“Think Smart”: multiple casting, critical engagement and the contemporary film spectator – Nicole Choolun

To acknowledge that the avant-garde has evolved and changed, has adapted to the realities of our time, is to acknowledge as well that the world has moved on, that technology has evolved, that audiences now have different eyes, different expectations, and that the avant-garde is nothing if not resilient and determined.

(Varela 2005, 7)

In his timely 2005 article “Some Thoughts on the Avant-Garde, Then and Now,” Willie Varela queried whether there is still a place for experimental filmmaking, and if so, what purpose it serves within an increasingly commercial film culture.  In posing this question, Varela cast his net broadly, referring to radically unconventional filmmaking as well as the kind that attempts “to bridge that gap between film as experiment and film as entertainment” (Varela 2005, 5).  His question was in part one regarding the ongoing relevance of experimental filmmaking in cultivating a critical spectator.  Against this backdrop, I want to examine the manner in which experimental approaches to critical engagement have evolved to accommodate the changing expectations of the contemporary film spectator. Using multiple casting as a focal point, I will argue that the ‘smart cinema’ approach to critical engagement builds on that of Brechtian cinema by offering the spectator more complex ways of engaging with film characters and events.

In this article, I will cast the spotlight on two different stages in the evolution of critical engagement approaches:  firstly, from stage to film; and secondly, from one kind of filmmaking to another.  These stages clearly mark periods of transition, but insofar as one stage builds on the previous they also indicate something more evolutionary, akin to adaptation. Linda Hutcheon, in her seminal work on adaptation, distinguishes between adaptation as an end product and adaptation as a process, where ‘to adapt’ could mean to creatively reinterpret or to make fit a new context (2006, 22).  This distinction between end product and process is, in my view, a useful one:  I may be stretching terminology too far if I speak of an approach as capable, through its evolution, of creating ‘an adaptation’ (particularly given that the traditional subject of adaptation has been texts).  I am more confident, however, about describing the evolution in that approach as a process of adaptation, a process of making the approach fit a new context.

Brecht’s writings and work on critical engagement have reached such levels of familiarity within academic discourse that they need little elaboration here.  Distanciation is widely recognised within theatre, and its reworking for narrative cinema (the first stage of evolution) has received extensive treatment in film studies.  The authors of Screen, among many, have discussed at length the realisation of distanciation on screen, notably through the work of  Douglas Sirk, Jean-Luc Godard and Lars Von Trier.  What has not been fully explored, however, is the relationship between distanciation and a more recent approach to critical engagement to which it bears some resemblance.  I assert that this progression, from a Brechtian approach to one championed by ‘smart cinema,’ represents a second stage of evolution that has maintained the currency of critical engagement for the contemporary film spectator.

For this purpose I need to revisit briefly the Brechtian foundations of critical engagement.  Brecht viewed the theatre as a sphere in which to enliven the public’s desire for social and political change by encouraging the spectator to engage critically with the text’s characters and events.  Central to this endeavour was the need to minimise the spectator’s immediate, emphatic identification with characters (Smith 1996, 131), since in Brecht’s view an emphasis on intensity, emotion and empathy (frequently referred to as ‘Aristotelian catharsis’) “made it impossible for the spectator to think critically about the character or, indeed, to ‘think’ at all” (Esslin 1990, 137).  ‘Epic’ theatre, and the approach to spectatorship on which it is based, accordingly seeks to redefine the spectator’s relationship with characters away from the affective and towards the emotionally distant.  In the place of linear narrative structures, mimetic detail in costume and setting, and seamless blending of actor into character, epic theatre utilises strategies such as direct address, excessive gesture, disassembled narrative structures and placards announcing the purpose of a scene: strategies that self-consciously defamiliarise the text’s characters and events in order to encourage the spectator to consider them afresh (Higson 1991, 170).

