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Man Bites Dog: a Guerrilla Film

Introduction

Made over two and a half years by a group of Belgian students (www.filmreference.com), C’est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous / Man Bites Dog (André Bonzel, Rémi Belvaux, Benoît Poelvoorde, Belgium 1992) was a prize winning sensation at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals. It propelled its lead actor Benoît Poelvoorde to stardom in French-speaking countries and has since been credited as an influence for numerous films – most notably Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, USA 1994) (spectrumculture.com). It also qualifies as an ideal guerrilla film: made on a very small budget using any means available (their own homes and streets for sets, friends and family for actors, and torchlights for lighting) and provides a strong criticism of the mainstream media. Through this research report, we will study in more details how Man Bites Dog used the guerrilla style to great success. The first part will focus on the film’s message, making its opposition to media violence clear. The second part will describe the means used by the filmmakers to subvert mainstream filmmaking.

I. Political ideology: criticising violence in the mainstream media

With Ben, its likeable killer-slash-poet-slash-philosopher, and its humoristic twists on gruesome gratuitous murders, Man Bites Dog could be perceived as glorifying extreme violence. However, the film is quite the opposite: a strong critique of a violence that has become mundane in the mainstream media. It is not made to please audiences who find murder enjoyable. It is an assault on them. It doesn’t want to provide pleasure. It wants to make audiences laugh and then shock them at the right time to make them reflect on what they are watching. By satirising realistic media violence, this guerrilla film challenges our general perceptions of what we see on television on a daily basis.

Both French and English titles, although they have different meanings, are very much representative of the film’s intentions: they mirror news headlines that exist only to sell and spread fear in society.

MEANINGS OF THE FILM’S TITLES

 –          French: C’est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous, literally translates as ‘It Happened in Your Neighbourhood’.

–          English: Man Bites Dog. Wikipedia defines the expression as:

The phrase man bites dog describes a phenomenon in journalism in which an unusual, infrequent event is more likely to be reported as news than an ordinary, everyday occurrence (such as Dog bites man). […] The result is that rare events often appear in headlines while common events rarely do, making the rare events seem more common than they are (Wikipedia, Accessed 2011).

The media has been reporting extremely rare and violent events and reporting them as if they were common occurrences. This inundation of violence in the media exists in every medium from films to newspapers and television programs, and has become a form of entertainment as the filmmakers of Man Bites Dog point out:

As André Bonzel put it in an interview in Empire: “in New York there’s a TV programme called Cops and it has a camera crew following cops and going to fights. Shoplifters are arrested in front of the camera and it’s really a horror film. It’s the reverse of our film—you’re with the good guy rather than the bad guy—but now people want it to get stronger. The camera crew are wearing bulletproof jackets and going on more criminal things with more killing because the public wants more.” (www.filmreference.com).

Man Bites Dog pushes the limits of those camera crews that go to no end to entertain audiences. It is shot as a documentary, reflecting all those reality television shows. Reminding us that the violence we see on television is sometimes real: people are sometimes shot at or murdered on Cops (FOX, USA 1989-present); the execution of Saddam Hussein was broadcast live on television for all audiences to see; the documentary series The Serial Killers (Frazer Ashford, USA 1995) presented numerous interviews with renown serial killers describing what they did, how they did it and how it made them feel. By introducing us to these murderers, they do in real life what Man Bites Dog satirises:

A black comedy that’s as dark as night, Man Bites Dog is a worthy successor to A Clockwork Orange as this generation’s most telling and unflinching look at our views on violence. But Man Bites Dog filters that through the lens of the media in a biting damnation of our fascination with televised tragedy — the more real the better (www.filmcritic.com).

By portraying violence in a very extreme, realistic and non-judgemental way, Man Bites Dog makes us face our voyeuristic perversions and question the ethics of what we have become used to witnessing. If it weren’t for our interest, would the media show us such graphic violence? Would reporters have in-depth conversations with serial-killers? Would journalists be allowed to intervene when people are dying under their camera lens? In brief, it makes us wonder if we are not just as complicit of Ben’s murders as the documentary crew is:

Critiques of media voyeurism and audience complicity are, of course, hardly rare in the cinema […], but what is so remarkable about Man Bites Dog is the way in which it uses humour to make its point. Hard though it may be to believe, the film starts out as a kind of blackly absurd Monty Pythonesque comedy and only after a particularly horrendous murder and rape, in which the film crew participate, is the spectator brought up sharply and forced to realise how complicit he or she has become with what has been portrayed up to this point. As Bonzel himself pointed out in Killing for Culture, the whole intention was to “make the audience laugh, then have them think about what they’ve just laughed at. The whole point is to say to the viewer—look, how can you accept this?” (www.filmreference.com).

