“We’ll never have enough.” — Rémy Belvaux, Man Bites Dog
Call it Tony Soprano Syndrome: If the lead character in a feature or documentary has enough charisma, we’ll stay with them no matter how terrible or irredeemable their actions. Toward the end of The Sopranos’ six-season run on HBO, creator David Chase and his writing team did everything they could to make Tony as repugnant as possible, a man without shame or scruples who uses therapy as a form of all-purpose absolution for the violence and betrayals of his past, present, and future. But no matter how much stinking wreckage piled up in Tony’s wake—or how vociferously Chase distanced himself from his miserable anti-hero and the mob in general—viewers couldn’t tear themselves away. This has much to do with James Gandolfini’s magnetic performance in the lead, but it’s also testament to the camera’s power to transform its subjects. Suddenly, we’re all turned into Dr. Melfi—endlessly forgiving and indulgent of our patient, in spite of our nobler instincts.
Though still potent, the shocking-at-the-time 1992 satire/mockumentary Man Bites Dog, from Belgian co-directors and stars Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde, may have slightly less impact now, given the similar and even nastier provocations that followed. But its vérité treatment of a preening serial killer cagily predicts the current era of reality TV, where hollow fame-seekers get their 15 minutes and the camera eggs them on, turning their lives into a sick form of performance art. While its title is taken from journalism—referring to news favoring the sensational (“man bites dog”) over the everyday (“dog bites man”)—Man Bites Dog isn’t really a comment on media so much as filmmaking itself, and the way it forces moral compromises from people both behind the camera and in front of the screen. It’s a sick piece of work—I felt like a heel for watching it, yet I couldn’t look away, either.
Credit Belvaux, Bonzel, and Poelvoorde for not entirely falling prey to Tony Soprano Syndrome: Their killer may be endlessly fascinating and even a little charismatic, but he in no way inspires empathy. Played by Poelvoorde—who, like the other filmmakers, goes by his first name—“Ben” doesn’t have a backstory about his tortured relationship with his mother or some such psychological hook, and he doesn’t pause for a moment’s reflection about his actions, at least in how they square with his nonexistent sense of right and wrong. His reluctance to kill children, for example, doesn’t come out of some deep-seated respect for their innocence, but out of cold, pitiless rationality: Old people have money, young people generally don’t. Extinguishing their lives isn’t an issue.
Rémy, André, and a rotating cast of doomed soundmen—the Spinal Tap drummers of this production—follow Ben as he goes about his murderous business, though it’s immediately hard to tell how much that business is dictated by having a film crew around. It definitely gives Ben a chance to show off his intelligence and charm, and pontificate about art, music, and the aesthetic shortcomings of a government-funded low-cost housing development. First introduced strangling a woman on a train with piano wire, Ben would seem like a happy-go-lucky psycho under any circumstances—being unburdened with a conscience will do that for you—but he can hardly contain his enthusiasm over having an audience. He treats them to drinks at the local watering hole (favorite libation: “A Dead Baby Boy”), gives them all the juicy footage of slaughter they need, and in this scene, breaks down the proper ratios for how much ballast is needed in relation to body type:
But Man Bites Dog isn’t ultimately about how Ben’s behavior changes for the camera; it’s more about how the filmmakers become complicit in his crimes. Granted, the very act of following around a serial killer is absurdly, hilariously compromised, but a slow progression bridges the distance between artist and subject. It starts with a shocking scene, early in the film, when Ben ropes the crew into pretending to shoot a documentary report on loneliness in high-rise apartment buildings so he can get into an old woman’s apartment. What follows is another show-off moment: Ben “saving a bullet” by literally scaring the woman to death, then demonstrating where her money is hidden. Much later, in another shocking scene—so shocking, in fact, that it was removed from the “unrated” edition of the original video release (though not the NC-17 cut, curiously)—the whole gang participates in the explicit (onscreen) gang rape and (offscreen) disembowelment of a young couple.
Man Bites Dog makes its case bluntly, to say the least, but it forcefully reveals the lie of documentary “objectivity,” this false notion that filmmakers can be flies on the wall and record life as it really happens. For one, there’s the “Hawthorne effect,” in which the act of observing alters the phenomenon being observed; it’s hard to speculate what Ben would do without the camera present, but surely having no one around to witness his wit and savagery would make a big difference. (He’d probably kill, but without the flair.) For another, documentaries go to great lengths to obscure the relationship between filmmaker and subject, but make no mistake: it’s always a collaboration, and often one fraught with unseen compromise. In the best of circumstances, the push-and-pull can expose some real truth, but Man Bites Dog finds the crew first seduced by Ben (who admittedly gives them some strong footage), then bought off entirely when they run out of money and lean on him to finance the project. Eventually, there are scenes like Ben ordering Rémy and company to help cover up the bodies in a dried-up ravine, or a surreal run-in with another documentary crew that’s saving money by shooting on video. The filmmakers are so addicted to the sensational material Ben gives them—“We’ll never have enough,” says Rémy—that they’re all too happy to let the tail wag the dog.
Five years before Michael Haneke’s even nastier Funny Games, Man Bites Dog also implicates the audience for watching it—a stand that has naturally made both films extremely polarizing. When Rémy talks about never having enough, it isn’t just the filmmakers who are guilty of insatiable bloodlust, but the unseen audience that regularly seeks out violence and mayhem as entertainment. Funny Games and Man Bites Dog mete out an ironic punishment to the people who seek them out: To paraphrase Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, they answer the desire for “a bit of the old ultra-violence” by giving viewers an all-you-can-eat buffet of gleeful torture and sadism. And like McDowell, Ben sees himself foremost as an entertainer, going about his gruesome business with a winning smile and a touch of flair. (Would he even exist without someone watching him?) Whenever Ben threatens to get too ingratiating, Man Bites Dog takes a brief moment to remind us, in a flurry of edits, what this cosmopolitan charmer is really about. Warning: NSFW, or for the faint of heart:
Though time has made the big shocks in Man Bites Dog seem a little quaint—the careers of Haneke, Gaspar Noé, and Takashi Miike hastened that inevitability—the film looks wiser and more prescient now than it did in 1992. Back then, most of the arguments about the film centered on whether it should even exist; before you could even broach a discussion about themes, you first had to come to terms with the nearly unprecedented horror of the rape scene, or the bleak comedy of bodies piling up without consequence. Today, it doesn’t look like provocation for provocation’s sake; it’s a thoughtful, evergreen thesis on documentary “reality” and the grotesque distortions of the movie camera. It’s even possible to laugh about it now. Sicko.
In February: The Newest New Cult Canon month
Next week: Let The Right One In
February 11: The Fall
February 18: Synecdoche, New York
February 25: The House Of The Devil