Founded on the Russian Formalist concept of ostranie or ‘making the familiar strange,’ Brecht’s approach, coined as Verfremdung and widely translated as ‘distanciation,’ is deliberately provocative.  Jeremy Butler describes it as sparring with the spectator, shocking the spectator out of his or her perceived passivity and casting him or her at an emotional distance from the character (1991, 67).  The text from this point becomes a discussion with the spectator, where he or she is poised from a distance to critique the characters’ positions within the performance and, ideally, within greater society (Butler 1991, 67).

The accession to knowledge encouraged by epic theatre is intended to bring pleasure to the spectator, albeit of a different variety to the pleasure of uncritical, emotional engagement offered by naturalist theatre (Polan 1985, 670).  It is thus perhaps misleading to speak of Brechtian ‘alienation.’  Advocates of distanciation nevertheless proceed on the basis that the spectator is better able to think through the ideas and ideological processes at work in the text when unencumbered by the psychological and emotional investment in characters and events that ordinarily imbues his or her viewing experience (Lellis 1982, 11).  As Murray Smith identifies, one of the problematic assumptions underpinning this argument is its seemingly dichotomous treatment of emotion and reason, insofar as suggesting that emotional responses cloud the spectator’s rational and critical faculties to the point where they consume his or her capacity to act (Smith 1996, 133).  Recent cognitive science and philosophy of mind distinguish different emotions on the basis of the respective cognitive evaluations that accompany them, an alternative perspective that does not quell this long-held debate but at the very least contemplates that emotion is integrated with perception, attention and cognition (Smith 1996,  133).  The potential co-existence of emotion and reason casts doubt over the need to abdicate emotion in texts in order to cultivate a critically engaged spectator, and I suggest that cinema has served as the backdrop for these queries to be played out and further examined.

George Lellis expresses a broad understanding of Brechtian cinema as “films that comment on their own being, the processes whereby they are made, their own achievements; in other words, the type of film that is involved, not just in illusion-making but in an analysis of its own structure” (1982, 69).  At its core, therefore, the Brechtian cinema approach to critical engagement retains the philosophy of its theatrical counterpart, seeking to undermine the spectator’s emotional investment in characters through a series of self-conscious strategies.  It has nonetheless undergone a process of adaptation in its transition from theatre to film, being modified to fit the context of the new medium.  Building on the initial foundations laid by epic theatre, Brechtian cinema has extended potential strategies for cultivating the spectator’s critical perspective towards film characters and events.

Whereas epic theatre is limited to the live stage in its efforts to achieve distanciation, Brechtian films regularly capitalise on the cinematic apparatus to advance this purpose.  Films belonging to this canon may visually splice alternative endings together, instruct their actors to address the camera directly (for example, Pierrou Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)), or employ stylistic jump cut editing or canted framing (for example, The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)) as ways of acknowledging the mediation of the camera.  Such strategies lay bare formal cinematic conventions: they recall but also build upon those of epic theatre, shocking or defamiliarising the spectator to a point of emotional distance from the characters and events in ways that fit the medium of film.  The cinematic apparatus similarly assists Brechtian films to scramble the cause-effect narrative structure through such strategies reverse chronology or parallel sequences shown simultaneously on screen, as in Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003).  These strategies have potential to shift the spectator’s attention away from the emotional spell of the story and toward the manner of its telling or the solving of a puzzle (Wilinsky 2001, 19; Buckland 2009, 2; Wollen 1982, 81).  In so doing, they introduce to films the critical manner of viewing championed by epic theatre, targeting similar perceptions of spectator passivity brought about by conventions of cause and effect narratives, unambiguous characters and continuity of action.

I want to raise here Nicholas Rombes’s claim that contemporary spectators “already know that a movie is just a ‘movie’…it is no longer a trick or a post-modern stunt to tell a serious story while, at the same time, telling the story of how that story was made” (2005, 78).  Indeed, the prevalence of self-reflexivity in mainstream film and television suggests that Brechtian strategies, although still regularly employed, may no longer be as capable of creating a defamiliarising effect.  If, as Rombes claims, the contemporary spectator has become accustomed to look upon films with a critical eye in the knowledge of their production, then something other than distanciation is required to cultivate a new level of critical engagement.  This is the cue for a recent canon of American (largely) independent films that Jeffrey Sconce coins ‘smart cinema’ (2002, 352), which adopt an ironic tone or sensibility in forging an alternative means by which to cultivate a critical spectator.  While maintaining a Brechtian raison d’être, these films explore the potential for irony, rather than distanciation, to engender in the spectator a more nuanced, complex kind of critical engagement.