This use of humour is interesting as it is not used as entertainment but rather as a tool to install unease or even guilt in its audience: if a movie character makes you laugh, can we forgive him anything? Through thousands of Hollywood films, audiences have become conditioned to identify with main characters if their personality is likeable enough. It is this mainstream behaviour – combined with unpleasurable visceral feelings – that Man Bites Dog exploits to great success to convey its ethical message. As Tarantino explains, this is where other, bigger productions have struggled:

Graham Fuller: The Belgian documentary spoof Man Bites Dog […] starts out as a very funny satire about a serial killer, but as it becomes more graphic, it makes you question what you are watching and how you are responding to it.

Quentin Tarantino: Exactly, but the serial-killer guy never stops being funny. Man Bites Dog does exactly what I was trying to do in the original Natural Born Killers (Peary 1998: 610).

This strong visceral effect of Man Bites Dog can be traced to its raw and realistic documentary style:

II. Subverting the documentary genre

Aside from its criticism of media violence, Man Bites Dog can be described as ‘guerrilla’ because of its subversion of mainstream and documentary filmmaking rules. As the filmmakers state in an interview: ‘It’s a film about filmmaking’ (André Bonzel, http://www.youtube.com). It calls attention to its amateur status to show that making a film, no matter what the subject, requires a lot of work and money. Following in the footsteps of This is Spinal Tap (they pay homage to it by repeatedly killing off their soundman) as a pioneer of the mockumentary genre:

The films that belong to this category not only parody or criticise the discourse on factuality held by the documentary genre, but they strive to deconstruct it, to expose its internal assumptions and undermine them. Thus, Man Bites Dog examines the non-interventionist stance of the documentary genre (Lafond 2004: 217).

In subverting the documentary format, more specifically the extremely non-interventionist cinéma vérité style, the film plays with its own self-consciousness and financial limitations to become more realistic than any polished Hollywood film.

1.      A genre where filmmakers can be their own actors:

Throughout Man Bites Dog, the film crew appears in the film, blurring the limits that define both sides of the camera: within the diegesis, they use their real names (even Ben the killer is named after the actor portraying him) and have their own roles as filmmakers (even Ben the killer is the producer). However, they are also actors in a fiction film. From a financial point of view, it is extremely convenient for a group of students to be their own actors. The other characters of the films are friends and family, and many simply play themselves (like Ben’s family). This considerably adds to the films sense of realism.

The black-and-white 16mm film stock used and the hand-held camera are also classic features of the cinéma vérité. According to the filmmakers, this film stock was a thought out choice, not a financial limitation:

Interestingly, André Bonzel, the film’s director of photography, claimed that it was made in black-and-white, not for economic reasons (the developing was in fact much more expensive than for colour film stock), but because it produced a further distanciating effect, while simultaneously being reminiscent of the photographs from newspapers (Lafond 2004: 218).

Frank Lafond also points out in various pieces of work that thefilmmakers use guerrilla editing techniques (long takes, jump cuts) that become – when combined with the film’s subject matter – not only typical of cinéma vérité and French New Wave, but of snuff film.

Although the film employs various editing approaches, […] the main killings are always shown in sequence shots that seem to leave no place for fakery. According to the cinéma vérité movement, the documentary form is able to capture the unfolding of reality, and recording a real murder in continuity (that is, without ever stopping the camera), for the purpose of entertainment, is nothing less than making a snuff movie (Lafond 2004: 218-219).

In effect, the snuff film is presented by Man Bites Dog as the extreme form of the reality-tv shows which haunt our home screens. The voyeuristic position occupied by the spectator in such films admittedly implies safety, but it does not provide freedom from responsibility insofar as the viewer/voyeur enjoys the sight of pain inflicted on other people because he has expressed a desire for it (Lafond 2002: 100).

Lindsay Coleman presents a lengthy analysis of Man Bites Dog’s subversions by comparing it to popular documentaries (see Lyndsay Coleman text at the end).

2.      Calling attention to its limitations to intensify realism

The student film project, being part of the narrative, is constantly referred to and the pieces of filmmaking equipment come in useful as props when they don;t simply appear in shot by ‘mistake’:

–          Microphones and crew member appear in shots even when they are uncalled for by the narrative.

–          Mistakes and random events were used

–          When the image is too dark, a flash light will point to the murder and try to keep up with the movement. In a scene, Ben will even ask the crew to turn off their spotlight as it is getting in the way of him killing a child.

–          The sound recording is played with in a scene where Ben is talking to the camera and cannot be heard. However, we hear footsteps and loud noises as we see the sound person arrive in the background.

Conclusion

Nothing in Man Bites Dog is polished in a Hollywood way, even its sense of humour. This is probably what makes this one-of-a-kind film so effective: through documentary subversion and amateur ‘mistakes’, a group of guerrilla filmmakers managed to create a deeply and disturbingly realistic film to illustrate their opinions of the modern media.

