22 April 2016
Reflexivity and Authenticity in Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete
On January 30th, 2016, without any prior announcement, comedian Louis C.K. released the first episode of Horace and Pete via his personal website. On February 4th 2016, C.K. added an “about” letter to his website in which he states:
Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself. As a writer, there’s always a weird feeling that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.
Also because we are shooting this show in a multi-camera format with an emphasis on a live feeling, we are able to post it very soon after each episode is shot. So I’m making this show as you’re watching it. (louisck.net)
Horace and Pete is sparsely edited and shot in long takes to preserve that “live feeling” (C.K.). C.K. as Horace often over-emphasizes his facial expressions as if he were performing for the back row. The show takes place over two acts and each episode contains an intermission. The addition of cameras to what feels like a staged theatre piece calls attention to the artificiality of performance itself. Without the refinement of heavy editing, close-up shots conflate the audience’s expectations of theatre and their expectations of television. In addition, the show’s paucity of editing creates an immediate disparity between Horace and Pete and more traditional multi-camera programs. Its long takes and bare production stand out against heavily edited sitcoms as well as television shows that have adopted the popular “mocumentary” trend. C.K. opts for self-reflexivity over feigned realism. He achieves Bertolt Brecht’s “Verfremdungseffekt” or distancing effect by including flubbed lines in the final cuts of episodes, calling attention to the staged feel of the show, casting actors in multiple roles, and sometimes breaking the fourth wall. Artificiality becomes central to the content and plot of Horace and Pete as well. Throughout the ten episode series, C.K. presents a constant barrage of revelations. As some truths are revealed, others are called into question: Can pills generate true happiness? Can we tell a person’s gender from their appearance? Is the beer really apple juice? Through this constant engagement with and attack on artificiality, Horace and Pete arrives at authenticity. Although C.K. employs Brecht’s self-reflexive methods, his goal is not to create an active audience who will leave their computer screens to do his political bidding. Brecht theorized that his “Verfremdungseffekt” would cause audiences to notice similarities between the constructed and therefore changeable nature of his plays and the constructed and changeable nature of their sociopolitical circumstances. C.K. uses Brecht’s distancing effect to establish similarities between performance on stage and screen and the inevitably performative quality of all human interaction.
Horace and Pete locates the face as a site of both deception and credibility. The ability to read and interpret faces becomes integral to the discovery of truth for characters within the show. C.K. repeatedly points out that characters who are unable to physically see or accurately interpret faces cannot be fully informed. Familial resemblance or the lack thereof becomes a communicator of truth. And yet, we as spectators become acutely aware that none of the actors are truly related. In a single motion, we are asked to both suspend disbelief and contend with skepticism. While Brecht advocates for a move away from Aristotelian drama and emotional realism, Horace and Pete offers several verisimilar, emotional performances among a number of histrionic performances. C.K. creates constant tension between Brechtian distance and staunch emotional realism. Each moment of emotional realism is undercut by a moment of absurdity or self-reflexivity. Horace and Pete understands that it is impossible to achieve authenticity while attempting to mimic reality. C.K. chooses not to lie, not to pretend that he can capture reality on film, and in doing so he establishes a sense of trust with his audience. C.K. exposes the artifice behind representation and asks his audiences to engage with the emotional content of the show anyway. By heightening our awareness of the performed quality of his show, C.K. heightens our awareness of the performative nature of all communication. By allowing us to engage emotionally with the show despite that awareness, he demonstrates that harmony and connection are possible despite artifice.
