“The New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse, and they got no windows in the workhouse,” says Stella as she enters L. B. Jeffries’ apartment and catches him, confined to a wheelchair, spying on his Greenwich Village neighbors through the large window in his living room. “You know,” she goes on, “in the old days they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini-bombshells you’re always watching worth a red-hot poker?” Then, her society-gutting one liner: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.”
From the very beginning Rear Window forefronts voyeurism as its narrative framework, and in doing so, it “performs the metalinguistic dismantling of the structures of scopophilia and identification”, as Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson said in their essay, ““Hitchcock’s Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism”. That’s to say, Alfred Hitchcock, director of the 1954 thriller classic, is using voyeurism as a framework to deconstruct the cinematic apparatus. Where the “conventional” filmic apparatus attempts to suppress the audience’s awareness of itself, Hitchcock forefronts its participation within that framework.
Hitchcock pioneered the use of voyeurism as a means of deconstructing the cinematic apparatus. Following his work, there’s a whole slew of films indebted to Hitchcock’s genius; such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), to name a few.
More recently are Michael Haneke’s three films, Benny’s Video (1992) and The Piano Player (2001) and Caché (2005). Like Hitchcock, Haneke has developed a director aesthetic that is all his own, an aesthetic that is made evident by this trilogy. In all three of these films Haneke uses voyeurism to dismantle the space between the film and the audience, and in doing so, he takes advantage of what might be thought of as Hitchcock’s voyeur apparatus and forces the audience to question its place within the narrative.
A voyeur is “a person whose sexual desires are stimulated or satisfied by covert observation of the sex organs or sexual activities of other,” and scopophilia, which informs the act of voyeurism, is the “sexual stimulation or satisfaction derived principally from looking.” It’s not difficult, then, to understand the psycho-sexual implications of the voyeur apparatus. Like Stella says, Jeff hasn’t neglected to notice his leggy neighbor across the courtyard, the so called Miss Torso.
Haneke, following Hitchcock’s lead, explores the psycho-sexual implications of voyeurism in The Piano Teacher. Therein, the voyeur apparatus highlights the intrinsic sexual desire of the voyeur. Erika, a middle-aged classical piano instructor, fulfills this role, as voyeur and sexual deviant, as she spies on a young high-school-aged couple having sex in the backseat of their car while parked at a drive-in movie.
This psycho-sexual aspect is important, no doubt, but it’s not the most important thing going on when there’s a voyeur apparatus at play. What’s most important is the manner in which both Hitchcock and Haneke deconstruct the space between the movie and the audience, the spectacle and the spectator. To better understand this deconstruction, there are two main film theorist that need to be looked at—Christian Metz, author of The Imaginary Signifier, and Catherine Wheatley, author of Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image.
“The film knows that it is being watched, and yet does not know,” says Metz. “The one who knows is the cinema, the institution (and its presence in every film, in the shape of the discourse which is behind the fiction); the one who doesn’t want to know is the film, the text (in its final version): the story.” Metz’s assertion here is true. Since the inception of the medium, a primary, even fundamental, objective of the filmmaker has been to fashion as believable an approximation of “reality” as possible, yet the application of voyeurism as a narrative framework confuses the structure of “conventional” filmic apparatuses.
Films which make use of a voyeur apparatus, such as Rear Window and Haneke’s Caché, create a certain truncation of the reciprocal relationship between the audience and the film, the spectator and the spectacle. For example, in Rear Window the audience is made aware of itself as audience as Jeff is left to helplessly watch as Lisa, his beloved girlfriend, is caught snooping about the suspected murder’s Lars Thorwald, apartment. The audience watches as Jeff simultaneously plays the role of spectacle (of the film’s audience) and spectator (of Lisa’s encounter with Lars Thorwald), and they are forced to wonder at their own existence as spectacle.
This moment is replicated in Caché, a shout out of sorts to Hitchcock from Haneke nearly 50 years after the release of Rear Window. Caché opens with an eerily lengthy shot that looks down an alley at the front door of duplex. Beyond the creeps, the audience thinks little more of this shot. That is, of course, until that same shot is seen being played on the television screen of the duplex occupants, Georges and Anne Laurent.
The two, along with their middle-school-aged son, Pierrot, realize they’re home is not only being watched but videotaped over extended periods of time, as they pop a VHS into their VCR and watch their own front door in a state of utter confusion. In this moment, the Laurents, like Jeff, are made to play the role of spectacle and spectator simultaneously. Much like Hitchcock, then, Haneke uses the framework of voyeurism to push the audience to take notice of themselves within the narrative structure, to push the audience to wonder: are we voyeurs too?
