The Dual Meaning of Cinematic Voyeurism

Daryl Lee gave an International Cinema lecture on the presence of voyeuristic regimes in Blow-Up.

Michelangelo-Antonionis-B-007PROVO, Utah (November 17, 2015)—Humans are curious by nature, and we are constantly interpreting the things we see. But how do we ensure that what we think we see is what we are actually seeing?

Daryl Lee, associate professor of French and co-director of International Cinema, discussed the presence of cinematic voyeurism in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, drawing connections with Rear Window and The Lives of Others in an International Cinema lecture.

Cinematic voyeurism is the act of peering into and spying on other people’s activities and private moments. The subject does not know that he or she is being watched, which leaves the voyeur free to try to interpret what he or she sees.

Lee explained that all three films explore “regimes of seeing, looking, peering, eavesdropping, tracking, surveillance” and “make a statement about cinematic voyeurism.” The end result is a film that is “meta-cinematic,” that is, a film about film that invites viewers “to think about how we look at, listen to, and interpret films.”

Lee introduced these themes by discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. In the film, Jeff (James Stewart) is a New York City photographer who watches his neighbors through his apartment window. He comes to suspect that his neighbor has brutally murdered his wife and tries to convince his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), that he is right.

Lee gave special consideration to the scene in which Lisa comes to believe Jeff and says, “Tell me everything you saw and what you think it means.” Lee explained that this scene represents several challenges that come with reading film and proposed three postulates to aid film students. First, he explained that seeing something is not the same as understanding it. In Rear Window, Jeff and Lisa have seen many things, but they have to piece together the events’ meanings. Second, according to Hitchcock, objectivity implies thinking about the meaning of what is seen; objectivity is a kind of voyeurism. Third, it would be a mistake in this particular scene to not believe that something sinister is occurring across the courtyard.

“The mistake is in thinking that nothing is covered and hidden whose truth stands to be revealed,” said Lee. “That’s the problem with looking at a movie – thinking that you get it.”

Lee went on to explain that the viewer must try to understand what the character is seeing, to become the voyeur, and then to try to interpret it. This active participation is necessary when trying to understand Blow-Up.

Blow-Up stars David Hemmings as Thomas, a high fashion photographer in London who also dabbles in social-realist artistic photography. One day Thomas follows a couple who is seemingly having a tryst in a park to take their photo, but he inadvertently photographs a crime. Thomas then attempts to recreate the story through the photos he has taken.

Bill the painter, Thomas’s friend, perfectly explains the meaning of the movie when describing his process for creating abstract canvases. When he starts a painting, he does not really know what he is seeing. As he continues, though, he begins to see limbs and objects that are “like clues in a detective story.” Lee said that Blow-Up is a move away from the Italian neorealist movement, but it still possesses some of the tenants of a naïve neorealism.

“[Blow-Up] insists that film as a photographic medium cannot represent the real without qualification, so Antonioni’s mise-en-scène and his cinematography pose a straightforward philosophical question: What of reality is captured by the objective lens and film of a camera?” said Lee.

In the film, Thomas tries to blow up his photos to see the details better, but as he does so, the images become more and more grainy. By distorting the images, then, Thomas loses a hold on the reality the image purports to look like. Once the images are blown up, they lose their meaning.

Lee said that Antonioni understood this principle and used it to comment on his fellow directors. Because directors select and reduce what goes into a film, they are falsifying reality and demanding more of our imagination than we realize.

“The [filming] camera, like any other, needs to be programmed,” said Lee. “It’s making some kind of selection of the world, and it’s tantamount to falsifying reality despite the fact that we’re beginning with an indexical sign.”

Lee concluded by tying all three films back together. Each, he noted, arrives at voyeurism through the characters’ technologically enhanced vision and sound – through cameras, binoculars, and surveillance equipment. The films, then, are meta-cinematic; the viewer learns not only about the particular story in the film, but also about film and its selective representation of reality.

—Kayla Goodson (B.A. Communications and French studies ’17)

Kayla covers the Department of French and Italian for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a dual degree in French studies and Journalism with a minor in international strategy and diplomacy.