Look! Voyeurism in the panoptic society

“Sure he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all? I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business.”
(Hitchcock, When asked by Truffaut if the main character in ‘Rear Window’, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), is a snoop. Later in the interview they expand that perspective to include the cinema audience)

The beginning of the 21st century may just well be among the most culturally and socially confused eras to emerge in recent history, when you consider society’s mass-fascination with reality shows, webcams and camera phones on the one hand and its ever-present obsession with surveillance and mass observation technologies, fueled by the Post 9/11 anxiety, on the other. This dichotomie has been explored by lots of creative producers in the past decennia, which was the subject of exhibitions like ‘ctrl (space): Rhetorics of Surveillance’ (curated by Thomas levin for ZKM) and ‘Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art’ (curated by Michael Rush), with great work by Sophie Calle, Jim Campbell, Jordan Crandall and Harun Farocki, to name a few. The impact of ubiquitous observation technologie was also very present in recent feature films as varied as Andrea Arnold’s ‘Red Road’, Michael Haneke’s ‘Cache’ or Paul Greengrass’ ‘Bourne Ultimatum’. But while these movies use CCTV footage to draw on feelings of paranoia and unease, here is a new film that has another take on the complex relationship between the intentional exibitionism that seems to be an essential part of our relation towards the internet and television, and our involuntary relinquishing of privacy to the cameras of power systems. The official description of ‘Look’ (it came out in december in the States) goes like this: “There are now approximately 30 million surveillance cameras in the United States generating more than 4 billion hours of footage every week. And the numbers are growing. The average American is now captured over 200 times a day, in department stores, gas stations, changing rooms, even public bathrooms. No one is spared from the relentless, unblinking eye of the cameras that are hidden in every nook and cranny of day-to-day life.” By shooting his feature entirely from closed-circuit viewpoints (but actually shot with Hi-end cameras – the ‘dirty’ look was created in post-production!), director Adam Rifkin wants to bring forward the question: “who are we when we don’t think anyone’s watching?”

But is this really a critical statement, or just a marketing stunt? The trailer suggests the latter. It suggests a film that draws on the new fascination of surveillance and sousveillance, as new playgrounds of the mass media, as a new market based on narcissism, exhibitionism and voyeurism in a so-called “panoptic” society (pan = everything; optikos = to see). This looks like a film that lures us, uncritically, in a silent acknowledgment and even enjoyment of the “tyranny of intimacy and the end of privacy” (taken from ‘ctrl (space)’ catalogue). No trace here either of a perspective on the voyouristic notion of cinema itself, while brilliant films like Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ and Coppola’s ‘the Conversation’ have proved that giving cinema an opportunity for self-reflection, can have an unsettling impact. In ‘Peeping Tom’ director Michael Powell plays a brilliant mirroring game, involving himself, as filmmaker, and the spectator in the process of voyeurism, so that by the last shot – showing a blank cinema screen – we are all aware that we have become victims of our own gaze, confronted uneasilly with the relationship between watching and participating. Is ‘Look’ equally confronting, or will it just provide us with a way to get around our prohibitions and exploit our voyeuristic tendencies, using a format that is just another smoother way to bridge the the gap looming between us, the screen and the events in the image, between our notions of reality, simulation and fiction?