings. He sees it as a normal part of his existence, something, in his eyes, that’s acceptable.
Thinking further about Ben and the wider implications his actions have, Man Bites Dog is taking a stab at the current culture (or at least current in the early ‘90s). The lack of sensitivity the world has towards violence is obviously a subtext of the film. When Ben kills a suburban family, suffocating a child with a pillow, the film is criticizing the way people view world events. The death of a child, although quite upsetting, takes precedence over events such as the American sponsored genocide in East Timor by Indonesia. A child down a well takes priority over thousands massacred for fiscal gain and a scene when Ben finds an article about his suburban massacre in the newspaper articulates this. Countless murders avoid reporting, mostly because the victims are black, elderly, or poor; but when a middle-class family is struck down in their home, it makes the paper. The three filmmakers are (although I can’t confirm this since I haven’t spoken to them in person) commenting on the selection of what makes the news. Noam Chomsky states this is one of the filters of the media in Manufacturing Consent, where he articulates how the media will demonstrate their bias by what they pick for print. If a piece supports a particular agenda – that of either private enterprise or the state – it’s fit for print. However, if the piece has no relevance to the necessities of power, it falls into the cracks, unseen by the masses and therefore off their radar. When the suburban family dies, they make the papers since the protection of this economic class furthers both the wishes of the state and businesses.
Man Bites Dog also explores the West’s lack of disgust when it comes to violence. We live in a society where violence is acceptable but sexuality is condemned. The MPAA gave Man Bites Dog a NC-17 rating – a rating mostly reserved for sexually gratuitous films. The violence is Man Bites Dog is indeed excessive, but it’s the treatment of the violence issue in addition to the few moments of nudity (a horrific rape scene and one when Ben kills a black man and investigates his penis to confirm the length myth) that were responsible for the rating. Its approach to violence is truly dismal, but its Ben’s reactions to the violence that are truly disturbing. The film is regarded as a black comedy and there are moments when the film is grimly comedic, but the funny moments are countered by a great deal of horrific instants.
The end of the film, which results in the deaths of everybody involved (or rather those who are still alive since many of the crew die during the film’s making), feels justifiable. Like the end of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, where I felt satisfied since the film’s protagonists were truly vile individuals that deserved to die, I was truly satisfied. Ben and his documentary crew died answering for the consequences of their actions. The film’s ending argues that every action has consequences and Ben’s death, along with the deaths of those close to him (his best friend Malou, his parents, etc.) is the result of his murderous journey. This is the only time in the film when Ben exhibits any emotions – for the majority of Man Bites Dog Ben comes across as a true to form sociopath, unable to display any empathy or emotion. In fact, Ben’s emotional display in the film’s third act is further evidence that he’s a stereotypical sociopath: his only demonstration of emotion is in direct relation to himself. His concern isn’t for those who died and their suffering, but what it means to his own existence. Those close to him aren’t there because of any reciprocal relationship, but because he uses them for one reason or another. For example, Ben articulates that Malou teaches him about fine art and a scene where the two are playing music together demonstrates how Ben looks at her as something like a pet. When she makes a tempo mistake Ben corrects her the same way one would correct a dog or cat caught doing something wrong. He doesn’t exhibit any anger, but treats it like a case of instilling his position of dominance.
Winning best feature at the 1992 Cannes film festival, Man Bites Dog has been heralded as a cult classic, on par with A Clockwork Orange in terms of its hyper-violence. There are other issues I neglected to discuss in this post, such as the films voyeuristic issues, but I’m sure I’ll do another post down the road about this film. It’s one of those movies that sticks with you, not necessarily because of it’s extreme violence but because the action of Ben and the filmmakers are commonplace in our society. How frequently do news reporters embed themselves with a violent group in the name of quality reporting, often witnessing violence and standing aside for the sake of journalistic integrity? What’s the difference between Ben’s crew and somebody inside a platoon in Iraq, where insurgents are killed daily? Aside from the Ben’s crew lack of credentials and the power of a multi-national media outlet, there isn’t much. One could argue that America’s primary goal in places like Iraq or Afghanistan is profit, both by gaining resources and money through the continued sales of guns, construction for infrastructure, and so forth. Ben robs the people he kills, the same as a government robs the resources of a country through it’s military. In essence, Ben and the filmmakers are a perfect metaphor for the ultimate goals of power – both state and private. However, the actions of Ben are abhorred because they are outside the system whereas those of large institutions are justifiable because of their size and control over the means of discourse. This is the only difference.
20 Years On: Man Bites Dog Revisited
Declan Tan rewinds two decades to this prescient Belgian satire, assembled by a trio of young filmmakers including the late Rémy Belvaux
On its initial release, in the same year that Reservoir Dogs drew similar fire, C'est arrivé près de chez vous (It Happened in Your Neighbourhood) sparked debate concerning its graphically violent content. Considered controversial enough to be banned in Sweden, this no-budget Belgian mockumentary continues to repel and attract audiences in equal measure.
Winning two awards at Cannes in 1992, Man Bites Dog - as it is known by English-speaking audiences - has since been marked as one of cinema's early critiques of reality TV, before reality TV even became a proper thing. The project was conceived by Rémy Belvaux who, on the hunt for a subject that could be made with zero funds, began collaborating with André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde. Their plan was that the three of them would star in the piece's main roles, while Poelvoorde's family could fill in for the much of the rest.