Broadly, irony refers to “a contradiction or incongruity between appearance or expectation and reality” (Murfin and Ray 1997, 221), which typically presents itself as a discrepancy between what one says and what one means.  I consider Hutcheon’s elaboration helpful: “a process of communication that entails two or more meanings being played off, one against the other.  The irony is in the difference…it plays between meanings, in a space that is always affectively charged, that always has a critical edge” (1994, 100, emphasis added).  In Sconce’s assessment, smart cinema employs strategies that highlight contradictory meanings and incongruities, adopting a tone that invites the spectator to interpret what he or she has seen and heard “in giant quotation marks” rather than at face value (2002, 358).  Invited to adopt an ironic reading of a film, the spectator identifies a pluralities of meanings and is consequently propelled into a state of perpetual question over what the film means to say about its characters and events.

Several reoccurring strategies form the basis of smart cinema’s ironic address.  Films such as Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1995) or Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995) juxtapose a blank style, consisting of long shots, static compositions and sparse cutting, with disturbing or melodramatic subject matter.  Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), on the other hand, adopts an ironic mode of expression by subjecting its protagonists to the logic of chance and coincidence, while American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) laces themes of alienation and depression with undercurrents of black humour (Sconce 2002, 360).  These strategies work at developing conflicting meanings without offering resolve, encouraging the spectator to problematise and perpetually question the text’s characters and events.

In my view, the value in irony as an alternative, more recent approach to cultivating a critically-engaged spectator lies in its ability to work in more subtle, complex ways than distanciation.  As distinct from Brechtian distanciation, ironic address does not overtly announce its presence as a means of seeking shock value; indeed, among certain spectators, it can go unnoticed and result in the film being misinterpreted through non-ironic paradigms.  Rather, ironic address hints or winks at something more: it capitalises on its ability to divide audiences into those who identify its presence – who ‘get’ the joke – and those who do not, demanding in the first instance an evaluative call from the spectator as to how to read the film and ultimately conditioning him or her to regard its characters and events with a discerning or sceptical eye (Rombes 2005, 74; Sconce 2002, 352).  As Sconce elaborates, “the entire point of ironic address is to ally oneself with sympathetic peers and to distance oneself from the vast ‘other’ audience, however defined, which is often the target of the speaker’s or artist’s derision” (2002, 352).  Thus although ironic address shares with distanciation a self-reflexive, self-conscious approach towards the text, it goes beyond merely pointing out the text’s artifice for the spectator’s acknowledgement.  Instead, it raises character and event-based conflicts for the spectator to identify, evaluate and rationalise.  This approach, as realised by smart cinema, indicates not so much a complete departure from the Brechtian approach to critical engagement as a development in it – an evolution – that promises the continued relevance of the concept for the contemporary, media-literate spectator.

It strikes Sconce as fitting that smart cinema has taken flight in America, standing in political opposition to a largely conservative and moralistic culture that regards ambiguity with considerable suspicion (2002, 357).  The divided reception of smart films reflects this tension; their “veneer of studied detachment, cultivated disaffection and ironic posturing” at once garners audience interest and incites criticism for its perceived lack of sincerity (Sconce 2002, 252).  Todd Haynes’s films, for example, are almost invariably met with mixed responses as critics and audiences grapple with his “tone or position, about where he situates himself with respect to the subject matter” (Doane 2004, 4).  Some suggest that he has no empathy for his characters, treating them rather with “cold, meticulous irony” that is void of credible emotion (Doane 2004, 17).

This interpretation, however, seems overly simplistic.  As Mary Anne Doane clarifies, Haynes draws on long shots and wide-angle lenses, static tableaux and filmic citations to contradictorily inflect moments of heightened emotion with irony, causing the spectator to be “simultaneously overly involved and disconnected” (2004, 13).  His approach, far from signifying incompatibility between sincerity and irony (and broadly between emotion and reason), pursues their co-existence.  Doane thus argues “the two are not only not mutually exclusive but inseparable for Haynes” (2004, 18).  Smart films of this kind support Rombes’s argument that the presence of irony need not necessarily exclude emotion from the viewing experience; it is capable of evoking a sincere emotional response from the spectator while at the same equipping him or her to see through the mechanisms that elicit this response (Rombes 2005, 74).   The view that emotion and reason can co-exist and “cinema be actively thought as well as felt” (Doane 2004, 18) signifies another dimension of change in the evolution of critical engagement from a Brechtian to a smart cinema approach.

In their study of the biographical film, Jonathan Lupo and Carolyn Anderson identify a recent trend within the genre of inviting simultaneously ironic and sincere readings from the spectator (2008, 102).   Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994), for example – a film about a film enthusiast whose accolades include “Worst Director of All Time” – situates its odd choice of subject matter within a conservative biopic structure to court an ironic reading while at the same time making a sincere case for Wood’s legitimacy as a filmmaking pioneer (Lupo and Anderson 2008, 105).  I want to suggest that multiple casting performs a similar role within the biopic, offering the potential to work on an ironic as well as sympathetic level in cultivating a critical spectator.

My interpretation of multiple casting refers to the representational practice where multiple actors portray a single character.  I am not therefore referring to the single actor-multiple character convention popular among small theatre companies and comedians.  It is important to acknowledge, however, that in certain contexts multiple casting has also become somewhat of a convention.  Films regularly recruit multiple actors to portray a character in order to meet the requirements of close-ups, stunts, or voice quality (Naremore 1988, 79).  They also routinely, and almost always in the biopic, recruit multiple actors in order to trace a character’s growth from childhood to adolescence and/or adulthood (Smith 1995, 115).   In both these contexts, however, the use of multiple casting preserves the character’s continuity by merging the performances through editing or montage so that the actors appear and are accepted on screen as a single characterisation.

What is more interesting from the perspective of critical engagement are those instances where several actors represent the one character within the same or a similar temporal span, appearing on screen as a fractured characterisation.  Although multiple casting of this kind featured in two 1977 films, That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel) and The Suspended Vocation (Raul Ruiz), its primary purpose was not provocative.  In the former film, an argument with the main actress caused the director to seek another actress to complete her scenes; in the latter, the splicing of two films created an (albeit deliberate) overlap between actors playing the same character.  More recently, however, multiple casting has been employed for more provocative purposes with the Sundance comic biopic American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003), the teenage not-quite-coming-of-age film Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004), the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007) and Terry Gilliam’s fantastical adventure The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) (where functional and provocative purposes combined).

I’m Not There offers a series of vignettes of Bob Dylan through the performances of Ben Wishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett. Set in the U.S roughly between 1960 and 1970, the film adopts an episodic story structure as it follows its six Dylan avatars across the country.  Like Palindromes, this film juxtaposes a child and an adult, an African-American and a Caucasian, and a male and a female in the course of painting a rich, highly unusual portrait of its protagonist.  Not only do the Dylan avatars possess little physical resemblance, but they feature in different stories, demonstrate contradictory characteristics and go by different names (none of them Bob or Dylan) to the point that they could be mistaken for separate characters.  As such, although they are introduced to the spectator through a succession of mug shots at the beginning of the film, their realisations of Dylan thereafter become quite distinct. They are in effect united only by Dylan’s music and a recurrent suggestion of him in their diverse experiences.  These factors make I’m Not There an all the more valuable example when considering the potential application of multiple casting as a strategy for cultivating critical engagement.

