Thoughts On: Man Bites Dog
A documentary teams follows a (seemingly level-headed) psychopathic serial killer.
A quick note before we start, I won’t be looking at the intricacies of this film within its narrative and message, but instead its technical facade. In other words, with posts like those on Cinderella or Requiem For A Dream, I pull apart the film as written, with add-ons from direction and visual implimence. With Man Bites Dog, I want to take a top-down approach instead of a bottom-up one. So, this film is encapsulated by the idea of ‘if not… why not?’. In other words, anything goes. And in the simplest words that’s what this film is about. To best understand it you merely have to look at the direction. This is by far the best found footage ever made. The Blair Witch Project is all right. It founded the genre as a commercial project. Cannibal Holocausts is seen as the grandfather of it all, and the Paranormal Activity series the bane and possible death of the genre. (Seriously, where did the big found footage movies go?). But, in truth, this isn’t a found footage movie. I say this in a self-conceited and pretentious way. I say this in the same was I say The Shining isn’t a horror film. To lump The Shining and Man Bites Dog into a genre amassed primarily of mediocre-at-best movies is nonsensical. Moreover, no one really sees these films as horrors or found footage movies. They are seen first and foremost as films. Nothing more. Ok, but didn’t I just say this is the best found footage movie? Yes, and this is where I contradict myself (if we’re counting) for the third time over. As a found footage movie, Man Bites Dog can be recognised as an interesting look at both horror and comedy. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that Man Bites Dog tops another list. Move over Shaun Of The Dead in other words.
Anyways, let’s get straight into it. What makes this film both horrifying and hilarious is it’s tone deaf, stone faced, dark comedy. It achieves this with the simple juxtaposition of normal with abnormal as to reveal a strange idea of truth. To understand this best, click on the GIF…
What Louis C.K. demonstrates here is the crux of this film. Whilst Louis calls it ‘Of course… but maybe’ I call it ‘if not… why not’. Again, it’s simply an idea of anything goes. To understand how this fuels comedy, let’s zoom in on Louis’ bit. An example he gives is ‘of course children with nut allergies should be protected’. This is the norm, this is the rational and accepted paradigm of thinking. We should protect those who need our help. But, then, in comes the… ‘but maybe… we could close our eyes for a year and be done with the problem’ (paraphrased).This is the abnormal thought process. But, what makes you laugh here is the pragmatic, non-ideological sense in not giving a fuck for a while so the problem at hand (kids with nut allergies) is easily solved – it (they) just go away. But, no, no, no… of course not. We have to protect the little children. This is a fundamental example of what Man Bites Dog does. We can’t apply the ‘of course… but maybe’ to the film however, because Louis deals with ideas not actions. Man Bites Dog deals with actions and so we have to bring in the ‘if not… why not’. The key gag that the film uses in this respect is of murder. Ben, our serial killer, can kill people and get away with it. If there’s not going to be any consequences for him, only benefits (money) why shouldn’t he do it? This is also where horror steps in. You could make all the moral arguments against Ben, but to him they just don’t amount to a reason not to kill in the way he does. This is kind of why I love Ben. He’s the perfect anti-hero. One of the greatest ever put to screen. This is because all heroes have their weaknesses. Superman has his mother and Lois Lane, Ferris only has the day off, Luke’s a snivelling kid and Indiana can’t leave his hat behind. Ben’s only weakness is that he’s mortal. He has no real moral soft-spot. **SPOILER**. You could argue here that his weakness is his parents and friends, but, had the film not ended how and when it did, I think it’s fair to say he would have bounced back.** SPOILER OVER**. The truth is, right now we’re dealing with power (im)balances – and this where horror pushes through the seams of comedy.
The difference between Louis’ comedy and the dark comedy of Man Bites Dog is that GIF up top. Louis’ joke is cyclic. He fights with himself, going round in circles, reaffirming the ‘of course not’. Man Bites Dog doesn’t do this, it pushes and pushes until it’s over. The reason why C.K doesn’t do this is because of the aforementioned power balances. Comedy is as much about pushing as it is pulling. Just as Louis has the ‘of course’ he’s also self-deprecating often making himself out, as well as our universal accepted norms out, as a bit nuts. By doing this he essentially takes power away from his subject, for instance, the kid with the nut allergy, but then gives that power to the audience. This allows them to laugh with each other without feeling that they are laughing at someone – when they kind of are. Man Bites Dog does this indirectly with Ben being seemingly smart or rational. What this does is fool us into believing he isn’t taking as much power from the people he kills by killing them as it’s ‘just business’. For the same reason, we can all love a good gangster film. But, in the end there are power imbalances in the comedy of Man Bites Dog – but they aren’t really glaring or completely unfunny. So, let’s bring this full circle. Man Bites Dog features an ‘if not… why not’. This means Ben can kill if he wants and so does. With us participating in the forward moving, non-cyclic, comedic rationale, he accumulates power, creating an imbalance between himself and his subjects (victims). All the while, we sit and watch. We can do this with a smile or laugh because the power imbalance set up is founded on one crucial thing: a smidgen of truth. We all know that a professional fighter would wipe the floor with our brains if we stepped into the ring with them (if you happen to be a professional fighter, you get my point). In the same respect, we all know Ben can literally wipe the floor with the brains of his victims – and practically does. It’s in this that we can see a core paradigm, not only of this film, but of the human condition:
If not… why not… fuck it.
