Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” (2017) Is NOT Exploitation

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Hannah tries out for Casting JonBenetWatching Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is a frustrating experience, but not for the reasons a film might typically elicit such a response. Yes, it has its merits and demerits, but so do many other works of art. No, one doesn’t glean many new facts about an already supersaturated bit of Americana, but that is a poor standard by which to judge a film, particularly an idea-driven documentary such as this. Rather, it is that Green’s strategy is so often brilliant that any future creative work on the JonBenet murder will in some way need to reference and transcend her own. Unfortunately, this also means that the film’s primary conceit can never be used again, even though it might be the most logical approach to what has now become a collective superstition: that there is an answer for everything, and that every question is valid, every concern justifiable. If anything, Casting JonBenet suggests that this is not so, even as it fails to obey its own rules and follow its best avenues to something greater.

Prior to analyzing the film, however, let us briefly discuss the event on which it’s based. On December 26th, 1996, child beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled and sexually abused in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home. A few hours earlier, a mysterious ransom note alerted the Ramseys to JonBenet’s disappearance, as they contacted friends, relatives, and the police despite the alleged kidnappers’ warnings. Although parents John and Patsy Ramsey were first suspected in the murder, a rather sloppy investigation turned up no evidence of their involvement, with DNA testing ultimately exonerating both. This didn’t stop speculation, however, fueled not only by their supposedly ‘odd’ behavior, but confounding variables like the false confession of John Mark Karr in 2006, as well as revelations of a troubled home life and Burke’s – JonBenet’s brother – ‘smiling’ interview late last year. Today, theories range from the police’s intruder explanation, to Patsy’s alleged envy and murder of her daughter, and even suggestions that Burke struck and killed his sister with the ransom note forged by the parents as a cover.

A shot of chairs in Casting JonBenet.

The true story, of course, is irrelevant to the myth: the very thing Casting JonBenet tackles by way of its conceits. Thus, I will not give my own views on the case, but simply allow the work speak for itself, and let others’ biases reveal themselves. The film opens with a wonderful shot of some empty chairs soon filled by dolled-up girls. All are auditioning for the role of the murdered girl, as one of them (in a rather nice touch) awkwardly asks whether the viewer knows who killed JonBenet. In fact, the very lack of gravitas helps zero-in on something that’s already been long pontificated over, with a half-dozen or so kids implying they could have been victims, too, without Green quite fleshing out the ‘what’ nor exploiting the viewer’s empathy. It is all a touch too abaxial for such a charge to stick, too cerebral, perhaps, a fact that Green is well aware of and manipulates for her own ends. This soon leads to a dramatization of a cop responding to the Ramseys’ phone call, while a number of women likewise try out for the role of Patsy. They give some background on themselves, where they were at the time of the murder, and make clear they are all locals: meaning, they all have some relationship to, if not the murder itself, then at least the rumors and mythologizing which have come to surround it.

The film, therefore, unfolds in this fashion, as local actors are brought in to not only play a contrived role, but to give their input on the case and the alleged ‘mystery’ as they’d experienced it. It’s clear, at any rate, that at least a few of the Patsies are emotionally invested in the crime before they’re sent to mimic Patsy’s 911 call: a good choice, for one already detects the potential biases with which they might discolor their task. Of course, they all do it a bit differently, offering a glimpse into what might have happened in those few moments, but also how little it matters from one interpretation to the next. This continues with the fathers, as well, ending with the dramatized discovery of JonBenet’s body, at which they pace, or cry, or merely look on in disbelief, thus giving weight to a number of potential theories…or even just the one, depending on the viewer’s comfort with imbuing the scene with that which isn’t there. In a way, then, this regurgitates much of the conspiracy-mongering back in the theorists’ own faces, giving in to not only their pet rationales, but rejecting them, as well, by way of the film’s own refusal to seriously engage them.

So far, there’s not much to complain of, yet the next scene reveals the first of Casting JonBenet’s artistic foibles. Little has been said of the murder, and the actors’ psyches have only been touched upon: a perfect jump-off, really, for a deeper examination of everyone involved. The problem, however, is that this never happens, as the film meanders even further once the would-be cops are introduced. They briefly go over the ransom note, but too much time is spent on their backgrounds, with one cop even showing the tools of his nightly sex education job as he discusses his love for ‘nipple and breast torture’. Perhaps this has a bit of overlap with JonBenet’s alleged sexual abuse, yet simply comes off as needless comic relief in an 80-minute film already in need of substance. Worse, the cops are barely seen again, meaning they are over-exposed bit players in a narrative which ultimately has little to do with them. The first true disagreements soon arise, with the cast divided on which theory to accept given JonBenet’s strange family and the peculiarities of the child pageant system. One woman, in particular, objects to the idea that Patsy killed her daughter merely because she was ‘getting older’ and ‘under stress’: an objection and straw-manning that (at least in the film’s framing) is as irrationally emotional as the charge itself. As before, however, there is no synthesis, as these arguments fizzle out not by their countervailing weight, but simply from dilution, as they are mere noise to an impartial viewer who needs something bigger to latch on to.

