November 13, 2015

WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Cinematic Voyeurism

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Recently, I have finally come to accept the fact that I am addicted to people-watching. From viewing the great migrations to the Jurassic Park score (I mean, students commuting in between classes) to sitting in my dorm and watching everyone shuffle from place to place from far above, there is some therapeutic aspect to it that I enjoy. The desire to find out what people are doing without knowing they are being watched is a little creepy, yes, but the observer effect would completely ruin the organic scene unfolding before me.  

But why do we enjoy people-watching, posed on the outside of things, looking in?

There in fact is a word for it: voyeurism. Voyeurism is described as a psychological disorder which one receives gratification from viewing naked bodies and sexual acts. The term comes from the French word, voyeur, which means “one who looks.” In the media world, voyeurism is seen more innocently as the desire to look into the personal lives of people and understand more fully what is going on. The term for voyeur is more often understood in this way. 

Voyeurism is also a perspective artists will take. Paintings will feature a “Peeping Tom” looking in at a woman, unaware and acting naturally. Artists during the Renaissance and after would paint these kinds of images, especially in the development of modern art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These are also described as keyhole paintings, a popular type of image during the development of modern art. Edgar Degas painted scenes of mothers and daughters along with ballerinas in their studio. The viewers felt like they were looking through the keyhole of a door in order to connect with the subject. The scenes were intimate and showed tender moments that could not be captured or observed if the subject were aware of a party looking into their world.  

Now enter the invention of the camera and motion pictures.  Film is yet another form of art that is able to take on the perspective of the outsider looking in.  

One of the most famous films with a spot-on description of voyeurism is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). The film is about a man, Jeff Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), who is an eyewitness to a murder while spying into the apartments of his neighbors. With the help of Lisa (Grace Kelly), they are able to piece the murder together and find out the facts no one else would be able to find out. Most of the shots and camera work for the film are done from Jeff’s apartment, which creates the perfect voyeuristic vibe.  

Hitchcock made it a point to shoot most of the setups in order to give off a voyeuristic vibe. It is also important to consider that most of the scenes were shot from the inside of Jeff’s apartment. The cinematographer Robert Burks also created a crane which he mounted the camera on with a telephoto lens. This allowed for small details of the courtyard set to be picked up on camera and demonstrate how much of everything Jeff saw.  

Alfred Hitchcock was considering filming on site in Greenwich Village, but decided it would probably be easier just to recreate the set in Hollywood. In order to accurately convey the streets and apartments of New York, Hitchcock sent photographers downtown to capture the streets, buildings, weather conditions… Everything, really.  

One film that accurately depicts the fishbowl effect is The Truman Show. The film depicts Truman Burbank, (Jim Carrey) whose life is a reality tv show, and he is the only one who doesn’t know it. A world has been created for him to live in since his conception. It’s sort of a social experiment, and fascinating how it pulls on the heartstrings of viewers along with the individuals involved in creating his life. When he finds out that his whole life is a reality show, he attempts to cheat the system while aware of the circumstances of having thousands of people watching.  

A New York Times article in fact describes the “Truman Syndrome” in which people believe they are the star of their own reality TV show and will act accordingly. Those who were diagnosed with this and went into therapy mentioned this particular film more often than not. There is “a small but growing number of psychotic patients who describe their lives as mirroring that of the main character in the 1998 film The Truman Show, which makes people feel that they are under constant scrutiny and living the fishbowl effect,” writes Kershaw for the New York Times. Those diagnosed experience “Internet delusion,” which basically means that their abnormal thinking patterns stem from what they read and interact with online. Professionals find that culture-bound delusions are only incidentally linked to psychosis.  

The New Yorker magazine article, “Unreality Star” by Andrew Marantz, also describes a man who suffers from the Truman Syndrome. This piece focuses on Nick Lotz, a fictional character whose paranoia leads him to believe people were getting a closer and more intimate look on his life than he wanted.  

But isn’t all film voyeuristic to a certain extent? Unless a character breaks the fourth wall (like the “strange interludes” Groucho Marx would incorporate into his films), there is the assumption that all audiences are simply looking into the world in front of them. We are all on the outside looking into the worlds of the characters onscreen. In that respect, we are all voyeurs, suffering from the sheer curiosity of what is going to happen next.  

Marina Caitlin Watts is a senior studying Communication. In addition to writing for The Sun, she has also been published on various film websites along with The Daily Beast. She loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. If you need her, she is waiting for Godot. Watch Me If You Can appears on alternate Fridays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected].