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The premise of Man Bites Dog
(the original title of which is C'est Arrivé Près
de Chez Vous, which loosely translates into something akin to
You Could Be Next; Man Bites Dog refers to the old newspaper
cliché that Dog Bites Man is not news, but Man Bites Dog
certainly is) is that a documentary film crew has decided, for
reasons never revealed to us, to follow a notorious serial killer
as he goes about his business. The film we are watching is, supposedly,
the film made by that crew.
The credits announce that
the film we are watching has been made by Benoît Poelvoorde,
Rémy Belvaux, and André Bonzel; these are also
the names of the principal characters. Benoît is the killer
(whose co-directing credit is explained in the film by his repeated
offers to finance its production and his constant suggestions
to the filmmakers on how to execute certain shots more effectively),
Rémy is the director, and André is the cameraman.
By the end of the film, all three characters are dead, leaving
behind the film as their only legacy.
Like No Lies, Man Bites Dog
is shot in vérité style, with a jerky, hand-held
camera, inconsistent sound recording, very few non-diegetic sounds,
and remarkably naturalistic acting. This vérité
"look" is the first and perhaps most important step
that the filmmakers take in assuring that the viewers find the
film believable. Though any viewer with a conscience will have
a hard time believing that a film crew would film (and implicitly
endorse) the actions of a serial killer, the film positions itself
firmly within a documentary tradition that is associated with
conveying "truth" or events as they actually occur.
Writing in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane says, "The movie
gets going so quickly that you never have a chance to question
the main conceit; it seems as natural to tail a psychopath as
it did to follow a heavy metal band in `This Is Spinal Tap,'
and in neither instance is there any danger of the game's being
Man Bites Dog does actually
have a non-vérité precedent: the snuff film in
general, and, perhaps more specifically, the infamous (and largely
staged) Faces of Death series of videos, which have been passed
from schoolboy to schoolboy since their debut in the late 1970s.
It would be hard to say, though, that Man Bites Dog is a satire
of the snuff film, mostly because fairly few people are familiar
enough with the conventions of the snuff film genre for Man Bites
Dog to be effective on that level. And, anyway, most video stores,
at least in this country, would never carry Man Bites Dog if
it contained footage of actual murders. So, in a sense, by its
very existence and general availability, Man Bites Dog reveals
itself to be a mock documentary. Nevertheless, this fact may
be overlooked by some viewers: Eitzen indicates that many people
choose to ignore or fail to grasp the significance of the credits
in No Lies. Tijani El-Miskin has written about the thousands
of anxious calls received by television stations, in spite of
repeated disclaimers, when a television film designed to resemble
a newscast depicted the nuclear annihilation of Charleston, South
Carolina; and good old Orson Welles legendarily scared the bejesus
out of the country with his 1938 radio broadcast of War of the
Worlds, which, of course, contained numerous disclaimers of its
own. To summarize El-Miskin's argument about this phenomenon,
which he dubs "transfictional disavowal," the conventions
of the genre (be it documentary film, a radio broadcast, or a
television newscast) have the power to overwhelm the repeated
disclaimers present in the work. The case of Man Bites Dog is
different, since its disavowals are implicit rather than explicit,
but any viewer with her wits about her should be able to identify
the disparity between the film's subject matter and its availability.
El-Miskin fails to account for people who may not be intelligent
or aware enough to understand the disavowals, and of course,
such a figure would be impossible to determine.
What other steps do the filmmakers
take to enhance the believability of their film? As I mentioned,
the credits are an important giveaway. In this case, the credits
for the movie we have just watched (Man Bites Dog) could just
as easily be the credits for the film which the crew was making.
And, in fact, they are: much as the character of the cameraman
in No Lies actually shot the footage that was then used in the
finished film, the director, cameraman, and sound recordist(s)
we see on the screen in Man Bites Dog are the men who actually
perform these functions for the finished film. In that way, the
film strengthens its position in the actual world.
I posed a question in my introduction:
Will a mock documentary "work" if we do not buy into
the film's central conceit? Man Bites Dog provides an interesting
point of discussion for how the notion of plausibility can affect
a mock documentary. As I mentioned earlier, the central conceit
of the filmthat a film crew would follow a serial killer
aroundis inherently ethically reprehensible. Not only that,
it stops short of being completely believable. Yet I do not feel
the film's argument falls apart due to a rather important hole
in its plausibility. The film has provided itself with a safety
net: Man Bites Dog is not "about" Benoît the
serial killer per se; it is about the manipulation of images
and the eternally fruitless quest to present cinematic objectivity.
Once we realize that the film's central argument has more to
do with the impossibility of cinematic objectivity, we can see
that the implausibility associated with the film's production
and general availability is not a shortcoming but a strength.
As the film progresses, the
members of the film crew undergo serious changes in their attitudes
toward Benoît and his profession. At the start, they are
appalled by Benoît's unapologetic attitude toward his victims,
yet they are driven by a morbid fascination to continue filming.
Rémy and his crew are reluctant to film Benoît's
actions for fear that they will be implicitly endorsing them.
But the passion for objectivity and for filming a subject
that has never been documented before pushes them on.
Their hesitation soon gives way to curiosity, as they continuously
ask Benoît questions about his trade.
