‘Man Bites Dog,’ Murder, and Media Exploitation: Are You Not Entertained?
“Pigeon, winged cloak of gray/in the city’s hellish maw/one glance and you fly away/your grace holds me in awe.” ~ ‘Man Bites Dog’
Since the camera’s invention, the question of complicity has been consistently asked but never conclusively answered: Where should we draw the line between spectator and participant, and what responsibility do creators and consumers have to the subjects being portrayed?
This question typically emerges with each new violent tragedy captured on camera. A famous example: The murder of Meredith Hunter in the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter (1970). Members of the Direct Cinema movement, the documentarians believed in capturing reality and representing it truthfully, without external editorial intervention. But at what cost?
In her widely debated review, Pauline Kael articulates her problems with the documentary:
“How does one review this picture? It’s like reviewing the footage of President Kennedy’s assassination or Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder. This movie is into complications and sleight-of-hand beyond Pirandello, since the filmed death at Altamont — although, of course, unexpected — was part of a cinema-verité spectacular.”
There’s a lot to unpack in Kael’s review, from the distinction between objective reality and subjective representation, to the limitations of Direct Cinema and its inability to achieve its intended purpose of being the unobtrusive truth-teller, to Kael’s own blind spots that have since been challenged by the Maysles Brothers. Still, her main point applies to moving images in general, and the consequences of media violence in particular.
Did those who filmed the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont have an obligation to put the cameras down and intervene? Was the act of filming an act of historical documentation or complicit cowardice?
And of those who watch the footage, is the act of watching an act of essential education or something worse?
Today, similar questions are raised, especially as technology has given each of us access to on-the-go cameras, thanks to the capabilities of the smartphone. For example, what responsibility do those who film unarmed people of color being beaten by the police have to their subjects? And of those who watch the videos, what should they do?
Cinema has long navigated the blurred boundaries that separate passive spectator from active participant, authenticity from artifice, and depiction from endorsement. In response to these thorny quandaries, there’s a great tradition of films that call attention to the art form itself, with the goal of tackling the question of complicity head-on.
One of the most prescient examples premiered in 1992, when Belgian student filmmakers Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde released Man Bites Dog at Cannes. The film, which can be described as a meta-mockumentary about a narcissistic serial killer Ben (Benoît, playing himself) and the camera crew (Rémy and André, playing themselves) that gets too close to him to the point where they abandon all morality, is a scathing, savage indictment of media exploitation.
Shot in black and white on a shoestring budget, Man Bites Dog takes the shape of an actual low-budget documentary. The film cleverly muddles the complicity question by showing Rémy and André completely obliterate the line between passive and active. When they begin, they’re naïve observers. By the end, they’re nefarious participants.
At the start of Man Bites Dog, Rémy and André simply follow Ben around as he kills people. They give him the spotlight to shares his twisted opinions, and that’s bad enough. As the film progresses, we watch them slowly start to take part in Ben’s crimes.
In one disturbing scene, Ben invades a home and kills an entire family, but is unable to catch the young boy. After a stomach-turning chase in and out of the house, Ben eventually snatches the screaming boy, and with the help of Rémy and André, holds him down and smothers him. In a different scene, Ben stumbles upon another documentary crew making a movie, and the three of them take turns shooting the crew members. In the film’s most controversial scene, and the one undoubtedly responsible for its NC-17 rating, Ben takes a couple hostage in their home and the three of them gang-rape the woman.
What’s the point, you might wonder? For a start, Man Bites Dog is tongue-in cheek-satire and has something significant to say. Like most successful satires, it’s funny until the message its sending about society hits too close to home.
Man Bites Dog is an indictment of toxic masculinity and the angry white male figure. Ben is someone who lashes out against society because he disagrees with it. In one telling scene, for example, he visits an apartment complex where elderly people reside. He doesn’t like it and rants to the camera why:
“Here we are in a neighborhood of mostly senior citizens. Planners design so-called low-cost housing. Flats meant for young people, for newlyweds setting up house, for workers, for housewives, for maybe the unemployed. It’s all part of the district renewal plan that aims to bring old folks out of isolation by mixing them with the working population. It’s a great idea, but what I don’t like is — and here’s the rub — how can you design low-cost housing projects in total disregard for aesthetics. I can’t accept that, I’m sorry.”
