Alienation and Distancing Make Lemon’s Lemonade

I think it was my junior year of college when I learned about “Brechtian Distancing.” It was part of my upperclassman adventures in electives, which included a healthy amount of German Cinema classes. Electives were in high demand that year and the professor who taught these classes was known to be mild-mannered, serious about learning and informative. It also didn’t hurt that he kinda looked like a retired Santa who loved movies so much he went back to school to teach it. Anyway, in one of these classes, we got to understand one Bertolt Brecht.

I’m bringing this up because I’m pretty sure “Brechtian Distancing” isn’t in your daily verbiage. And that’s fine. It’s somewhat niche as shit, despite its wide-ranging impact on a lot of media. So, I’ll explain.

A playwright of the Weimar Republic era of Germany (1919-1933), Brecht developed a theatrical theory/practice that would have a direct impact on media of the time, and the future. Called the “Verfremdungseffekt,” or “alienation effect,” this theory posited that you can create an entirely new experience in a medium by alienating or disturbing the status quo of said experience. In the case of theater, we’re supposed to experience a full immersion in the story, be enraptured by performances and suspend a bit of belief right?

Our boy Brecht said fuck that.

He’d yell stage directions during performances, employ harsher lighting than necessary and have actors directly address the crowd, among other things. This disruption of the traditional setting provided a new experience to an ancient medium, and new possibilities for acting technique, production and more. By breaking through the illusion of the medium, Brecht had revolutionized it for everyone involved. Of course, this also made its way to film.

While you don’t necessarily see the director in modern films yelling at actors, Brechtian influences and Brecht-esqe techniques manifest most often as fourth-wall breaking moments and themes on-screen. For, unlike a 4D experience (despite cinema’s latest attempts at such) of the theater, film is a self-contained world that we tune into. Thus, films had to work a bit harder to Brecht Things Up. Despite this, some great recent examples include Fantastic Mr. Fox, Spike’s reboot-cum-TV-pitch She’s Gotta Have It and The Killing of A Sacred Deer.

In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the ghost of our mans Brecht arises as a set of dialogue choices. Throughout the film, Anderson has all his characters speak what they’re thinking, and not just what we’d expect them to say as illusory characters. Additionally, there’s a running gag about being actual wild animals. Where we’d expect a character to naturally do something in this anthropomorphized world, they do the opposite. One moment all the creatures of the forest are toasting each other and exchanging pleasantries in tweed jackets, like humans. But the next, they savagely tear apart their food, like the animals they are.

It’s a seemingly incongruous experience that forces us to consider why we’d expect these supposed wild animals to be anything but, even as the film insists that they’re these whimsical characters in a traditional children’s story. At first glance, these could all be boxed as purely Andersonian tropes. But if you consider the lineage of Brecht’s influence and the sum effect of these moments, it’s hard not to say “that there’s some Brechtian shit.”

In She’s Gotta Have It, Spike engages in a florid form of Brechtian techniques. [Author’s Note: I’ve personally coined it “post-arthouse arthouse,” but that’s another story entirely.] From utilizing arial font text floating out of and around Nola’s head during an extended static shot, to punctuating every key musical cue with an interstitial of the song’s album cover, Spike’s entire approach is about disruption and flamboyant, jazz-inflected excess.

A still image from the spinning scene in the 2017 Spike Lee Netflix Show, She's Gotta Have It.
Oh, Nola. Courtesy of Netflix

Sloppy though it may seem, it’s effective nonetheless in forcing us to watch She’s Gotta Have It as both a story-driven project and a living document of extra-textual experiences (Spike’s other films, important black music, art and artists, etc). What specifically makes it Brechtian is that, rather than subtly insert these various things into the show, he has specifically made them discordant. He displays them as layers on top of the accepted stylistic and formal format of “Modern TV Show,” in often absurdist ways. This disrupts the passive viewing experience–by disrupting our expectations–forcing us to engage whatever message he’s chosen to throw our way.

I’ve written an entire essay on The Killing of A Sacred Deer, so I’ll just quote myself:

“By having Farrell & co perform almost unnecessary lines of thought, in a robotic, nearly cold way, we are at once completely attentive to what’s being said and completely unable to find any human connection to the players. It’s an interesting way to create tension in the audience’s experience.

At times we’re horrified by Martin’s arcane power, at other times we’re unable to emotionally connect with Steven’s plight, and we even giggle whilst Steven’s children literally beg for their lives. The consummate experience is deeply horrific. Not just for us, but in the meta sense: some of our reactions are incongruent with the matter at hand and that’s scary unto itself.”

By forcing us to sit with everything his characters are thinking and directing them to relate, but not exactly so, Lanthimos creates a consistent barrier to immersion. Which, you guessed it: is Brechtian.

So now that I’ve armed you with a few concrete examples of Brecht on Film™, let’s dive into Lemon.

Left to Right: Janicza Bravo, Brett Gelman, actress who plays the photographer.
Janicza Bravo engaging her actors. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Directed by Janicza Bravo, Lemon centers on Isaac, a complete failure of a human being. In the moment we meet him, Issac is losing, or about to lose, everything: his girlfriend, Ramona (Judy Greer) decides to leave him for a younger dude, his acting students–Alex (Michael Cera) and Tracy (Gillian Jacobs)– are more successful than and annoying him, respectively, and his fleeting attempts at re-entering the acting world culminate with some sad campaigns. Lemon methodically walks us through each new low, artfully illustrating just how defective Isaac (and his world) is.