What do we make of multiple casting as a representational strategy, and where does it fit within the Brechtian and smart cinema approaches to critical spectatorship?  Murray Smith suggests that it has a “troubling quality” that effects a “powerful estrangement” on the spectator (1995, 27).  By presenting a character in the guise of several actors, multiple casting on the one level fractures actor from character, immediately defamiliarising the character in a manner akin to the performance style advocated by Brecht (Naremore 1988, 78).  As a result, it casts the spectator at emotional distance whereupon he or she is invited to view the character afresh, as constructed.  Multiple casting operates at a more powerful level of distanciation, however, when we consider its impact on the spectator’s identification with characters.  From the perspective of spectatorial identification, Smith argues for the centrality of character to the rhetorical and aesthetic effects of narrative texts.  As analogues of human agents, characters constitute the agents of causality in narratives and, most notably, “the major way by which narrative texts solicit our assent for particular values, practices, and ideologies” (Smith 1995, 4).  They mediate the spectator’s entry into the narrative and are central to his or her narrative comprehension, ultimately forming salient points of identification for the spectator.

Multiple casting’s powerful distanciating effect derives from its impact on this relationship between spectator, character and narrative.  In place of the blanket term ‘identification,’ Smith distinguishes between three levels of engagement with character – recognition, alignment, and allegiance – which together form his ‘structure of sympathy’ (1995, 75).  The most basic level of engagement, recognition, pinpoints the problem posed by multiple casting.  It refers to the spectator’s construction of character on the basis of a perceptual, explanatory schema that enables him or her to distinguish a character from others and re-identify that character at different points in the narrative.   It follows from cinema’s iconic form that recognition of characters in this medium depends primarily upon the legible and consistent representation of their physical features: the body, face, and by extension the voice (Smith 1995, 111).  By granting a character several faces, bodies and voices, however – especially ones as physically irreconcilable as those in I’m Not There – multiple casting undermines the spectator’s ability to re-identify the character at different points in the narrative (Smith 1995, 26).  Indeed, the physical differences between the Dylan avatars prompts the spectator to individuate the actors as different characters, which then makes their re-identification as Dylan an all the more challenging task.

The disruption to the character’s continuity caused by multiple casting slows the spectator’s recognition of the character.  With this fundamental level of character engagement impaired the spectator is likely to experience considerable emotional distance as well as difficulty comprehending the narrative.  As a strategy of distanciation, therefore, multiple casting lays bare the process of film characterisation for the spectator’s acknowledgment so that he or she can appreciate the way in which characters are constructed through conventions and the narrative effect of their destabilisation.  Further, multiple casting instils in the spectator the ability to recognise more clearly the importance of shared experience in connecting seemingly different characters.

Smith’s analysis of multiple casting stops here, without contemplating whether irony might also play a part in this representational strategy.  By contrast, Lupo and Anderson acknowledge the ironic tone that accompanies multiple casting in American Splendor, a biopic that depicts a comic book artist using the biographical figure himself (Harvey Pekar), an actor (Paul Giamatti), several comic book incarnations and their animated counterparts (2008, 108).  In common with I’m Not There, the film utilises multiple casting as a means by which to engage in questions of identity and representation, offering different versions of the principal character to visually realise the idea of the instability of self (Lupo and Anderson 2008, 108).  Multiple casting as employed in I’m Not There likewise ensures that a definitive version of Dylan remains elusive; instead, he becomes a symbol of contradictions and incongruities that, in accordance with Wayne C. Booth’s interpretation of irony, undermines clarity and eschews any effort at affirmation.  For the purpose of critical engagement, the underlying ironic tone of multiple casting in the first instance poses a challenge to the spectator as to how to read the film: at face value, as a story about several different characters, or in quotation marks , as one asserting contradictory perspectives of the main character.  If read as the latter, multiple casting then makes available to the spectator a more sophisticated understanding of that character as a complex individual whose characteristics cannot be easily encapsulated within a neat, singular representation.

