Surveillance and Film
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Surveillance and Film

J. Macgregor Wise

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eBook - ePub

Surveillance and Film

J. Macgregor Wise

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Winner of the Surveillance Studies Network Book Award: 2017 Surveillance is a common feature of everyday life. But how are we to make sense of or understand what surveillance is, how we should feel about it, and what, if anything, can we do? Surveillance and Film is an engaging and accessible book that maps out important themes in how popular culture imagines surveillance by examining key feature films that prominently address the subject. Drawing on dozens of examples from around the world, J. Macgregor Wise analyzes films that focus on those who watch (like Rear Window, Peeping Tom, Disturbia, Gigante, and The Lives of Others ), films that focus on those who are watched (like The Conversation, Caché, and Ed TV ), films that feature surveillance societies (like 1984, THX 1138, V for Vendetta, The Handmaid's Tale, The Truman Show, and Minority Report ), surveillance procedural films (from The Naked City, to Hong Kong's Eye in the Sky, The Infernal Affairs Trilogy, and the Overheard Trilogy of films), and films that interrogate the aesthetics of the surveillance image itself (like Sliver, Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries), Der Riese, and Look ). Wise uses these films to describe key models of understanding surveillance (like Big Brother, Panopticism, or the Control Society) as well as to raise issues of voyeurism, trust, ethics, technology, visibility, identity, privacy, and control that are essential elements of today's culture of surveillance. The text features questions for further discussion as well as lists of additional films that engage these topics.

