Archive for January, 2011

Peeping Tom: A Brief Retrospective

In the present post-modern milieu of contemporary culture, where layers of irony are heaped together not unlike Russian dolls, self-referentiality is almost to be assumed; a meta-generic function of sorts that has slowly seeped into all other contingent forms. With this in mind, Peeping Tom’s playfully self-aware aesthetics of phallically endowed video cameras and the libidinally invested power of the image have, perhaps, succumbed to a certain temporal draining that so often accompanies commendable films via the inevitable saturation of familiarity and time. However, unlike most modern films where self-reflexivity is often seen in no more radical terms than the linear timings of a crosscut edit, Peeping Tom’s carefully orchestrated visual and narrative deconstruction is quite potently and unwaveringly transgressive.

The film centres upon Mark, a professional camera operator by day who also runs an amateur photography business by night, shooting revealing photos of young women who, within the film’s own internal codes of desire (and surely this is part of its overall commentary) find themselves seemingly seduced by the camera’s powerfully virile gaze. As a psychopath, Mark’s own transient masculinity is shown to be psychologically rewired into the phallic economy of the video camera and its concomitant systems of sexually charged representation. A process which is detailed explicitly within the film, as we see his childhood psyche warped by his father’s bizarre psychological experiments that are all meticulously filmed and documented.

There are two psychological layers to be observed here, a quality that renders the picture gladly rewarding of repeat views. On one level a cleverly constructed psychological thriller within the Psycho mould; on another, a critical meta-narrative on the issue of spectatorship itself, where the complicit relationship it upholds with the implied violence of the screen is forcefully examined and probed. This psychological duality brings a playful depth to the onscreen imagery, one where, the more one is familiar with the rules and regulations of cinematic representation; the more one is able to delight in their irreverent and systematic deconstruction.

Like all films that maintain a strict visual economy, its discipline is rewarded by pre-conditioning certain targeted responses from the audience. In one scene, by forcefully conflating the object of the camera with the phallus, a young actress’ attempts to reverse the representational tables on Mark by daring to film him and wield the phallic gaze for herself, conjures the peculiar symbolic power of both the transgressive and obscene. A response that can only be understood in relation to the film’s own internally pre-programmed codes of power and desire.

There are other dualities to Peeping Tom that are more peripheral, yet in their own way command a unique sense of gravity. For a picture which demonstrates such apparent mastery in subverting and transgressing certain cinematic codes and conventions, there are, in contrast, moments of quite spectacularly stilted dialogue and acting. This disjunction between visual economies creates a unique psychological texture for the film; that of a precariously unbalanced diegesis that, when combined, adds to an overall sense of spectatorial unease and discomfort. This response has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, the film succeeds so effectively in unsettling the carefully aligned codes of our relationship to the screen, that its reception in 1960 was one of the quite dramatically scandalous. So much so, that its director Michael Powell was effectively forced into exile from the UK film industry.

It seems an unfortunate fact of cinema that radical acts of aesthetic prescience are so often regarded with indifference at best, or, claims of obscenity at worst. Perhaps, as with other art forms, the obscene is simply that which disrupts the complacency of the centre, calling to attention certain internalized pleasures that have through repetition ascended to the cultural heights of the divinely unquestionable. In these terms, Peeping Tom should be seen as a much needed self-corrective measure, reminding us of the bizarrely perverse dynamics intrinsic of the cinematic-spectatorial relationship. For this alone, it deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

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Desiring Machines

A lot can change in ten years. Sometimes it can be difficult to step back and appreciate just how much things have been altered by such a relatively short and innocuous passage of time. For context, little more than ten years ago the humble phone box still ruled the urban cityscape (now nearing extinction in many countries), and the concept of shopping via an electrical cable connected to your home still seemed like sinister alien technology.

