The following article was published in N-SPHERE May 2011 issue.


Peeping Tom shapes the story of a young man with a delight in photography… or so it seems. The film embarks on a journey that is never finished and leaves behind a frustration that is never resolved. Reeking of selfishness, the story is told dominantly through the eyes of one man, and making assumptions about the outcome of the true protagonist of this film is what is left at the bitter end, while standing up and dredging the feet on dirty cinema theatre carpets.

Released in 1960 and directed by Michael Powell, Peeping Tom employs a rather delicate sense of observation. Instead of wreaking havoc in military boots, the viewers might find themselves wearing fluffy bunny slippers… made of actual bunnies, with blood and other things leaving imprints behind; at least that is how critics have perceived this piece of cinematography for years. From almost puritan views, to shy interpretations from the perspective of banality infused masses, the point of the film eludes the decades. Not surprising, since the mask of deformity that this film carries has been analysed, discussed, dissected, tortured, poked and pierced, but never removed.

The first half of Peeping Tom sets the scene and brings forth all elements necessary for understanding the real implications of the entities engaged in the story, while the second part makes way into not resolving anything – neither the plot, nor the emotional issues priorly brazed upon. The link between all these is Mark Lewis, a focus puller at a film studio and part time pornographer. Quasi–childish, Mark oscillates between highly emotional states of mind, when he seems to regress to a frightened little boy, to tense moments when he becomes deeply dominant and eager to appease his obsession. Mark films from around corners, he is not getting directly involved. His persona is enveloped in a sense of detachment that, as it will be discovered later, makes him not a part of this world, but an object manipulated by the true protagonist of this film.

Watching through the first part of Peeping Tom, a myriad of obvious hints are given in order to construct Mark’s personality and obsessions. There is utter loneliness sifting through each frame and a high level of shyness when talking face to face with women. His closeness to them can only be achieved through the reels, and only inside the personal space detached from the rest of the world, a special studio hidden from the part of the room that is visible to others. Intrigued by the imperfections in women, he needs to relive the moments he films, watching them at home over and over again. Slowly, Helen makes her way into Mark’s world, not as a watched upon neighbour, but as a possible witness to the unseen face behind the mask. She demands and he gives in, she asks and he answers; Helen becomes a shallow duplicate of the entity driving him forth, but still unable to overcome the deeply rooted obsession. At the same time, the viewer is introduced to childhood trauma Mark has suffered. On the one hand, these revelations try to explain Helen’s behaviour, adding another layer to the mask. On the other hand, they subtly and ingeniously open the curtain towards the true protagonist of this film. During childhood, he was borderline tortured by his father in the name of science, a father interested in studying fear in children. Mark was always filmed, never had a moment of privacy, was awaken during the night by the cold touch of lizards or was even forced to hold his dead mother’s hand, generating repercussions into his view of women later on. Fear has become for him a way to view his surrounding, and thus, other women; the lenses have become his eyes, as he shifted from the role of the frightened to the role of his father.

A very important piece of the narrative, and one easily passed upon, is Mark’s dedication to his father’s house and his father’s books. These books that he holds in a shelf, together with the films his father took of him and the audio tapes that hold his screams and tears, represent the outcome of his suffering, they have a life of their own. They exist into eternity, not frail, not mortal. The image of Mark’s father fades away, but his work remains. Looking closer, the father is suffering from a special form of voyeurism in itself – filming his son. While his obsession is materialized into books, Mark’s obsession should be transformed into a documentary, revealing a repetitive cycle.

Not searching for sexual gratification, but instead looking from afar at what he can’t ever have, Mark doesn’t care that he could be caught. He enjoys the scared looks of people when they surprise him basically staring, either when seeing couples kiss in the shadow of a wall or while looking through the window of his tenant party. Mark’s interest in the investigation taking place around him is pathological. He needs to capture everything on camera, he even expresses his desires openly. That’s why his interest in scopophilia and whether or not it can be cured is not a valid inquiry, but a way to move the interest of the police towards him. But why, why be caught? To break a cycle, to catch his father in his infamous actions, too.

The one question left to answer is: who is the true protagonist of this film? The answer is clear the moment Mark receives his first kiss. He transfers the kiss to his camera, defining himself through it, pledging his eternal submission to the entity holding him captive: the documentary. All Mark’s actions are driven by the documentary, all his thoughts go to it, even when Helen appears in sight, but she is no match for this primal being deeply lodged into his essence.

The world has its heroes, the world has its foes. By subtle impositions over the definitions of both, the borderline between right and wrong, art and perdition fades abruptly. As perspectives change from outside to the ones inside the lens, the camera bonds together a hidden, quintessential, congenital peeping tom: film itself.

Movie still: Michael Powell. Peeping Tom.

by Vel Thora

Full article here.