Bertolt, Neon Demons and American Gods

Jason’s comment that the Brecht-ian concepts are somewhat lost to us because they have become the norm in our lives is quite applicable to me; I had a hard time understanding why his revolutionary form of theatre was, in fact, so revolutionary. I therefore explored some of the ways in which Brecht’s theories on theatre can be found in some of the literature and films that I have come across of late.

What immediately sprung to mind was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, which I watched recently. Of all the catchphrases that I took from Monday’s lecture, the one about strange becomes familiar was most applicable to the movie. The opening scene serves as an example: Elle Fanning playing a lone, underaged model lies motionless on a couch, covered in blood, surrounded by a surreal and unnatural studio set-up.

No effort is made here to make the viewer feel comfortable or natural; watching this, I found myself drawing back from the film rather than pulled into it. If Refn’s purpose was to recreate Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, then he succeeded with me. Another example of the surreal intruding into the film is when Fanning returns to her motel room one night to find that a wild mountain lion has broken in and torn through her belongings. The entire movie is scattered with such unnatural and plainly weird examples of motifs and mise en scène, of which the pictures in Monday’s lecture of odd set designs reminded me. I was also able to read elements of Brecht’s theory on Gestus into the film. As the film progresses, the main character becomes less easy to empathise with; she loses her humanity and begins resembling an ideal more than a person: Ambition, perhaps. Rather than add to her complexity to draw a viewer in, Refn seems to take away from the relatable parts of her characters, so that a viewer can see her objectively. After finishing the film, I felt dissatisfied and thought of it as quite superficial. Only after learning about epic theatre and it’s methods and goals did I re-evaluate the film; it concerns itself with the superficiality of high fashion. Maybe the pretty and mesmerising, yet shallow, scenes are meant to make a viewer criticise the empty glamour of the industry. In any case, Brecht-ian methods were applied in the film.

When we discussed the Gestus and abstraction of characters, I also thought of American Gods, a book by Neil Gamain that I read a while back. The story follows a man named Shadow as he is introduced to the world of the American Gods. Gamain’s gods relate to Brecht’s epic theatre in the sense that each one represents something that humans worship in the world, be it an ancient Egyptian deity or ‘the TV’. In the book, the ‘old’ gods are at war with the ‘new’ ones (money, sex, etc.). The novel relates to Brecht’s epic theatre not in the methods used by Gamain in it, but more superficially in this dimension of characters who are abstracted to represent one ‘thing’ or concept. Nonetheless, the story provided food for thought on the direction that modern society is going and the way that we worship useless and artificial things, so whether it was Gamain’s purpose or not he succeeded in making me as a reader question circumstances outside of the text.

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