Friday, April 28, 2006

Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)

In Peeping Tom, several realities exist simultaneously: that of the characters, that of the filmmakers, that of the audience, and the tiny threads that link each. Every one of these parties and relationships are implicated as voyeuristic. This is, Powell says, the alluring power of the ability to see; indeed, even a blind, alchoholic mother cannot resist the impulse to glimpse the forbidden, or the hidden, using every sense available to her.

Mark Lewis is a psychopathic killer who uses a sharpened leg of his tripod to stab his victims in the throat as he approaches them with a mirror mounted on his camera so that they fear not only death, but the vision of their own death. His victims do not look away; they are somehow powerless against the compulsion to see what they previously could not, though it means the end of sight altogether. Similarly, Mark and Peeping Tom's audience do not look away, even as we see the killer methodically developing and personally screening the footage.

We learn from an old reel he shows the woman who lives downstairs and his eventual, brief love interest that Mark's father was a biologist, though seemingly also a psychologist, who studied the effects of fear in adolescents. He used his son as a subject, inpiring fear and capturing it on film. Mark was never unwatched as a child; there is an entire, terrifying record of his skewed development. Every room in his house is wired, and it remains that way. What Mark cannot see, he hears still.

It is implicit that the compulsion that drives Mark is not unlike that that drives a dramatic filmmaker: the director sees his fantasies, no matter how bizarre, fantastic, or even sadistic, acted out in front of him. Mark at a point remarks "everything I photograph, I lose." Indeed, photography is a kind of death: when a picture is taken, the moment it captured is now gone. You can never photograph the life of a moment, because at that very moment it is also dying. The killing on film that Mark partakes in is an extension of this loss through documentation.

When approached about his carrying a camera around and taking seemingly random shots, Mark states that he is working on a documentary. By the film's end it becomes apparent that the 'documentary' in question is his own life, though his death has been staged: the logical progression of his actions is to turn the camera on himself, implicating his own role in the 'documentary,' and similarly the end of it.

The film was outright banned, forgotten, and the end of Powell's directorial career upon release; it's not hard to imagine why. Though cries of outrage over the mere content and supposed amorality of the film were released, it's likely that the implication of audience-as-voyeur, perhaps audience-as-Mark (indeed, through the use of subjective camera shots and the act of watching Mark watch his films, the audience is forced to empathize with the killer), was too much on a subconscious level for the critical community and public to handle. Like Hitchcock's Psycho released months later, a film concerned more with the surface and visceral action versus Peeping Tom's emphasis on the subliminal, mental, and psychological, the film is terribly modern not only in terms of its portrayal of then-questionable (and eternally disturbing) subject matter, but the treatment of the material as a means of audience inclusion (Psycho doing so by means of suspense and character sympathy, Peeping Tom through outright finger wagging and imparting a feeling that could almost be described as guilt).

Whereas Fellini's 8 1/2 is a fantastic film about the economics, society, and the conceptual stages of filmmaking (and a masterpiece in its own right), Peeping Tom is an insightful masterpiece concerning the in-the-moment instinct that is the actual filming; that is, the recording of temporal death. The blind mother at one point remarks "Instinct's a wonderful thing, isn't it, Mark? A pity it can't be photographed." While the film doesn't photograph instinct itself, it is perhaps the most arresting implication of instinct's immutability in the face of passion, fear, attraction, and filmmaking, all of which are equated in the mind of Mark Lewis.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks nice! Awesome content. Good job guys.

1:22 PM  

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