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October 17, 2021

Favorite Scenes №3: Casting JonBenet

Est. Reading: 3 minutes

Kitty Green made Casting JonBenet in 2017. It’s a documentary about documentaries. Using a variety of ingenious filmic devices Green repeatedly arranges and rearranges fact and fiction revealing the many filters and layers that reality passes through as it settles into a narrative in our mind. In this case the life of a little girl is continuously refracted through glamor, sensationalism, the media, our own projections, gossip, rumors, ever shifting memories, nostalgia, and superficial appearances, to generate a miasma where the idea of JonBenet resides.

The last scene of Casting JonBenet breaks with the tone and feel of the rest of the film and allows us to briefly indulge in the dream of JonBenet. In a hallway that we have come to clearly recognize as a set, a spot light appears and there is JonBenet. She is dressed in her gaudy finery with a long, feather, boa and metallic, gold sash. She is the embodiment of the American dream. She is the childish, fantasy version of the perfect woman. The fact that she is a little girl with smooth, tight, skin and bright, eyes is twisted into the youthful ideal that the fashion industry lords over its customers. She is innocent yet sexy, childlike but also like a woman. These are ideals held up for adult women to emulate. She is both innocence and lost innocence. She is a melodramatic and tragic beauty. She begins to sway and dance in the hazy light. The distant vantage point makes her seem untouchable, other worldly.

There she is, Miss America, the trademark song of beauty pageants, plays in the background as she preens. Every word stings with irony.

“There she is, Miss America
There she is, your ideal
The dream of a million girls who are more than pretty can come true in Atlantic City
For 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 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
There she is — Miss America”

The song is not about JonBonet, it is a generic song pinned on whoever wins the pageant but in Green’s film the song also serves as a sad homage to a dream Americans devoutly pursue. A Reaganesque vision of Charlton Heston and John Wayne dancing with Marlyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor in the isles of a glittering shopping mall. A polished vision of independence, self-sufficiency, freedom, strength and abundance. A melancholy fantasy of a world we somehow lost.

While we watch JonBonet dance she beckons us to join her in her dream world. Where sex, youth and prosperity twinkle in the air. She is there, at the end of the hall, just out of reach like an angel calling us to believe in glamor.

Glamor is an 18th century word that once referred to a magical illusion. Glamor was a spell that fairies and witches could caste to entice and deceive, This last scene in Casting JonBenet is the very essence of the word, It is not a witch that deceives us but our own sentimentality, our own desire for both the romantic and the gruesome. The grotesque image of her as a beauty queen is only matched by the horrific image of her as defiled and gory victim. Neither image comes close to depicting whoever she actually was. Kitty Green’s film waves a shimmering, fanciful goodbye to a girl who, like the American dream, never truly existed.

Writing this from inside the nightmare of Trump’s America this image of JonBonet seems like the demented vision one might expect to see dancing inside Trump supporter’s heads. It teases and , torments them. There is this beautiful America they have been separated from. They don’t understand it, they don’t know why they don’t have it, or how they lost it but it is there like a glowing Holly Grail calling to Percival. If only all the non-believers would get out of their way they could posses it and America could be great again.


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