By Will Fenstermaker
June 28, 2019
We now live in a world of constant looking: necks cricked from staring at our phones, interaction through haptics, we witness world events as they happen in real time with eyes fixed on the screen. Even in an active season like summer, from the World Cup to the presidential primary debates, we sit back and watch. In his 2017 piece for Degree Critical, writer Will Fenstermaker attempts to detangle the knot of America’s morbid obsession with true crime, specifically through the 1996 murder case of JonBenét Ramsey and the film documentary Casting JonBenét, which premiered on the 20th anniversary of the unsolved crime. He extrapolates the power dynamic between the viewer and the unknowing subject, and investigates the seemingly passive act of viewership in the face of more sinister happenings on screen. “A theater is a safe space, an anonymous one,” he writes. “We were comforted, all of us, into an injudicious posture allowed by the conceit of the film, into the same judgmental criticality of which we faulted the actors for possessing.”
-Angella d’Avignon, Managing Editor
The fundamental question of the documentary Casting JonBenet (2017) is: “What did these actors believe they were taking part in?”
At a certain point, I imagine director Kitty Green let the actors in on the gag: that this film isn’t about the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, a 6-year old girl and beauty pageant contestant, but rather a film about the public’s morbid obsessions with it, and how that event shaped their lives. Green cast her performers from the Boulder, Colorado area. Few of them are actors in any professional sense. All lived there at the time of JonBenét’s murder in 1996.
Casting JonBenet is structured as an extending casting call—not only for the role of JonBenét (in fact, for her, barely at all) but also for myriad characters satellite to the girl. Viewers of Green’s film witness charming and unsettling auditions as actors, almost all of them unnamed, read lines for a scripted re-enactment and explain their theories of what happened the morning after Christmas—when a ransom note was discovered only hours before JonBenét’s body. Filming went on for months, one of the few clues regarding their complicity in Green’s experiment. (Surely, the actors are aware that a casting process eventually ends.) But the fact that the actors stuck around for what came next suggests they must have accepted—or come to see—their complicity in the society of spectacle that lead to the little girl’s death. That is to say, no matter which theory is true (and Green holds no interest in testing any out), the little girl who died lived within a society that valued her preciousness above all else. No, not pageantry. Americana writ large.
Near the end of the film, an actor auditioning for the role of JonBenét’s father, John Bennet, admits that it was hard for him to decide whether or not to attend the casting call. His friends discouraged him, he said. In the end, he decided it would “help.” But help what? Not solve the case, surely. A number of films have already attempted to do so: Lifetime’s Who Killed JonBenét?, CBS’s The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, AMC’s The Killing of JonBenét within the last year alone, marking the twentieth anniversary. I imagine he believed that the role would help him come to understand, as if a form of therapy, what the murder meant for himself.
The casting structure is essential to the film’s efficacy. There are, of course, unsympathetic actors who seem to lack awareness of the meta-nature of the experiment. One woman, a babbling gossip, is edited such that her speculation consistently undermines other actors. Another, an instructor of sadism and masochism, debunks a theory regarding JonBenét’s brother, Burke, that relied on the efficacy of knots—the ones found on JonBenét’s body were much too advanced, he says, for her brother to have tied them. This is how we know Green is ultimately uninterested in hearsay and slander: the crowd at the Metrograph—the warmly pretentious theater where I saw the film—found humor in their suburban gossiping. A theater is a safe space, an anonymous one. We were comforted, all of us, into an injudicious posture allowed by the conceit of the film, into the same judgmental criticality of which we faulted the actors for possessing. The comfortable superficiality of a casting call and the lofty sophistication of a modern viewer is placed in conflict with a prattling nature that Green encourages the audience to accept we’re above.
It’s easy to see how Casting JonBenet might have slipped into a very different and much worse film. If, for example, the actors were misled about the project, then their processes of acceptance are founded on sinking ground. Yet there’s a curious and telling moment that came off as strangely exploitative until I realized my discomfort had more to do with my own complicity than Green’s or her actors. An unnamed woman who auditions for the role of JonBenét’s mother, Patsy, confesses a personal history instead of spinning theories as most of the other actors do: she was sexually abused as a child by two separate men on two separate occasions. It’s a startling moment, perhaps the most intimate moment of the entire film, but it leads, curiously, into a segment on the sexual deviancy of Santa Claus. The subsequent scenes are of actors auditioning for the role of a Santa Claus impersonator, who, according to one popular theory, molested JonBenét the night of the murder.
