Sunday, 27 August 2017

On demand: "Casting JonBenet"

Casting JonBenet is a tricky one: another of those New Documentaries doing its level best to blur the lines separating fact from fiction in the hope of arriving at some bigger, wider, more resonant truth. A few years back, the filmmaker Kitty Green showed up in Boulder, Colorado, hometown of murdered child beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey, where she posted a casting call for locals to play the key players in a mooted feature on Ramsey's brief life and tragic, still unexplained death. It is just possible that, early in this process, Green sensed there would be something tawdry about digging through the particulars of this case once again, or that the results would most likely generate another bad TV movie. (The snippets of straightforward reconstruction we see here, with their cheesy score and flatly melodramatic reactions, do seem to be heading that way.) Instead of barrelling towards the expected fiction, she started cutting the auditions together, intuiting there might be a more revealing means of retelling this story somewhere in that raw footage, thereby generating a notable example of what we might call always-show-your-working cinema.

You can see why Green might have been led in this direction. Several of those auditioning knew or claim to have known the Ramsey family, and have retained their own theories on whodunnit and why; they all, to a man and woman, demonstrate a love of the camera, a desire for recognition, which aligns them with the victim in this case. As in the recent Kate Plays Christine, another modern American tragedy is seized upon as an opportunity for performance of one kind or another. Nothing about Casting JonBenet, however, rebuts the accusation of bad faith on Green's part. We can assume her interviewees consented to go on tape for audition purposes, but were they made aware (and were they happy) that their often deeply personal, in several places borderline slanderous, asides would eventually be beamed into the world's cinemas and living rooms? How about those non-professionals who came in to audition for the role of accused pederast John Mark Karr, and who - in the final edit - have ended up being framed as spokesmen for the smalltown view on paedophilia?

Green's onto something semi-interesting in the contrast she draws between, say, those women who view JonBenet's mother Patsy as a frustrated narcissist living through her haloed daughter and those who defend her as a tough, proud showbiz mom, the Sharon Osbourne of Boulder. (The men seem almost unanimously predisposed to defend the girl's father John against any allegation of wrongdoing.) She also wrings thin, ain't-life-funny? chuckles from such moments as two interviewees realising they're Facebook pals, or from the presence of a bounty hunter who, mid-audition, reveals his nocturnal identity of sex educator, and whips out the flogging equipment to prove it. Time and again, though, Casting JonBenet leads us back to the conclusion that nobody save the killer, or killers, really knows what happened in this case: around 90% of what Green preserves here falls between idle gossip and artful speculation, mounted without a single iota of the responsibility an Errol Morris would bring to this kind of true-crime excavation. The film fits perfectly with that morbid Netflix strain that has so far given us Making a Murderer and Amanda Knox, projects that effortlessly spin human suffering into bingeworthy entertainments for consumers who wouldn't go near a supermarket tabloid. Still, it looks an awful lot like tapdancing around a child's grave: you may admire the audacity, and indeed the technical skill involved in its manoeuvres, but it didn't leave me cold so much as hypothermic.

Casting JonBenet is now streaming on Netflix.

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