Reality fiction

Dec 8, 1999 at 12:00 am

Nothing escapes the tyranny of the spectacle. Why panic? The curtains part; the lights grow dim and the magic begins as we, refugees from a distant reality, take comfort in familiar imitations of life.

That's what we crave, isn't it? A touch of realism, a crumb of truth, a memory. Deep down inside, the innocent and the sophisticated lust after the same thing: beautiful fictions with believable plots, everyday situations with impossible endings, fairy tales with flawed characters, celluloid people we can identify with. That's what makes things so difficult.

We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want a helping of history with a side dish of histrionics. We want "the real thing" with sugar on top. We don't know what we want. The world is a film and we its spectators.

But what if a larger audience is watching our every move? What if our reality is nothing but a set in someone else's movie? What if we live inside a simulation whose end — announced by devils, angels and the four horsemen of the apocalypse — is near? Then we turn to the only genre that can arrest the fear: the documentary.

Problematic in nature (its attempts to represent reality end, inevitably, in a mixture of fact and fiction) the documentary is a reassuring genre. Its mutations — the docudrama, the mockumentary, the autobiographical essay — open new fields of cinematic possibility. Before the avid eye of the camera real people take the time to solve fictional dilemmas (The Tango Lesson); deconstruct plays (Looking For Richard, Vanya on 42nd Street); travel to the interior of an idea (Mindwalk); or study celebrity (Thirty-two Short films about Glenn Gould, Being John Malkovich).

Contagious in its devotion to reality, the documentary "infects" every genre it comes in contact with. Under its spell, vampire films turn into grave meditations on genocide (The Addiction); concepts of magnitude benefit from utterly subjective treatments (Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, White and Red); and horror movies and political thrillers share the same monsters.

Everything is allowed inside the flexible matrix of the documentary, and — tired of conventions of form and content — filmmakers subvert reality from the inside. In dark screening rooms or noisy theaters, with or without method and scope, we too celebrate this exalted freedom of expression. We love the color codes, the chaotic movement of the camera, the unscripted dialogue — that mixture of lies, incompleteness and uncertainty that spells "real life." But narrated, history turns into spectacle and violence into ritual.

Take a look at Benoit, the principal player in Man Bites Dog. He's a serial killer who's hired a camera crew to document his crimes. "I begin every month with a postman," he says and winks at the audience. He talks about economy and architecture, urban planning and classical music. He has friends, a past, a family. He makes no waves — that's how he stays alive. Killing is a job, a way to make money and finance the film. After a while, the crew starts helping out: They need more footage. They hold the victims down, chase the children, rape the women.

Until the end, Man Bites Dog looks like the demented televised biography of a serial killer, or an episode of "City Confidential," "American Justice" or any of the series that have replaced the 10 o'clock mystery movie on A&E. "True" crime stories are in; the antics of Monsieur Poirot or Mr. Sherlock Holmes are out. Realism above all, that's what we covet.

But Man Bites Dog is not a true story. Its disturbing, realistic look is a sham. The moral? If the century goes out with a bang, ladies and gentlemen, rest assured, that bang will end up on the sound track of a docu(psycho)drama.