Thursday, August 14, 2008

peeping tom, by michael powell

One of the things that's going on in Diary of the Dead that I didn't write about last week is the film includes a critique of spectation: the human desire to look at things. Specifically, the film wonders aloud about the part of human psychology that wants to look at horrible things—violent acts, accidents, etc.—and it repeatedly holds up the film's documentary-filmmaker character as a character who possesses a hypertrophic form of this particular desire. (It's not too hard to speculate that Romero intends this criticism to extend to horror filmmakers as well, and thus functions as a form of self-critique.) For Romero, spectation serves at best as a form of passivity and at worst as a kind of morbid perversion. We don't look because we want to help, we look because it gratifies some vaguely unwholesome impulse in us.

As a critique, Romero's definitely holds water, although there are more extreme critiques of spectation out there, including the one found in this week's pick, Peeping Tom (1960).

Peeping Tom announces its interest in "looking" pretty baldly in its opening shot:

...and, like Diary, it draws a bridge between "looking" and "filmmaking": our main character is not only an aspiring filmmaker with a handheld camera:

...but he also works as part of a film-production crew (making a suspense thriller entitled The Walls Are Closing In):

...and, just to emphasize the focus on "looking" even more strongly, the film has him also working as a smut photographer:

In terms of its take on pornography, Peeping Tom would seem to echo Diary's concerns about spectation (or LOL's for that matter): in all three of these films, the consumption of visual matter is seen as a somewhat gross indulgence of the suspect desire to look. Here's how Peeping Tom portrays the average consumer of pornography:

However, Peeping Tom is willing to go a bit further, explicitly equating the viewing of bodies with the suffering of those bodies. It does this both subtly... (note the repetition of the word "PAIN" here outside the newsstand among the bodies of pin-ups):

...and also, as we will see, more explicitly. For, in the world of Peeping Tom, it's not merely that suffering is connected in some vague way in the production of pornography, but rather that the act of viewing in and of itself is a form of violence, making the camera a sort of weapon-technology. Here's the view through Mark's camera:

Those hairlines aren't just there for show, either: the main premise of the film, for those of you who don't know it, is that Mark is not merely a voyeur, but also a psychopath. Periodically he converts one leg of the camera's tripod into a blade, which he then uses to murder the women he's filming, while simultaneously filming the murder. We've learned this before the opening credits are finished:

Mark's obviously an extreme case, but the film doesn't hesitate to draw parallels between his behavior and the behavior of every other filmmaker in the film. The director of the film-within-a-film is also governed by sadistic impulses, as we see when he presses his lead actress to do take after take, until she collapses from exhaustion:

[To cement the parallel as explicitly as possible, Mark later murders the actress' stand-in, on set: a sequence during which he occasionally sits in the director's chair.]

There's a third sadistic filmmaker in the film, too, namely, Mark's father, a psychologist studying the physiology of fear in children. As the film unfolds, we learn that the young Mark was subjected to fear experiments, being used essentially as a human guinea pig, and having the results documented, on film, by Dad himself:

So. An interesting result of the filmmaker's decision to show Mark as having himself been the subject of spectation and the victim of sadistic impulses is that the film ends up generating a considerable amount of empathy for him (putting this film perhaps in the category of earlier Film Club picks like Spike Lee's 25th Hour (Film Club VII). In point of fact, Mark ends up being one of the most sympathetic serial killers in film history (Mark's character owes more than a small debt to Peter Lorre's portrayal of an also not-entirely-unsympathetic killer in Fritz Lang's fantastic M (1931)).

This empathy is pretty essential for the narrative of the film to hang together, because it's set up not so much as a horror-thriller (the way it seems to commonly be understood) but rather as a kind of doomed romance between Mark and his downstairs neighbor, Helen.

Helen is kind, and reaches out to Mark in a way that he's clearly not accustomed to: she invites him to her 21st birthday party, and even after he declines in the most squirrely, nervous way possible, she brings him a piece of her birthday cake:

Like other romances, then, Peeping Tom is structured narratively in a way that sets up a couple that looks like they should be together, and has them attempt to surmount obstacles that are in their way. It's just that, in this case, the obstacle is, well, irreperable psychosis. Much of the film is spent showing Mark putting energy into attempting to resist his psychotic impulses, an endeavor that also involves actively attempting to re-think his relationship to women, in order to think of Helen as something other than prey.

It's an odd choice, and in order for it to be successful we have to erase our memory of the humanity of Marc's vicims, and our desire to have him be brought to justice. However, this aspect does add a lot of extra pathos to a story that's already shocking, and clever, and theoretically interesting to boot. Next week we'll compare it against that other 1960 proto-slasher-film, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Stay tuned!

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