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Take me to your cinema

Take me to your cinema

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Published by Elan Gamaker
Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) in reference to Nick Browne’s ‘The-Spectator-in-the-Text’
Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) in reference to Nick Browne’s ‘The-Spectator-in-the-Text’

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Published by: Elan Gamaker on Jun 22, 2012
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02/01/2013

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University of LeidenMasters in Film and Photographic Studies
Academic Short Essay: Film Theory
Peeping Tom
in reference to Nick Browne’s ‘Spectator-in-the-Text’
Date: 8 December 2011Elan GamakerStudent number: S1197738
 
 
Take me to your cinema
Peeping Tom
in reference to Nick Browne’s ‘The-Spectator-in-the-Text’
Helen Stephens: What are you doing?Mark Lewis: Photographing you photographing me.
1
 
When
Peeping Tom
was released in the United Kingdom in March 1960, the star of itsdirector Michael Powell was high in spite of a relatively quiet period in his career. Hewas a highly respected filmmaker following his collaboration on several films withEmeric Pressburger, productions still widely considered among the finest ever in Britishcinema. By the time the film’s run had ended, Powell’s career was in tatters. Critics,censors
2
and the general public alike were outraged by the film’s content
3
andpresentation, and Powell was disgraced. Indeed, it was only when the Americandirector Martin Scorsese, whose own work was heavily influenced by Powell’s, revivedthe film for a (sold out) public screening at the New York Film Festival in 1979 thatPowell (and
Peeping Tom
) received any sort of reprieve from such opprobrium.Why was the initial response to the film so universally and energetically reactionaryand hostile? Certainly, the film featured semi-nudity and violence somewhat risqué forits time. But this outrage seemed to stem from another impulse.
Peeping Tom
ruined itsdirector’s career not because it showed such depravity but because it asked us, theaudience, to identify with this depravity. It was precisely this shifting point-of-view – ashift between victim and perpetrator – that so horrified the unsuspecting public, and itis where the film can be viewed from the perspective of Nick Browne’s article
TheSpectator-in-the-Text: The Rhetoric of “Stagecoach”.
The abovementioned shifting point-of-view here is between Mark Lewis, who, in bothhis official and part-time jobs as focus puller and photographer, watches for a living(along with killing with his camera), and us, who watch him watching and killing.While Mark is the film’s protagonist we must surely struggle to identify with either hisillness or the actions that represent its repercussions. Yet Powell, while offering us the‘pure’ character of Helen as a foil, a means of moral identification (just as he ‘offers’her to Mark as a means of moral and sexual confusion), never allows us fully to identifywith her version of (pre-1960) wholesomeness.
1
Dialogue from a scene in
Peeping Tom
during which the protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Böhm)invites his tenant Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) to view his film processing equipment. AsHelen looks at him through the viewfinder of a camera, Mark approaches her with anothercamera. She responds to his stealthy, almost threatening action by asking what he’s doing,which he explains in this way. This is many ways summarises the thrust of this text and that of Powell’s thematic: the oscillating gaze of the watcher and the watched.
2
The film’s first BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) rating was ‘X’, the highest possible,and some scenes were cut. The first uncut cinema version was passed only in 1994.
3
Shy, awkward Mark Lewis (Carl Böhm) lives in his late parents’ London home, acting asanonymous landlord to several boarders. He works as focus puller on studio features and part-time as a photographer of young women for ‘views’, soft-core pornographic images sold innewsagents. Mark is also a voyeur and serial killer, murdering young women and filming theirfinal moments of death by installing a knife on the end of his tripod. When he befriends andbecomes affectionate towards the sweet, trusting Helen, one of his tenants, the origin and natureof his mental illness – the result of his father’s scientific experiments on him as a child – comesbubbling to the surface, causing him to relent to his obsessions to avoid hurting Helen.
 
Powell’s subjectivity here is Mark’s, and it, in turn, is ours. The subjectivity is one of layered complicity in the horrible crimes we all (director, character and viewer)orchestrate and witness: we are complicit in watching him kill and do nothing asdisaffected voyeurs of terrible crimes. Just as we watch the film’s opening sequence
4
,we watch the scene again just as Mark watches it again, and we step inside the cameraand perform the act of deadly watching ourselves. We change from passive, complicitvoyeurs to active, complicit participants and perpetrators.
Peeping Tom
here supports Browne’s assertion about the structure of imagery, which tohim refers to ‘the action of an implied narrator (…) and to the imaginative actionoccasioned by his placing and being placed by the spectator.’ (1976, p. 26) Powell’sblurring of this role is so defined it is clearly intentional, and if we go further to placeBrowne’s analysis of ‘the notion of the position of the spectator’ (1976, p. 32) in thecontext of 
Peeping Tom
, we get a better sense of this ‘position’.Browne talks about four key ‘positions’ regarding the viewer in relation to the film.These are, briefly: the spectator’s physical position in the auditorium; the fictionalposition as posited by the camera ‘inside’ the action; the eye, and therefore the socialsystem of a given character; and the figurative sense of place that allows us to ‘identifywith a character’s position in a certain situation’. (1976, p. 32)In
Peeping Tom
, we can best show the corresponding positions for Browne’shypothesis by using the opening sequence described above as case-in-point. As wewitness Mark Lewis’s murder of the prostitute through ‘his’ eyes, in this case that of theviewfinder of his camera (see Fig 1.1), as viewers we sit in front of the screen (cinema,TV or otherwise) and view the action with the screen as a window and filter to theaction in front of us; we can remain inactive even as we witness a horrible crime, likedetached voyeurs in a dark apartment across the street.
4
The opening sequence shows a man (whose face we do not see beyond his eyes)propositioning a prostitute before murdering her. With the exception of the opening shot of theman’s eye and his point-of-view of the insalubrious neighbourhood in which his prey awaits,the entire sequence is shot through the viewfinder of the hidden camera the man uses to recordhis crime. At one point we see a film box being discarded so we are sure we are recording theaction.

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