This application of irony has particular relevance to the biopic, a genre in which both filmmakers and spectators approach films with pre-existing expectations and assumptions about characters.  Jason Sperb accordingly explains that American Splendor “challenges any assumption about ‘knowing’ Harvey Pekar…resisting the biographical authority of acts of documentation, and suggesting that his life and the cinematic mapping of his life can never be quite aligned” (2006, 130).  This ironic strategy at once relinquishes the label of authenticity to which the biopic ordinarily lays claim and rediscovers it in another register, one which acknowledges the character’s complexity and in so doing calls upon the spectator to reconsider his or her preconceptions.

So far I have argued that multiple casting incorporates distanciation and irony into its operation, as a result of which it can be seen as identifying with both a Brechtian and smart cinema approach to critical engagement.  Where it departs from the former, I want to suggest, is in the role that it still allows for emotion, sincerity, and indeed affect.  Smith argues that multiple casting’s adverse impact on recognition precludes the spectator from experiencing emotional levels of engagement with the character, namely alignment and allegiance: “it is only when this most basic level of character engagement is secure that we are at all likely to respond emotionally to the mimetic functions of characters” (1995, 138).  This account perhaps fails to tell the complete story.  The performances of each of the six actors in I’m Not There are rich with emotional expressivity, from the childlike playfulness of Marcus Carl Franklin as ‘Woody’ to the cool charisma of Cate Blanchett as ‘Jude.’  Each performance draws out aspects of Dylan with which the spectator can emotionally and sincerely engage, individually as well as in conjunction with the others.  I want to suggest that by virtue of these performances, the potential for emotional engagement persists despite the distance that multiple casting creates.  This interaction creates scenes that are, in accordance with much of smart cinema, ‘contradictorily inflected,’ heightening the spectator’s capacity for observation and critique by inviting him or her to attend more closely to the performances themselves as a route to engagement with character.  Further, as Lupo and Anderson point out, the biopic genre appears to contain an essential sincerity – given the inherent suggestion that the subject of the film is worthy of attention and already has a relationship with the spectator – with which attempts at irony must always at the very least interact (2008, 110).

Having traced an evolution in the approach to critical engagement in the cinema, and having illustrated this evolution through the lens of multiple casting, I have made a case for several developments.  In the place of distanciation and its political ends as sought by some Brechtian cinema, smart cinema employs irony in the course of delivering a tongue-in-cheek address to the spectator.  I argued that strategies inviting an ironic reading of the text require an evaluative, nuanced kind of viewing from the spectator, a demanding exercise that goes beyond acknowledging the text’s artifice.  The challenge with ironic address lies not in merely identifying the characters and events of the text as constructed, but rather in identifying how to interpret the text’s contradictory presentation of them.  I suggested that this approach represents a progression from that of Brechtian cinema in the level of observation, inquiry and criticism sought from the spectator.  I highlighted that, as an example of this approach, multiple casting not only distances the spectator but also works ironically in its commentary on the instability of self.  I then argued that, as further illustration of an evolution from the Brechtian cinema approach, a smart cinema approach also allows for the persistence of emotional engagement while courting an ironic reading so that the spectator reaps the dual benefit that emotion and reason bring to the viewing experience.  In support of this view, I underlined the ability of multiple casting to preserve the emotional resonance of each actor’s performance despite the contradictory perspectives.  Ultimately, although very much Brechtian in origin, smart cinema represents a development in the Brechtian approach to critical engagement which, by continuing to challenge the contemporary audience, keeps the flames of the avant-garde alive.

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Filmography

American Beauty. Directed by Sam Mendes. 1999.

American Splendor. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. 2003.

Ed Wood. Directed by Tim Burton. 1994.

Elephant. Directed by Gus Van Sant. 2003.

Happiness. Directed by Todd Solondz. 1995.

I’m Not There. Directed by Todd Haynes 2007.

Palindromes. Directed by Todd Solondz. 2004.

Pierrou Le Fou. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. 1965.

Safe. Directed by Todd Haynes. 1995.

Slacker. Directed by Richard Linklater. 1991.

That Obscure Object of Desire. Directed by Luis Buñuel. 1977.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Directed by Terry Gilliam. 2009.

The Suspended Vocation. Directed by Raul Ruiz. 1977.

The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. 1949.