Ben’s response to this perceived injustice is to lure his way into an elderly woman’s apartment and literally scare her to death. His presence induces a heart attack, and as she lies dying, he turns to us and expresses pride in his achievement: He was able to take her life without wasting a bullet.
Throughout the film, Ben visits his parents, and we see that he comes from a privileged background. This is significant because it shows that we can’t explain away Ben’s behavior. There’s nothing to suggest that he didn’t receive enough care in his childhood, no ability to connect the dots between his childhood and his current sociopathic tendencies.
Instead, the film implies, Ben’s behavior stems from a sense of bourgeois entitlement. He doesn’t approve of the direction of society, so he goes on a killing spree. What’s worse, we know these sociopaths exist, and we know there’s no saving them.
Why else should we bother watching, you ask? If nothing else, Man Bites Dog demands our attention for the virtuosic filmmaking on display. Say what you will about the subject matter, there’s no denying that the film is brilliantly made. There are several moments that stand out, such as the aforementioned chase scene when Ben runs after the young boy in and out of the house, as Rémy and André follow closely behind in a bravura handheld tracking shot.
The gang rape scene is also stirring for its sobering aftermath. When the three men are finished with the woman, the film abruptly cuts to a single shot that pans across the kitchen. We see the bodies of the husband and wife butchered, blood all over the walls. We sit in silence, shocked. What was once dark comedy is now disturbing horror.
More than anything, though, it’s the angry attack of media exploitation that rings true decades later. Man Bites Dog reminds us that cinema is first and foremost a subjective art form. Someone puts a camera in front of something and presses record. Every moving image we see is captured by a living, breathing person, and when we consider that so much of what we see is death and destruction, the intentions of the filmmakers demand an interrogation.
However, Man Bites Dog doesn’t let us, the audience, off the hook. It’s one thing to create violent moving images with a camera, it’s another thing to consume them from the comfort of a movie theater, or in most cases, one’s couch. In his essay, Matt Zoller Seitz sums up the film’s critique well:
“It’s true that we already know violence is bad, and that if we watch a lot of it, we build up a level of tolerance that can only be transcended with an original and fresh act of savagery. But ‘Man Bites Dog’, with its hyperreal, almost cartoonish litany of outrages, expands on that point in a significant, almost subliminal way: slowly, subtly tricking the viewer into sticking around, then implicating the viewer and the filmmakers as the story unfolds. By the time Man Bites Dog ends, you may wish you’d stopped watching. But you didn’t.”
There’s a postmodern self-reflexivity to Man Bites Dog that represents 1990s cinema. Man Bites Dog constantly reminds us that we’re watching a film, and as a result, forces us to confront our fascination with on-screen violence. It’s as if the filmmakers are taunting us with each gruesome scene, chastising us for not turning away. “Why are you still here?” they ask. If we’re appalled that Rémy and André transform into cold-blooded killers, should we not save similar condemnation for ourselves, and the bystanders we become?
Other films from the 1990s similarly confront the question of complicity, such as Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), but Man Bites Dog is the most damning of them all.
The film that Man Bites Dog most resembles is Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1961), which similarly follows a cameraman who get too close to his subject.
The Connection is adapted from Jack Gelber’s off-Broadway play about J.J. Burden (Roscoe Browne), a documentary filmmaker who is granted access to film eight junkies in a dirty apartment, provided that he pays for their drugs. As The Connection progresses, the junkies worry that J.J. is exploiting them, so he agrees to try heroin to make them feel more comfortable around him.
The presence of J.J. and his eventual participation in the drug lifestyle mirrors Rémy and André’s eventual participation in the serial killer lifestyle. Both Man Bites Dog and The Connection are fascinating examinations of cinematic representation and would make a worthy double feature. They challenge the filmmaker’s so-called obligation to capture reality as it unfolds, particularly if the reality observed is destructive. They also argue, quite persuasively, that filmmakers are incapable of maintaining an objective distance from their subjects, and have just as much influence, if not more, over what occurs in front of the camera.
It’s as if, long after the Maysles Brothers defended themselves against Kael’s review, Rémy and crew fire back with a forceful “Fuck you, Kael was right all along” rebuttal.
As trainwreck reality shows like My 600-LB Life continue to get made, true crime documentaries like Tiger King and American Murder: The Family Next Door continue to capture consumers’ short attention spans, and violent murders in the media continue to be the main ratings draw, the points made by Man Bites Dog were, in retrospect, more prophetic than anyone would prefer.