Saturday, January 12, 2013

#148: Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, & Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992)

In my recent post about the similarly premised film The Last Horror Movie, I had this to say about Man Bites Dog: "On paper, a synopsis of this 2003 British meta-horror makes it sound like a total knockoff of the 1992 Belgian cult film Man Bites Dog. Though the premises are almost identical, the films really are very different in their tone, look, execution, and style. The latter film is a black-and-white, guerrilla-punk, pseudo-verite ball of energy, with a manic, bullying subject, and is a lot more violent, if my memory of a film seen about 15 years ago is correct." Turns out, my memory wasn't entirely correct. After a fresh viewing last night, I agree that Man Bites Dog is black-and-white, pseudo-vérité, and energetic. I partially agree that the subject is manic and bullying, although there are many other facets to his character that clash with these traits. I don't agree with my characterization of the film's style as guerrilla-punk. It's much more thoughtfully composed and edited than I had remembered. And though there are more instances of violence here than in The Last Horror Movie, this film lingers far less on those instances of violence and poses more intriguing, thoughtful questions about them. The Last Horror Movie was primarily about audiences' relationships with violent films and an elegy to VHS culture and '70s, '80s, and '90s slasher films. Man Bites Dog is a prescient dark satire about reality TV, celebrity, and actual violence. I like both films, but Man Bites Dog is the stronger, sharper work.
I don't know much about Belgian television in the early 1990s, but I do know that MTV's The Real World was just about the only "reality TV" program on the air in the United States at the time. Its success coincided with the decrease in popularity of sitcoms (except for a popular handful), the rise of proliferating specialist cable channels, 24-hour news networks, and the Internet, and economic decline and writers' strikes. This has led to a decade-plus of reality-TV dominance as the premier TV genre of our current era, and a pop culture audience even more obsessed with immediacy, narcissism, and the increasingly quick life cycle of consumption and disposal of celebrities and their brands than any of its forebears. While Man Bites Dog isn't especially prophetic when it comes to most of these issues, it's eerily on the money about the format of reality television and its effect on the behaviors of the people who appear on these programs, the people who make them, and the audience who watches them.
Quentin Tarantino has thrown several arrogant, privileged hissy fits in recent press junket interviews when questioned about his depiction of violence and its effects and influence on society. I sympathize with his frustration with this question even as I wince at his childish reaction. (And I admire and enjoy his films while disliking his arrogance and entitlement as a public figure.) He's far from the only director who uses violence as part of his aesthetic even though he's one of the only directors who's ever directly challenged by the media about it, and he's answered this question repeatedly for the entire 20 years of his career. It's an interesting question, but I think media are looking in the wrong place. In my opinion, pop culture's depiction of verbal and body language and its manifestation as behavior and image/brand creation is a far greater influence on the subsequent behaviors of its audience than stylized movie violence. Anecdotally, I've seen far more people incorporate reality TV behaviors and movie catchphrases into their daily routines than shootings, stabbings, karate beatdowns, and fistfighting. I worked as a substitute teacher for two years, and the high school students I encountered daily modeled several aspects of their behavior and language after the manufactured drama of reality television. Teenagers, already experts in narcissism and manufactured drama (a byproduct of lack of experience, insecurity, and the biological disadvantage of having adult sex organs and still-developing childish brains), adopted the reality TV template when their genuine personalities hit the wall of their articulation. One class devolved into such a carbon copy of a Springer/Maury Povich show that I had to pretend it was to get them to do their work. (I pretended to have a microphone and announced commercial breaks to work on the assignment, which actually worked. Whenever a student came back from the bathroom, the students booed him/her as if he/she was one of the deadbeat dads on the paternity episodes of Povich's show. It was both charming and frightening.)
To make a long-winded post a little shorter, Man Bites Dog understands that the murders are the initial reason why the camera crew is filming our antihero protagonist, but that his posturing language and body movements and the half-real/half-manufactured confrontations and camaraderie with the film crew (surrogate fellow cast members?) are the real story and the template for the next 15 years of TV. Most people I know haven't engaged in violent behavior, but for some reason, half of them have adopted the irritating habit of saying "I know, right?" whenever they agree with something the other speaker says. Language is the currency of influence, not violence.
I suppose I should actually write something about the film. (I know, right?) Film school buddies Belvaux, Bonzel, and Poelvoorde directed, wrote (with Vincent Tavier), and starred in this low-budget but accomplished feature shortly before graduating. This is the only full-length film the trio directed. Bonzel currently works as a cinematographer and Poelvoorde is a successful actor. Belvaux committed suicide in 2006. The film takes the form of documentary footage a filmmaker (Belvaux) is making about a serial killer (Poelvoorde). The film crew is small, consisting of Belvaux, a cameraman (Bonzel), and a soundman. They film Poelvoorde as he murders people and steals their money, disposes of bodies in lakes and quarries, gets drunk at his favorite bar, plays music with a musician friend, hangs out with his mother and grandparents at their small grocery and home, boxes at a nearby gym, and soliloquizes on art, music, poetry, philosophy, relationships, and murder in the streets, taverns, and restaurants he frequents. Until the exceedingly dark final third, the film is just as much a satirical comedy as it is a horror film and political polemic. I'd forgotten just how funny Man Bites Dog is. Poelvoorde, playing a character that shares his name, has a great part. Benoît is a charismatic monster with recognizably human traits who often plays to the cameras but just as often lets his guard down with honest emotional outbursts.
The film crew isn't quite as fleshed out, understandably, but Belvaux has some fine moments of his own, particularly when addressing the camera in two scenes to memorialize two crew members who became collateral damage after two of Poelvoorde's victims had guns of their own. In the absence of other subjects, the crew takes the place of a reality show cast, and Poelvoorde treats them as peers, friends, employees, slaves, and figures of admiration depending on his wants and needs. Unlike The Last Horror Movie, Man Bites Dog never tells us what the filmmakers plan to do with the finished product, though we learn that Poelvoorde helps finance the shoot whenever the filmmakers run out of money.
It's unusual for a film with three directors to have such a cohesive feel, but Man Bites Dog always feels focused, both aesthetically and functionally. The black-and-white is a nice touch. Color would have created a garish, exaggerated tone that would have undermined the film's impact. There are some beautifully framed, inventive shots, but the film is never overstylized or self-consciously arty. There's a nice moment when the film crew is scattered looking for one of Poelvoorde's victims. Poelvoorde speaks to the camera but there is no sound because the soundman is on the other side of the building. When he returns, the sound picks up, mid-sentence. In this scene, aesthetics meets logic meets realism meets stylized form meets the pragmatics of low-budget filmmaking. I think I enjoyed Man Bites Dog even more on a second viewing. It feels even more contemporary now.

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