Sunday, 28 March 2010

Voyeurs and cinema

The following text is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave last Friday. Since there's been some interest in it, I've decided to post it here. I showed a lot of clips which have been excluded, so you'll be missing out on some stuff (including clips from Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), Murnau's Tartuffe (1925) and Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941), which all comments on the cinema). Also, I apologise for any errors or spelling mistakes, it wasn't meant for publication after all.


- For me, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock have always been the two great western modernist filmmakers. Both in Europe and in the US have they used (perhaps even abused) the medium of cinema to tell their stories about the precariousness of our lives in a hostile and complex world. And whilst doing so they have questioned both the media which they are using and the spectators who are watching. When planning this lecture series, one thing was certain and that was that one lecture should be on Lang (“It’s not paranoia when they’re really after you”) and one on Hitchcock (title not yet clear, let’s call it “Untitle FFT lecture”). But then I thought that I mustn’t forget Michael Powell, he fits in here as well, but in a different way. And as Powell is lesser known and underappreciated, and since his Peeping Tom (1960) is, no, should be, a key film in any serious cinema studies program, Peeping Tom will be the subject.

The cinema has been accused of many things. For pacifying the audience, for indoctrinating the audience, for objectifying women. Michael Powell for sure, although he spent his whole life making films, was queasy about it. He once said “I don’t think there’s anything more frightening than a camera that is running, watching you”. (A feeling that might be particularly acute in Britain today, home of CCTV and mass surveillance. Sometimes the camera can be all seeing, as is the case with the weird “camera obscura” in Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Powell has also said that “Hitchcock, Renoir, these are filmmakers who have found their own style in the cinema. Not me, I live cinema. As I’ve already said, I’m not a director with a personal style. I am simple cinema.”

As a director, Powell was obsessed with the eye, the image of the eye and the concept of the eye, intrinsic in the filmmaking process. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) there’s an attempt to steal the “All-seeing eye”.

There are also the surreal element of dreams, illusions, madness, distortions and the unconsciousness in Powell’s films.

There are the hats that become locomotives in I Know Where I’m Going (1945), the spiral staircase with no end in The Red Shoes (1948), the hallucinations in Small Back Room (1949).

It should be mention also, before we proceed, that Powell had a number of trusted partners to which a lot of credit for Powell’s films between 1940 and 1960 should be given. Besides Emeric Pressburger, who wrote most of the films Powell directed during those two decades, and from whom came a lot of ideas, insights and themes, there are also the cinematographers Christopher Challis and Jack Cardiff, the set designer Alfred Junge and the composer Brian Easdale. Of these, the last two also worked on Peeping Tom.

So, then Peeping Tom

It was made in 1960 (incidentally the same year Hitchcock made Psycho, and after the British studio Hammer had launched their first successful horror films, with titles such as The Quatermass Experiment (1955) and The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958, with Christopher Lee) It was made after Powell/Pressburger had had a bad streak. The films were not as good anymore or as successful as they had been and he did Peeping Tom without Pressburger. The script was written instead by Leo Marks, a former top British spy during the Second World War. Peeping Tom is one of very few films he wrote and the only film he worked on which made a mark. (A champion of Powell and Pressburger for a long time is Martin Scorsese, and there are some connections between Powell and Scorsese. Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker was Powell’s wife, and Leo Marks makes the voice of the devil in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).)

Peeping Tom did nothing to further his career. The critics were furious.

Derek Hill in the Tribune wrote “flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer”

Nina Hibbin in Daily Worker wrote “it’s wholly evil”

Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard wrote “it exploits fears and inhibitions for the lowest motives”

But why so upset? Because it's disturbing and problematic. In the opening scene we’re thrown right in to the centre of Peeping Tom’s complexity. We see a man and a woman on a street (a highly stylised street) and then there’s a cut and we see everything from the point of the camera’s viewfinder, complete with a cross hair, and we follow the woman, a prostitute, up to her room. She starts to undress but suddenly she sees something and is terrified. The camera (we) move closer and closer towards her as she screams in horror. Then there’s a cut to a projector, showing a film for an audience of one man. It’s the film that we just saw being made. So we have moved from being the camera man to being the audience. This is all very intricate, layered, and then the titles appear, and they are shown first in the movie, and then as the camera zooms in on the screen in the room, the titles are on the movie in the movie, and then the camera zooms out and cuts to the projector, the film print flickering through.