Illusions and hallucinations feature heavily in Horace and Pete. Pete’s mental health issues cause him to see “a snake headed thing” with big teeth in the first episode of the show. Throughout the series, both illusions and hallucinations are depicted as upsetting, frightening, and unwelcome. In Episode 8, Pete learns that Propetol, the antipsychotic drug he has been taking, is being recalled due to adverse side effects. Following this news, Pete explains, “There are monsters that you gotta look at whether your eyes are open or closed and y’know they’re made of your very own fears. They never leave you alone and you never get used to it.” (Episode 8) When Horace replies, “It’s not as bad as you’re saying it is” and suggests that Pete could “fight against it in [his] mind,” Pete says, “you’re just saying that because you saw A Beautiful Mind and now everybody thinks you can just learn to live with it. Yeah, well that guy had a little girl following him around and two weird guys; try the floor has teeth and it’s biting you.” (Episode 8) Steve Buscemi as Pete criticizes an Oscar winning biographical drama for falsely representing schizophrenia. A Beautiful Mind does not self-reflexively call attention to its inaccuracies. Although director Ron Howard admits that the film was never meant to be a literal representation of schizophrenia or John Nash’s life, A Beautiful Mind was shot and marketed as a traditional drama. Audiences expected the film to provide insight into mental illness and Nash’s experience. Horace and Pete’s serious discussion about Pete’s prognosis is immediately followed by Tricia’s entrance into the bar. Tricia as a character perfectly embodies C.K.’s careful juxtaposition of sincerity and absurdity. Her relationship with Pete is nuanced and loving, and Maria Dizzia delivers an honest, verisimilar performance, yet Tricia’s vulgar, exaggerated outbursts (due to Tourette’s Syndrome) play as constructed and absurd. Her exclamation, “fifteen cocks and cunts in the market” (Episode 8), interrupts Horace and Pete. It cuts the emotional tension of the moment and reminds viewers that they are watching a performance. In A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht writes:
This detached state, where [the audience] seem[s] to be given over to vague but profound sensations, grows deeper the better the work of the actors, and so we, as we do not approve of this situation, should like them to be as bad as possible. As for the world portrayed there, the world from which slices are cut in order to produce these moods and movements of the emotions, its appearance is such, produced from such slight and wretched stuff as a few pieces of cardboard, a little miming, a bit of text, that one has to admire the theatre folk who, with so feeble a reflection of the real world, can move the feelings of their audience so much more strongly than does the world itself. (Brecht 6)
Brecht opposed Aristotelian catharsis as well as the emotional trance it creates. His plays reveal their artifice in order to dissuade from emotional engagement and ultimately distance or alienate audiences. Brecht sought to prevent illusion. He claimed that causing audiences to view the play objectively and critically would lead them to realize their own ability and responsibility to take social action in the world beyond the theatre. While Tricia’s outburst can be read as an instance of “Verfremdungseffekt,” C.K. allows viewers to “be given over to vague but profound sensations” before her entrance (Brecht 6). The structure of this scene in Episode 8 closely resembles a scene in Episode 1 in which an emotional discussion between Horace and his daughter is immediately followed by an absurd and jarring monologue from a recently released convict. Horace and Pete avoids the emotional realism of A Beautiful Mind but does not entirely adhere to Brecht’s ideology. By allowing audiences to feel pathos for Pete and become emotionally invested in his character, C.K. shows that empathy and an awareness of performativity can be generated simultaneously.
Pete’s monstrous hallucinations are never made visible on screen like the hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind; however, in Episode 2, Horace’s hallucination of his father’s lover, Marsha, appears fully realized. The first time Horace has a hallucination of Marsha at the beginning of the episode, it is not made clear whether their interaction is real in the context of the show or not. Later in the episode, Jessica Lange playing Horace’s hallucination of Marsha enters Horace’s apartment and the two characters discuss Horace’s sexual fantasies. Horace asks Marsha, “do you have any, like, gross fantasies?” to which she responds, “why don’t you go down and ask her.” Horace replies, “Oh yeah, you’re me.” C.K. allows his viewers to believe that Horace has a real sexual encounter with Marsha at the beginning of the episode before he later reveals that this version of Marsha is part of Horace’s imagination. This trick acts as a warning to viewers early in the series. We are not to trust appearances; everything is not as it seems. However, C.K. doesn’t maintain the illusion. He is ultimately honest with the audience. The Oedipal tone of this scene in combination with its self -reflexivity also connects Brecht’s epic theatre to traditional Aristotelian drama. Brecht criticizes Oedipus, the archetypal Aristotelian tragedy, for its emphasis on fate and its inability to portray society as changeable: “The theatre as we know it shows the structure of society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium). Oedipus, who offended against certain principles underlying the society of his time, is executed” (Brecht 7). C.K. adapts Oedipus into a fantastical conversation in which Horace, the Oedipal figure, understands that this sexualized version of father’s girlfriend is a product of his own mind and therefore both infinitely changeable and inherently constructed.
