Ktismatics

5 January 2009

Peeping Tom by Powell, 1960

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:13 am

peep-kill

peep-photog

peep-scar

peep-distort

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20 Comments »

  1. ok this is one of those media academy movies that always merit debae… seen it a long time ago, though so what were your thoughts first?

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    Comment by parody center risen from the dead — 6 January 2009 @ 10:39 am

  2. I’d never heard of this movie until recently, but I thought it was very fine. It’s all about the gaze, a theme which the filmmakers tell the viewer right in the opening scenes. We watch Mark filming a murder he’s in the process of committing, then we watch him watching this film in his room. As we watch what Mark is watching, we see the name of the cinematographer superimposed on the filmed image of the gaping mouth of the about-to-be-murdered woman. The next shot shifts to the projector showing this snuff film, and the director’s name is superimposed on this image.

    The screengrabs I selected for the post all feature a distorted image of a woman’s face. Mark the snuff filmmaker is consciously trying to create a distorted expression of fear on his subjects’/victims’ faces. Toward the end of the movie we find out how he succeeds so well: not only are these women afraid — he’s about to kill them after all — but they can see their own fearful expressions reflected back to them in a mirror. The mirror is mounted on the murder weapon itself, which is the sharpened front leg of the camera’s tripod that Mark raises forward like a metallic erection when he moves in for the kill.

    This mirror is presented before the victim in such a way that the victim’s own face appears in place of Mark’s face. I.e., the exhibitionistic subject sees herself reflected back in the eye of the voyeuristic cameraman. But the cameraman too sees his own gaze reflected back in the eye of the subject/victim. So when Mark is about to film the disfigured woman in screengrab #3 he’s captivated not by her scarred mouth but by her penetrating eyes. So the sadistic impulse of the cameraman’s gaze reflects also a masochistic impulse, a sense of being killed by the gaze of the subject, a gaze which the cameraman seems unable to disengage himself from. Like Medusa.

    I’ll stop there for now. We get a nice pscyhoanalytically-framed childhood story from Mark, but it’s the cinematic self-referentiality that’s most intriguing and which of course prefigures other films you’re fond of, PCRFTD.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 January 2009 @ 11:35 am

  3. I remember it predated, indeed, the examinations of voyeurism in PSYCHO, etc, but what do you think the turning of the gaze against the murderer wants to say – does it predate the current situation that there is a ”third” hauntological element escaping the tryad director-camera-spectator (TDCS)? something else? screen as a portal? what you describe suggests not so much a boucing back as an infinite ”deferral” of the vantage point because the eye is reflected ad infinitum.

    I also remember the film had a documentary feel to it, which made it an oddity amongst all the Halliwud melodramatizations and all the more interesting that way.

    I must confess that despite sincere efforts to tone down and even quit the blawger parody, it just comes naturally out of me and I feel a resistance against attempts to stop me. I drew such jouissance yesterday of creating an image of Hatherley as Agnetha Faltskog of ABBA and showing that higschool bully style to the Impostume.

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    Comment by parody center — 6 January 2009 @ 11:57 am

  4. The movie is directed as a drama, not at all documentary style unless one were to regard all non-Hollywood style as too theoretical. I don’t think that’s the case here. There’s the big climax at the end where the hero comes unglued and all hell breaks loose. I think Powell and Hitchcock were pals, both English who had had some involvement with German expressionistic cinema, working toward the same form of (melo)dramatics at the same time. On the German connection, this movie has certain similarities with Lang’s M: the creepy antihero serial killer Mark’s name begins with M; he’s played by a guy speaking English with a German, reminiscent of Peter Lorre; the murderer starts whistling just before he kills, as did Lorre in M, etc.

    I’ll have to think further about the tryad and the hauntological escape. Meanwhile, know that the escaped last sentences of your post have been noted.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 January 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  5. “an infinite ”deferral” of the vantage point becausethe eye is reflected ad infinitum”

    Maybe this is a fault in my description of the mechanics. The (male) camera’s gaze is held in thrall by the (female) subject’s gaze, which I think has become the standard sadomasochistic presentation. Mark rigs the mirror so that the victim sees her own reflected face juxtaposed over the face of the cameraman, so that she’s in effect watching herself kill herself — the subject, by presenting herself to the camera, is complicit in her own transformation into a dead object of desire. But the cameraman too is in effect taking on the gaze of the subject, so the voyeur too is witnessing his own death inside the image of the cinematic subject. The moviemaker masochistically allows himself to be absorbed into the subject of his own film. The infinite deferral of sadistic cinema resolves itself with the filmmakerer’s self-destruction, which is what happens in end of the film where Mark suicides.

