Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Love of Looking

This is Carl Boehm (left) as Martin Lewis, in Peeping Tom (live link to original, cheesy 1959 preview), directed by Michael Powell, half of The Archers.
It's "terrific" in all senses of the word--both awesome and terror-making (though visually mild by today's standards). One of the most interesting movies about movies I've ever seen.

Martin is a young cameraman whose father tormented him on film. In a somewhat simplistic Freudian turn (popular in the era? reminiscent, anyway, of Hitchcock's 1945 Spellbound), Martin developed a sexually psychotic form of scopophilia, the "love of looking," or voyeurism, that drives him to capture the fear of others on film.
He films women as he kills them with a blade hidden in a leg of his tripod.

"Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?" he asks. "It's fear."
To amplify his victims' fear, he has mounted a mirror on his camera, so the women see their own terror reflected back at them.

The critical reception of the movie when it came out was so hostile, the distributor pulled the film from circulation. Powell later said the reaction contributed to the demise of his career.

Peeping Tom is no more graphic than Hitchcock's Psycho, which came out three months later; but it hits closer to home for film -critics/-makers/-viewers, as it's all about the fine line between looking and ... breaking and entering.
(Something Twisted Rib brought up recently: when is it OK to take and use pictures of people without their permission?)

Peeping Tom is not at all graphic--there's not even any blood when Martin stabs his victims in the neck--but it can still shock. Helen, the young woman Martin is sweetly and innocently falling in love with kisses him lightly on the mouth, probably the first time he's been kissed, you suspect. When the Helen leaves, Martin gently presses the lens of the camera to his lips.
It's weirdly startling and erotic.
As is the scene when he strokes his camera (pictured here) as Helen talks to him.

Part of the fascination of watching the film is that you're watching a movie about how watching movies can border on perversion, and it's made by filmmakers who are, presumably, also film watchers.
Definitely the sort of movie you could write a PhD dissertation on.

Further, Martin is presented so sympathetically, I found myself having to remind myself there was no way this film was going to have a happy ending.

This is a curious movie that raises the question about what our modern technology does to us, psychologically, in allowing us to extend our powers so very far beyond our own bodies.

To feed my own love of looking, I've added a bunch of Hitchcock's early British films (The Lodger, et al.) on my Netflix queue. Oh, and some of the early German films that influenced Powell, like M, which I haven't seen in years.

5 comments:

momo said...

Another powerful and extremely distressing film about the relationship between looking and the display of violence is The Serpent's Egg, by Ingmar Bergman. It's not about a single serial killer, but about the rationalization of serial killing by the Nazis and their scientific experiments, with the viewer being positioned as a watcher/voyeur. When it came out, I saw it with some Jewish friends and one of them was overcome with pain and rage by the experience. We had to do an analysis of a shot for a film class, and it was fascinating to see exactly how Berman had constructed the shot so that you, as viewer, were implicated in the violence by the desire to SEE what was happening.

fresca said...

Thanks for the movie review! I haven't seen "The Serpent's Egg" and I'm not sure I'm up for it... Though watching movies with an eye to HOW they are made constructs a helpful barrier.

I must say, it's different to be behind the camera for the first time in my life--though I hope it's entirely benign in this case, I have quickly learned how much power the person who captures the images wields.
Luckily art itself serves as some sort of check on that power--as David Mamet says, the difficulty will knock you down to size over and over. Though obviously it doesn't always work out that way.

fresca said...

Thanks for the movie review! I haven't seen "The Serpent's Egg" and I'm not sure I'm up for it... Though watching movies with an eye to HOW they are made constructs a helpful barrier.

I must say, it's different to be behind the camera for the first time in my life--though I hope it's entirely benign in this case, I have quickly learned how much power the person who captures the images wields.
Luckily art itself serves as some sort of check on that power--as David Mamet says, the difficulty will knock you down to size over and over. Though obviously it doesn't always work out that way.

Manfred Allseasons said...

This is a great film...those weird film making types, eh?

Have you seen Age of Consent? I found that more shocking...Powell seems to have really pushed the boundaries in his last few films...which is what artists should do, I think...

but I still prefer I Know Where I'm Going!

fresca said...

Oh, too bad--I have put most of P&P's available work on my queue but "Age of Consent" isn't on Netflix, so maybe it's not on DVD at all?

Yes, those filmmkers--you want to watch out for them... I like the idea of pushing the boundaries more and more as we age. What've we got to lose?

"I Know Where I'm Going!" is so sweet--mostly--it's interesting what a range Powell had.