In the first half of the final episode of the series, C.K. plays Horace’s father, Horace the 7th, and Steve Buscemi plays a younger version of Alan Alda’s character, Uncle Pete. A different group of customers sit at the bar, one among them played by magician David Blaine. After young Uncle Pete asks Blaine’s character to pay for his drinks, Blaine performs a magic trick. He turns a one dollar bill into a twenty dollar bill in front of Uncle Pete and his customers. Uncle Pete’s responds by demanding to see how the trick was done. Blaine’s character answers, “I don’t know any tricks. I just watch nature happen.” (Episode 10) He then breaks a glass with his teeth before Horace and Uncle Pete throw him out of the bar. Illusions without explanation are not welcome at Horace and Pete’s bar, nor are they welcome in Louis C.K.’s series. In this scene, C.K. disturbs the illusion of Horace and Pete itself with double casting. In A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht writes:
This principle — that the actor appears on the stage in a double role, as Laughton and as Galileo; that the showman Laughton does not disappear in the Galileo whom he is showing; from which this way of acting gets its name of ’epic’ — comes to mean simply that the tangible, matter-of-fact process is no longer hidden behind a veil; that Laughton is actually there, standing on the stage and showing us what he imagines Galileo to have been. (Brecht 9-10)
For Brecht, double casting is another way of revealing the constructed nature of drama to audiences. It causes audiences to become hyper-aware of the performed nature of the action on stage. C.K. uses double casting, like Brecht, to show the “matter-of-fact process… behind [the] veil” (Brecht 10).
In Episode 9, a hallucinatory conversation takes place between Pete, who has gone missing, and Uncle Pete, who committed suicide several episodes earlier. Uncle Pete tells Pete about his childhood and the time he chose to play hockey instead of baseball. Uncle Pete asks Pete if he remembers the incident, and when Pete says that he does, Uncle Pete replies, “No you don’t. Because it never happened” (Episode 9). They continue:
“What? No. I remember it.”
“No, you just crazied that up. That never happened any more than you were chased by that fucking snake in the Port Authority, that first time when they put you in the hospital.”
“ Or any more than any of this is real here.” (Episode 9)
Here C.K. displays unreality on multiple levels. Uncle Pete is a figment of Pete’s imagination causing Pete to question his own perception of reality in a hallucination in a fictional series. In this scene, C.K. heightens Brecht’s alienation effect by calling into question not only the representation of reality on screen, but also how the characters on screen represent reality to themselves. We as viewers are simultaneously compelled to empathize with Pete’s condition and realize the highly constructed and meta-fictional nature of the scene. Pete reveals to viewers that he knows he is hallucinating. Uncle Pete says, “Why do you think you're here? I mean, you know you're not here, right?” Pete replies, “I know. I know” (Episode 9). Uncle Pete reminds both Pete and C.K.’s audience that the action on screen is not real. Pete’s response mirrors our own. This is the penultimate episode of the series and we know by now to be skeptical of appearances. As the episode ends, Pete asks his father, “But can you just let me have this right now? Would you please? Just let me have it. Just a little piece.” Uncle Pete replies, “Okay, son. You go ahead and have it. And you sure did play hockey. I was just fucking with you” (Episode 9). Uncle Pete gives Pete (or rather Pete gives himself) a moment of catharsis, and somewhere in between the layers of illusion and disclosure, C.K. allows us to become emotionally attached to the characters on screen. Although we are aware that we are watching an actor perform a hallucinatory version of a fictional character, we are allowed to “have this right now… Just a little piece” (Episode 9).
Horace and Pete constantly considers the performativity and readability of facial expressions. In Episode 1, Horace and his daughter, Alice, discuss Horace’s inability to read the complexities of the human face. Alice tells her father, “No, it's like, you are not aware of anything, you know? You, like, look at a person's face, and if they're smiling, you're fine, and if they're not, then you're sad.” Horace replies, “It-- isn't that normal?” Alice answers, “Yeah, for a five-year-old, but you're 50, you know?” (Episode 1). Alice understands that outward expressions of emotion are performed and are not accurate representations of true or authentic emotion. In the next episode, Uncle Pete discusses his friend’s experience of liberating a concentration camp during WWII. Uncle Pete tells his customers,
He's walking into the camp with his platoon and they see all these people starving and dying, you know? And the whole platoon starts crying, only he can't cry. He's not crying 'cause he's, you know, he's stunned. He can't get a tear out. And everybody's, you know, crying their eyes out and the camp prisoners are all just looking at these people crying and he still can't cry. So he feels, like, self-conscious and guilty, you know? So he starts trying to think about things, like his mother or his kids, you know? Still can't cry. Finally, he thinks of "Bambi.
Yeah, it came out in 1942, you know, right before he shipped off to war.
