Member preview

Voting, Viewing and Voyeurism

How we got from “Rear Window” to the Reality TV Presidency

Howard Beale holding forth in the Church of Television.

Voyeurism, has been one of the single most dominant themes in film in the past 70-odd years, providing the grist for many a cinematic masterpiece from Rear Window to Network to Caché. In the past decade, though, voyeurism has made the jump from being a favorite psycho-sexual subject presented for public consumption at the box office, to a fundamental element of the national zeitgeist. No longer content to marvel at voyeurs in our films, the American public has turned democracy itself in to a massive peep show.

Usually defined either as experiencing sexual pleasure from observing the sexual activity of other people, or experiencing pleasure in seeing other people in pain, voyeurism is often thought of as an illicit activity with the sequestration of the observer being an integral part of experience. The voyeur, exposed, ceases to be a voyeur and becomes, instead, a participant in the proceedings and drama, and this change is frequently accompanied by substantial danger.

Freudians, not surprisingly, have long been fascinated by voyeurism — termed as scopophilia — and its causes and implications. In the words of British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, “Freud isolated scopophila as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones….he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.” Freud cited the voyeurism practiced by children, “their desire to see and make sure of the private and forbidden (curiosity about other people’s genital and bodily functions, about the presence of absence of the penis and, retrospectively, about the primal scene).”

Voyeurism, in other words, is active in this formulation, not passive, and in its most extreme in adults, scopophilia can become perversion, leading to obsessive fixation and Peeping Toms. The inverse of scopophilia is exhibitionism, with the exhibitionist willingly providing the performance which the scopophiliac desires (whether the knowing performance of the exhibitionist neuters the erotic experience for the scopophiliac is a question for another time).

In film, voyeurism has been dealt with countless times. The approach taken to voyeurism, the methods used by the voyeurs, their identities and motivations, and the way the audience is meant to understand the act of voyeurism has been inextricably tied to the dominant technologies of the eras in which these films were made. Three movies in particular stand out for the ways in which they engage with voyeurism in their respective eras: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window, Sidney Lumet’s 1976 opus Network, and more recently Austrian director Michael Haneke’s 2005 film, Caché.

In the case of each of these films, the directors and writers are clearly concerned with the technology of the moment. For Hitchcock, the advent of television and its ability to not only show the living rooms of fictional families, but also to literally enter the living rooms of the audience, looms large. In Lumet’s case, it’s still TV, but at its heyday when the TV news has displaced print as the primary medium for information for Americans and when the industry was on the cusp of the 24-hour news cycle (CNN was founded just 4 years after Lumet’s film, although Network feels, even today, ahead of its time). The third film, Caché is concerned with the ease of digital recording and editing and with the compacting nature of the medium: as cameras shrank, so did the worlds which they captured. And, although each of these films implicates the audience with the act of voyeurism, they do so in radically different ways related, ultimately, to the technologies with which they are concerned.

The apotheosis of technologically mediated voyeurism, of course, has been the rise to dominance of reality TV as both a form of entertainment and now, with the election of Donald Trump as President, a political and social force. The medium of reality TV and its close companion social media, as something distinct from television generally, or film, or even the digital artefacts created in Caché, has rendered many of the concerns of these three filmmakers obsolete and created a new world in which everyone desires to live their life as either a voyeur or an exhibitionist, the consequences be damned.

Of the three films in question, Rear Window is without a doubt the most charming. It tells the story of Jeff, a successful magazine photographer laid up in his upper story apartment in a wheel chair and cast after an accident sustained while shooting a motor race. Over the course of the film, Jeff (James Stewart) is visited by his nurse, Stella, and by Lisa a beautiful young woman played by Grace Kelly, who does everything in her power to make him love, and maybe one day, marry her.

