It’s hard to make a “fly on the wall” documentary about somebody and have it approximate any sort of truth. Say a film crew attempts to document the life of Bob the zipper repairman. Suddenly, 90% of what is interesting about him is that a crew is filming his life. In effect, you have completely changed his life in your effort to record it undisturbed. It’s like trying to capture Bigfoot for observation purposes by blowing him up with a hand grenade. Boy, that’s a horrible analogy, but I think you understand where I’m coming from. Maybe not.
Anyway, since Bob is now the star of a movie, a camera is perpetually pointed at him, giving him opportunities to shape the perception of himself, or wax unpoetic about things that annoy him, or advance some intellectual agenda. Since Bob is a schlub, he’ll probably just talk about something boring, like his collection of Pez dispensers, in a desperate failed attempt to connect with the rest of humanity. On second thought, a Pez dispenser collection sounds pretty cool. I take everything back.
In Man Bites Dog, Ben is the star of a documentary (a faux-documentary, in this case). He uses this as an opportunity to mold the reality of how he wants to be perceived. He tries to charm the audience, wearing his turtleneck sweater and plaid jacket and big, shit eating grin. He tries to come off as a sophisticated connoisseur, namedropping friends connected to the art world and ranting about aesthetics in architecture. He also expounds his social philosophies, not so subtly revealing a streak of racism and misogyny under the umbrella of acceptable snobbery, like a young Republican charming his way into the position of Fraternity Pledgemaster. So, this guy is obviously a total douche, but his character is played for laughs while not straying far from realism. An insufferable douche becomes charming because he is a caricature of insufferable douches, unknowingly sticking it to insufferable douches. Does that make sense? I’m trying my best folks.
Oh, one other thing; he’s a serial killer too. I forgot to mention that. That’s sorta important. Most insufferable douches who also kill people on the side (and there are a lot more out there than you might think) try to keep that shit on the downlow. However, the documentary openly chronicles Ben’s serial killing ways, as he proudly pontificates about his little hobby, explaining how to properly drown a body or the best kind of victim to go after. He’s about efficiency and numbers, trying to kill as many people as possible without getting caught. After all, if the fuzz catches on to him, his hobby goes kaput.
Ben is in control of the documentary, as the filmmakers are pushovers who are glad to be making a movie and are easily sweetalked and charmed by him. Therefore, he molds the chronicling of this killing spree as a fun activity, perhaps implying that, as a “cultured” individual, he should be allowed to get away with this sort of thing. However, the murders aren’t cartoonish. They are actually quite realistic and horrific, but the documentary medium is manipulated in such a way that they are presented as normal behavior. Instead of being a direct sledgehammer critique of documentaries necessarily, and how they can distort immoral behavior, the movie is more like a general satire of media that you can approach different ways and bring different things to. After all, it’s a faux-documentary that could never actually happen; Ben would never get away with killing people and dumping bodies while being followed by a film crew, so it becomes a parable of sorts that is presented as reality.
The movie is also the blackest of black comedies, the snuff This is Spinal Tap, but it also falls under the umbrella of horror, since these brutal murders are presented as normal, everyday activities; the “banality of evil”, if you will. After all, many atrocities are made palatable by presenting them as normal and a product of a cultured intellect, with the savagery and horror of the actual deaths kept out of sight.
Man Bites Dog ironically combines the two, placing the viewer in an uneasy place where murder is both horrific and a banal occurrence in a world lacking in conscience. Without giving things away, this façade of the banality of murder begins to crack after a certain point, but not because Ben develops a conscience. No, Ben (and the crew) don’t like it when they get dragged down into the muck of violence themselves. After all, a sociopath doesn’t see the harm their actions cause on others, but damn well notice when they themselves are harmed.
Going back to the idea that it is hard to make an “objective” documentary about an individual, not only does the film crew indirectly assist Ben in his killing spree (for example, they provide a spotlight to assist Ben when he’s chasing a boy through the woods), but they eventually become directly involved in the murders. It’s hard to be impartial about evil and stand outside it and record it. It’s sort of like trying to film a grizzly bear eating an innocent little kitty cat. If you don’t do something to save the cat, and instead keep rolling film, hoping to get some awesome footage you can profit from, you are just some asshole that helped snuff out a cat. Not just that, but maybe the bear decides a small cat isn’t a nourishing lunch and comes after you instead.
P.S. This is post #2 in the Lazy Baker Halloween Horror Countdown! Nine more to go bitches!