Surveillance in the Cinema

by Andrew Hultkrans

The recent furor over the P-Trak Person Locator Service created by Lexis-Nexis neatly illustrates the periodic collective amnesia induced in the general public by post-industrial surveillance. In an era when, as several techno-cultural theorists argue, each individual is shadowed by a virtual body double comprised of credit histories, medical records, criminal rap sheets, and demographic profiles, it is astonishing that a service like P-Trak—which, while fiendishly convenient, offers no more information than a novice Phillip Marlowe could scrounge up with a few phone calls—still has the ability to inspire moral outrage. Contemporary consumers clamor for more ATM machines, more point-of-purchase payment options, more smart cards, digital cash, and online shopping while simultaneously decrying the invasion of privacy intrinsically connected to such cyber-cash conveniences, that is, whenever they are reminded of them by the media.

Overnight civil libertarians are fond of flogging the old Orwell warhorse, "Big Brother is Watching You," while fuming on late-night talk radio—failing to note that they have been watching Big Brother watching us for decades on the funhouse mirror of the Hollywood cinema. Since its birth, but most explicitly since the 1950s, the cinema has played with surveillance, voyeurism, and the power of the gaze, often in cautionary tales that conjure up the specter of totalitarianism, and also through meta-references to the movie camera's own complicity with institutional voyeurism. The granddaddy of all surveillance films is Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954), an oft-quoted film which masterfully explores the director's longtime twin obsessions with voyeurism and film, and their implicit relations. The credit sequence opens with the raising of James Stewart's window shades—multiple theater curtains that will reveal a multiplex of unfolding "movies" in the apartments across the way. Stewart, a top-notch magazine photographer, has had his camera, and more importantly, his leg, broken in the line of duty, virtually emasculating him and casting him in the passive role of the spectator, a truly captive audience.

Rear Window

In the course of his ostensibly innocent "peeping" at his neighbors' lives, he becomes convinced that there is a murder plot unfolding in one of the "screens" across the way. Scolding him for his voyeurism, his masseuse observes, "We've become a race of Peeping Toms—what people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change." Deprived of physical agency, this is precisely what Stewart cannot do, as he is doomed to watch helplessly as longtime noir heavy Raymond Burr disposes of his wife, piece by piece. Like a filmgoer, Stewart is powerless to affect the scene commanding his field of vision, yet, just as the filmgoer sutures himself into the narrative by identifying with the protagonist, Stewart is fooled by his "God's-eye view" into believing he can alter the course of the "murder movie" playing itself out across the lot. Enter a great pair of legs, in the shape of Grace Kelly, who, in gaining a kind of agency of her own, acts as Stewart's proxy in foiling Burr. Along the way, Stewart breaks his other leg but succeeds in healing his fraying attachment to that great pair of legs and curing his scopophilic urge as his window shades are drawn shut at the end of the film.

While "Rear Window" addressed the neurotic need to surveil, the two film version's of Orwell's surveillance nightmare "1984" (1956 & 1984) explore the collective insanity (and absurd paradoxes) induced by constant panoptic observation. The key to the absolute hegemony of Big Brother is not that "he" is actually watching you at all times (in fact, there is no "he" at all), but that, as in Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon prison, you come to believe he may be watching at you any time, thereby policing yourself. The omnipresent visage of Big Brother and his telescreen "eyes" serve as constant reminders of the carceral, fascist atmosphere that permeates Oceania, a prison not of bars, but of the mind. The specter of the fascist mastermind is resurrected in Fritz Lang's third, and final, Dr. Mabuse film "The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse" (1960), in which a criminal madman adopts the persona of the diabolical Dr. Mabuse, an Übergodfather and master of disguise who died at the end of the first Mabuse film, but whose megalomaniac spirit still haunts the German unconscious. Given a post-war spin, the new Mabuse is augmented by sophisticated surveillance technology, occupying a sanctum in the bowels of the Hotel Luxor, the site of the several "movies" within the film itself. From this command center, Mabuse observes all the rooms of the hotel on a bank of video monitors (the "thousand eyes" are microcameras hidden in the moldings of the rooms), while performing two manipulative roles in the outside world: as Cornelius, a blind "seer" who aids the police in "solving" his own crimes, and as a psychiatrist who runs a high-end sanitarium. Ironically, Mabuse is exposed by his (Cornelius's) own seeing-eye dog, who runs to him as he tries to escape the lobby of the hotel in a final, anonymous disguise.