So he's thinking about how Bambi's mother was shot, you know? Cries like a baby. (Episode 2)
Although Uncle Pete’s friend felt genuine emotion, he wasn’t able to accurately display that emotion on his face. In order to achieve an appropriate facial response, he summoned the memory of a sad cartoon. Uncle Pete’s anecdote re-enforces Alice’s conception of facial expressions as artificial and performative. Uncle Pete’s friend uses a method acting technique to help him emote in a real situation. In Training and Exercises Lee Strasberg, the leading figure in the development of method acting, writes, “Re-living a specific traumatic or joyful emotional experience is the way to access a sequence of behavior and express emotions when certain scenes are particularly demanding. The emotional memory is the actor’s weapon to create a complete reality on stage” (Strasberg 27). Uncle Pete’s retelling of his friend’s experience establishes a connection between the way actors in Horace and Pete perform and the way all people perform emotion as a form of communication. Leon, a customer at Horace and Pete’s, tells Uncle Pete that he “did the opposite”:
“I was watching "Bambi" with this girl I was seeing, she was a ballerina. And when Bambi's mother got shot, she started crying, the ballerina. And I wanted to cry with her, you know, to show her I had feelings, but-- but I didn't care.”
“Wait, so what, you used the Holocaust so that you could cry about Bambi?”
“It's sad. Isn't it sad?”
“Which one, "Bambi" or the Holocaust?”
“It's sad that it's so hard to show your feelings when you really want to”
Again, a character admits to using a method-acting technique in order to convey a situationally appropriate emotion. In both cases, characters understand crying as a form of communication. They don’t cry because it is a natural expression of emotion but because it is necessary for the communication of emotion to others. Performance is portrayed as necessary for human connection. Horace and Pete’s self-reflexivity and persistent exposure of illusion allows viewers to recognize illusion and performativity in all human interaction. However, C.K. allows certain components of Aristotelian drama into Horace and Pete including climactic catharsis, narrative structure, tragic characters and “incidents arousing pity and fear” (Aristotle 9). By combining dramatic theatre and epic theatre in a filmed production, C.K. exposes the shortcomings of both while constructing a new “theatre” that addresses performativity and artificiality without minimizing “our enjoyment of the theatre” (Brecht 3).
Episode 3 opens with a nearly ten minute monologue shot in uninterrupted close-up. Horace’s ex-wife, Sarah, played by Laurie Metcalf, tells an off-screen listener (later revealed to be Horace) about her ongoing affair with her new husband’s father. Metcalf’s believable, naturalistic acting is made even more impressive by the uncut and unadorned presentation of the scene. After Metcalf’s intense and graphic monologue, C.K. cuts to a close-up shot of Horace’s stunned face. The close-up of Horace reveals C.K.’s not quite stage— but not quite screen acting style. C.K.’s facial expressions as Horace are less subtle than Metcalf’s. He gapes, open-mouthed, squints, furrows his brow, and frowns in close up. Often C.K. provides a quick close-up shot of Horace’s facial expression; however Horace’s verbal reactions to Sarah’s confession often happen while Horace’s face is off camera. Horace says, “you never lied to me” (Episode 3) during a close-up shot of Sarah. C.K. includes close-up shots of Horace purposefully to show and magnify his facial expressions, not simply because he is delivering a line at a given moment. These two characters in conversation personify the dialogue that Horace and Pete creates between epic theatre and dramatic theatre. This subtle juxtaposition acts as an equalizer of two opposing acting styles. Although Metcalf’s acting is superb, nuanced, and naturalistic, it calls attention to itself as an achievement in performance because of the unedited, theatrical tone of the show. Because Horace and Pete does not often make use of close-up shots, Metcalf’s long close-up monologue stands out as a magnified performance. C.K.’s comparatively more histrionic performance also calls attention to itself as acted.
Sarah tells Horace about her sexual encounters with her father in law, Roger. She mentions that on one occasion, Roger was doing housework downstairs while she stayed upstairs. She reports that the two of them participated in mutual masturbation while they were on different floors of the house:
I start touching myself and I let my own sounds drowned out his and I assumed that he’s doing the same but of course I don’t know. I don’t know anything. For all I know he’s guessing what I’m doing up there and the poor guy is just sitting there totally shocked or he has no idea that any of this is going on. (Episode 3)
Because Sarah is unable to see Roger’s face, she feels as though she is lacking vital information. She is guessing at his intentions and emotions. Throughout Horace and Pete, C.K. shows that faces and facial expressions have the ability to communicate necessary truths. Although both C.K. and Metcalf’s performances in this scene emphasize performativity as a function of human interaction, Sarah’s story shows that without access to the faces of other people, it becomes even more difficult to interact effectively. Although Horace and Pete establishes that facial expressions are ultimately artificial and constructed, the show also reveals the face’s ability to communicate concealed truths. In Episode 7, Horace tells Rhonda that he got his ex-wife, Sarah and her sister, Rosemary pregnant at the same time. Rosemary “took off” and Sarah raised both children on her own. When Rhonda asks if the children found out, Horace replies, “you can lie to kids about who their mom is, you can actually pull that off, but, uh, you can't pretend that they're twins” (Episode 7). While technically fraternal twins would be no more identical than ordinary siblings, Horace suggests that a lack of resemblance between his children prevented him from lying to them. Horace’s children do not resemble each other and their facial differences reveal the truth of their parentage. Familial lineage recurs as a theme throughout Horace and Pete, however, because of the self-reflexive tone of the show and its constant unveiling of artificiality, audiences become acutely aware that none of the actors in the show are actually related to each other. Horace’s assertion that it’s possible to lie about family relationships reminds audiences that Horace and Pete presents Louis C.K. and Edie Falco as full siblings even though they are not truly related. This lack of resemblance between characters who are supposed to be related appears in C.K.’s earlier work as well. In his FX show, Louie, Susan Kelechi Watson, a black actress, plays C.K.’s character’s ex-wife and mother of their two white children. While faces in Horace and Pete reveal truth, the actors’ faces reveal to us the truth that the entirety of the series is made up of performances.