    What is the role of the audience in this movie? Clearly, as shown at the very beginning of the film, the viewer occupies the place of the filmmaker, sadistically objectifying the subject of the film while at the same time masochistically becoming absorbed into the film itself. The endgame is self-destruction, with the viewer being complicit in his own loss of subjective agency inside the film.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 January 2009 @ 11:14 pm

  6. The infinite deferral of sadistic cinema resolves itself with the filmmakerer’s self-destruction, which is what happens in end of the film where Mark suicides.

    but does he self-destruct because he realizes he can’t get out of the loop (watching/being watched) and how do you think this relates to cigarette burns, because i definitely see the connection

    what i meant by infinite deferral BTW is similar to painting, the ”vanishing point”, it is impossible to determine the borders of space. i think peeping tom suggests the same about film space. perhaps powell was prescient about the knowledge that later surfaced in inland empire or in cigarette burns or in cache, that something ELSE is controlling the recording and viewing processes.

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    Comment by parody center — 7 January 2009 @ 12:52 am

  7. yes it was presented as a drama, but the tone, i distinctly remember, was gritty-realistic, like the voyeur was really this unremarkable wimp rather than the charming nextdoor type charmeur a la Perkins, and it was all in drab downtrodden locales true to the real England, so one could say in ”cinema verite” format. in fact very similar to kieslowski’s short film about killing, which no doubt drew on powell.

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    Comment by parody center — 7 January 2009 @ 12:58 am

  8. Mark the serial killer is indeed portrayed as a wimp, but didn’t you find this description applying to Norman Bates as well? Affable but innocuous, socially awkward and a bit effeminate — this is the public persona. Peter Lorre’s character in M is like this too. Mark lives in an upstairs room in a boarding house. He lives in the presentable front rooms of his apartment, with his dark room and theater hidden away in the back. The tenants think Mark is just a mousey and creepy fellow-tenant. It turns out he owns the house, having inherited it from his parents. Mark begins romancing a girl tenant who nearly becomes one of his victims: at one point he peeps into her bedroom and tells her that it used to be his mother’s room. It’s as if the Bates Motel and the Bates home have been merged together.

    I’d say the tone of the movie is rather artsy. The music is contemporary classical, and the cinematography eschews the noir look for a relatively rich pallette. What Powell does is to split the settings between the ordinary public appearance and the dark private spaces. There are three main settings: the boarding house, split between the public bustle and Mark’s dark room; the movie set where Mark is a cinematographer, split between the filmmaking hustle-bustle and the deserted set where Mark kills an extra; the magazine store, where in the room above Mark takes porn photos and eventually kills one of the models. It’s this expressionistic sense where the splits within places represent the split in Mark’s self. This, I’d say, isn’t as effectively done in Psycho, since the deserted motel seems nearly as creepy as the house.

    More later.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 January 2009 @ 6:22 am

  9. and the cinematography eschews the noir look for a relatively rich pallette.

    or in other words, for a realistic coding (the idea I think is to convince us that this is a ”real” story). which of course doesn’t have to be in stride with expressionism, think elia kazan’s films like on the waterfront, but the suggested mode is ”cinema verite” rather than anything stylized.

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    Comment by parody center — 7 January 2009 @ 8:50 am

  10. Yes, I agree about the realism as you describe it.

    Now, the background psychological trauma in the story: Mark’s father was a famous scientist studying psychological fear reactions. The father made Mark a subject in dastardly experiments, frightening the child then filming his reactions. One film shows Mark visiting his mother on her deathbed after she’d already died. The father remarried 6 weeks later, and you get the sense that Mark thinks perhaps his father killed his mother. So in his cinematic murder spree Mark identifies with his father. But having also been the father’s victim along with his mother, Mark also identifies with the mother who is also his own victim.

    I think this bipolar identification works particularly well in the cinematic milieu, where director-as-voyeur is also the exhibitionist who wants his films (= himself) to be watched. Also the sadistic gaze of the filmmaker who desires to capture/kill the subject is mirrored in the masochistic desire to be absorbed into the gaze/image of the subject he’s filming and of course also into the gaze of the audience.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 January 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  11. Back to the bipolarity of the physical environments: the house, the film studio, the magazine store. This I think is expressionistic even if the cinematography is realistic. I don’t, however, get the sense like in Videodrome or Cigarette Burns or Inland Empire that these bipolar places are “haunted” and somehow controlling the actions of the people occupying them. It’s more that the spaces are used to underline the psychological processes taking place in them. Still, the filmmaking process remains thematic throughout, such that we’re exploring the psyche of the director and DP through the characters.