The theme of obsessive scopophilia is revisited in Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" (1960), perhaps the finest word on the subject. A dark, hysterical film, "Peeping Tom" examines the madness resulting from a childhood under extreme surveillance. Mark, a shy cameraman, was raised by his biologist father as an experiment and subjected to constant recording of his experiences, most of which, given the father's primary interest, dealt with his responses to fear. As a grown man, Mark has become a meta-murderer. Not satisfied with the experience of murder itself, he must film his victims as he stabs them with a knife-fitted tripod leg, as well as the resulting police investigations (when questioned about his filming of a taped-off police scene, he replies he is from "The Observer," a local paper). Echoing his father's experiments, Mark has also fitted a mirror onto his camera, so his victims will be able to see their own mortal fear as they die. At the end of the film, he turns this apparatus on himself, impaling himself on the customized camera as pre-set still cameras snap the scene, a fitting end to a relentlessly recorded life.

In the 1970s, the Kennedy assassination conspiracy and the Watergate revelations exposed the web of geopolitical surveillance penetrating everyday life, resulting in a series of paranoid films populated by spooks, double agents, CIAs within CIAs, and primarily, miles and miles of recorded media. Sidney Lumet's "The Anderson Tapes" (1971) neatly expresses the emergence of a virtual body double shadowing even the most mundane individuals. The film is composed of two narratives arbitrarily connected by surveillance: one is a routine heist caper in the mode of The Asphalt Jungle, the other, a surveillance conspiracy in reverse. Sean Connery, an ex-con planning the heist, unwittingly weaves together a disparate group of surveillance operations—government, police, bedroom dicks—by being taped by all of them while in contact with their primary targets. When the heist is foiled, and Connery's name is broadcasted by the news, all of the agencies, public and private, erase their tapes to avoid exposure. A bleak parable confirming the paranoiac's worst fears, "The Anderson Tapes" was a harbinger of the Watergate scandal that was about to break. Like Connery's heist, Nixon's Waterloo would expose a series of covert surveillance operations to public inspection.

Updating and exponentially magnifying the grim surveillance state of "1984," George Lucas' "THX-1138" (1971) presents an oppressively white dystopian habitrail under surveillance at the cellular level. All citizens have numbers instead of names; they are sedated by a cocktail of drugs by law; sex is taboo; and their labor is monitored by biochemical scanners that detect even minor signs of illegal "sedation depletion." Augmenting the State's complete penetration of its citizens' lives are mechanized confession booths, which record potentially incriminating admissions while droning prerecorded sympathies and disturbing homilies: "Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more now." Friendly fascist robocops complete the picture in this nightmare of total exposure. Echoing "Rear Window," this time for audiophiles, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" (1974) follows a lonely surveillance expert as he slowly becomes embroiled in a murder conspiracy he has recorded for hire. Unlike the perversely curious Stewart, Gene Hackman has no interest in the content or results of his surveillance efforts before recording the infamous conversation. "I don't care what they're talking about; all I want is a nice fat recording," he tells his assistant. The more he begins to care about the events set into motion by the conversation, transforming himself from recording device to human being, the more he finds himself—already a paranoiac—under surveillance himself. Like Stewart, he is impotent, unable to prevent the crime he knows is taking place, yet unlike Stewart, he has no surrogate "legs" to act for him. He vicariously witnesses the murder and, already terrorized by guilt, learns that he will be forever under surveillance so that he will keep silent. The film ends with Hackman literally gutting his apartment as he searches unsuccessfully for the bugging device, a hollow man inside a hollow shell—"a bug under a glass," as Stewart observes about his own confinement.

A black humor pastiche of 1970s conspiracy narratives, William Richert's "Winter Kills" (1979) expands Mabuse's thousand eyes to a massive global surveillance citadel that absorbs "black holes of information, galaxies within galaxies of information, multiple expanding universes of information" for billionaire industrialist John Huston. Overseen by a sinister Anthony Perkins, this omniscient techno-castle mimics every aspect of human perception on a global scale, with divisions for video, audio, memory, and an enormous "contract silo" containing holographic signatures of everybody who's anybody in world affairs. "All of the nerves and none of the flesh," a proud Perkins explains, "even tonight when most of our workers sleep, it goes on." Impossibly overreaching in scope, the surveillance citadel of "Winter Kills" is the last word on 1970s-style geopolitical observation. Wedding the conspiracy narrative to voyeurism, Brian De Palma's "Blow Out" (1981) conflates Antonioni's "Blow Up" and "The Conversation," offering John Travolta as a schlock horror sound man who inadvertently records the assassination of a presidential candidate in the form of an auto "accident." Like Stewart in "Rear Window," his attempts to alert the authorities to the plot are met with scorn, and like Hackman, he is unable to prevent the crime (or the murder of his love interest) and ends up a hollow man, his only consolation the recording of his love's death scream, which he dubs into a horror film that needs a more "authentic" scream.