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Información

Año
2016
ISBN
9781628924831
Edición
1
1
The Watchers
Figure 1.1 Jeffries watches Thorwald. Rear Window.
One of the most recognized types of surveillance film could be referred to as the voyeuristic film. These are films that focus on the perspective, actions, and experiences of one who watches. A wide variety of films fall into this category, encompassing a wide variety of surveillors: the pervert in the bushes watching through the window as someone undresses; the monster or criminal in the bushes watching through the window to choose the time to murder someone; the detective or spy who follows and watches; the security guard or officer who monitors CCTV cameras; and others. To call these all voyeuristic, however, is a bit limiting as not all are about watching because of sexual desire. There are a number of reasons why surveillors watch, including power, control, or care. What holds this category together, gives it its coherence, is the positing of surveillance as an individual issue: It is about a single surveillor, as opposed to team or organizational surveillance (characteristic of the procedural—see Chapter 4) or films about pervasive surveillance societies (see Chapter 3).
Voyeurism and film
What do we mean by voyeurism? In a general sense, we use the term to refer to the act of watching someone else for our own pleasure. A voyeur, then, is, as Norman Denzin has put it, someone who “takes morbid pleasure in looking at the sordid, private activities of others.”1 Voyeurism is a pathological version of the general drive scopophilia. Obsessive voyeurism is more specifically sexual and about power and control over the desired other. Scopophilia is also related to exhibitionism in that with the latter the drive to look at others becomes a desire to be looked at, perhaps as a way of affirming one’s identity and existence, to be accepted by another.
Laura Mulvey’s influential and controversial article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” draws on psychoanalysis to discuss how narrative film is structured in such a way as to reinforce patriarchal ideology.2 According to Mulvey’s argument, there are two ways of looking in narrative film. The first is scopophilia, as discussed above. The person on screen being looked at is seen as an object of pleasure. This can at times be a stronger version where the person is overtly the object of sexual desire: a voyeuristic gaze. Key to this psychological process is the separation of viewer and viewed; the voyeur does not want to close that gap, they just want to watch unobserved. The second way of looking is narcissism. Narcissism focuses the gaze on human forms: we want to see ourselves on screen, that is, we seek out bodies and faces we can identify with. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued that people form their sense of identity, a sense of coherent self, in the mirror stage of development, when an infant sees an image of itself, or sees its mother or other adult and recognizes (or, rather, misrecognizes) that image of a coherent body as itself: “that is me.” Identity, the first articulation of “I,” is based on an image external to us, not an inner sense of self. The ego ideal is an image. Cinema gives us lots of ego ideals for us to identify with: stars. We want to be like them, be them. The narcissistic gaze sees the character as an ego ideal; we wish to identify with what we see. Key to this psychological process is the collapsing of distance between observer and observed.
Both processes and ways of looking are evident in narrative film. But they are contradictory. One wants to watch at a distance; the other wants to collapse that distance. Narrative cinema, in a patriarchal culture, deals with this contradiction, Mulvey famously argues, by splitting the look by gender. In a patriarchal ideology, the normative viewer is male; the camera shows us the world and the people in it as a heterosexual male would see it. Women on screen are then the object of the voyeuristic gaze—they are seen as objects of pleasure, often as objects of desire. Women on screen are regarded as sexual objects and the camera films them as such, perhaps focusing on their legs (many female characters are introduced to the audience legs first). Minimally, they are objects to be looked at. Men on screen are then the object of the narcissistic gaze. We, the audience, are meant to identify with them (even if we are female). These contradictory looks, Mulvey goes on to say, structure the stories narrative cinema tells. Men carry the action forward; women are passive objects or, if active in the plot, are eliminated or punished in the end (and are not an ego ideal to be emulated).
Mulvey’s theory was influential, controversial, and much argued with and corrected.3 Whether such a patriarchal narrative structuring applied to all films, just classical Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, or relied on particular and partial readings of the films, has been debated, as has the passivity of the audience in this theory, or the limiting of the male gaze to either narcissism or perversion.4 And what of the female spectator, might they not identify with both passive object and active subject?5 But the idea that the camera can have a voyeuristic look, that it positions audience members as voyeurs, is especially germane when the subject of the film is voyeurism itself. When are we asked to identify with the look itself, and when are we asked to identify with the person looked at?
However, we must complicate things a bit. Lacan argues that in the mirror stage the infant misrecognizes itself in the image. When we identify with the subject on screen, we participate in the imaginary and share its sense of social plenitude. What is important is to locate in cinema the ways this identification is disrupted, our positioning disturbed. According to some psychoanalytic theories of cinema, this is the interruption of the real into the symbolic through the gaze (being that which cannot be represented, the blindspots films try to ignore).6 We can take this point more broadly to consider the times when the surveillant gaze itself is disrupted by desire—but not the desire of lust but desire that is driven by what is not in what is offered in the surveillant image (be it a film or TV screen, or monitor, or even data), desire driven by what is lacking in the image, which is the real that eludes the representation. These are moments when we question the correctness or completeness of the view of the world we are presented with in the surveillance image: what is missing? But there are also times when the surveillant gaze is disrupted by revealing too much, an excess rather than a lack, by revealing the inadequacy or contradictions of the surveillant imaginary or the complex of visuality. Deleuze and Guattari, contra Lacan, argue that desire is not based on lack but is productive.7 Not only this, desire is productive of the social, not just the individual. According to this perspective, the surveillant imaginary on film is not reflecting on individual desires, say that of a voyeur or exhibitionist, but participating in desiring production that organizes populations, structures of power, and disruptive flows. So while I will be using some psychoanalytic film theory for the insights it allows into film and the questions it raises for surveillance studies more generally, I wish to acknowledge its limits as well. The surveillant imaginary is not just about individual desires and meanings but broader social forces and relations of power.
The voyeur on screen
Rear Window
Of the numerous films which focus on the activities of the voyeur, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is perhaps the best known—and most analyzed.8 Denzin refers to Hitchcock as “the voyeur’s director” and points out that “the gaze … in all its forms” is ubiquitous in his films.9 Rear Window is a masterful, complex, and subtle film, and I cannot do justice to all its nuances here. We will return to this film later in the chapter, and throughout the book, to highlight various aspects of it. But to start, let me set out its scenario.
