On Benny’s Video: a failed attempt at commentary on a film & our society

The media has replaced your reality with Folger’s crystals. Let’s see if you notice.

I recently viewed the film Benny’s Video, a 1992 film described by the all-knowing Wikipedia as a “horror of personality” film. In discussing it with friends I’ve drawn connections with the film Requiem for a Dream: this isn’t a film you watch for vicarious thrills or to relax and be comfortable. Watching Requiem for a Dream is as comfortable as laying down on a bed of rusty nails: if you let yourself get too comfortable you get stabbed and it hurts. Benny’s Video is much the same but where Requiem discusses the dehumanizing addictions of modern society, Benny’s discusses the idea of lack of grounding in reality that comes from viewing violence on films.

The 30 second summary of the film is that Benny is an upper middle class teenager obsessed with film and video. He films his life and his family’s life constantly and rents violent films from the local video store. When his family has a pig killed for food, he videotapes the death of the pig and eventually, while watching the film with a girl, they play with the gun used to kill the pig. It doesn’t end well. Hijinks ensue.

Hijinks is the wrong word. This isn’t a murder is funny movie and it isn’t a thriller about trying to hide the body. I’ve described the film to a few people who think it’s going to be a “dawn of a serial killer” film but it isn’t even that. Benny wrestles with guilt. It’s never clear if he wanted to hurt the girl or if it was just an accident. In the moment after the girl is first shot, even Benny seems surprised.

For some reason I was constantly thinking of the violence in a show like Dr. Who, where the special effects are weak and the violence often involves a lot of running. Especially in the Eccleston and Tenant years, the Doctor is portrayed as a creature of immense guilt, at times callous but always aware of the lives he hurts. Benny watches movies constantly during the first part of film and is exposed to cartoon violence, serious violence, dramatic violence, and none of it really touches him. In the first days after the murder, he barely seems process what has happened. It isn’t until he watches his film of it that things start coming together for him.

The director, Michael Haneke, describes in an interview how much safer film is than reality. Haneke says we “allow feelings more when faced with an image but not when facing a person because it’s more dangerous. The image can’t react anymore. the images is finished. That’s why you can be relaxed and look at it.” In the case of Benny’s Video, Benny only process himself when he watches himself through a video screen. The moments of the film that he doesn’t film vanish from his life, forgotten, even a fairly major argument with a friend disappears by the end of the movie.

In an era where so much of our dialogue is public and online with blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc, I wonder if this isn’t more relevant: the arguments I’ve seen on Facebook seem so much more real now that they sit there on your screen and can be revisited years later. An evening of questionable decision-making fifteen years ago would leave memories, now the photos are more spread than ever and the damage reaped can be so much more serious.

Or… is it? I often argue that the most powerful tool in our repertoire of psychological healing skills is “self acceptance” and maybe these things allow us to see ourselves more clearly- a better mirror than hazy memory. A person with passive aggressive tendencies can look back at their Facebook statuses and see the record of their passive aggression, an alcoholic has the records to help them face the consistency of their drinking problems.

The director discusses the control that possessing film and video records gives us over our pass in ways that describe it as a bad thing, describing filming vacations as “perverse” and discussing feeling of control people gain by having videos and photographs of events. “If I have an image,” he says, describing the prevailing mindset, “I own it.” He talks about being able to rewind and undo moments and describes this as a disorienting, damaging thing. Partially, I agree.

After all, the public record of videos and photos in media (both social media and professional media) has given us a sense of distance from our actions and for some people, that distance results in a lack of conscience. For others, it results in serious consequences when they fail to account for what happens when others see what used to be private or, at least, unrecorded. I’m reminded of some commentary concerning the recent Miss Teen Delaware Melissa King and her supposed “sex tape.” The existence of the film ruined her career as a Miss Teen, yet some people have articulated that the resulting media furor may be “the best thing to happen to her career.”

Shared media concerning our flaws has ruined so many lives and careers from politicians sending pictures to young girls over twitter to teenagers hazing fellow students by photoshopping images to damage their reputation. If we have the image, we own it; even if it never actually happened.

But there is a counterthought I have as well: these flaws, these moments of failure and weakness where we make mistakes and due stupid things caught on record in some ways are a gift. They allow us to revisit those moments and learn to accept ourselves, even the parts of our selves that may embarrass us in front of others.

In focusing on blaming the media of video or photography for making us disoriented, we miss a key role these media can play in our lives by reminding us of our pasts. In essence, sometimes the media can be a messenger, revealing a truth that we were afraid to face about ourselves. In these cases, though, it seems we blame the media instead of the root causes.

I’m reminded of the recent Seth McFarlane Oscar hosting debacle where McFarlane received much criticism for pointing out the sexuality and gender expectations that happen in Hollywood. I won’t say he is blameless, but I will say the pressure for nudity and the disrespect of women/minorities in Hollywood existed long before comedians joked about it. In a sense, it seems like we as a society blame the “truth teller” instead of the underlying factors.

In the film Benny’s Video, Benny is certainly desensitized to violence by his relationship with it on film, but he also uses film to come to grips with his actions and their consequences in a very real situation. He doesn’t want to forget what he did but he also doesn’t revel in it and as his parents try to make it disappear and avoid all mention of it, he takes ownership of his crime despite not fully understanding his actions. I argue that sort of behavior: owning your past instead of hiding it, understanding your transgressions instead of denying them, is the only road to truth, self acceptance, and ultimately emotional health.

This film raises many questions for me and it’s cold, distanced delivery can leave the viewer numb to all the emotion that the characters experience even as they attempt to forget the experiences they have. I highly recommend it but the movie offers the viewer only as much respite as the characters in the movie give themselves.

Rating: Definitely see again soon.

Here’s the trailer:

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