Blow Out

In "Body Double" (1984), De Palma boldly lifts elements from Hitchcock, as he is wont to do, remaking "Rear Window" and "Vertigo" simultaneously. The film follows Jake Scully, a claustrophobic, out-of-work actor who becomes the unwitting planned witness to a murder. The murderer, a husband out to kill his wife, poses as an actor and offers Scully a chance to stay at a spectacular circular house with a 360-degree view of L.A. below. The house is conveniently outfitted with a telescope trained on the window of an attractive woman's apartment down the hill, a woman who, "like clockwork," performs a masturbatory striptease every night. An obvious voyeur, Scully, as planned, watches the woman's apartment regularly, eventually witnessing her grisly murder at the hands of an evil Indian wielding an industrial power drill. De Palma piles on the cinema = voyeurism subtexts by having Scully descend into the bowels of the porn flick industry to discover the "body double" hired by the killer to do the nightly striptease. A decade later, De Palma's excesses in the overdetermined metaphor department are outdone a thousandfold by Joe Eszterhas and Phillip Noyce in their tepid steam bath of a surveillance film, "Sliver" (1993).

Fresh from her crotch-flashing turn as a femme fatale in Eszterhas' "Basic Instinct," Sharon Stone plays a woman who moves into a hypermodern glass "sliver" building in Manhattan, because she "loves the view." Unbeknownst to her, she strongly resembles the former tenant of her apartment, a woman who mysteriously plunged to her death from the balcony. During her first few days in the building she meets some of her neighbors, a professor teaching a class on "The Psychology of the Lens" at NYU; an obnoxious true-crime writer who boasts to her "You'll read me" and "I am in control" and carries opera glasses to a party; and a mysterious young man who will be revealed to be a harmless version of both Dr. Mabuse and Mark of "Peeping Tom," and who sends Stone a telescope signed, "Your secret admirer." The suave young man, played by William Baldwin, is a computer games programmer whose relationship with his mother was highly mediated, a soap-opera star whom he saw only on TV. Like Mark, he has grown up suffering from obsessive scopophilia, and like Mark, he is the manager of a building whose every room is wired, feeding the tenants' lives into his inner sanctum. Stone repeatedly boffs Baldwin, a number of other murders take place in the building, and both Baldwin, with his Mabusesque video addiction, and Tom Berenger as the impotent, embittered crime writer, are prime suspects. Berenger turns out to be the murderer, but Stone discovers that Baldwin is as equally addicted to seduction as he is to watching, having previously landed both victims of Berenger's handiwork with the same "I want to see you" rap. Shooting out his array of video monitors, she spurns him, telling him to "get a life" as she clicks off the film itself with Baldwin's remote.

Your secrets are safe with us Whereas in "The Anderson Tapes," "The Conversation," and "Blow Out," recorded media capture incontrovertible evidence of criminal conspiracies that must be erased to be nullified, in Philip Kaufman's "Rising Sun" (1993), recorded evidence has become highly mutable, a valuable tool for conspirators. A sex murder recorded to a "next-generation" videodisc by surveillance cameras becomes the centerpiece for a labyrinthine (and race-baiting) plot involving a controversial Japanese buyout of an American software company that produces high-end military applications. The original videodisc is digitally doctored by rogue elements in the Japanese corporation—erasing a person from the frame, eliminating a stretch of time, and pasting an innocent man's face onto a guilty one—and then delivered to the police. With the help of a digital media expert, played, naturally, by Tia Carrere, the missing information is restored, the conspirators are exposed, and American software remains where it belongs, in the hands of the Pentagon.

Through the work of Atom Egoyan, an excellent Canadian director obsessed with mediated video experience and voyeurism, and the much less successful new genre, the cyber-thriller, the cinema's love affair with surveillance continues unabated. So too does the periodic public outcry over newly developed real-world surveillance techniques, followed, inexplicably, by periods of widespread complacency in the face of daily evidence of the surveillance state. One must be ever vigilant, for, as "Inside Edition" reminds us every night: "America Is Watching."   </end>

Still from "1984": Copyright © Associated British. Still from "Rear Window": Copyright © 1983 Universal City Studios, Inc. Still from "Brazil": Copyright © 1985 Universal City Studios, Inc. Still from "Blow Out": Copyright © 1981 Filmways Pictures, Inc.

Andrew Hultkrans is a writer and self-admitted dilettante whose hemming and hawing about media, advertising, pop culture, and the occasional lunatic frequently appears in ARTFORUM, as well as in MONDO 2000, WIRED, Filmmaker, Fringeware Review, and several books, including bOING bOING's Happy Mutant Handbook and R.U. Sirius & St. Jude's How to Mutate and Take Over the World. He does his loose living in San Francisco.