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Casting JonBenet (2017), Netflix, Directed by Kitty Green

‘Can you know what your prayers have set in motion?’– CT Dreyer ‘Ordet’

‘A real whore should be able to attract by what she’s reduced to being’ – Jean Genet ‘The Screens’

It was a crime that re-defined perfect. On Christmas night 1996, the most sacrosanct American values—home, family, children’s innocence—even Christmas—were all violated in a single obscene act. Not since Hickock and Smith had the country at large felt so unsure of itself as a free and trusting society. And like England in the era of Brady and Hindley, the murder of JonBenet Ramsey led many Americans to imagine something unimaginable to them: an impulse so selfish that a child’s life could be bartered for a moment of sex. Although it probably wasn’t.

Ironically, the crime was made uglier because it was perpetrated against the postcard backdrop of alpine suburban Boulder, rather than, say, a decimated 1990s Cabrini-Green or the gray estates of 1960s Manchester. Context is of great aesthetic importance, and the new kind of media carnival that pitched its tents outside the Ramsey home in the months that followed learned to exploit the aesthetics of the little girl’s murder in the most enterprising ways: books devoted to prepubescent vaginal tissue, amateur profiling, pageant-girl hagiography, and living-color child sexploitation. All very entertaining and saleable to housewives and pedophiles alike. So much so that through all the images and supermarket checkout text, a rational inquiry into who had committed the crime was lost behind the sensation. The cottage industry of JonBenet media was constrained only by the surface morality of pretending to be outraged and work for justice in the little girl’s name. And by pointing to the child beauty pageant industry, in which JonBenet was involved, as a more exploitive cultural force than the tabloids themselves. Even if the tabloids were publishing the exact same photo spreads. And because everyone who bought the media implicitly understood its appeal, they didn’t need disguise the pornographic appeal as concern for a poor murdered girl who would never know she’d finally become a new star in the sky.

But then there were those who focused on the crime’s perpetration, those who had worked through to a new and undeniably correct reduction of the variables. There were as many different theories as there were people, seemingly, and everyone thought they were the one to see through all the hype and the lies and police bungling to the bulging, obvious truth—the truth about a crime whose spirit of cruelty made cruelty the only clarifying lens through which to view it. It’s amazing it took twenty years for someone to put these people in front of a camera and let them talk their way through their own layers of diffuse personality. Instead of adding her own slant on the events, Australian director Kitty Green assembled just such a cast of amateur actors in Boulder CO, ostensibly to shoot a feature about the JonBenet murder. But actually, the object of Casting JonBenet was to curate a space for the folk theories and confessions of a particularly obsessive subset of the American population. The would-be actors are mostly locals who for years lived under the shadow of a community-shattering fear that evil walked among them. Others travelled to Boulder to try out for the parts of John, Patsy, and law enforcement officials. Boy child actors are brought in to rehearse for the part of 9-year-old Burke. The better part of the film begins with the try-out actors reading their scripts and explaining their interests in playing the parts. The monologues begin as simple enough, but soon bloom into espousals of personalized justice, theories on guilt/innocence, and gradually it emerges that the actors’ reasons for trying out for the parts of John and Patsy are more personal than professional. The expressive art of acting becomes a purer act of empathy.

Beyond the director’s stated aim of learning why grown men and women are still obsessed with this particular little girl after twenty years, the real value of this film lies here, in the zoology of
grief and shameless fascination — delivered in a series of empathic renditions. The best of them are extroverted and revealing, layered and deceptive all at once, in the fine tradition of Jean Genet’s theater. Just like in The Maids, where every line and gesture melts into every other and appearances give way only to further appearances and ultimately nothingness, the actors are playing parts. And the only truth is playacting itself. Folk theories about JonBenet’s murder become confessions become personalized exploitations become delusions and the whole edifice of these tabloid-constructed personae is prolapsed, revealed to be, as Genet saw all of society, an apparition fausse.

Casting JonBenet should be seen within the axis of meta-form non-documentary films like Casting About, Kate Plays Christine, The Act of Killing, and Rithy Panh’s S21, all of which feature people performing themselves, turning their personalities inside out and showing how much of life is phony pretense. Actors playing the roles of themselves playing the roles of real people. And getting put through the paces. Particularly the scenes in S21, where former Khmer Rouge torture prison guards are directed to play themselves as they were twenty-five years before, rehearsing and reliving their own pasts. Keeping in mind the ability of Genet’s theater to reveal truth through multiple layers of illusion, these films give credence give to reality through the reciprocal de-realization of their content.

A film like this is appreciated mostly in its details. Approaching it in this way might have kept prim NY Times critic Manohla Dargis from making such an insensitive error as (among others) dismissing the film as vulgar and exploitive. Is she truly unaware that, comparatively speaking, this film is by far the least vulgar or exploitive—or outright pornographic—contribution to the incredible trash heap that is the JonBenet Ramsey canon? Maybe she didn’t like it because the director didn’t ruin it with tears and moralizing—when, really, this would have been more conceited than just letting the camera roll, as it did, across a community inflicted with a deep, strange obsession with a murdered little girl. How else to see inside such a thing than to incite performance? But Dargis isn’t the only disapproving critic who missed the point of this film entirely. Almost everyone out there who wrote about it failed to acknowledge the obvious fact that Casting JonBenet isn’t a film about JonBenet. The little girl herself is carefully and deliberately excluded. This was as conscious a choice as not using archival footage or a guiding voiceover, and most especially no interviews with self-promoting experts. Or wanting to solve the crime to begin with. Casting JonBenet is a film about empathy, performance, and exploitation. Perhaps flippant at times, but not about JonBenet. As if anyone should be concerned about offending her anyway.

The final scene of Casting JonBenet is as easy to misinterpret as a non-conclusion. This is primarily due to the film’s uneven balance and inclusion of seemingly tangential material. Not all the monologues and Errol Morris-style vignettes are directed at a single stream of thick ethnographic description, and it seems that the director couldn’t resist including some material that didn’t quite add up to the obsessive promise of the film’s content. This does have an un-evening effect that causes not a sense of irresolution, but a possible uncertainty as to what tension this baroque kitsch single-take is supposed to be relieving. Nevertheless, the final scene, in which all the ludicrous, plausible, extraneous, and deadly serious possibilities come together in a single tableau is not a conclusion for lack of a conclusion, but rather the only possible end to an irresolvable present. Maybe some of the actors’ theories are more logical than others, but when nothing is known, the only truth is empathy. I’m reminded of Ordet, another film in which the impossible was the only possible conclusion to a very different, or maybe not so different story of madness and pious doubt in a sham world, and a small child’s sincere belief that her wishes will come true.

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