The Sandbox Alienation (Distancing) Effect

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The Sandbox Alienation (Distancing) Effect

Post by Rachid Amri on Sat Mar 08, 2008 2:55 pm

The distancing effect (from the German Verfremdungseffekt) is a theatrical and cinematic device "which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer."[1] The term was coined by playwright Bertolt Brecht to describe the aesthetics of epic theatre.

Contents
1 Origin
2 Techniques
3 Notes
4 See also

Origin
The term of Verfremdungseffekt is rooted in the Russian Formalist notion of the device of making strange or "priem ostranenie"[2], which literary critic Viktor Shklovsky claims is the essence of all art. Not long after seeing a performance by Mei Lanfang's company in Moscow in the spring of 1935[3], Brecht coined the German term to label an approach to theater that discouraged involving the audience in an illusory narrative world and in the emotions of the characters. Brecht thought the audience required an emotional distance to reflect on what is being presented in critical and objective ways, rather than being taken out of themselves as conventional entertainment attempts to do.

The proper English translation of Verfremdungseffekt is a matter of controversy. The word is sometimes rendered as defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation, distancing effect or alienation effect. Fredric Jameson, in his book Brecht and Method, translates it as "the V-effekt", and many scholars simply leave the word untranslated.

The term has also been translated as alienation effect and, recently, "theatrical alienation." It most likely derives from a literal translation of its origin, making strange, which when studied in comparison to modern English, infers an act of alienation. The word in German is immediately understood both for its meaning of distance or alienation and also for its theatrical context. Hence, "theatrical alienation." Brecht wanted his audiences to become empathic observers, he wanted them to leave the theatre not sympathizing with the characters, but understanding the wrongdoing that occurred in the situation. It is only by being 'distanced' that the audience can be free to do this, if they were to be alienated they would not feel empowered to try and change the world, which was Brecht's goal and the driving force behind his drama.

Techniques
The distancing effect is achieved by the way the "artist never acts as if there were a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him [...] The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place." [4] The use of direct audience-address is one way of disrupting stage illusion and generating the distancing effect. In performance the performer "observes himself"; his object "to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work."[5] To this day it is often a source of confusion when teaching performance as to whether the distancing effect is in relation to the audience or the actor.

By disclosing and making obvious the manipulative contrivances and "fictive" qualities of the medium, the viewer is alienated from any passive acceptance and enjoyment of the film as mere "entertainment". Instead, the viewer is forced into a critical, analytical frame of mind that serves to disabuse him of the notion that what he is watching is necessarily an inviolable, self-contained narrative. This alienation effect serves a didactic function insofar as it teaches the viewer not to take the style and content for granted, since the medium itself is highly constructed and contingent upon many cultural and economic conditions.

In theater, musical and pantomimic effects are used as barriers to empathy; in film, self-reflective film techniques are employed to disrupt the narrative flow and break the fourth wall to draw attention to the film-making process itself by addressing the viewer.

Rachid Amri
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