The concept that Belvaux came up with was a simple one in theory, though complex in execution: a film crew make a documentary about a serial killer, Ben (played by Poelvoorde), as he goes about his business, murdering at random and stealing cash. They follow him everywhere as he picks out victims and takes them down, often in the most brutal fashion possible, while genially pontificating on subjects as diverse as the subconsciously oppressive colour schemes of urban architecture; the abstruse ballast-to-body ratio for sinking a corpse (depending on its age, weight and size); the importance of open communication to forge a loving relationship; and then, of course, the most effective methods of killing people.
At first, the camera crew who are as passive as an observer can be when witnessing the strangulation of an innocent woman, but soon become more complicit in the crimes. They begin helping, by either literally shining a light on the situation, or by aiding Ben heave a carpet-wrapped body over a cliff, or into a stolen car's boot. When they run out of money, the killer steps in and begins directly funding his vanity project. Going from council estates, where he preys on old, lonely women in one of the most memorable scenes, to parties with the 'art crowd', and on to the suburbs, the picture apparently moves to make a comment at each level of society, then leaves the rest up to the viewer.
In each area of the city we're shown smash cuts of murders, carried out predominantly with a high calibre pistol or Ben's crazed hands: a wash of 'kills' that flood the brain, somewhat akin to Alex's forced treatment in A Clockwork Orange. The intended effect seems to implicate the audience in events which, even in grainy black-and-white, somehow take on a grave, disturbing colour. Most alarmingly we laugh, albeit through gritted teeth and with question marks in our heads, at Ben's gallows humour - as fast and as dark as the film stock that records it, invoking the swagger of Martin McDonagh's early stage work. Both are twisted and, arguably, pointed.
Eventually things go too far for the crew. They become active in the shaping of their film's subject to the point that, after a heavy drinking session at a local pub, the group happen upon a couple at home in the middle of an intimate moment. They interrupt that moment and, taking turns, rape the wife and taunt the on-looking husband.
It's no wonder that critics and audiences found, and still find, some of these images hard to stomach. Much has been made of the graphic content. In an interview for television (see below) Bonzel, perhaps in an attempt to temper some of the critical backlash, argued: "It's a film about filmmaking, and the process of making a film... Instead of being a killer, Ben could be a door-to-door salesman... It would be the same thing." (See the Maysles brothers' 1969 doc Salesman for a serial killer-free illustration.)
In both these interpretations, offered by filmmaker and critic alike, the movie's main thrust is plain, blunt and without subtlety. However, Man Bites Dog is one of the stronger examples of filmmakers penning a workable concept that functions with the least amount of money. The mockumentary genre has always allowed a fair amount of latitude in this respect, particularly in terms of debut features, to make films that become 'calling cards' for bigger budgets. It provides flexibility: the crew are absorbed into the cast, using one handheld camera and a boom mic that become part of the action. The result is a simpler shooting schedule. The focus can rest on the subject, rather than any complication of technique. Even the discussion of budget, which was a serious problem for Belvaux and company, becomes part of the film within the film. One recent example is Wizard's Way, a first feature by three Manchester-based novelists screened at this year's London Independent Film Festival, which also proves such an approach to be an expedient one.
There are some weaknesses to this style in Man Bites Dog. Though heavily scripted from start to finish, it reveals that its conception was a vague one that was subsequently made workable. Starting out with an idea that only has a beginning and an end, Belvaux required a middle to be foisted in, and it shows. After the first 30 minutes the movie slows down noticeably, becoming aimless and wandering. There are several of these meandering sections, in which the trajectory seems impulsive, ambling toward making a message and then backing away. It is at its strongest when Ben plays for laughs the absurdity of the situation, rather than the murder. Pointing to the irony of the crew stuffing bodies into trunks, or digging holes in a makeshift graveyard at the bottom of a drained reservoir, perhaps better serves the filmmakers' stated purpose than fixating on the various ways in which a head is shot off.
But the film sticks to its guns, and does not waiver from its central thesis. It's not so much a statement about the complicity of the media, but rather the latter's direct involvement in this escalation of violence. That said, the piece doesn't seem particularly dogmatic: we are merely given this situation to make of it what we will. Man Bites Dog is not the sole progenitor of the form, nor does it pretend to be. An earlier example is 1968's Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and its lesser sequel Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2½ (2003), both helmed by William Greaves. These tackle the observer effect via the form of (faux) docudrama – what it was called before comedy became part of the equation – thereby making a film within a film within a film.
Frederick Wiseman also explored similar notions by reportedly spending days 'shooting' with no film in the camera, so that the subject could begin to ignore its presence. John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Elaine May, Quentin Dupieux and countless others have tried similar techniques - to get at the core, or at least play with it.
Many of these exercises - though not all - were doomed by over-intellectualising their execution, and perhaps also by the inherent impossibility of an objective film document where the subjects are aware of the recording. The success of Belvaux, Bonzel and Poelvoorde's attempt to advance these themes is certainly in question, yet their style, ambition and humour have carried Man Bites Dog through to cult status, where it will surely remain even after another 20 years. - thequietus.com/