That curiosity soon gives
way to increased hesitation when one of the members of the crew
is killed by gunfire. The crew has followed Benoît as he
trails a victim, who has taken shelter in a factory of some kind.
In the crossfire, Patrick, the sound recordist, is shot and killed.
Interestingly, Rémy's first response is not to come to
the aid of his friend, but to grab the Nagra and the microphone
to ensure that the scene is finished as intended. Once Benoît
kills Patrick's assassin, Rémy starts to cry and kick
the corpse of the murderer in anger. In a prophetic moment, Benoît
says to him, "Stop it, kid. You start like that and it becomes
a habit." Indeed, Rémy will soon do more than just
Benoît is unaffected;
to him, Patrick's death is a regrettable accident, nothing more.
To Rémy, however, it is a blow that seriously dampens
his enthusiasm for completing the picture. In one of the film's
most hilariously sad moments, Rémy turns on the camera,
sits down in front of it, and delivers a heartfelt address to
the deceased Patrick. He rationalizes Patrick's death by calling
it an "occupational hazard," of which Patrick was no
doubt aware. He justifies continued filming by saying that Patrick
would have wanted it that way.
With Patrick's death, and
Rémy's subsequent address to the camera, we get the first
real indications in the film that the filmmakers are being sucked
in by their subject matter. Though the film reveals Benoît
to be not only a heartless murderer but a pompous ass with lightweight,
ill-informed opinions on everything from painting to architecture
to wine, the crew obviously finds his way of living somehow seductive.
Rémy's initial response to Patrick's death the
picking up of the microphone indicates his true desire:
to capture something totally new on film. This desire exists
above all others for Rémy, as his rationalization of the
film's continuation proves. The illusion of objectivity is thereby
cracked; later on, it is shattered altogether.
The most significant instance
of the filmmakers violating their own implicit policy of objective
reporting is when they actually join Benoît in a depraved
orgy of rape and murder. Following Benoît into an apartment
after a heavy night of drinking "dead baby boys" at
the local pub, the crew discovers a married couple having sex
in the kitchen. Benoît interrupts them and encourages each
crew member to rape the woman. The crew reacts with joyous enthusiasm,
with Rémy in particular displaying an enormously malicious
grin as he rapes the helpless woman. There is then an ellipsis:
we cut from the scene of the rape to the scene of the aftermath.
Blood paints the walls, the woman lies dead and apparently disemboweled
on the kitchen table, the man has been bloodily murdered and
propped up in the sink. Benoît and the crew lie sleeping
on the floor.
Here is the ultimate transgression
a filmmaker can make: he has not only crossed the line and willingly
participated in the actions which he was supposed to be documenting,
but he has participated in actions that are legally and morally
reprehensible. Nevertheless, the film forges on.
What are we to make of this?
Has the subject taken control of the film in which he "stars"?
In this case, yes: at another point, we see Benoît sitting
at an editing table, physically manipulating the very footage
in which he appears. So not only have the filmmakers crossed
the line into the realm of the subject, but the subject has crossed
the line into the realm of the filmmakers. But there is more
going on when the crew participates in the rape and murders.
The illusion of the documentary has been shattered once and for
all. The filmmakers no longer make any pretense of objectivity
how can they, after what they've done? Yet they still
finish the film ... or, rather, the film finishes them. Benoît,
Rémy, and André are all killed in the film's climax
by bullets that seem to come from out of nowhere. Of course,
each one of their deaths is recorded on film, a device that shows
up later in Forgotten Silver. Even if we have long since abandoned
the notion that what we are watching is real, the film keeps
it position in the actual world by depicting the deaths of the
filmmakers and their subject, and then fading to black. The deaths
are shocking, sudden, and depicted in a harshly realistic manner,
the highlight of which is André's placing of the still-running
camera on the ground (giving us a nice Dutch-angle shot) as he
runs into frame to escape the gunfire which has already felled
Benoît and Rémy. He, too, is shot, and as he falls,
a cloud of dust swirls up, dissipates, and cues the fade to black
which then leads into the credits.
Anthony Lane writes that Man
Bites Dog is about a "cinema [that] has given birth to a
species of violence so alluring that it has fallen in love with
its own creation." Just as Benoît has his gun (which
he refers to at one point as "an instrument"), Rémy
has his camera: they both shoot. While Benoît shoots innocent
victims, the crew shoots the virtual murder of the notion of
cinematic objectivity. The mock documentary is the ideal format
for such a concept. The film can be both real and fake, both
shocking and humorous, both projected and actual. The film shows
viewers an extreme example of what can happen when a documentarist
gets too deeply involved in the subject he is filming. As such,
it is something of a warning for viewers not to take what they
see at face value. Could the events depicted in Man Bites Dog
actually have occurred? By all means. Never does it step outside
the conventions of the actual world; nothing it depicts is inherently
"fictional." But it plays with viewers' perceptions
of human behavior in the actual world and presents an extreme
case. What happens when that extreme reaches its logical peak
is that both the projected world and the real world come to a
crashing halt: the projected world of the documentary being shot
stops when its makers are killed; the real world, in which Benoît,
Rémy, and André live has now been altered by their
deaths, as well. If we maintain the film's central conceit all
the way to its climax, we can see that those last three gunshots
effectively silence both the projected world the film depicts
and the actual world to which the film refers.