Rear Window is about L.B. Jeffries (“Jeff”) (James Stewart), a professional photographer with a penchant for action, who is laid up in his New York apartment with a broken leg after an accident on a shoot. Bored, restless, and immobilized, Jeff has little to do but look out his apartment window into a courtyard and at the apartments across the way. He is visited by a nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his fiancée, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who works in high fashion. Both of these women criticize his hobby of watching his neighbors. The events of the film take place during a heat wave, so windows and curtains are open, making his neighbors more visible than they otherwise might be.
The film can be (and has been) read as Hitchcock’s reflections on cinema itself. As the film starts, curtains open on the rear window and the scene is from Jeff’s apartment. His window is our cinema screen; we are the immobilized Jeff, watching little stories play out in all these other windows (each a little screen).10 Almost all of the shots of the film are either filmed within Jeff’s apartment or from his window. The events of the courtyard and apartments unfold at a distance, the distance of a voyeur.
Both Lisa and Stella tease Jeff about his voyeurism, Stella making reference to Peeping Toms. Jeff defends himself by stating that his watching is harmless and that his neighbors are free to watch him as well. However, when he is actually in danger of being looked at, he pushes himself out of view and into the shadows. Indeed, Lawrence Howe has argued that the film is as much about avoiding being seen (scopophobia) as scopophilia.11 Jeff has been following the ongoing dramas in the other apartments (as he interprets the events therein), even giving them his own names such as “Miss Lonelyhearts” or “Miss Torso.” He does not know them, and has not met them, but he presumes to know them based on what he sees. While a good number of neighbors are visible to him, at the start of the film his gaze is most arrested by the woman he dubs Miss Torso, who tends to dance around her apartment in her underwear. I should note that “Miss Torso” is an ominous moniker to assign to a woman in a film where a woman is dismembered, but it is a name that emphasizes the ways the male gaze objectifies and fragments women into body parts. The male composer is also seen doing housework in his underwear, but this is not portrayed as being sexually provocative and does not capture Jeff’s (heteronormative) gaze.
Figure 1.2 The courtyard as cinema screen. Rear Window.
The plot really begins when something else draws his attention away from Miss Torso. One of the apartments houses a salesman and his invalid wife who is always scolding and mocking her husband. One day Jeff notices that the wife is missing and becomes convinced that the salesman, Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has killed her. Uncovering her murder becomes his mission. And in fact, his surveillance of his neighbors only intensifies while pursuing this mystery. From simply watching, he turns to binoculars and, finally, to a high-power telephoto lens to watch the salesman. He had not subjected his other neighbors to this level of scrutiny until this point.
There are a number of forms of surveillance represented in the film. The key is obviously Jeffries. Jeff has an itch to scratch, both literally (an early scene has him desperately searching for a means to scratch his leg under his cast) and figuratively. As a man of action, he desires excitement. His action frustrated, he turns those energies to voyeurism, compensating for his broken leg with his phallic telephoto lens. As a professional photographer it is his job to watch and photograph others. His job justifies his voyeurism to a certain extent. Jeff’s aberrant desire even undermines his relationship with Lisa, to whom he is reluctant to commit and marry.12 He would rather watch his neighbors, and obsess about them, than kiss her. This begins to change when, looking out the window herself, Lisa begins to agree with his theories. She goes into the courtyard, and later into Thorwald’s apartment, becoming an object of Jeff’s surveilling gaze. However, this is more a gaze of care and protection than desire and control (more on this below).
In the end, the film seems to recuperate Jeffries. Thelma says that everyone should go outside and take a look at their own house once in a while. Thelma and Lisa do this. They go out into the courtyard and look back at Jeffries (though we do not see him, in his window, from their point of view). And Jeffries is finally forced out of his apartment. His voyeuristic viewing position is disrupted first by Lisa, who reinterprets his readings of his neighbors with her own surveillance and insight, challenging his interpretations of them and their actions (empathizing with Miss Torso, for example). Jeffries’s position is also disrupted by Thorwald, who throws him out the window.13 In the final scene, Jeffries is asleep and smiling, with two broken legs in casts but facing away from the window. And Lisa is there, reading a book about travel and adventure, and keeping an eye on him. Jeffries’s actions are not corrected, however. He is not essentially transformed by the events of the film. The excitement and action have satisfied his itch, his frustrated desire has found an outlet, and he is satisfied; however, he still has not really met his neighbors. His voyeurism is justified by uncovering the murder. He seems to have transformed Lisa, a bit, perhaps, but she seems to have achieved what she wanted as well (both Jeff and fashion).
Besides Jeffries’s activities, there are other forms of surveillance in the film. Lisa, for example, recognizes the power of being the object of the gaze, as a model. In the film she does her best to get Jeff’s attention, to get him to look at her and her fashions. She later becomes an active player in his investigations, joining him in his surveillance.14 There are other mentions of everyday surveillance. For example, the opening shot of the film includes a helicopter hovering over the apartment building opposite, the men in it ogling the women sunbathing on the roof. And mention is made of the apartment superintendent’s watchful gaze, knowing what goes on in each apartment. But, significantly, we also see the role of police surveillance. Jeffries calls in the assistance of Detective Lieutenant Doyle (Wendall Corey), a war buddy of Jeffries who does some investigating based on Jeff’s suspicions. As an aside, Doyle and Jeffries served on a reconnaissance plane in the war, another form of surveillance.15 Doyle’s character emphasizes the legal limits on surveillance. Legal surveillance, both in terms of the information Doyle is able to provide—countering Jeff’s theories of murder—and in its inability to act without probable cause, frustrates Jeffries’s desire, forcing him to turn to extra-legal methods (vigilantism), and inspiring Lisa to break into Thorwald’s apartment. Jeffries and Lisa are ultimately justified in breaking the law by uncovering the murder. However, consider how guilty and unethical their actions would be considered if Thorwald had ended up being innocent. The ends justify the means.16
Rear Window presents us with a solitary voyeur, with whom we are meant to identify, driven by frustrated desire to voyeurism that is sexual, at first, and then obsessively investigatory, even resorting to extra-legal methods in pursuit of the knowledge he was so certain of, knowledge provided by his surveillance. He is a professional voyeur who prefers to act alone but is ...

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