One of the film’s more interesting scenes is a re-enactment of the infamous press conference the parents held after the murder. The cast wrangles over how to approach it, arguing over the details of how close to sit, which words to emphasize, and so on, pointing out that they need to be ‘unnaturally’ un-emotive to capture the parents’ real-life behavior. Although some viewers might object that this is where Casting JonBenet’s conceit breaks down, the film’s inner logic still works, since the point is to have others (meaning, not the parents) try to figure out how to play something that America – rightly or wrongly – considers pretty much undoable. In short, the seeds of doubt are now in the viewer’s mind, as they are in yet another superb scene where a handful of would-be Burkes try their hand at the ‘impossible’ task of breaking open a watermelon with a flashlight (the brother’s alleged murder weapon), with one kid happily succeeding and contradicting not only the commonly-cited objection to the Burke theory, but the rationale which came right before it, too. No, it doesn’t matter that a melon is analogous to a human skull only in dumb crime shows, since the point is that the viewers’ agitprop is supported for them, and they can safely continue cherry-picking as they see fit while falling ever-deeper into their own biases.

Unfortunately, Casting JonBenet devolves to made-for-TV fluffiness in its last half hour, with a barely-analyzed John Mark Karr thrust alongside murderous Santa Claus theories, pedophile rings, and more, as if Green is now merely checking off boxes before the film’s main event. All this might work with a bit more probing, yet given how little actual information Casting JonBenet divulges, the utter dearth of inquiry means that the film’s more interesting moments get crushed by their surrounds. It is a relief, then, when the end comes to justify some of the film’s key strategies. The actors get together in a stage-house and show a family at one another’s throats, at turns fighting, reconciling, popping pills, and forging a composite of everything the viewer comes to learn. Wisely, there is no smoking gun here, just a portrait of dysfunction which no rational observer can definitively say is pointing to the family’s innocence or culpability. And while this is where having multiple actors really works, it is a comparatively short segment whose lead-in is a dilution of the film’s own thrust, ending with JonBenet dancing in a dimly-lit room to Bernie Wayne’s “There She Is,” a song often used during the crowning of Miss America. In a way, its sweet, wholesome lyrics are almost sardonic in this light:

There she is, Miss America
There she is, your ideal
The dreams of a million girls
Who are more than pretty
May come true in Atlantic City
Oh she may turn out to be
The queen of femininity
There she is, Miss America
There she is, your ideal
With so many beauties
She’ll take the town by storm
With her all-American face and form
And there she is
Walking on air she is
Fairest of the fair she is
Miss America

One can take this as further comment on American mythos, but to what avail? Casting JonBenet had already lost its thread less than halfway in, but it is not as if the critics notice. Or rather, they do notice, but blame it on all the wrong things in order to pontificate, thus proving the very assertions they are trying to discredit. Take, for example, the dense Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, who starts well by detailing some of the film’s lapses, yet complains that “the only substantive conclusion is…that murder can be endlessly exploited.” This is clearly untrue, both in its reductionism, as well as simply on its face. Dargis even alludes to the melon-bashing scene as an example of “ridiculousness”, correctly labeling the episode’s role yet confusing the macabre fascination of conspiracy theorists with the film’s over-voice. In truth, it is a scene logically incompatible with the previous one, as the actors make it seem that the parents wanted to kill JonBenet, whereas here Burke is the aggressor, and even eats a piece of melon when he’s done. This is the exact opposite of “exploitation”, for it serves to cast doubt on the lurid rather than wallowing in it.

JonBenet dancing in Casting JonBenet.Nor does it end there, with the same charge bandied about by The New Yorker, to IMDB reviewers, to bloggers which have no choice but to repeat this claim. Pajiba’s Kristy Puchko is especially egregious on this front, beginning her review with the silly assertion that the murder of JonBenet “is one of the most horrific in American history.” In fact, it was utterly banal, merely one of thousands of similar crimes that routinely go unreported due to poor timing, lack of interest, and, yes, the victim’s genetics. Had JonBenet been a fat, ugly black girl with zero prospects, she would simply be one among the countless dead: the word ‘countless’, here, meant literally, since for most people there is no tally nor public indignation to keep the world honest. This is obviously not a judgment against the girl, but an illustration of how such value judgments are sorted: how they’re given practicum in one realm, yet cut off from the sum of others. In a way, then, the same biases that corralled JonBenet’s death from the macrocosm are the same biases that mythologized it, and won’t let go.

And perhaps that’s it. Casting JonBenet no doubt fails in a number of ways, but it does succeed in bringing human pettiness to the fore. This is not only visible in the actors, themselves, but with talking heads who are still trying to get to the bottom of something much less fascinating than they assume. It is simply in the nature of myth to inveigle and accuse and see everything that’s not there, whether that is guilt, or chastity, or the sanctimony over both until it detaches from the real. Kitty Green got this, but did not completely follow through. By contrast, the outraged are still chasing her, not realizing where she herself is running: what she’s found.

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