The dramatic conceit of the film, however, is that in his wheelchair bound state, Jeff soon finds himself creeping on the neighbors in the courtyard below and the apartment building across from him. He is able to watch each apartment, through the telephoto lens of his camera, as if it is a television with its own set of characters who enter and leave the frame at usually regular and predictable intervals. The characters include a young married couple, a gorgeous dancer whom Jeff calls ‘Miss Torso,’ and a handful of others in variously functional or dysfunctional relationships. In the course of his voyeurism, Jeff sees signs that a man, Thorwald, has murdered his wife and disposed of her body, and the photographer becomes obsessed with proving that a crime occurred, ultimately recruiting Lisa as his accomplice. In a sense, Jeff only appreciates Lisa’s presence when she is a participant in the voyeurism, and his concern with her reaches its highest point when she agrees to cross the courtyard and enter Thorwald’s apartment under the gaze of his telephoto lens.

Lisa enters Thorwald’s apartment.

From 1948 to 1955, the year after Rear Window premiered, television had gone from being a new technology to a presence in two thirds of American homes. This sudden explosion of TV created its own attendant social anxieties according to film theorist Laura Christiansen: “Was television, with its sitcoms as a portal into other living rooms, normalizing the act of voyeurism?” This question, she argues, was clearly on Hitchcock’s mind and is evident in the way the apartments on the other side of the courtyard are presented as if they are a series of successive TV screens.

John Belton, the editor of the exhaustive study Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, argues in an article for the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation Board that Jeff “opts for the freedom (and irresponsibility) of a one-way relationship based on voyeurism (seeing without being seen) instead of a two-way relationship rooted in mutual regard, recognition, and concern.” Moreover, he goes so far as to describe Jeff as “essentially sadistic,” despite his good intentions in uncovering the murder. According to Belton, “It is only when Lisa enters this world across the way that she succeeds in capturing Jeff’s attention…. When Thorwald suddenly returns, Jeff watches helplessly as Thorwald assaults Lisa. Jeff no longer takes Lisa for granted but, as it were, sees her as if for the first time.”

Thorwald, once he has discovered Jeff’s transgression, confronts him in his apartment — the danger inherent in voyeurism crosses the threshold — and Jeff only survives the fight thanks to blinding light of his camera’s flashbulb. The technology that enabled Jeff’s voyeurism protects him from its consequences. The film ends with Jeff stuck in the wheel chair, now with two broken legs, but his voyeurism — and its attendant displaced sexual desire — abandoned as Lisa stays the night.

Hitchcock and the film’s screenwriter, John Hayes, very carefully align the audience with Jeff throughout the film. All of the action is seen from Jeff’s point of view. Indeed, the camera and the audience never leave his apartment. In one of the first scenes, Stella, the nurse, calls Jeff out for his voyeurism: “The New York state sentence for a peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse. And there aren’t any windows in the workhouse. Years ago, they used to put your eyes out with a hot poker. Are any of those bikini bombshells you watch worth a hot poker?” But she doesn’t leave the subject of voyeurism at simply shaming Jeff. She shames the film’s audience as well, arguing that “We’ve grown to be a race of Peeping Toms. What people should do is stand outside their own houses and look in once in a while.”

Hitchcock clearly does not pull any punches in terms of implicating the audience in Jeff’s voyeurism. Neither, however, does he fully expand that implication beyond the confines of Jeff’s life and his apartment. The audience is invited to vicariously join Jeff in a psycho-erotic, voyeuristic adventure, but no judgement is passed on either the character or the audience at the end of the film, and in solving the murder, Jeff and the voyeuristic act — and by extension the audience — actually become somewhat heroic.

Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky discard this softened version of voyeurism for full-blown moral outrage in his 1976 film Network. The film follows Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a TV news anchor with sagging ratings as he nears the end of his career. The network’s management decides to fire him, causing him to go on a tirade and declare that he will kill himself on live TV a week later. His harangue strikes a nerve, and his ratings surge. Instead of firing him, at the urging of Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), an aggressive new programming executive, the network decides to create a new kind of news show, dubbed The Howard Beale Show, around Beale’s outrage, which is condoned, he believes, by a message from god himself.

The program quickly evolves from being a more or less straight news program with an editorial message delivered by Beale into a sort of Church of Television, with Beale acting as a fiery preacher against the capitalistic order and the disorders of society, at one point exhorting his audience to open their windows and shout into the night: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore. I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value.”