After Horace tells Rhonda about his children, Rhonda suggests that she may be a trans woman. Although Rhonda tells Horace that he “had sex with a woman last night” (Episode 7), she refuses to straightforwardly answer his nervous question, “And always was a woman?” (Episode 7) Rhonda allows Horace to question the correlation between her gender expression and her gender identity. Whether or not Rhonda is actually a trans woman remains ambiguous. If Rhonda is not a trans woman, her interaction with Horace is performative. She allows Horace to believe that she may be trans by momentarily taking on the role of a trans person. If Rhonda is a trans woman, her gender expression is still performative according to performance theorists such as Judith Butler. Butler understands all gender as a performative. In her paper, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler writes, “Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself” (Butler 311). Horace is unable to determine Rhonda’s gender despite having been physically intimate with her. Rhonda’s possible performance as a trans woman, as well as Horace’s inability to determine whether or not she is performing, serves a heightened dramatization of gender performance theory. Horace and Pete demonstrates that physicality is not an accurate representation of identity. Gender is always “imitation” (311) and theatrical in nature. We can never be certain of a person’s gender, just as we cannot be certain of a person’s true emotions. Outward expression fails to accurately communicate both identity and inner feelings.
In Episode 10, after Horace has been informed that Pete has likely died, he conducts an interview with Maura, played by Amy Sedaris. Maura notices that Horace is upset. She tells him, “God, it's driving me crazy, your eyes are, like, soaking wet.
They're, like, soaking wet. Do you have an allergy problem or something?” (Episode 10) She then begins massaging Horace’s eyes, face, and temples. During his conversation, Horace becomes visibly happier. Maura tells Horace, “look at that, you're smiling! Look at that smile. See, you use every muscle in your face when you smile” (Episode 10). Maura’s energy alters Horace’s attitude, however she also physically molds Horace’s sad face into a happy one. An outer physical force (and Maura is a force) changes not only Horace’s face, but also his inner emotions. Method acting proposes that conjuring a sad or emotional memory in the mind can make facial expressions appear more real and believable. This interaction between Horace and Maura shows that facial manipulation can create real, believable emotion. Horace begins the conversation as a man devastated by his cousin’s probable death and leaves the conversation ready to move to Chicago and begin a new life with Maura. Performativity and emotional realism are not diametrically opposed. Performance or artificial manipulation of the face can create emotional realism.
In the first episode of Horace and Pete, customers at the bar discuss liberal and conservative politics. One customer mediates a conversation between a self-identified liberal and a self-identified conservative. After the liberal and the conservative both verbalize how they unfavourably interpret the other’s party. The mediator replies, “See, the fact that you start out by seeing each other like that, I mean, how could you possibly ever respect each other or agree on anything?” (Episode 1) After both customers favourably describe their own parties, the mediator asks, “So, if you start by taking his definition of himself and he starts with your definition of you, don't you stand a better chance, have a better shot at getting to some sort of consensus?” (Episode 1) Horace and Pete does not claim that the inevitability of artifice and illusion results in a complete dissolution of communication. Effective communication is made possible by recognizing artifice and addressing its impact. At the end of Episode 10, after the credits, C.K. and the cast of Horace and Pete take a final bow. C.K. exclaims, “That’s a wrap on Horace and Pete, everybody!” (Episode 10) The inclusion of this curtain call, displaying the crew, cameras and lighting on screen, acts as a final reminder of the show’s artifice. Yet, at the same time we are reminded of the show’s real impact, of the real people who participated in its creation, and of the value of illusion.
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