That line has nothing to do with rape. What we have here is the thought process behind the audiences both watching the film and listening to Louis’ comedy. They get the ‘of course…’ and then the ‘but maybe…’ which triggers a ‘why not’, with the laugh being their ‘fuck it’ – meaning they don’t care about the kid with the allergy that much. Translate this to the film, we get the ‘if not’ and then the ‘why not’ of Ben killing, and then can sit complacently because… ‘fuck it’. You don’t care that much. Now, I know I may be talking complete shit to some people right now (if they’re still reading). You may say you don’t find this film or Louis C.K entertaining, let alone funny. To that person I say, fine. But, I bet there’s something like the 2:30 point in Louis’ bit about you. What I’m talking here about is the ‘of course slavery…’ with the audience then backing off. Louis response to this is in short ‘but you laughed at the dead allergy kid’. And I believe everyone has this weakness. I believe everyone has something they can laugh at, something they can see the ‘if not’, the ‘why not’ to, and then say ‘fuck it’ and laugh. So, what this paradigm within Man Bites Dog reveals is simply the way in which we are all a little fucked up. And this is why it’s a found footage movie. We essentially are the documentary crew that goes along with it, constantly able to say ‘fuck it’ because… entertainment, you’re laughing, having fun.
It’s now then that we can turn to the debate that this film presents. In doing this, I want to bring up a huge factor of everything discussed thus far. We are watching a film. We use movies, we use comedy, books, plays, music, art to address anything and everything. My question to you is: is this right? More importantly: does this need to be controlled? Now, you’ve probably connected the dots here and realised we’re talking about political correctness. The easy answer against PC is the simple avocation of free speech. This means that to most people, there is no debate on the matter of political correctness. You’re either against it because ‘I want to say what I want and you can’t stop me’. Or, you’re for it because ‘don’t be a dick, you are needlessly insulting people’. I could then go back on fourth on this constant and quite heated topic. But, the truth here is of a fundamental argument responsibility and morality. This is very easy to break down, but at the same time very easy to get lost in. On one side there is the question of: do we have to take care of your feelings? This is the responsibility side of things. It fundamentally asks a very common question of: is it my fault or your fault that you’ve been offended? Now, you could jump into a plethora of more complex problems here. But, don’t. Stay with me on the fundamental level for just a minute. Whilst you have this question at hand, turn to the idea of morality. There’s an easy question and a hard question to ask yourself here (the first being the easier one). The first: do you give a fuck? And the second is: what are you going to do about that? So, let’s look at all four questions that close down on what I believe is a fundamental way of assessing this problem:
Is it my fault that you’ve been offended?
Do we (I or you personally) have to take care of your (someone else’s) feelings?
Do I give a fuck?
What are we (I or you personally) going to do about that?
