What would you do for a Klondike bar?
The first think I thought as I watched Man Bites Dog (the English title of this film), was whether it qualifies properly as a mockumentary. It's a tricky question. Is a mockumentary necessarily comedic? Was this film actually funny?
The basics: a film crew follows around a serial killer, recording both his numerous murders and the more ordinary side of his life. There is a clear indictment of the crew as a kind of accessory to these crimes, and it's not a far jump to suggest modern society is implicated as well.
It doesn't sound funny, does it? But comedy is a broader concept. The Apartment is a comedy, but one built on situations, not gags, and there are few places to actually laugh. I personally consider Pulp Fiction a comedy as well, one that explores the tension between the absurd and the uncomfortable.
When Benoit, our bloodthirsty subject, goes off on another bigoted rant, or makes a generous gesture in helping the crew with stolen money, or even laments having to kill a child witness, it only serves to highlight moral relativism. Yes, there are other moments, like when members of the crew are shot, or they run into another killer, complete with a film (well, video) crew, which are funny because they are simply absurd. On a whole, though, Man Bites Dog is more serious than funny. Even Schindler's List had its lighthearted moments. This one may qualify as satire, but I would stop short at calling it a comedy, merely comedic in places.
But then I was talking about mockumentaries - aside from rhyming "mock" with "doc", the idea seems to be "fake" rather than "to make fun of". So yes, it's a mocukmentary. Good enough - but know you're not getting one of those pleasant Christopher Guest improv pieces.
I suppose the nice thing about the web is being able to go off on mental tangents like that, and not have to answer to an editor. The fact is that it's much more interesting to compare Man Bites Dog to another recent film phenomenon, that of trying to outshock everything else out there. Modern audiences are so assured of their own sophistication that it's hard to wake anyone out of their comfortable space. There's no such thing as a best approach to doing that, but there's an argument here that this film has the inside track of doing this.
Consider such an extreme film as American Psycho - shocking, yes, but there is a veneer to it. Because of the slick way in which the story is presented, we have the cue that it's not real already. Here, the documentary style reveals Benoit to be a very plausible character - a real killer could justify themselves this way, have these sorts of relationships with family and friends. Horror films also try to shock, and I'd argue that one of the reasons Blair Witch was such a strong earner was an extra dose of faux-reality from the documentary-style approach.
The real strength of the film lies in the depth of Benoit's character, as well as the deeper themes. How do we justify our own actions in the world? Do we create a rationale that explains our own behavior, or do we make our behavior match up with a rational take on the world? There are deep philosophical ideas lurking around the corner. This is a movie that can prompt a lot of talking, especially on topics that aren't even really covered on screen at all. That kind of power is what really makes a film come alive.
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