These are mostly crude examples; they don’t even begin to penetrate the true inter-personal fabric of social change in response to the radical acceleration of technology in almost every aspect of our lives. In the last decade, technology moved in strange and unexpected ways, and its sites of influence could not always be anticipated. Its most innovative penetration has been within the social sphere, where pervasive technologies such as the internet have, within a short space of time, reorganized, and effectively reinvented, an entire system of social integration.

Those who have bravely assimilated themselves with the appropriate technology already live a largely virtual existence. Their social interactions are mapped by the discursive patterns and instantaneous timings of digital technology; mediated via a keyboard, a touchscreen, a webcam or microphone.

It goes further.

To the extent that others perceive us directly via the mediated interface of technology (a pixelated image, abbreviated text message, onscreen avatar) our existence is not simply part-virtualized, but our essential identity is that of a virtual being. Our technological utterances leave digital echoes that take on a new form of techno-infused subjectivity.

For instance, if I choose to send a digital text message to a friend, upon its reception my temporal identity becomes in that moment physically inseparable from the device and its system of digital representation. Similarly, if I choose to participate in an online multiplayer game, my transposed identity takes on a new hyper-reducted form within the pixelled image of the avatar, where it may coexist with any number of other virtual beings, some of which may be AI controlled. The avatar of the AI, to the extent that it may be visually indistinguishable from the subjective player, creates moments and spaces of subjective uncertainty; the AI expresses itself through the same representational syntax as the virtual being, causing a radical flattening out of the distinction between the real and the virtual, subjective and objective.

In the virtual world, the narrow representational gulf between human and machine is one of carefully disguised agency. There is no concrete identifier of the virtual being, it must be pre-supposed upon ever narrowing criteria of ‘human-like’ functions. The AI, meanwhile, is never far behind in its ability to mimic and replicate its biological counterpart. To the extent that identity is bound within certain processes of socialisation (i.e. how we are directly perceived and responded to by others) then the voluntary induction of the subject into the status of virtual being is made concrete reality.

Why do we desire machines in this way? Beyond the immediate convenience and spectacle, is there a pleasurable, anaesthetizing quality to this voluntary assimilation? Perhaps we should view it as an augmentation rather than a detraction; a sign that we have evolved beyond evolution, reshaping the world via metal and silicon to fulfill a peculiarly undisclosed drive toward total assimilation with the machine. As we approach this sinister precipice of technology, do we jump boldly into an unknown future, or step back before it’s too late?

Dr. Caligari: A Radical Image From the Past

Watching a film with the visual tour-de-force of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, one experiences an undistilled flow of several emotions. There is the sense of awe in the audacity of its own diegetic mastery. There is the uncanny unease of its grainy, almost spectral display of filmic representation, enhanced by an unwavering commitment to raw expressionistic modes. There is also, beneath this, a kind of sadness, a remorse even, that this radically alternative approach to cinema exists only as historical interlude, a brief rupture within the unrelenting march of classical realism.

Dr. Caligari is, of course, a silent film. It is both a tragic and unfortunate commentary on our conditioned response to cinema that this fact alone is seen as reason enough by many to avoid it. It is certainly an argument against contemporary cinema-as-art that the virtue of the image is so spectacularly ruptured via the simple absence of certain aural cues – as if the image itself lacks the necessary force to uphold its own relationship with the imagined spectator.

The march of technological progress encourages celebration of the new and spectacular; it also disavows the loss from within culture that this bludgeoning presence serves to terminally disconnect. Watching a film like Dr. Caligari, one can’t help but feel that such an act of loss has occurred with the introduction, and imposition, of sound within the cinematic frame. While the presence of intra-diegetic dialogue has allowed cinema to grow into the universal medium it exists as today, the primacy of the image has no doubt suffered an ontological suffocation. One wonders to what extent a modern day Dr. Caligari would be possible at all were aural dialogue allowed to freely subvert and distract from the visual majesty of a truly committed expressionism.

The real unflinching beauty of Dr. Caligari is the extent to which it can be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, without any concern paid to narrative suture. There are very few films that could say the same.

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