Howard Beale exhorts his audience.

The show becomes ever more ridiculous and pandering in its presentation, even as Beale becomes more fiercely moralist. It is shot in a studio with a live audience, stained glass backdrop, and with a segment done by a psychic who purports to predict the news. Beale proclaims that television will never provide any truth to its audience, and that he and others in the business will “tell you anything you want to hear. We lie like hell…. We deal in illusion, man. None of it is true. But you people sit there — all of you — day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds — we’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe this illusion we’re spinning. You’re beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal.”

Riding the huge ratings for The Howard Beale Show, Christensen creates a new type of program which runs immediately after: The Mao Tse-Tung Hour. This show, in a 1970s prediction of reality TV, is based around footage shot by a fringe anarcho-Communist domestic terrorist group, the Ecumenical Liberation Army, as they carry out violent crimes around the country each week. The network, under Christensen, pays the terrorist group, and their Communist minders, royalties for the footage.

Eventually Beale calls on his audience to send millions of telegrams to the White House complaining about a planned merger between the network and a company controlled by a syndicate of Arab oil nations. In response, the network boss scares Beale into promoting a pro-capitalist line on his show, and his sermons take a turn, focusing instead on the dehumanization of modernity. Beale argues that “It’s the individual that’s finished. It’s the single, solitary human being who’s finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. This is a nation of two hundred odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings.” The audience doesn’t like being told that instead of deserving to be outraged that they are, in fact, meaningless in a cosmic sense, and Beale’s ratings slip as a consequence of his changed message. The denouement of the film is simple: to bring an end to Beale, the network and Christensen decide that they must kill him, and they hire the Ecumenical Liberation Army to do it on live TV in front of a studio audience.

The end of “Network” and Howard Beale.

In Making Movies, a 1997 book about his career, Lumet recalls his approach to filming Network, particularly the on-air assassination at the end: “The movie was about corruption. So, we corrupted the camera. We started with an almost naturalistic look…. As the picture progressed, camera setups became more rigid, more formal. The lighting became more and more artificial,” and he states that the penultimate scene “is lit like a commercial. The camera setups are static and framed like still pictures. The camera also had become a victim of television.” The lighting effects were changed so gradually over the course of the film that Lumet did not believe “the audience is ever conscious of the changes taking place visually.” In Network, the physical apparatus for creating film and television, rather than being protective as it is during Jeff’s face-off with Thorwald in Rear Window, is used to create a sense of corruption at the outer limit of the audience’s awareness.

When Beale is murdered, it is after he has expounded for nearly two hours about how television has rendered the lives and existence of its viewers meaningless and that they have confused reality with fiction, a state of being not unlike the psycho-sexual confusion of the voyeur incapable of having an actually intimate relationship. And the audience viewing Network, in watching his murder on the film, seen from the perspective of the studio audience, is also engaged in a sort of voyeurism. The point of view, as in the case of Rear Window, implicates the audience as voyeurs, only when watching Network, there can be no mistake that this sort of voyeurism is disordered and a moral affront, rather than a path toward solving a crime.

Fast-forward to 2005, and the issue of voyeurism and film has not been resolved. Rather, it has simply evolved once more in response to a new technological era and the advent of readily available digital video. Whereas in both Rear Window and Network, the identity, location and point of view of the voyeurs has been clear from the outset, the same cannot be said of Michael Haneke’s Caché, which operates almost entirely on a meta level. The film’s approach is evident virtually from the very beginning. Its title, which literally refers to something that is hidden, is nestled amongst a uniform block of text listing the various producers, financiers and key crew, including Haneke himself, who were involved in the production.

The opening shot is perhaps the most important in Caché.