It’s in asking these simple questions that you come to terms with the core issue at hand. You’re not just asking of someone’s moral compass, of there ability to empathise, of the validity of that need in someone else, but, fundamentally, you are asking them to do something about themselves. To understand what I mean here, it’s best to return to this film. The direction of this film implies a realist, found footage motif. This then suggests that we are supposed to believe that someone really could drop all moral direction to see someone be killed for the sake of entertainment. If you then accept that the situation at hand is hyperbolic (as that is what comedy at large is – exaggeration) you can also see that the focus comes straight to you. The question given by the direction is quite simply: how are you watching this? This has been asked many times, even in films by directors seeing horror movie fanatics as sick. The truth of this and the core of the larger issue of political correctness is then clearly about fantasy and imagination. Again, we come back to the idea that we are watching a film. This is what the question behind political correctness is getting at – how we perceive ourselves in respect to imagination (our inner feelings). But once you’ve asked about your own empathy, the ‘Is it my fault that you’ve been offended?’ and then ‘Do we have to take care of your feelings?’ all you have really asked yourself is if not… why not. If I can offend you, why shouldn’t I? And what comes next… Do I give a fuck? Not only is this the paradigm of comedy, of the movie, but it’s the paradigm of the debate at hand. This all implies that if you laugh at the film or at Louis’ joke, you don’t much care for political correctness. Now, further this with the idea that everyone laughs at jokes, everyone overlooks some evil so they can be benefited. And in this day and age that’s near impossible. By high moral standard, it’s likely that the technology you use was created by someone in a situation that would horrify you. Moreover, you might eat meat or eggs, honey or (drink) milk. All of which are the product of animal exploitation. Do you care? Probably not. What this then reveals is, again, we are a little fucked up by our own ideological standards. What’s much more poignant and is the cap on the argument at hand is then the main title of this essay:
I Am Cinema
This is my favourite thing about all arguments, about anything to do with human communication. This is the fundamental an undeniable truth of almost all arguments. It all comes down to the self. We are selfish beings. This is not a bad thing, but, nonetheless, it is the truth. We can only, and quite literally, think about ourselves. We live lives guided by an idea of perception. Perception is the veil you have to view this strange thing called reality. We all live in realities of our own. Yes, we all may put our hand in water and say ‘it’s wet’, but the degree of which it is hot or cold, if we like the smell, if we would like to jump in it… well, in asking those questions you begin to split an audience. The same can be said for the issue at hand – political correctness. You can ask: should you hurt peoples feelings? After this you can then ask of rape jokes, terrorist jokes, if there’s an etiquette of timing of developing an audience. In doing this, you split the audience. But, what has been ignored in both cases? The fundamentals. What is water? Well, it’s hydrogen and oxygen. Why is it then wet? It isn’t. Wet is our description for how water feels. Where does the argument now go? I don’t know either, it’s all become cyclic. Apply this to political correctness. What is PC? As discussed, it’s a question of self, of our own entertainment. Why do we need to be entertained, what is a self? Umm…
Now, with such a strange concept like the self (in this respect PC), one that drives into the very roots of humanity, what can you do? And we’re coming back to the forth question discussed a few paragraphs back here. Well, let’s break it down. What we have on one side are people who don’t laugh at this movie. On the other side, people who do laugh or are entertained. We have people that like to experience (through the guise of fantasy and cinema) other people’s pain because… fuck them, I can’t feel their pain. And on the reverse we have people who don’t like to experience (even through the guise of fantasy, of cinema) other people’s pain. To stop this disjuncture the fix of today seems to be take away the source of debate, take away the words that are possibly offensive, the movies, games, characters. You have a binary solution to a binary problem. This is political correctness. You have a yes or no answer and then a yes or no response. But, the truth of this is that you can’t take away the problem. You can’t enforce political correctness thoroughly. It’s simply impossible. This brings us to another binary solution. You, instead of taking away the source of debate, take away one side of the debate. You could, in the most cost-effective way, kill all the people who like to laugh, who have a different view of humanity to you. This would solve all the world’s problems. Now, I’m not going to go any further in this debate because I don’t want to become a GIF. To then say ‘do you want to apply this idea to our world?’ I’m simply going to end up saying…
What this all comes to is a cycle, it comes back to the very concept of a debate itself. Just like amongst larger social groups there is conflict, there is also conflict within each and every human being alive. We live in our own worlds, our own realities, our own cinemas if you’ll have it. And in this unique perspective we hold a bias toward pragmatism, toward questioning, toward conflict essentially. Whilst we like to ignore somethings, but focus on others, we also like to say we’re one thing, but act another way. We are born contradictions. Why do you think no one thinks they’re perfect? It all comes down to the truth that we’re all, to a certain degree, and in the hearts of our hearts a little fucked up. And what can you do about that? Well, if you can’t change yourself, why not forget it? You know what… fuck it. And that’s humans in a nutshell. We are imperfect, unchanging, cyclic, evil, but, at the same time still trying, still evolving, moving forward, progressing… and hopefully laughing along the way.
And that’s the apparent point in life, of living, that’s the deal we’ve ultimately been given. You could call it God, you could call it physics, the great unknown, fate, destiny, genetics, whatever. But, something happened, something like an… if not… why not… fuck it. And here we are. We’re imperfect, as is the universe, but to who’s standards? Our own. The contradiction has always been within us. And that… well… that’s pretty funny to me.
So, the end point. In saying we are contradictions, I’m saying that I don’t think binary solutions like political correctness are anything but a way of ensuring people remain entertained, that they remain in conflict, they remain thinking, debating, questioning morality, entertainment, self and ideology. Well, all until it’s all over…
Requiem For A Dream – Sara
Central Intelligence – Comedy And The Hyperbole
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