Here already in the first four minutes of the film we’ve been confronted with the male gaze, first staring at us (the first shot in the film is a close-up of a closed eye the opens up, looking directly at us) and then we ourselves becomes the gaze, we are gazefied if you like.

In the 1970s psychoanalytical film theories, combined with feminism, began attacking traditional cinema and its conscious objectifying of women, reducing the woman to-be-looked-at-ness. These theories begins with Freud’s idea that men want to possess the female, that men fear women because they don’t have a penis, and that lack of penis awakes our fear of castration and unpleasure. (Actually, what Freud said was the as little boys we desire our mothers and are then afraid that our fathers will punish us by castrating us.) So we want to punish the women. And in traditional cinema we’re allowed to do so in a safe environment, without being punished ourselves. This is done by using the three looks in film, the look of the camera, the look of characters on each other and the look of the spectator. But, according to this theory, the look of the camera is hidden in traditional cinema, as is the look of the spectator, all that’s left is the look of the characters, but ours, the audiences look is made one with the male protagonist, his eyes are our eyes and that the viewer is by definition a sadist. One leading spokes woman for this theory was Laura Mulvey with her essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema”.

Now, there are many problems with this idea but the main problem is that it’s making extraordinary generalizations about everybody in the audience and about all films being made in “traditional cinema”. It’s safe to say that different members of an audience look at films differently, and that their identifications shift, perhaps even from scene to scene in any given film. And that some might be “sadist”, others “masochists” (identifying with the victims) and others indifferent. And also, ”traditional cinema” doesn’t always try to hide its “looks”. There are different genres and different directors that draw more or less attention to the fact that it is a film we’re watching, that actually does draw a lot of attention to the camera, to the construction of it. By camera work, dialogue, editing, use of colours, use of reflexive devises. This can be found in musicals, melodramas, film noir, comedies and many other different genres. And the alleged tabu of never looking in to the camera is broken much more often that is said, even in Hollywood. (One prime example is Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), when in a sensitive scene between an old couple, the man says to his wife that she’s so beautiful, and the wife is very moved by this, but also very shy, and she turns her head and looks at the camera, at us, as if to say “Would you please leave us alone.”)

And this is where Peeping Tom becomes so interesting because there are no attempts to hide anything or to sooth us in any way, we’re implicit in the killing and in the violence right from the beginning.

If Mulvey and her many followers had left the theory and actually studied the films, they might have come to a much more nuanced conclusion. I have no problems with applying a certain theory to a certain film, as a way of testing both the theory and the film, but when theory makes sweeping generalizations, sometimes over hundred or thousands of films, and those films spectators, like in Mulvey’s essay, it becomes pure speculation, and should be approached with caution. But I don't want to be too hard, not least because Mulvey herself later acknowledged that her essay had flaws. But one problem with essays such as these is that they give way for prejudices about “old school cinema”, and the idea that cinema of today is much more refined and “progressive”. That often stated dichotomy between older cinema and new cinema is in it self problematic and unhistorical.

But still, there are still issues to deal with when watching films. Are we all peeping toms? Why do we watch films in the first place? Because we want to be excited, thrilled, amused, horrified and moved. Because we want to learn things and to be entertained.

But also because we like to watch. There’s a voyeuristic element that can’t be denied, and there’s also a sadistic element which can’t be denied either. Many like to see people being beaten up on the screen. Many like to see sex scenes. In the 30s it might have been enough with Claudette Colbert raising her skirt over her ankle, in the early 90s it was to see Sharon Stone cross her legs in Basic Instinct.

But in Peeping Tom it isn’t so much about peeping or sex or violence per se, here it’s about two other things, fear and obsession. Obsession with the camera, with the moving image.

