[ATTENTION READERS! This is a SPOILER ALERT for Life of Pi and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2. I will discuss the ending of both of these books/movies in this post.]
I recently had the pleasure of seeing Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 in the theater recently. No, I don’t mean that sarcastically. Even though I’m far from a Twilight fan, I actually enjoyed the experience. Here’s why: this movie and its twist ending offers an excellent opportunity to explore the concept of the Distancing Affect, Verfremdungseffekt, or, as we like to call it here on Overthinking It, Brechtian Alienation.
Scary terminology, I know. Let me break it down for you. Most of the time, when watching a movie, TV show, or play, we, the audience, are meant to experience the narrative as if we are direct observers of events. In the case of movies and TV, we see what the camera sees, but we’re not thinking in terms of actors and cameras; we’re thinking strictly in terms of the story that we’re seeing unfold before our eyes. When we see the Death Star blow up, we surrender ourselves to the story, and we celebrate along with Luke, Han, and the Ewoks.
Other times, though, a movie, TV show, or play breaks out of simple narrative storytelling and intentionally reminds us of the fact that we’re observing a contrived setup of actors, lines, lights, and cameras. Sometimes it’s a jarring breaking of the fourth wall, when a character directly addresses the audience. Other times, it’s a more subtle reminder of the contrivance, such as blood splattering on a camera lens.
Why is there a camera lens to be splattered upon in this bloody dismemberment scene? Oh, right. Because this is just a movie, not an actual bloody dismemberment scene. It’s called “alienation” because in these moments, we are separated from what is otherwise an immersive, intimate relationship with the story.
(As for the “Brecht” part of “Brechtian Alienation,” all you need to know is that Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright and the first person to articulate this theory. And that using the phrase “Brechtian Alienation” is both easier to spell than “Verfremdungseffekt” and more impressive-sounding than “distancing effect.”)
That’s the “what” of Brechtian Alienation. We’ll get to the “why” in a moment, but first, we describe the intense moment of alienation in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (which I will subsequently abbreviate as TBD2, because let’s be honest: it’s the second most ridiculous name in this movie after “Renesmee,” but not by much).
(Oh, and, last spoiler alert for TBD2!)
In the closing act of TBD2, we see the two opposing vampire groups gather for the climactic showdown. Alice, the clairvoyant vampire, attempts to reason with the Volturi, who have come to kill Edward and Bella’s daughter, Renesmee. Alice fails, and all hell breaks loose. Major character after major character die, often in dramatic fashion, including the Big Bad himself, Aro, at the hands of Edward and Bella.
Except not. As Aro dies, the camera flashes back to the point where Alice is trying to reason with Aro. It turns out that the epic battle was all in their heads. The events that we, as an audience, had just seen and accepted as true were all just part of Alice’s vision of the future, and Aro, having seen that vision, decided against a course of action that would have brought about his demise. The Volturi depart without a fight.
Why did we just buy into twenty minutes of intense action and death-by-decapitation, only to be told that none of this actually happened? Oh, right. Because this is just a movie, not an actual tense vampire stand-off in the forest.
This is as alienating as, if not more than, a breach of the fourth wall. We all know that movies are manipulative; that cinematic storytelling, with all of its swelling music and slow motion, manipulates us into having strong feelings for a fictional, constructed, made-up story. But we don’t think about this while being manipulated; we let ourselves be manipulated because we surrender ourselves to the story, at least until the lights come up. The sudden reversal of events in TBD2 jerks the audience out of the story and reminds us of the manipulation at hand in a way that is supremely alienating. It creates miles of distance between the audience and the story.
Brecht would be proud.
Or would he? Let’s get down to the “why” of Brechtian Alienation. We’ve just established that sometimes storytellers intentionally create distance between the audience and the story by calling into attention the constructed nature of the medium. But why would they do such a thing? Wouldn’t doing so cheapen the effect of the story that they’re trying to sell to the audience?
Not necessarily. Brechtian Alienation is meant to make the audience step back and appreciate the constructed quality of a story, ideally in a way that highlights the ideas that the author is trying to communicate. Take, for example, another highly anticipated movie adaptation of a novel that recently hit theaters: Life of Pi. The bulk of the movie is spent telling the story of how a young man survives on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days. However, at the end, the movie strongly suggests that these events may not have happened at all and that the narrator fabricated the tiger story to mask the darker true story, one that involved the murder of three other human passengers on the lifeboat, including his mother.
As was the case in TBD2, the reveal of this ambiguity is intensely alienating. After the emotional investment in the story of the unlikely bond that slowly develops between the tiger and the narrator, we are yanked out of that story and presented with the possibility that those events didn’t happen at all. But this isn’t done just to mess with the audience; it’s done to advance the central idea of Life of Pi, which is that sometimes the beauty and strength of a story is not simply a function of how true or untrue it is. (Also, something about proving that God exists, but I didn’t totally wrap my mind around that. Moving on!)
The act of Brechtian alienation is essential to communicating the core idea of Life of Pi to the audience. Can we say the same thing about TBD2, and Twilight writ large? That depends on what you think the core idea of Twilight is. If you think it’s “love conquers all,” then no, Brechtian alienation doesn’t help at all. Allowing the audience to put critical distance between itself and the love story only serves to remind the audience how over-the-top and unrealistic the love story is.
But if you think the core idea of Twilight is growing up from adolescence into adulthood, then we may be onto something. During the course of the Twilight series, Bella transformed from an awkward teenage girl into an immortal vampire woman and mother. Likewise, during the course of Twilight’s transition from book to screen, the movies started as excruciatingly awkward and low budget affairs but eventually grew into something that could more plausibly stand on its own as entertainment. But for the movies to really make it to “adulthood,” they had to move beyond the “adolesecence” of the storytelling constraints of the books. And what better way to do that than by employing Brechtian alienation to defy audience expectations and call attention to the constructed, filmic, decidedly non-book-like nature of the climax to the last movie?
You can call it a stretch, but I honestly think there’s some plausibility to this theory. Director Bill Condon is far from an unsophisticated filmmaker; he wrote or directed three Oscar winners: Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls, and Chicago. The guy may not have always have Verfremdungseffekt on the mind, but he certainly knows what gets an audience to surrender to a story versus what alienates an audience from a story.
I’m only willing to go so far in my justification for the Brechtian Alienation in this movie. It’s interesting and thought-provoking (as these 1,400 words and references to Life of Pi would indicate), but not so masterfully executed that I can praise it. It didn’t feel good to be jerked out of the story so abruptly. As a result of this alienation, I did feel a little bit cheated/disrespected as an audience member, and based on the reviews on IMDB.com, it seems many others felt the same way.
But in the spirit of Brecht, I did take advantage of this moment of alienation from the story to dispassionately assess the creative work from a distance, and for that, I am glad that I saw this movie. Did you? If so, I hope you’ll join in this alienated discourse and share your distanced thoughts in the comments.