Sunday, March 27, 2011

Laura Mulvey and "Peeping Tom"

I really respect Laura Mulvey for her work, force of intellect, and her efforts in forging an aesthetic of feminist/counter cinema. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is an incredibly rich essay, but one in which the author tragically overlooks the role of the female spectator. The female viewer presents the opportunity for rupture in the narrative ideology of the film, and I think it is just this mechanism that is at work in Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960). Much of Mulvey’s comments on Hitchcock can be applied to this work (Mulvey, 722-723). Powell similarly absorbs the audience “into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegisis” and oscillates “between voyeurism and fetishistic fascination” (Mulvey, 722). Peeping Tom, however, delivers a critique of viewership that goes far beyond those found in Psycho or Rear Window, and specifically addresses the female viewer in ways that challenge Mulvey’s essay.
Peeping Tom illuminates the voyeuristic act blatantly in Mark’s scopophilia and murderous fetish, but it also provides the audience with continual reminder of the viewing process. Mark’s own camera alludes to the filmic process, while the scenes on set and views of the projector hinder the audience’s easy acceptance of image as reality. Of special interest to me, however, is Helen’s characterization in the film. I would argue that she presents the audience with a female gaze, and that she actively participates in the “active/male” gaze (Mulvey, 719).
The erotic of Mark and Helen’s relationship comes from their shared looking, which is established during their first encounter during the birthday party. Film viewership is equivalent to sex throughout the film. The scene directly preceding the birthday party meeting involves Mark photographing Lorraine, the model with the deformed lip. As he feverishly films her first photo shoot he says, “I want to… don’t be shy, it’s my first time too”. Mark then returns home to view the film of the police removing the murder victim from her apartment. The scenes link sex with the voyeuristic gaze, and the viewing sequence carries an expectant air as Mark indulges in masturbatory viewing practices in the darkened theater room. Helen interrupts his ritual and soon asks to view his films as her “21st birthday gift”. In the viewing room a bright industrial light illuminates Helen, mimicking the light on the face of the murder victim. Mark first considers showing her the murder tape, but looking back at her face reconsiders, selecting instead the footage of his childhood. Here we see Helen go from “object of the gaze” to “gazer”. Mark tells her, “This will be the first 21st birthday gift I’ll ever have given,” to which Helen replies, “This will be the first I’ll ever have asked for”. The exchange recalls the earlier “first time” with the model, and links the eroticism of the main heterosexual romance with the visual act. Helen watches the experiments on young Mark in horror, and he soon tries to film her reaction, which she quickly denies. He caresses the camera and strokes it against his face as Helen continues to watch. She does not turn away for the horrific sight but continually requests more information and desires to understand the situation. Although the scene is intended to show Helen as the selfless and caring potential love-interest, it also marks her possession of the gaze. Even after the unsettling experience, she returns time and again to Mark’s apartment, and thus to the image. In the final scene it is Helen who turns on the projector and assumes the viewer’s seat, mirroring Mark’s position when the pair first met. Helen is an active viewer, a possessor of the gaze. Mulvey’s own analysis of Peeping Tom places female viewer identification with the male observer, which, I believe, overlooks the complicated viewing relationships of the film. 

PS- If you haven't seen "Peeping Tom", I suggest you get on that. It's like "Psycho," but better. 

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