Spinal Tap header

home // store // text files // multimedia // discography // a to zed // random // links

Man Bites DogThe 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 given away."
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 film—that a film crew would follow a serial killer around—is 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 grieve.
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.

Forgotten Silver >>>>>>
Conclusion >>>>>>

Copyright © Ethan de Seife, author of Cultographies: This is Spinal Tap. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright © 1995-2011 cc Media, Inc. // Terms and Conditions