Mark Lewis, the main character and the camera man who is killing women, is himself also a still photographer. He takes evocative photos of ladies, with or without clothes, pictures that are then sold at a newspaper agency, and bought by respectable, male, citizens. In short, we’re all in on it. It’s a combination of the society and the psychology of its members that create this cruel and exploitative world.

Mark is literally one with his camera, he has almost an erotic fixation with it, it’s always with him At one point he’s caressing his face with it. When someone else holds it he gets nervous and reaches for it, like the toy animal of a child or a security blanket. In many ways Mark is a child. And the camera is also the weapon he uses to kill the women, by having a leg of it being sharp as a knife. And in the end he kills himself with it, just as he killed the women.

The only person in the film who sees things clearly is a neighbour of Mark’s and the mother of Helen, a girl who is courting Mark. The mother is blind but she sees more clearly than anyone else what is going on (we were debating earlier whether or not she was a seer in the Deleuzian way but she might be too active for that) and at one point she says “All this filming isn’t healthy. You need help Mark.”

But Mark isn’t just a still photographer and a murderer, he’s also a focus puller in a film studio, and a lot of scenes in Peeping Tom is taking place on the shooting of a film called The Walls Are Closing In. Here, on the set, Mark also kills another woman, an extra who wants to become a star, and Mark has promised to do some scenes with her, scenes we’re she’s to play a woman terrified to death. This scene also opens up all the intricate subtexts involved, and brings forth some auteur elements. Moira Shearer plays the role of the woman, and she was a big star, but she’s only in this one scene in Peeping Tom, where she’s dancing. Her most famous role was as the ballet dancer in Powell and Pressburger’s film The Red Shoes. In fact, through out the film there are many references to other films and to people working in the film business. And the director of the film in the film, the director of The Walls Are Closing In is called Baden, which might be a way of making us think of the Boy Scout leader Baden-Powell, and then Powell. (The director is played by Esmond Knight, who was blind.)

But it gets even more intricate. In Peeping Tom we get to see film clips on Mark from when he was young. The boy playing that part is Michael Powell’s son, and, of course, Michael Powell himself is playing the role of the father.

(It’s not the first time Powell appears in one of his films. In One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), Powell plays the man in the control tower that sends the men off on their fatal mission.)

So here we’re all in on it, no one can escape the blame, the filmmakers, the characters and the audience share the guilt. We’re all cruelly exploiting that which we see. And that seems to be an important point of Peeping Tom, by using horror conventions the film wants to force as to realise that we’re all voyeurs and that we share the blame for whatever bad happens when we’re watching it happening. No wonder Mulvey later became a fan of the film.

During the cause of the film Mark tries to film five women. Two object to it and says No. Helen is one of them, and they are not killed. Of all the women Mark approaches with a camera, only those who let him film them are killed. In a way they’re also blamed then, in that their exhibitionism dooms them, but those who actively say “No” are saved. It’s a problematic stance, since it’s reminiscent of the argument that a girl in a revealing dress has herself to blame should she be raped.

But there’s still another layer here. The morbid urge to watch is taken to another level, since what kills the women isn’t just the edge of the camera leg; it’s the (female) gaze.

On his camera Mark has a mirror so that the women see themselves as Mark approaches, and what they see is their own fear, the own horror, their own death, and yet they cannot stop watching, they don’t fight or defend themselves because they’re fixated with the image they are seeing.

And it’s the same with Helen when she accidentally comes across one of Mark’s films of the killings. She’s horrified and tries to run away but she can’t, she can’t stop watching.

Scopophilia, the morbid urge to watch. Most of us might share it

So should we all just stop going to the movies and instead help our neighbours and work in our gardens. Are films then evil, by nature?

No, actually they’re not. Maybe they’re just a healthy way for us to live out our inner wishes and dreams, fears and paranoia, anxieties and demons. Cinema, including “traditional cinema” is anyway much too complex and layered and open for a multitude of interpretations that just dismissing it is unnecessary, not to say wrong. And on the whole, cinema is a beautiful thing. But we shouldn’t hide from the fact that the gaze, the look, is also problematic.

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