WITH the growth of home video and cable television, moving images now penetrate our lives even more potently than when theatrical films and network TV led the field. Some observers point to this with approval, hailing the development of a visually literate society with perceptual skills needed for prosperity in the computer age.
But others see danger, and some of the most powerful warnings are coming from artists who themselves use moving images as their primary medium. Two films shown at the recent New York Film Festival exemplify this trend. The icy "Benny's Video" comes from Austrian director Michael Haneke, while the volcanic "Man Bites Dog" comes from a trio of Belgian filmmakers - Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde - who also play the leading roles.
The main character of `Benny's Video' is a teenage boy so fixated on video that the "view" from his bedroom is provided by a camera stuck out the window. He meets a girl with similar tastes at a video store, brings her to his family's apartment, and regales her with his favorite cassette, a tape showing an animal being slaughtered.
Since he evidently believes that life itself is as distant and unreal as the images that flicker across his TV monitor, there's a sad logic at work when he heedlessly inflicts a grave injury on the girl, then seems genuinely surprised that she falls to the floor in pain. The rest of the film concerns a murder, a coverup involving Benny's parents, and a subplot about the lust for easy wealth.
Mr. Haneke told me recently that "Benny's Video" carries a deliberate political message - focused on Benny's parents when they refuse to acknowledge their son's guilt, just as many German-speaking Europeans once failed to confront the crimes of their Nazi leaders. The film's most obvious message concerns Benny's fixation on video, however, and his failure to recognize the distinction between social reality and self-absorbed illusion.
Haneke's view of this problem is a complex one, implicating not just Benny and his parents - who treat even a journey to a distant land as merely another spectacle to be passively absorbed - but the entire plasticized, image-drunk culture that surrounds them. The movie further suggests that this culture did not spring out of nowhere, but is itself the logical outcome of a human fascination with images that dates back to Egyptian hieroglyphics and beyond.
The power of pictures is mighty, according to "Benny's Video," and must be watched with special care as images continue to proliferate in the modern world. It's a chilling message worth pondering.
`Man Bites Dog' is a fiction film, but it takes the form of a cinema-verite documentary being made by two men named Remy and Andre, who pride themselves on capturing raw reality with their camera. The subject of their film is Ben, a serial killer (and bad poet) who regularly commits the most appalling crimes imaginable.
How could even a dimly responsible person make a cinematic "report" on such a monster and his atrocities, instead of turning him in to the police at the first opportunity? That's the scathing question at the heart of "Man Bites Dog," which signals its disdain with media "objectivity" in every way possible.
Slated for commercial release later this year, this Belgian production is a reminder that fiction-film violence isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but can be valuable as a cautionary device if placed in a responsible context. In a recent conversation, two of the film's makers told me they designed it to "seduce" the audience into liking Ben despite his evil deeds - and then to turn that affection into loathing in the last 30 minutes, as the "hero" and his "objective" companions go beyond even Holly wood's tolerance for unconscionable behavior.
"Man Bites Dog" is horrifyingly violent (as well as explosively funny, in a pitch-black sort of way) and should only be seen by the strong of mind and stomach. But every frame of the movie has a clear moral purpose behind it: to vilify and condemn the casual, condoning attitude that the media so often take toward violence in real life and mass-market entertainment.
These films have not been rated. `Benny's Video' and `Man Bites Dog' both contain extremely chilling and disturbing scenes of violence in keeping with their cautionary messages about the deadening effect of today's video culture, and `Man Bites Dog' contains blunt talk about sex.