    The bipolar spaces do collapse or fold into themselves. So, e.g., the movie set where Mark works becomes the scene of the crime, and you see the police detectives scouring the scene for clues and interviewing witnesses even as the movie is being shot — as if the police investigation has become part of the film itself. This approach I think foreshadows later movies, with Almodovar coming most immediately to mind.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 7 January 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  12. ref. the Peeping Tom’s psychopathology, I’d say it is more his MOTHER he identifies with as his subsequent murders reflect incestuous desire as well as self-castration; his maso bottom personality (Perkins was a choleric) is also more appropriate for this kind of a schizophrenia.

    Also the sadistic gaze of the filmmaker who desires to capture/kill the subject is mirrored in the masochistic desire to be absorbed into the gaze/image of the subject he’s filming and of course also into the gaze of the audience.

    From Powell I didn’t get the impression that he was scrutinizing the audience’s voyeurism, as Hitchcock did. This loop, this endless reflection of reflection, rather indicates that the whole process is out of control or controlled by something or someone else. So, I do think the set-up is quite like A Cigarette Burns, only the Burns captured me far more powerfully due to its being more visceral, more direct, than this aloof and clinical-cold British horror. I think actually Comrade Fox would be ideal in a remake.

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    Comment by Parody Center — 8 January 2009 @ 6:56 am

  13. Why the mother alone? The father studied psychological fear reactions by frightening Mark as a child and filming him; now Mark is the man behind the camera filming fear reactions. He has taken on his father’s job. But he also identifies with the victims because he himself was his father’s victim. That’s why I gave the back story: it’s quite different from Norman Bates’s story of maternal identification.

    And why no gaze of the audience? In the beginning sequence Mark stalks and kills and films the kill, then he watches this snuff film he’s just made. And to emphasize immediately that we the audience are also watchers, the early scenes are framed as if seen through a viewfinder on a camera, and then as we’re watching Mark watch his snuff film we see the photographer’s credit placed atop of the snuff image, calling attention to the fact that it’s we who are watching a snuff film staged for our benefit. The film’s title is Peeping Tom, and we watch Mark peeping at people all the time: through windows, through the lens of his camera, surreptitiously peeking at the man buying porn at the magazine shop, spying on police from the rafters of the film studio. Mark has a brief conversation with an incredibly nonobservant psychoanalyst asking him about Peeping Tom syndrome and what the cure is. This is a movie about a voyeur, and Mark is the “hero” with whom the audience identifies even in being appalled by his actions.

    “Aloof and clinical-cold horror”? Maybe you should watch it again, as I think your memory has distorted the movie per se.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 8 January 2009 @ 7:26 am

  14. his identification with mum is suggested by his passivity, and the scopic obsession; i would say he TRIES to perform castration, which apparently never succeded, hence the Phallic murder instrument. anyhow that whole story is sort of better than the one in Psycho, which attempts formulaic Freudian explanations… etc etc

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    Comment by parody santorum — 8 January 2009 @ 9:44 am

  15. Mark identifies with his mother in a very direct way as well: he and apparently also his mother were dominated and terrorized by the sadistic father. Mark presents no evidence that the mother was similarly tormented, so he projects his own fear and passivity onto her. Now it seems just wrong to regard the child who doesn’t fight back against the domineering father as evidence of being feminized, as if the fear response is as natural a way of achieving jouissance, just as the exercise of aggressive dominance over the weak is a natural jouissance channel. To assign the torturer to masculine sexuation and the victim to feminine sexuation? That’s a fucked-up psychological theory.