This glossing of the unnamed woman’s horrible admission feels uncomfortable because we’re accustomed to reading such confessions as revealing a truth deeply set in someone’s character, the kind pulp documentarians are after. But this trick can go only so far in helping us discover truths of our own. Casting JonBenét, despite its structure, ultimately isn’t about the Ramseys’s neighbors—at least, not only them. It’s also about you and me—about the yearning that led to no fewer than four movies on JonBenét twenty years after her death, about the cultural obsession with a precious, white, dead girl, about the unmediated nature of the media that recounts theories in service of time-slots. It’s about all the things that get in the way of truly coping with what everyone agrees was a tragic crime. Watching Casting JonBenet, we see a number of people who learn, in real time, how to process a murder that happened in their proximity—not externally, as they’ve only done before, but, at last, internally. For most of them, the monologue shifts over time, away from wide-eyed scandal, to personal confessions and disquiet pauses. In calling upon the Ramseys’s neighbors to cut through years of rumors and theorizing, and become one of them, if only through acting, Green guides them into thinking about the hardest questions of why JonBenét was murdered. Not in the abstract or the taboo gossip, not as a whodunnit involving someone else’s little girl, but as a real, live tragedy, taking place here and now.
After spending time with actors auditioning for the role of a pedophile who falsely confessed to murdering JonBenét—the closest Green comes to indulging in theories—we return to thewoman who confessed her trauma, only to discover more. “It’s hard for me sitting here talking about it as myself,” she says. The implication is that it’s easier for her to talk about the murder as Patsy. Nevertheless, she continues, divulging the loss of three of her own children. “When Patsy Ramsey looked into the camera… she was—and this is coming from an acting point of view, someone who believes that in order to act, you tell the truth…you believe, you commit, you are that person, you are 100 percent there, committed—when she was there, to me, it was the poorest acting job I’ve ever seen.” It’s telling that for her, Patsy Ramsey’s guilt is surmised not through circumstantial theories, but from the sense that Patsy was not acting true to herself. It’s another astute moment, but again we quickly move on, to a pitiful man who complains about his chair, played for laughs. Green does this repeatedly—she brings us close to the truth, only to pull back at exactly the moment it becomes uncomfortable. She replicates our retreat, as if to say: “See, this woman has no help to offer us, because she’s already done the hard work. For her, and perhaps only for her, JonBenét’s murder was real—everyone else is just acting.”
Casting JonBenet could only function in such a ethically gray area, one that fills in the shades of the black-and-white morality surrounding a child’s murder. But spend enough time there, truly there, facing uncomfortable realities, and we might come out with something approaching an understanding of why JonBenét’s murder has fascinated us for years, even if it looks nothing like the singular clarity we’d been seeking. Not solely because of its true-crime appeal—its terrible circumstances, its killer unrevealed—but because the pageant girl’s death acts as a sort of reflexivity upon our cruel obsession with spectacle, yet one we live more than we see.
In a vertiginous climax, the dozens of actors who attended Green’s casting call reenact the theories that have consumed them, all of them occupying a single soundstage at once. A clapboard snaps, and we see an actress playing Patsy, who looks in the mirror. A scream comes from JonBenét’s room as Burke playfully swipes her with a pillow. Other versions of Patsy and John kiss. JonBenét wakes her mother—she has wet the bed—JonBenét is asleep in bed. She’s awoken by her mother. Her mother is sleeping. She’s arguing with John in the bedroom. John leads JonBenét down the hall. Santa Claus tucks JonBenét into bed, the children were nestled all snuggled in bed, while visions of sugarplums danced in their head, Burke reads his sister a story, he wakes his parents in bed, Patsy, Patsy, and Patsy…
Despite occupying the same space, the actors lack awareness of each other, so enmeshed as they are in their stories. When the stage empties, only JonBenét remains, dancing in plumage beneath a single spotlight while singer Johnny Desmond croons, “With so many beauties, she took 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.” While the truth remains unknown, I can believe that in the end they break free of its hold over them entirely. Can we?