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Aiming for Laughs : 'Man Bites Dog' Stalks a Killer as Viewers Chortle

April 06, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tracking the word of mouth on "Man Bites Dog" is going to be interesting: It's a comedy--albeit seriously black and seriously intended--that almost no one in his or her right mind will admit to laughing at.

The Belgian film (which opened a two-week run Friday at the Nuart) is a mock-documentary following the exploits of a charming, if culturally boorish, serial killer whose murders take place mostly on-screen. The movie's most daring satirical conceit kicks in when the fictional documentary crew crosses the line from the mere complicity of filming the gruesome murders to actual participation in them as the cameras roll.

And while the movie's beware-the-media message may be politically correct, its grotesque methodology isn't, so don't expect blurbs from hordes of critics bragging about how they rolled in the aisles . . . even if they did.

"Some people feel really guilty" about their reactions, acknowledged one of the film's three writer-producers, Andre Bonzel. "At the Cannes Film Festival, there was a TV crew getting the reaction of people at the exits after the screening, asking 'So, did you like the film? Did you laugh?' And there had been a lot of good reaction and laughter during the screening, but people wouldn't tell. They felt guilty, because toward the end of the film when it's getting worse, it really makes you think about what you've been watching."

Bonzel owns up to no such guilt when asked if he feels at all queasy about having made a film that--initially, anyway--allows audiences nervous but hearty laughs in the cinematic presence of graphic random slaughter.

"There is nothing to feel guilty about. It's like you get the audience laughing and afterward you hit it on the head. And to hit it on the head, you have to catch it first, and we catch it with laughter."

Ironically, given such brutal comedic imagery, Bonzel--the only one of the three filmmakers who speaks English--comes off in conversation as both extremely gentle and almost humorless, so pacifistic and serious are his intentions with "Man Bites Dog." Anyway, he insists the picture isn't really even a satire about violence per se.

"It's more on the media and on filmmaking," he said. "At the beginning, we were almost thinking we could have made the same film about a different character--instead of a killer, make a fake documentary about door-to-door salesmen, without violence. Because it's not the killer himself who is important, it's the relationship between the killer and the camera crew who are making the film."

In that regard, "Man Bites Dog"--in which the actual crew members appear as the fictional crew members, using their real first names--probably bears the greatest resemblance to Albert Brooks' 1979 comedy "Real Life." In a spoof loosely based on the early-'70s PBS reality series "An American Family," the director played an interloping documentary filmmaker named Albert Brooks.

This new picture plays like a straight-faced satire of '90s American "reality" television, even though the Belgian filmmakers didn't actually get to see shows like "Cops" until they came here to show their feature at the New York Film Festival last year and at Sundance this winter. The film's press kit--as if to give the picture a prophetic tone--now comes equipped with a copy of a news story about the well-publicized Florida incident in January in which a TV crew filmed a man killing his ex-wife at their daughter's grave site.

Other critical correlations besides "Real Life" have ranged from "This Is Spinal Tap" to "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"--though Bonzel finds the latter comparison especially onerous, insisting that "Man Bites Dog" is chock-full of implicit commentary on the atrocities it portrays, whereas "Henry" perversely went out of its way to avoid belying any kind of directorial viewpoint.

"That disturbed me a lot on that film," Bonzel said, "and I don't like when people are making similarities between them, because our film has a strong point of view. . . . Although it was well-done cinematographically speaking and there were some very good directing ideas, 'Henry' was an objective thing--which is easy: 'Oh, I'll just show it the way it happens'--and that's like not getting involved in a certain way."

Bonzel doesn't believe in the myth of non-subjective filmmaking, fictional or fact-based, which is much of what the crude comedy in "Man Bites Dog" is about.

"In fact there is no objectivity," he claims. "As soon as you start to shoot something, you're gonna frame it a certain way, you're gonna shoot a certain amount of footage, and then if you're making a 20-minute documentary and you have six hours of footage, you may edit it a certain way. Even by asking (subjects of news reports) questions, you orientate the answer. It's easy to manipulate."

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