This happens all the time. You’re driving in your car listening to the radio when you hear about some terrifying fate that‘s befallen one of your fellow man and you find that you have no emotional reaction whatsoever. The newswoman can be describing just about anything, so long as it’s not too close to your own backyard or doesn’t raise your taxes, anything at all, like bombs ripping apart the brown bodies of men, women, and children in some vaguely understood continent, like a vicious rape in some city you’ve never been to, like the systematic murder of an entire race of people in a country whose name will soon escape you, any tragedy at all that exemplifies what monsters we all really are, and you find that the most shocking thing of all, the only thing you react to, as you sip your second cup of coffee on the way to the local supermarket, is that you’re wholly unaffected on any level. You panic. Not because of the terrors the radio voice is painting onto your gray matter, but because you realize that something’s changed, something in you has died. You attempt to prop yourself up, you try to convince yourself that you do care, that you’re deeply moved and outraged. You even say out loud to the no one riding with you in the car, “Jesus, that’s fucking terrible, just terrible and awful” in order to prove that you’re an upstanding, responsible, empathetic citizen… but, alas, wearing a crown won’t make you a king. You’re an impostor, a hollow-eyed, impostor whose soul is covered with three or four thick layers of ugly callous and scar tissue ashamed that you’ve expended more emotional energy on yourself, on trying to feels something than actually feeling it.
Okay. Wait. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. It happens to me. I admit it. All the time. And maybe I just said it was you because it’s too difficult for me to accept, too uncomfortable to look squarely in the eye, and I’m trying to disconnect myself from it, the same way that I try to disconnect from anything painful and real and uncomfortable. How could this have happened? I contribute a fair share every time this very radio station has a pledge drive, and for the explicit reason that they can continue to tell me these tales of horror in a way that’s not driven by corporate, bottom-line sensationalism. Oh no, I don’t go in for trash media gossip, tabloid frenzy, celebrity sensationalism because I, of all people, a supposedly self-aware, critically thinking member of society, fully understand that that sort of sensationalist media consumption just leads to… well, Jesus… oh Christ, it leads to desensitization and emotional detachment.
This is the major them underpinning the 1992 film MAN BITES DOG, a Belgian mockumentary chronicling the making of a documentary about a gregarious serial killer named Benoit. The film, made by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, who also star in the film as the documentary’s filmmakers and serial killer respectively, uses an absurdist take on media desensitization as its given pretext, employing the archetypal serial killer’s emotional apathy as an analog for our own media-induced zombification. The documentarians follow around their killer in the same manner as another documentary might follow around a birdwatcher or a salesman. Ben, in fact, discusses the finer points of his murderous occupation in much the same way as those others might discuss the birds they watch or the sales they close. He talks about weighing down a body so it sinks, for instance, in a way that’s purely a matter of physics and, as a result, it’s hilarious. In fact, despite this film making its appearance on our annual Halloween special episode, this is first and foremost a comedy.
In similar gestures of humor of the darkest sort, for instance, Ben inspects the schlong of one of his black victims as a matter of curiosity and he kills an elderly woman by heart-attack-inducing scream as a way to vary his method, “to keep things fresh,” as he says. He kills so many and so often, in fact, that he forgets about a taxi driver he’s murdered, and bristles at the menial tasks of his profession, such as dumping bodies into rivers.
In a clever allegorical indictment of the media as an integral part of the exploitative process, the filmmakers, who are dispassionate observers at first, soon become participants and accomplices to the killer’s crimes. First, they decline the killer’s invitation to dinner, but in the next scene they’re drinking wine and eating seafood with him and in fact agree to have him fund their project. Before long, they’re helping to get rid of the bodies, aiding in the act of murder, and in the climactic scene, even worse than that, committing the act of rape as if they were frolicking across a summer lawn.
If the film can be faulted for hitting those same one or two notes of social criticism over and over again, its merits far outweigh its short-comings and it’s a lot of fun to watch from start to finish. Most striking, perhaps, is the performance of Benoît Poelvoorde as the killer. He plays the part with an endearing jocularity so at odds with his gruesome actions that it’s a constant source of tension and fascination. Reminiscent of the clownish colorings of Roberto Begnini, he’s irresistibly watchable, joyously infectious and, at least on the surface, his performance is what holds the film together. How he hasn’t gone on to serious success as a screen actor is baffling.
The brain smacking sort of juxtaposition of Ben’s amiability with his savagery carries through to the constructions of the film as well and I think it’s here, in the filmmaker’s instinct for effective juxtaposition where the genius of the film lies. Time and time again a seemingly innocuous happening or bit of dialog is abutted to a scene of wipe-that-grin-off-your-face brutality. There are many instances of it, but I’m thinking specifically of the sequence where Ben plays with pop-gun wielding children in the street that cuts directly to a montage of cold-blooded gun slayings. It’s one of the most jarring things I’ve ever seen on film.
MAN BITES DOG was more or less a student film and went on to win special awards at Cannes, proving indeed that, as the fellah says, necessity is the mother of invention. In order to endow their work with value in the absence of funding, celebrity, and effects, the filmmakers mined for something that a big picture studio system not only wouldn’t provide, but couldn’t. That is, brazen originality– for brazen originality is too risky an investment for Hollywood. As a result, they’ve produced something like a found footage film that predated the frenzy by more years than seems possible.
The term ‘Man Bites Dog’ is a journalistic aphorism referring to news media sensationalism and the disproportionate coverage of the freak occurrence. As in, if a dog bites a man no one cares, but if a man bites a dog, well, hell, that’s big headlines. It’s the simple mechanics of attention-grabbing exploitation, the grievous supply and demand dynamics that makes commodity of cold-blooded killers. But the funny thing is the term dates back to something like the late 1800s, way before anyone even dreamed of a television, let alone our endless river of social media diarrhea. So this parasitic relationship we have with our streams of information is nothing new. It was a thing back when we received our news by, what? pony or carrier pigeon once or twice a month? and it was a thing when Rodney King was beaten in the street the year that this film was being made, and you can bet your precious iPhone’s sweet ass that it’s still a thing today, in a time where we can erase an act of violent imperialism from our consciousnesses with nothing more than an inch of thumb swiping across a tiny screen. We live in a day where our constant connection to media-borne information has bred the disease of capital D detachment, the same sort of capital D detachment that we associate with a serial killer’s absence of empathy, just like Ben’s in the film.
And let’s be clear about it lest we’re under any illusions, just as the killer and the filmmakers of the documentary film are active participants in the exploitation, so are we, the viewers; we, whose unquenchable blood thirst has ultimately reduced the news to vaudevillian bits of comic-tragedy to digest and shit out or scroll past or to express feigned outrage about on our facebook pages.
In the cold light of mass media history, MAN BITES DOG has proven itself to be more than just a criticism of late twentieth-century media inundation; it’s a prophecy of perpetual fucking doom.
It’s the end of the world as we know it. But, hell, isn’t that always the case?
Joseph Christiana, October 2014