What stands out about Lemon is that the direction, staging and acting styles are all beautifully Brechtian. Each character speaks flatly, directly, about what they’re thinking, in addition to lines you’d expect from fictional characters. And this is treated as normal. The result is a severe distancing from the illusory narrative world. Instead of seeing characters interacting in some organic world, we see people painfully going through the motions in concert with one another. Which, given our examples above, is not unlike The Killing of A Sacred Deer. However, Lemon and Sacred Deer share this set of techniques and effects to provide different intended effects. Sacred Deer seeks to distance and terrify, causing a meta experience for the audience: we’re horrified by the humor we’re almost forced to find in the absurdity of the dark tale.

In a bit of a pivot, Lemon is about presenting humor while supplying horror and insightful disdain. Isaac is your classic unlikeable but inadvertently “funny” white male character. And, his comments and situations are standard dark-comedy fodder. But when we’re not allowed to experience his mishaps as purely passive viewers–—when we have to do the work of experiencing the film as both mechanical act of people on a stage, in a story and illusion——the innately grotesque functions of his life become apparent.

Isaac is grossly misogynist and antagonistic to Tracy in acting class and Ramona; his family supports him but despises him and each other; his sister adopts a black son out of curiosity and racial burden, not love; he is hopelessly racist with a black woman, Cleo (Nia Long), and stalks her incessantly; and, when jilted by Alex, he expresses racist and homoerotic rage. Altogether, he sucks. And Lemon illustrates this with insightful precision. Two scenes in particular, within a larger set of scenes that mirror each other, strike me as excellent examples of this.

A still from the family dinner scene in the 2017 dark comedy by Janicza Bravo, Lemon.
Passover looks fun. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

At the beginning of the final act, Isaac visits his parents and family for a Passover celebration. It’s fraught with familial intrigue: his father is borderline abusive to his mother, his twin nieces are completely ignorant to the concept of his nephew’s blackness, and a family friend is spiraling at the prospect of divorce. However, the best part may be a strange musical interlude. Near the end of the night, the family gathers around the piano to sing a song. But because we’re playing in Brechtian waters, the staging is very particular. In a wide shot with shallow depth of field, Bravo is able to flatly stage all the players in the frame and silo their actions. Even those who are physically moving stay in one particular area.

What’s even stranger is Isaac. He sits in the foreground, singing while sitting completely still. It’s the centerpiece of a discordant scene that physically illustrates the disillusionment and disconnection of family ties, whilst draining any form of happiness that the song is supposed to emulate. By creating a still life out of what should be a vibrant, jovial moment, Bravo disrupts the illusion of even a semblance of happiness in the narrative. This forces us to pay attention to what’s actually going on; a surfacing of the explicit at the expense of what would be the implicit.

Isaac’s world is nearly all-white until the end of the film, wherein he pursues a “romance” with Cleo. After a couple terrible dates, Cleo semi-invites Isaac to a family BBQ. Arriving with her, Isaac soon learns that her family is deeply black and west indian. As the day goes on, Isaac spirals out of control as he struggles to be the Good White Liberal™ we know all too well. Thanks to the Brechtian approach, we’re given access to Isaac’s thoughts at each juncture because he spits them out. “I wasn’t told there’d be accents.” he says, as he meets Cleo’s uncle.

Nia Long as "Cleo" in the 2017 dark comedy by Janicza Bravo, Lemon.
Nia Long is so fine. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

It’s a tone-setting comment that de-normalizes Isaac while normalizing Cleo’s family. [Author’s Note: Another interesting point of normalization is that there is an entire scene dedicated to naming each family member.] This cycle continues in subsequent scenes. In spite of Isaac’s disruptive nature, the family proceeds, uninterrupted. They cook. They tell stories. They share food. And Isaac just continues to bumble about amongst them. The sum effect is empathy for the family whilst we come to despise Isaac. It’s an inversion of the fish-out-of-water scenario, bringing his lack of humanity and couth into focus.

Who is this greasy white guy?

Why can’t he be a normal person?

Look at how inexperienced he is with black people.

As he rotates from embarrassing, borderline racist moment to another, we come to understand just how ill-equipped Isaac is as a (white) person. In these moments, he is the titular lemon–an intrinsically broken thing– that we’re presented without pity.

Of course, the root of all these effects is mental access. By directing Isaac to speak what he’s thinking, Bravo purposefully exacerbates the already tenuous relationship between characters, disrupting the accepted narrative of “lol this white guy is just well-meaning and hopelessly needy.” She forces us to explore the more uncomfortable arenas of race relations and interpersonal communication. Isaac becomes a case study in concert–an incomplete man amongst complete people–and not just a character on film. It’s instructive and a useful application of Brechtian distancing that makes the shitty ending that much more impactful.

Both situations–and the film at large–reveal Lemon to be an insightful critique and meta-critique. The former is of the state of white male mediocrity (as noted in this piece on Shadow and Act), and the latter is an incisive look at our acceptance of such characters in these illusory narrative worlds. By stripping away the fog of movie magic, Lemon asks us to ask ourselves: what exactly about these often abusive, morally corrupt and defunct (white) characters is funny, exactly? Why do we give them so much narrative imagination and space to exist? Are they actually worthy of our time? This of course begets a follow-up question: are these people, IRL, worthy of our time? If anything is true, it’s that by its closing, Lemon undoubtedly provides at least one of these questions with a definitive and resonant answer.

these boots mine.Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following:  IG | Twitter