The opening shot, over which the credits proceed, is a fixed frame, clearly digital image, of the front of a French house. A few pedestrians and a car pass by. After more than a minute, the street scene rewinds and the audience understands that what they have been watching is a recording, which in fact is being viewed by one of the main characters of the film. Indeed, the plot is fairly simple: A wealthy couple, Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) find a VHS tape with recorded surveillance of the front of their house but no information identifying who it is from, and the police decline to investigate. As the film continues, they receive more tapes, some accompanied by violent red drawings. Another tape shows a street with lower class apartments, which leads Georges to an apartment which turns out to be inhabited by Majid (Maurice Bénichou), a figure from Georges’ past, who claims to know nothing about the origins of the surveillance tapes.

Through a series of flashbacks, triggered by the arrival of the tapes and drawings, which seem to depict George’s childhood, we learn that Majid was the son of Algerian immigrants who were murdered in the Paris Massacre in 1961. Georges parents were going to adopt Majid after the tragedy until Georges, fearing that Majid would disrupt his existence as a single child and the focus of his parents’ love, lies and tells them that Majid butchered a chicken to scare him (in actual fact, Georges put Majid up to it).

What follows is an imagined kidnapping of the Laurents’ son, Pierrot, which leads to Majid and his son’s arrest and then release. Majid asks Georges to come back and see him, and once he has entered the apartment, Majid graphically kills himself. The film ends after Majid’s son confronts Georges and tells him he is not the one who recorded the tapes. The final shot is the son talking to Pierrot at his school, although the audience does not hear the conversation.

The trailer to Caché covers many of the key points.

Indeed, Haneke does not offer any conventional explanation for who could have shot the tapes, and he is actually very careful to close off possible solutions. Georges could not be the shooter since one of the tapes is deposited when the doorbell to the house rings while Georges is inside eating dinner with friends; clearly it’s impossible for him to be both inside the house and outside to ring the bell at the same time (at other points Georges and his wife also both appear in the footage of the tape, implying that someone else is operating the camera). Pierrot is also out, as not only has Georges concealed the story about Majid from his family, which would have prevented Pierrot from making the drawings, but Pierrot receives a drawing at his school without knowing what it is. The audience also knows that it is not Majid or his son because a tape of Georges conversation with Majid in his apartment is sent to his office, but Majid is not operating the camera, and Haneke is careful to show us that there is not another person in the kitchen.

Yet in shutting off all of these possible solutions, Haneke is telling us who the actual creator of the tapes and drawings is: Only someone omniscient, who knew of Georges childhood, who could record without Georges or anyone else being allowed to see them, is capable of making and depositing the tapes in the film. The only person in Caché with such powers is Haneke, the director himself. Haneke gets to be in complete control of the action and information within the film world, just as he gets to control the point of view of the audience. He can edit himself out, constrain the framing, ring whatever bells he likes and draw images that only Georges, the character, could know.

In essence, Haneke is telling the audience that in Caché, as in every film, the director and the director’s gaze is hidden. The director is always the voyeur with whom the audience experiences a film. The director may choose to displace the audience’s identification onto a different point of view — Jeff or the studio audience — but the audience only identifies with these voyeurs through a sort of mediated voyeurism controlled by the director himself.

It’s no mistake that Haneke’s framing of the house and street in the opening shot of Caché is reminiscent of the view outside of Jeff’s apartment in Rear Window. Nor is it a mistake that Georges, a talk show host and producer, supervises the editing of his show to create a new, fake reality for his audience, just as Howard Beale warns his audience. And in the same way that the studio audience, and the film-going audience, become voyeurs for the murder of Beale on live television, Georges is forced to watch Majid’s suicide, all while the director forces us to watch Georges watching Majid kill himself.

Likewise, as in the cases of Rear Window and Network, Haneke’s concern with voyeurism is intimately tied to the technology of the day. The surveillance footage is shot digitally, though it is watched by Georges and Anne on the more physical medium of a VHS, and the audience actually sees Georges in an editing booth commanding the digital manipulation and cutting of footage from his show. The ease with which video can be capture, the ease with which digital cameras can be sequestered and hidden, and the ease with which their footage can be manipulated, is the foundation of Haneke’s construction of the story.

And Haneke himself has provided the public with a veiled hint as to the perpetrator of the surveillance and the meaning of the film. In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, he resolutely refuses to say who the creator of the tapes is, and instead rather insouciantly says that anyone who watched the film and wanted to know who sent the tapes “didn’t understand the film.” He continues to say that Caché asks a single fundamental question: “How do we treat our conscience and our guilt and reconcile ourselves to living with our actions?”

