Thursday, April 4, 2013

Winking at the Audience: Verfremdungseffekt

The breaking of the fourth wall is an inherently theatrical device and is not usually employed by film or TV.  "Realism" seems to be the defining language and style of choice with a few rare (and ultimately dated exceptions).  For example, in the early seasons of Modern Family, the characters sit & talk directly to the camera, interview style.  This technique is minimized in later seasons, until if anything, the characters may rarely do a quick take to the camera.  It is an acknowledgment that "someone else" is witnessing the action, and provides an intimate connection with the audience.

In theater, however, the audience can be a large crowd, aware & responding as a crowd will. Laughing, clapping, externalizing their behavior.  Television is a much more intimate medium in that the audience can be made up of one person, who may find something funny but not laugh out loud.

Even the simple Romps of the Monkee series included complex ideas to communicate that they were aware that the style of "Realism" was as fake as the outer society.  The Monkees did takes to the camera to address their presumed audience, essentially winking at the other "kids" out there.

Even the camerawork was intentionally imperfect.  Take the video posted on Youtube of "Valleri", which has the one remarkable idea of using a crane to lift Davy above the band during the verses.  It is an utterly unrealistic and unexplained movement, which singles Davy out as the focus, literally. In a gesture of "Hey, kids, you think this is gonna be just another boring shot of the boys on a bandstand.  But watch carefully!" The Boys are in JC Penny clothes (or maybe that jean jacket actually belongs to Mike?), not suits, which indicates a stylistic shift away from the 1964 Beatles fashion as seen in "She", where they are all dressed in suits.  The crane example is taken from the "Captain Crocodile" episode.
And whoever posted it on Youtube added a nice editorial comment during Davy's tambourine bit. "Hey Davy, there isn't that much tambourine here.  Chill."  He was a terrific musician-actor, but not that great at "acting like an instrumentalist". But the audience knew (at least I did, as a child) that they were miming to their own songs.  As a child, I instinctively knew that I could be imperfect when singing along to their records, because my fake microphone was not turned on.

Note the inclusion in these shots of the actual lights on the set behind them-which would normally be considered a rookie mistake of a cameraman.  Here, it is just another aspect of the Distancing/Estrangement Effect,  coined by Bertolt Brecht (in German as Verfremdungseffekt), and used throughout the world's theater traditions, including many Eastern Traditions, including Japanese Kabuki.  To quote the Global Shakespeare source:

"The distancing effect is a technique used in theater and cinema that prevents the audience from losing itself completely in the narrative, instead making it a conscious critical observer. The actor accomplishes this by directly addressing the audience, barring them from feeling empathy (film), interrupting the narrative (cinema), or drawing attention to the filmmaking or theatrical process.

This is also seen in the "Salesman" romp, as in MANY other points throughout the series and the film, Head, this technique is used.  Some casual viewers assume the show is for kids, or sloppy or thrown together; the use of direct address or shots which pull "back the curtain" on the illusion is one of the many aspects of its inherent theatricality and avant-garde filmmaking.

The Boys were surrounded by machinations, not the least of which was a backing band made up of the Wrecking Crew.  When all else fails, add an interesting visual gimmick (or a great guitar solo).  Even if it was not the intention of the supporting backstage crew & technicians, the repeated & insistent inclusion of this messiness drove home a message.  They were not perfect, and were not trying to be perfect.  And isn't it boring to be perfect?

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