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October 1996, Week 4


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Barbara Bernstein <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 25 Oct 1996 16:08:47 -0700
text/plain (117 lines)
In response to Peter Latham's question, I not-very-humbly submit the
following little essay, written last year for my own Internet mailing list,
Movies-seivoM, which is devoted to self-referential movies.  As you'll see
down toward the end, the similarity that Peter points out occured to me too.
(Anyone interested in cinematic reflexivity is invited to check out the
Movies-seivoM web site at or to join the List)
Peeping Tom
(Anglo-Amalgamated; a Michael Powell Production; 1960.  Directed by Michael
Powell; screenplay by Leo Marks; photographed by Otto Heller.  With Carl
Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley)
Last week there was some discussion as to whether comedies lend themselves
to self-referentiality better than dramas, and whether self-referentiality
may even be inherently comic.  An exhibit for the negative: "Peeping Tom."
This is the most self-referential movie imaginable, and it ain't no comedy.
Mark Lewis, assistant cameraman at a London film studio, aspiring movie
director, part-time taker of pornographic pictures, and amateur documentary
film-maker, has begun murdering women.  He kills them, literally, with his
camera and films the attacks and the murders.  He also surrepititiously
films what he can of the police investigation. At night he carefully screens
and edits the footage.  This is his great documentary, his life's work.
Mark leads the police closer and closer so that he can film the denouement,
his own imminent capture and suicide.
This is only the bare outline of a plot that refers at every turn to eyes,
photography, spying, filming, and recording.  I could quote line after line
and describe scene after scene.  Camera references pop up so often that the
film seems a little over-worked after a while, a little schematic.  But it
still packs quite a wallop, with Mark one of the great pathetic psychopaths
of the cinema, and it leaves us with the queasy feeling of having been both
the violators and the violated.
This results, I think, from the film's "two-camera" strategy.  "Peeping Tom"
sets up matched pairs of photographic devices and sends us ricocheting
between them, like images bouncing back and forth between facing mirrors.
It's so disorienting we are sometimes not sure which film we're watching,
and sometimes we watch two at once.
At time, both cameras in a pair are contained within the film.  "From one
magic camera which needs the help of another" says a note from the nice girl
who tries to save (she's written a children's book about a magic camera and
wants Mark to take the photos for it).  After-hours in the film studio, an
actress turns the big 35 mm camera toward Mark with his 16mm portable,
"photographing you photographing me."  We see an old film Mark's father (a
behavioral scientist and relentless recorder of Mark's childhood traumas)
has made of Mark learning to use a movie camera.  Mark films the detective
photographing the crime scene.
But at other times, we realize with a start that the second camera of the
pair is the one that's photographing "Peeping Tom."  At these times the
movie seems to reach out of the screen and encompass us viewers.  The very
first shot of the film is of an eye popping open.  Could it be our eye?  The
lens of Mark's murderous camera moves right toward us, as though it would
reach out and touch its twin, the lens of Powell's camera.  Later, the light
of Mark's projector  shines directly into our eyes.  We're connected with
what's happening on the screen, not just observing it.  In its own way,
"Peeping Tom" is a 3-D movie.
Here's the clearest example, though it takes a minute to explain.  We see
the first murder twice.  Mark approaches a prostitute and follows her to her
room; we see this as it is happening, but we see it through the view-finder
of the concealed camera that Mark is using to film the scene.  Immediately
afterwards we see the whole thing (the identical footage) again, this time
in black & white and without sound, as Mark watches the film back in his
room.  (Another matched set here, actually: camera and projector, filming
and exhibiting.  I'm reminded that in the early days of the cinema, the same
machine both made the film and played it back, and the cameraman and
projectionist were often the same person).
Seeing this murder the first time is shocking, but the second time is
obscene.  Knowing what's about to happen makes it worse, and the fact that
someone's terror and death have been recorded and can be "enjoyed" at Mark's
convenience seems incredibly perverse.  But to me the most unsettling moment
happens as we are watching Mark's 16mm film over his shoulder.   As Mark's
film moves closer to the petrified victim, making her face loom larger and
larger in his frame, Powell's camera moves back at exactly the same pace
from the screen on which Mark's film is being projected.  These opposing
camera movements pin the woman between them so that her face stays the same
size and in the same place, simultaneously advanced upon and retreated from.
The effect is vertiginous--the surroundings moving in two different
directions while this poor screaming woman is impaled by two cameras.  Our
own film, "Peeping Tom," is as guilty here as Mark's.  Movies themselves,
not just one deranged amateur cinematographer, stand revealed as instruments
of aggression and violence.
Well, a whole book could be written about "Peeping Tom," and probably has
(Carol Clover discusses it at length in her book "Men, Women, and Chain
Saws").   It would be great to read what others who have admired (or hated)
this movie have to say.  A few of the questions that we could discuss:
        1) Is the street scene at the beginning, when Mark first advances upon the
prostitute, supposed to look so artificial?   Its garish colors and flat
lighting fairly scream "Movie!"
        2) Why does Mark have a German accent?  We've heard both his father and his
own boyhood self speaking impeccable English.  Surely there were other
actors besides Carl Boehm that Powell could have cast.  Mark sounds weirdly
like Peter Lorre, and as he putters about in his hidden chamber of horrors,
you wonder if it's a deliberate contrast between old-style movie horror and new.
        3) Compare and contrast "Peeping Tom" and that other 1960 film in which a
respected commercial filmmaker terrified his audience, appalled the critics
and left everyone feeling implicated in something profoundly unhealthy and evil.
        3) Isn't that Michael Powell himself playing Mark's manipulative, sadistic,
film-obsessed father?  Yikes!
Barbara Bernstein                       San Francisco, CA
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