Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Adam Rifkin’s 2007 film Look is the latest in a long line of films that take surveillance as their central theme. I wish it were a more distinguished entry into this category, but films about surveillance often cross over from criticism to exploitation.

This is a film with actually little pretension to a message, just a general statement that there are surveillance cameras everywhere and we have no privacy (especially it seems in our most private moments of vulnerability or anguish). There is a vague gesture towards the fact that cameras can be both positive and negative, but this is not pursued in any depth. If it were attempting to be a more serious message picture, there would be more serious issues with it. As it is, I think it uses the issue of privacy and surveillance as a simply a conceit, a hook to bring in an audience to watch this sensationalist fare. It plays like a compilation of FOX surveillance camera TV specials except with better quality footage and without the pixellations.

Look is a film about disparate lives in Los Angeles, all of whom interconnect at some point, at theme that has been much better done by other films. The unique angle here is that the movie is filmed as if it were captured entirely by CCTV cameras—if CCTV cameras were all high def and had sound (and having a microphone on a CCTV camera is actually illegal in places—capture an image, but not sound too). Of course, this (a film based exclusively on CCTV footage) was done back in the 1980s with Der Reise, but no matter.

The film certainly has critical promise in that we are made to identify with the cameras (we certainly don’t identify with these caricatures of characters) and participate in the violation of privacy, the voyeurism. That discomfort of being made to watch could be turned to social critique (how can this happen? What can be done to protect us?). But this is not the case here. The violation is made entertaining. Let me give you an example. The opening scenario is of a scene that represents one of the more disturbing invasions of privacy: a young woman changing clothes in a mall department store fitting room being recorded without her knowledge. Though this makes one feel immediately uncomfortable, something else happens here. As she strips down to a thong, she begins posing in front of the mirror, to be joined by a friend who also strips down. They start engaging in a teasing play, bumping and grinding in front of the mirror. It reminded me of a point John Berger made a number of years ago about the history of the nude in oil painting. One of the themes of nudes in oil painting was Vanity. There would be a picture of a nude woman, but she would be shown admiring herself in the mirror. This would ostensibly give the painting some moral purpose as a critique of character, while it’s real purpose would be to give the wealthy owner of the painting a nude woman to look at. It’s OK to look at her because she is already looking at herself (and besides, she secretly wants to be looked at). The painting would present a nude woman and then critique HER for her moral failings (as vain). Since the girls are performing for the mirror themselves, they obviously want to be looked at. This all makes our voyeuristic invasion OK. It distracts us from the point that we are invading their privacy. The film seeks to make this scene familiar, safe, and titillating, comfortable for fans of teen sexploitation films. In the end the scene leaves me feeling disturbed but not that I have been made complicit in violating the privacy and dignity of a vulnerable individual, but that somehow I’m watching this adolescent misogynist junk.

And the film proceeds from there.

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