October 16, 2006

Peep Show

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Like a scream howling from the gutter, Peep Show is a brusque and pushy exploration into seedy cafes, mob rackets, and heroin setups. Corruption and vice know no limits as they infect every corner of Chicago, to the high profile digs in Hollywood, swanky towers on Miami Beach, and yes, even the White House.

Composed of grainy, black and white footage, Peep Show follows a jostled narrative delivered by a former mob informant — a marked man with only hours to live, enshrouded in darkness, cigarette smoke, and the stench of cheap alcohol. In a somewhat impromptu last-rights wish, he confesses it all to an unnamed cabbie. His story is a splendid mix of adventure, sex, bribery, and deceit, narrating his dramatic transformation from neighborhood hood to drug kingpin. Originally he was in charge of extorting unfortunate guests, powerful men and regular Joes alike by secretly filming their dirty escapades at the mob-owned Hotel Continental. Eventually, through contacts, wits and a bit of luck he finds himself at the head of a powerful heroin smuggling operation funneling millions into Sam Giancana’s Chicago Syndicate, Fidel Castro assassination attempts and a dubious plot to turn a heroin-hooked Frank Sinatra into the mob’s mouthpiece.

However, like in any great film, you have to wait for the twist at the end. Trust me, it’s good. However, the film’s plotline isn’t the only thing that is tricky to identify in Peep Show. At the center of this convoluted yet entertaining film is an enigma wrapped in a mystery: its creator, the infamous J.X. Williams.

I would have loved to fill you in more on the purportedly amazing life of Mr. Williams. The only problem is that he hasn’t been seen or photographed by the public for more than 20 years. Living in self-imposed exile somewhere in the Swiss Alps, Williams’s only connection to the outside world has been through San Francisco film curator, Noel Lawrence.

More intriguing is the fact that viewers of Peep Show will notice that the film is composed of numerous clips of somewhat obscure films from the 1950s and 1960s including The Man with the Golden Arm from 1955, and the more famous The Manchurian Candidate. So one is forced to question if a man whose films appear a composite of alternate cuts of other low-budget flicks and who hasn’t been seen or contacted for 20 years with the exception of our good friend Mr. Lawrence even exists!

But J. X. Williams has to be real, right? He has a Wikipedia article, and a profile and filmography on Imbd.com. His website, www.jxarchive.org lists an extensive resume of works and has images from many of his films. Still, there is a certain uneasiness that at the center of all this information there is a blur.

Maybe J. X. Willliams is appropriate for this day and age. With non-existent weapons of mass destruction and Dan Rather reporting on faked Bush military service records, who knows what is real or not (and that’s just the stuff that we supposedly have found out is fake)? Perhaps the deranged Howard Beale, speaking out against mass media and television, from the classic film Network said it best: “You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here, you’re beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do.” So until we get the chance to read his upcoming biography, The Big Footnote, we have to watch and wonder.

But really, does it matter if J. X. Williams is real or not? His existence doesn’t have any effect on the fact that Peep Show is an entertaining film, albeit somewhat demented. New York Times film critic Paul Cullum reflected: “If the filmmaker J. X. Williams didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.”

In that sense, Peep Show is the ultimate tribute to Hollywood. Traditionally, the cinema is something totally fabricated. Even the “true story” films and the most banal PBS documentaries are still selected and manipulated by a director and editor to what he believes is best. However, with Peep Show, the roles have been reversed. Now the only thing that we know is real is the film itself, while the director and creators appear to be the fabrications. But who knows? The jury is still out on that one.