Peeping Tom – Michael Powell – UK 1960 – Karl Bohm – Anna Massey – Moira Shearer
Viewed: Star and Shadow 17 10 09 – Ticket price £4.
A film about the end of the world.
Most contemporary reviewers saw Peeping Tom (PT) as a sordid and unpleasant film, (as they did Chaplin’s M Verdoux , also about a serial lady slayer.) a nasty story about a killer (Mark) with a compulsive need to film women as he drives a skewer into their throats.
PT’s narrative takes the form of an extreme provocation that is justified by an overdetermining mechanistic psychological linkage. Mark’s obsession with killing women by his chosen MO, is driven by his memory, relayed on tape and film, of being the subject of a series of sadistic experiments by his father who was ‘researching’ the nature of fear in children. (This ‘research’ makes the same sort of claim to a spurious legitimacy as the ‘Nazi experimenters’ at Auschwitz. Interesting that Powell cast a German actor, Bohm, as his lead).
Although sensational I think that the plot is a mechanical vehicle upon which MP overlays a deeper and perhaps darker issue . PT’s storyline incorporating formulaic slaying, is of necessity extreme in form because PT is a sort of theorem, an experimental proposition for testing out Powell’s insight into the relationship between film and truth. As the concentration camps were extreme testing grounds for examination of the relationship between science and truth so PT, as a theorem about the nature of recording, is also necessarily tested out in extreme events. And MP lived in the shadow of the camps as well as the shadow of his own nature.
This is why PT is a great movie. The plot is a pretext for a film project whose real concerns underlie and interpenetrate every scene but are rarely overt. PT is a spacial exercise looking at the limits of what we can understand from what we perceive and apprehend. PT is a red blazoned, wry satirical meditation on the meaning and nature of truth and the means by which we arrive at truth. PT asks in what ways film makers photographers and others, who justify their work through claims to seeking truth, are similar to Nazi death camp experimenters in their self delusion. The one thing that the camera cannot see and never can see is truth. If truth is pursued through the means
of objective recording, as if it can have objective meaning, then truth is corrupted twisted and becomes the source of obscene practice.
Sometimes claims are made by film makers (and others) that the object of the process of filming/recording is get to, to apprehend the truth of the subject, to penetrate a subject so deeply that the nature of its truth is revealed. Claims were made (certainly pre-postmodernism) that camera and recording technologies in accessing the spontaneous can split people open so that their inner mental state and functioning is revealed. That through inspection of ‘image’. we have access to ‘others’ states of mind. Cameras, both still and moving, create images that can be analyzed and from which valid deductions can be made about the real. I think that PT is a test bed that attempts to destroy these types of assumptions. The banality of the image is laid bare. At the end of the movie everything is shown to be Marks projection of his own fear. His recordings reveal nothing more than his need to pass his own fear and pain onto his victims, to see himself in their mirror. There is nothing objective. The camera is a false witness bestowing the form of externality on subjectivity.
Mark, using as a killing device, the sharpened spiked leg of a tripod with 16mm camera and close up mirror attached, impales his female victims through the jugular in order to see in their faces the exact nature of their fear as they witness their own impaling. But on viewing the material Mark is never satisfied with the results of his filming. Each time ‘the moment of truth’ “the face of truth’ seems to elude him and evade his apprehension.
At the core of PT is the idea of using mechanical technologies of reproduction – film and tape – both as recorders and as intensifiers of moments of truth. What Powell shows in Peeping Tom (which is ultimately a metaphysical parody) is that these types of technologies can only serve to alienate us from experience by making us vulnerable to the projection of our own needs into these situations. Technologies of mechanical reproduction do not lead into zones where truth is immanent: it is self that is immanent. Mechanical systems of image reproduction whether of picture or sound risk taking us further into our own projections and distancing us from understanding and meaning. Experientially there is no ‘truth’ in or of: sex fear death loneliness etc. except the truth of our own desires. Hence in PT the eye is the highway of desire: the big close up of the eye is the opening shot of the film. Hence the only character in the film (Helen’s mother) who ‘sees’ is blind. She has no retinal images to project.
And doesn’t PT ravish the eye? MP abuses the retina of the viewer to the point where the film’s narrative form is submerged beneath an ocean of visual detail. It is a submarinal liquid experience, a film of undulating surfaces, dense closely patterned planes of colour that wash through the film in its sets, costumes and lighting. The red lights of dark room and studio (sic) the red costumes of the prostitutes ( including the death wrap), the deep red decor of Marks flat and the red hair of the principle actresses. The film has a fluid restless deadly quality which dissolves both the story line and the cod psychology of the back story into a vacuous gaseous matter. PT is MP’s watery crucible in which the nature of filmic truth is distilled.
Peeping Tom describes the full arc of the worlds invested by MP. It is the last world he explored. Many of MP’s films are about worlds – both real and make believe. Real world in The Edge of the World – his first film as director about the abandonment of St Kilda. Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus are displaced worlds that are real (in some sense) but fantastical. Red Shoes is the meeting point of an unreal domain and a mythic world, fairy tale and ballet company. These two worlds, both narrow and self contained in their own right coexist driven by compulsion; two worlds mutually inclusive are locked together in a contrapuntal tension: the dancer and her shoes.
In Peeping Tom it seems that Michael Powell had come at last a place where the world has finally closed down behind the eye. In Peeping Tom, except for the vision of the blind woman there is no other world other than Mark’s movie of fear. Everything is subsumed into this – which is why the mis en scene works as it does – like a watery grave – everything is part of Marks’s movie which is made in isolation from the rest of the world. Mark is alone with his projections which are leading him straight down the road of his own death, with no possible escape. (not even Anna Massey in blue outfits) With Peeping Tom, Powell seems to have come to the end of a certain logic inherent in film making in which it is necessary to understand that all images threaten to slide towards or degrade into acts of solipsism.
Adrin Neatrour 21 10 09