 

Extract of Lindsay Coleman’s ‘Heart of Darkness with a Wink: The Evolution of the killer mockumentary, from “Man Bites Dog” to “The Magician”’

Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities Go to Journal Record 28:3 (Summer 2009) Go to Journal Issue p. 41-46

The film is further successful in three key areas in specific relation to the subversion of the documentary format. In the protagonist’s various musings is an apt parody of the documentary format when observation of a subject tips over into indulgence. It is an aspect frequently present, yet rarely noted. Benoit discusses politics, feminine beauty, the mechanics of a hit, reveals innate racism, and so on. Yet rarely, if ever, does the documentary director reign in his philosophizing, self-deluded subject, as perhaps does Erroll Morris to the talking head of William McNamara in his film The Fog of War (2003). Just as Morris knows that keeping quiet may elicit the shyest of confessions in The Thin Blue Line (1988) he also knows that McNamara’s understatement with regards to his performance in the Viet Nam War will not stand for his documentary audience, and roundly interjects his rambling. Likewise in Hearts and Minds (1974) director Peter Davis knows that the indignation and pomposity found in Walt Rostow’s rationale for America’s involvement in Viet Nam, and with it his long-winded response, is a justifiable editorial choice in the interests of revealing a subject’s character. Yet, this aspect of character being revealed through longeurs is a risky choice within the documentary format. Indeed the musings may, if encouraged, tip into the baroque. A landmark character study in documentary, the Maysle Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975), was in fact transformed into a Broadway play in 2006. The characters of Little Edie and Big Edie are so eccentric that the film may effectively polarize audiences, exposing beyond the accepted durations of narrative purpose, or psychological acuity. The ramblings of these women, the immersion in the monologues to such a stringent subjectivity, are clearly, in my view, parodied in the mindless attention that the fictional director of Man Bites Dog pays to his subject. The second area is through a relationship similarly investigated in Grey Gardens, that of the teasing, codependent relationship between subject and filmmaker. Little Edie flirts as much with the camera as she does the filmmakers, and so too does Benoit endeavor to exhibit an upbeat, aggressively charming persona both to the camera and to the filmmakers. Yet the need for juicy character material on the part of the documentarians is satirized by their being co-opted into his crimes, finally

becoming his accomplice, with a stationary camera a sole witness. Man Bites Dog is a parody which stretches the rigours of verité less than the audience might originally think. The final aspect in which this parody is successful is through a scene which reenacts the famous final moment of another Maysles film Gimme Shelter (1969). As the Maysles show Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger the infamous Altamont murder so too is their footage of Benoit’s unsuccessful assault on a postman. Jagger’s discomfort is reconfigured into Benoit sullen rage at how foolish and inept he looks onscreen. The accusing camera of Shelter’s final frame is inverted as Benoit intimidates the filmmakers for not coming to his aid in the footage. Clearly the parameters of directorial responsibility have become blurred.

References

Books:

Peary, G., 1998. Quentin Tarantino Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Lafond, F., 2004. ‘C’est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous, Man Bites Dog’. In: E. Mathijs, ed. The Cinema of the Low Countries. London: Wallflower Press.

Films and TV Shows:

C’est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous / Man Bites Dog (André Bonzel, Rémi Belvaux, Benoît Poelvoorde, Belgium 1992).

Cops (FOX, USA 1989-present).

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, USA 1994).

The Serial Killers (Frazer Ashford, USA 1995).

Websites:

Wikipedia. Man bites dog (journalism) [online]. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_bites_dog_(journalism) [Accessed: 19 February 2011].

Film Reference. C’Est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous [online]. Available: http://www.filmreference.com/Films-Ca-Chr/C-Est-Arriv-Pr-s-de-Chez-Vous.html#ixzz1ER6R9ySX [Accessed: 19 February 2011].

Null, C., 2002. Man Bites Dog [online]. Available: http://www.filmcritic.com/reviews/1992/man-bites-dog [Accessed: 19 February 2011].

Davis, M., 2009. Rediscover: Man Bites Dog [online]. Available: http://spectrumculture.com/2009/04/rediscover-man-bites-dog.html [Accessed: 03 April 2011].

YouTube. MAN BITES DOG (1992)Interview with the creators of the hilarious and horrifying mock documentary [online]. Available:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_ktmKhaLjU [Accessed: 03 April 2011].

 

Journals:

Lindsay Coleman’s ‘Heart of Darkness with a Wink: The Evolution of the killer mockumentary, from “Man Bites Dog” to “The Magician”’ Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities Go to Journal Record 28:3 (Summer 2009) Go to Journal Issue p. 41-46

Lafond, Frank The Life and Crimes of Ben; or, When a Serial Killer Meets a Film Crew in “Man Bites Dog” Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities Go to Journal Record 22:2 (Winter 2002-Spring 2003) Go to Journal Issue p. 92-102

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