This question, incidentally, is at the root of the Freudian understanding of scopophila, as reinterpreted by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis: “The gaze is this object lost and suddenly refound in the conflagration of shame, by the introduction of the other. Up to that point, what is the subject trying to see? What he is trying to see, make no mistake, is the object as absence. What the voyeur is looking for and finds is merely a shadow, a shadow behind the curtain. There he will fantasize any magic of presence, the most graceful of girls, for example, even if on the other side is only a hairy athlete.”

Georges character can be understood to be experiencing guilt over his childhood treatment of Majid, and then even more so over the implication that he drove Majid to suicide. But that guilt, his shame over his past actions, only comes to the surface when he learns that he has been observed by the voyeur. The fact that someone has seen Georges — and knows his actions — is what causes him to feel shame and guilt. And its root in his childhood behavior, a behavior intended to protect his pre-sexual relationship with his parents from competition, can be understood as the root of Georges’ own adult disorders: his television show allows him to be both voyeur in the editing booth and a willing exhibitionist while in front of the studio camera. His experience of shame is only brought about by the hidden camera, which is outside of his control, and functions as a metaphor for middle class French shame experienced when the knowledge of the Paris Massacre was exposed decades after it occurred.

So where does this leave us today? Haneke’s conception of film as an inherently voyeuristic experience controlled by a director remains true, but its implications have been more fully realized since the release of Caché in 2005. At the time Haneke was making the film, The Apprentice had not come into existence yet on NBC. Neither, for that matter, had the Real Housewives franchises. Although MTV’s The Real World had launched the genre of reality TV in the early 1990s, the format did not yet dominate television in 2005 the way it now does, particularly given that the show was limited by its cable-only distribution.

Reality TV since the release of Caché has extended and built upon Haneke’s thesis. Now, rather than being made uncomfortable by the suicide of Majid, audiences actively seek out opportunities to jeer at washed-up socialites as they toss drinks in each other’s faces over petty affronts. The knowledge that reality TV is “fake” is pervasive and easily discerned through the format’s aggressive editing, yet gossip bloggers avidly follow the lives of the “real” people on the shows. This would seem to be a harmless sort of voyeurism in the case of The Real Housewives; they are willingly exhibitionist and are compensated for their turns on the show, after all. But it is a destructive sort of scopophilia, however, when the public mistakes the voyeuristic excitement they get from reality TV for an actual, authentic experience (cue Howard Beale railing about truth and against fake news).

What happens when audiences too fully embrace their roles as voyeurs, and when directors, unlike Haneke, have no compulsions about what they show nor sense of moral decency, is the election of Donald Trump as President. (This statement is, to be sure, somewhat hyperbolic, but then again, isn’t everything these days?) Trump is, in many ways, a character who could readily be imagined to exist in the worlds of Rear Window, Network, or Caché. He is both exhibitionist and voyeur. Audiences felt they got to “know” him by watching his “real life” on The Apprentice. His own leering gaze was put to work in the course of exploiting the Miss Universe beauty pageant around the world. And his utterance to Billy Bush could be a textbook example of a Freudian scopophilic disorder: “I couldn’t get there, and she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look,” and it goes on and on. Then there’s the whole Stormy Daniels saga; need we dwell upon that?

Incidentally, the only thing which seems to have elicited any sense of shame from Trump is the idea that he was secretly recorded watching prostitutes engage in pee play in a Moscow hotel room. According to People magazine, perhaps as good a source as any in this era, a source close to the president said that Trump “was worried about his own reputation because he feels he can always deny, deny, deny to Melania and she will go away on the subject,” but now, “obviously, with something like this on tape, it would be harder to deny and make his life a little more difficult.” Of course, unlike in Rear Window, Network, or Caché, there is no director capable of orchestrating the voyeuristic experience of the American electorate…. Or is there?

Like what you read? Give Benjamin Reeves a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.