    Here’s another thing that comes to mind in response to your idea about this being a cold clinical horror. It seems that the father fit this description in the way he went about tormenting and filming his own son in the name of science. We see displayed on Mark’s shelves the books his father published based on this sadistic research program. This means we can read this movie in terms of the romantic indictment of science as a way of exercising power and control over its “subjects.” We see and hear art throughout the movie: the score is modern classical, one victim performs an interpretive dance, some of the action takes place on a movie set and in a photographic studio. But we don’t get an art-versus-science split here, with science dominating and destroying art. Rather, it’s the “masters” of both art and science who wield the power over the “subjects”: scientist over experimental subject, director/photographer over performing subject. And you’re absolutely right about the sexuation: in every situation in this movie the master is a man and the subject is a woman. It’s an indictment ultimately of male sexuation as identified with this role of sadistic master. Or it’s an indictment of a social system that associates sadistic dominance with the heteronormatively preferred male role. That Mark has himself been victimized by the sadistic master means that he identifies with the victim, and so his attempt also to identify with the master opens an internal split resolvable only by self-destruction.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 9 January 2009 @ 6:35 am

  16. So now what is the director saying about is own work? Does he believe that he can make a work of art only by exercising this sort of sadistic tyranny over the process? And if he identifies too much with the performers is he consigning his work to self-destruction; i.e., the film never gets made, or deviates too much from the director’s vision? Is this the fear of the director, that by ceding any control that the film will surely fail to come together or will turn out as formless disgusting shit?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 9 January 2009 @ 7:17 am

  17. regard the child who doesn’t fight back against the domineering father as evidence of being feminized, …

    ”feminized” did not have a negative connotation, as in ”bad”, was simply stating that Mark’s position is more feminine than masculine, as reflected in his passivity and his voyeurism, which then also indicates he hasn’t passed Oedipus properly; in his reenactment of the primal scene/castration you see that most clearly as it is also a way of penetrating the woman/being the man. I don’t remember what was said of his mother in the film, she doesn’t appear for some reason?, and that reason must be more than just the director’s omission, but it could also be that Mark’s father was terrified of her. I mean that you can interpret the whole story as the fear of the womb, of aggressive female sexuality, which would figure, also, given the 1960s setting when women’s lib was starting to break free from patriarchal constraints…

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    Comment by parody center — 9 January 2009 @ 9:59 am

  18. …but in the second half of the comment you already answered this issue (I responded too fast)

    This means we can read this movie in terms of the romantic indictment of science as a way of exercising power and control over its “subjects.”

    Or more precisely the indictment of the BEHAVIORAL science (or CBT nowadays)?
    Perhaps Mark’s murderousness is an ironic response to society’s attempts to control ”normativize” and channel his libido.

    I am sorry I am not more responsive to the expression ”heteronormative”; recent events confronted me with terrible issues concerning this problem, and I often think, in my quagmires, that there is a good reason ”normativity” exits in the first place or to put it in other words that ”libertarianism” has a very dark side to it that needs to be addressed instead of just one-sidedly condemning the normativity as if it just came out of the blue and didn’t have any purpose.

    Even more to the point I wonder if the new-fangled ”liberty” does not conceal a different kind of normativity, which performs as freedom-loving but is in fact hiding its total indifference to the subject matter, perhaps by way of supporting capital’s unfettered growth – I suppose this was the criticism frequently aimed at Deleuze but I can’t assess to what extent it ws justified on the basis of my half-hearted reading.

    I cannot get deeper into detail publicly, but I will write soon.

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    Comment by parody center — 9 January 2009 @ 10:07 am

  19. Yes, this is the idea, PC. So now I get a videocamera and immediately turn the camera on myself as subject. Should I interpret this move as narcissistic or suicidal? Or are these two sides of the same coin? I do plan to start interviewing people on camera, but I anticipate putting the camera on a tripod rather than holding it in my hand. Now both interviewer and interviewee become transfixed and objectified by the autonomous machine…

    I saw Hitchcock’s Frenzy last night – it seems he’s covering old ground without really adding anything other than more explicit snuff shots. The killer isn’t very interesting. If we regard him as the more lethal double of the wrongly-accused fellow it’s still not very interesting. I think it’s mostly watching the coincidences of the mistaken identity unfold, with the audience knowing all along that Scotland Yard has caught the wrong man etc. There’s one really effective bit of camerawork I think, where the camera leaves the apartment of the killer just as he’s about to kill again. The camera just seems to drift or float down the stairs, through the doors and back into the street, as if it’s leaving a dream and re-entering the world. I don’t get the sense that the camera is too sad to watch this murder — after all, it’s watched with relish before. This time it’s almost as if the camera enjoys dreaming about the murder more than actually watching it — a going-beyond of the voyeuristic gaze to the macabre imagination. Oh and by the way, this victim we don’t see being killed is I believe the same girl who lives in Mark’s rooming house in Peeping Tom.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 14 January 2009 @ 6:01 am


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