Man Bites Dog

For years now I’ve held up Man Bites Dog as the media satire to beat, if only because it was there first. Not that it was the first media-evil movie ever — for that, you’d have to go back at least as far as Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole — but it scooped Serial Mom, Natural Born Killers, To Die For: the endless spate of 1990s films whose directors suddenly noticed that methods of mass communication were inherently corrupt and corruptive. Even The Blair Witch Project owes a debt to Man Bites Dog‘s grainy mockumentary shaky-cam style. Like it or not — and you’d be excused for not liking it — this Belgian award-winner has probably influenced every subsequent media take-off from the sublime (Series 7) to the ridiculous (Ed TV).

In the fine tradition of all hungry moviemakers scrabbling for film stock, the terrible trio Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde set out to make the cheapest movie possible. Intended as a calling card, Man Bites Dog would spoof documentaries by taking a fictitious serial killer, the crudely affable Ben (Poelvoorde), as its subject. André Bonzel has said that he and his cohorts (including co-writer Vincent Tavier, who appears in the film as one of the ill-fated sound guys) didn’t want the movie to be taken as any statement on violence; the violence was incidental. The real subject is the essentially false collaborative act of filming “real life,” and at what point collaboration becomes collusion.

Man Bites Dog may not be “about” violence, but it contains enough of the stuff to rouse any jaded viewer of horror or exploitation films. Filmed in grungy black-and-white, the carnage exists at an aesthetic distance — the blood spurts out in oily jets. Yet what’s disturbing about the mayhem is not so much its explicit presentation — actually, a lot of it takes place off camera or out of frame, probably to save money on gore effects — as the tone surrounding the murders. It’s all rather disaffected and matter-of-fact, with the camera jostling to keep up and sometimes even revealing a victim’s hiding place with its harsh spotlight. And the movie takes its emotional cue from its own nonjudgmental camera stare.

Ben is a universal and instantly recognizable type, if you take away the homicide. Poelvoorde plays him with a kind of detestable charisma: Ben looks so fulfilled nattering on to the camera about architecture or whatever else pops into his head, you can’t find it in your heart to resent his company. The New Yorker critic Anthony Lane suggested that if a Hollywood studio were so foolhardy as to attempt a remake (thus far, none has), the perfect American star for Ben would be James Woods, but that’s a bit too on-the-nose. For the full subversive effect, you’d have to go with Tom Hanks or — my personal pick — John Cusack, as long as you didn’t soften Ben or take out his racist musings (at one point, Ben insists on inspecting the corpse of a black victim to see if what they say about black men is true).

The film’s proper title is C’est arrivé près de chez vous, which can be translated as “Coming Soon to a House Near You,” a puckish twist on movie ads (though the title in the film itself is subtitled “It Happened in Your Neighborhood,” which sounds way off¹). Whoever decided to rename it Man Bites Dog for English-speaking audiences deserves a good cigar, because it evokes the film’s rude exploration of audience complicity as well as its studied tabloid flavor. Taking the Heisenberg Principle to the nth degree, Ben is always acutely aware of the camera eye and often kills accordingly. The crew — Belvaux and Bonzel playing less compassionate versions of themselves, plus a variety of sound men (Ben goes through as many sound guys as Spinal Tap went through drummers) — gets pulled deeper into Ben’s exploits, aiding and abetting him.

When an armed victim shoots the first sound man and a grief-maddened Remy kicks the gunman’s corpse, Ben holds him back, not wanting him to start down the path of violence. (It may only be that Ben needs Remy where he is, as a chronicler of Ben’s actions; he doesn’t need competition.) Yet a line has been crossed, and Remy crosses another when he holds down a little boy’s flailing legs so that Ben can suffocate him; finally, Ben and the crew, drunk and rowdy, show up at the house of a naked, copulating couple, and what follows is harsh enough to get itself deleted from the early American prints of the film (it was later reinstated, though is missing from “unrated” edited versions on VHS). The scene manages to outdo the gang-rape in A Clockwork Orange, which was also hideous to watch but at least did not feature festive sparklers. The aftermath is just about the last word in morning-after disgust.

The standard line among those unimpressed by Man Bites Dog is that “it isn’t that well-made,” which makes you wonder how so many critics could miss the point so completely. Its very amateurishness gives it a sharper edge (did these same critics turn their noses up at the overrated Blair Witch for the same reason?); though you’re never quite convinced you’re watching an actual documentary, you’re not really supposed to be. (The most realistic passages of the film belong to Ben’s mother and grandparents, played by Poelvoorde’s actual mother and grandparents, who reportedly had no idea they were appearing in a violent mockumentary; they were told that a film crew was creating a “day in the life” study of Poelvoorde.) By the time Ben and his crew run into a rival serial killer and his camera crew, the movie becomes a mirror watching a mirror, beyond all concerns of “reality.”

A subplot involving Italian thugs out for revenge on Ben is there only to bring the proceedings to a conclusive and abrupt halt; it also allows for some of the darkest humor when Ben’s loved ones start turning up with large objects lodged in their asses. The camera registers this affront to Ben as dispassionately as it recorded Ben’s own affronts to other human beings no less loved by family. This part of the film is almost never commented on, and effectively makes Man Bites Dog more than the merciless dreg-fest it’s often painted as. We’re prompted to pity Ben (and his deceased loved one) the first time, but we laugh the second time because of Ben’s choice of words in describing it, and why not? We laughed before when he was killing.

Don’t trust reviewers who came late to Man Bites Dog on DVD after having seen all the later media satires that say so little so loudly. This is an original, a stark and (sorry) biting work far more complex, both stylistically and thematically, than first meets the eye. As Ben himself says, he is cinema, or at least an aspect of it: conscienceless, devouring, repugnant yet riveting. So is the movie.

¹Actually, according to Google Translate it shakes out as “It Happened Near You.” I still like my translation better.

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