12 October 2009

Peeping Tom.

In the roughly five years since I last watched Peeping Tom (the receipt is saved inside the case, purchased December 2004, before I knew you could find any dvd you wanted online, back when my collection was completely dependent upon the stock of Borders and Best Buy; I remember finding Peeping Tom in Fingerprints in Long Beach and telling my friend "I don't have the money for this but I don't know when I'll see it again") my life has progressed only in a behind-the-camera sense. Only through thoughts of the camera, by imagining the world through a lens, an imaginary lens at that, wanting to record everything and being able to record hardly anything. And my eyes have stolen the images of all I've seen, none of it first belonging to me.

I've brought myself into a desert of passion and lost my way. Deluded and in a fit of hysteria, hallucinating dreams of the silver screens, I watched Peeping Tom again last night in the perfect state to be genuinely thrilled. Imbued with my own guilt, thoroughly directed along by master craftsman Michael Powell (you can forget how good some filmmakers are), and able to understand what was being shown to me, Peeping Tom was for me a white-knuckled hair-raising endeavor.

Karlheinz Böhm, with the veneer of a masculine Hitchcockian blonde, channels the pitiful eeriness of Peter Lorre. His voice is shy and limited, as are his eyes, and his movements and the noises he makes (Helen never knows when he is home, but her blind alcoholic mother Vivian does), but he is unguarded, unprotected: he allows Helen easy access into his personal world, he hides a corpse on his own set, he takes photos of his bodies being discovered. He's crazy we know, and he knows it, except only he knows the extent. He knows the direction the madness is headed in, and once revealed to us, Böhm, Mark Lewis, becomes a tragic hero of morbid, warped, obsessive and passionate intensity. He seeks to fill a void created by his father, who taught him to love through the camera and by fear, and as an artist he risks everything to fill the void.

I'm reminded of Paul Schrader's quote on screenwriting, "When screenwriting, be prepared to drop your pants and show your dirty laundry. If you can't do that, better find yourself something more polite." Michael Powell goes well beyond this, beyond irrational fears and embarrassing idiosyncrasies, beyond failed romances and personal regrets. It's not the usual dramatic material Powell explores in his film, but the unusualness of his attractions at a sinister and intrinsic level. In the special features Peeping Tom is referred to as a Chinese Box, with riddles and mysteries and puns hidden within itself. Consider the ways in which the film overlaps with Powell's personal life: Powell casting himself as Mark's father, including his own first camera in Mark's collection, and casting his own son as young Mark. The creepiness of the film is immensely heightened by its apparent honesty and lack of compromise.

In its completeness Peeping Tom exposes what is unnerving about the Josh Harris types and captures the futility and randomness of modern murder better than Bogdanovich's Targets or McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Peeping Tom also investigates the development of psychosis in a serial killer better than any other movie, exceeding the usual motivations or explanations. The horrifying revelation at the end of Psycho is rapidly summarized by a doctor in the next scene, but Peeping Tom explains itself out over the course of its running time, allowing the character of Mark to grow and enlarge in our minds.

Most of this could not be achieved without the skill of Michael Powell. A great thriller is directly the result of a great filmmaker, it's a genre that magnifies the strengths and weaknesses of the filmmaker, and it's impossible to fake. Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, Richard Franklin, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa are all names linked to unbridled passion for cinema. A bad thriller works on movie mechanics, and they're like seeing the inside of a clock, while a great thriller, like Peeping Tom, can change both the way you see the breathing world, and the way you see cinema.

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