Like Metz has said, “the cinema manages to be both exhibitionist and secretive,” and the metalinguistic self-awareness that is pushed upon the moviegoer by such a voyeur apparatus is taken even further in Rear Window and Haneke’s Benny’s Video, wherein the audience is forced to wonder at its complicity within the narrative.
The Audience,Too, Raises Its Glass in a Toast
The first example of this complicity is in Rear Window when Jeff, as voyeur, “interacts” with one of the many objects of his voyeuristic gaze, Miss Lonelyhearts. Through a shot and angle designed to simulate looking out of the large window in Jeff’s living room, the audience watches as Miss Lonelyhearts prepares herself for what seems to be a romantic dinner for two. Wearing a long, green dress, she checks her hair and then the dinner table, retrieves a bottle of wine from the kitchen and sets in on the table, and then lights the two candles positioned so exactly on the dinner table.
As she lights the second candle, she looks up, as if acknowledging a knock at the door—her guest, the audience supposes as they watch alongside Jeff. As the camera makes its way towards the door, though, the audience, as well as Jeff, are afforded a sight yet to be seen by Miss Lonelyhearts—there is no one on the other side of the door. Unsurprised as she opens the door and finds no one out there, however, she steps into the hallway as if there is a guest to be received; she ushers her imaginary guest inside, talking and smiling as she approaches the table; she reaches for the guest’s hat, takes it and tosses it gently onto the end table beside the sofa; and then she leans forward from the waist with her cheek pressed out as if to receive a kiss, after which she opens the bottle of wine and pours two glasses.
Miss Lonelyhearts preparing for her evening.
She sits down, then, talking animatedly as if there is someone sitting adjacent her, and then she raises her glass as if to say, “salud”. In this moment, Jeff raises his glass of brandy in a reciprocal gesture and the two, spectator and spectacle, interact in a manner which suggests that the audience, aligned with Jeff and the role of the voyeur, is able to interact with, take part in the fictional narrative of the film, suggesting that the audience can indeed be complicit with the happenings of the filmic narrative.
Again, this notion is picked up and carried on by Haneke, this time in his Benny’s Video. This film opens with a scene in which a pig is led out of what is presumably a barn. The pig is led by a rope which is tied around its snout; the pig struggles and squeals terrifically, and then an air pressurized bolt pistol is put to its head and discharged.
This scene is both visually and aurally disturbing. “But telltale white lines across the screen soon signal to us,” says Catherine Wheatley, “that this is an intra-diegetic image sequence, now in the process of being rewound: what we have been watching is a film within a film, Benny’s video rather than Benny’s Video.” The critical distance created by this “intra-diegetic image sequence” is allegorical, in a sense, of how Benny interacts with the world surrounding him. In the same way that the film-within-the-film, Benny’s video, informs our understanding of the filmic narrative, Benny’s conceptual understanding of the world is informed by the videos which he both makes and watches, by a “cine-televisual medium,” as Wheatley calls it. Therein, too, is the manifestation of Benny’s voyeuristic gaze.
The critical distance we’re granted from the actual slaughtering of the pig, however, is not afforded to us when it comes, a while later in the film, to the murder of Benny’s young, female acquaintance; therefore, while the audience is not complicit in the pig’s death—because of the “white lines across the screen”—it is complicit—because of a narrowing of that critical distance between spectator and spectacle—in the murder of the young girl. The two, Benny and his female acquaintance, get to that moment by passing through a sequence which binds us to them emotionally. Together, they watch Benny’s video of the pig slaughter, and then they have a conversation which seethes with undercurrents of mutual intimacy:
Girl: Did you film that?
Girl: What was it like?
Girl: With the pig? I mean… Have you ever seen a dead person? For real, I mean.
Benny: No. Have you?
Girl: No. That’s why I asked.
Benny: It was only a pig…. I once saw a TV program about the tricks they use in action films. It’s all ketchup and plastic. It looks pretty real, though… When my grandfather died, they put him in the coffin before we got there. They live in the country, too. The coffin was open and pretty high up. My father lifted me up so that I could see Granddad. I shut my eyes. I was smaller then. I wasn’t big enough to see in on my own.
Girl: My grandparents died a long time ago. I don’t remember them.
Directly after this sequence the suggestion of an intimate bond is put to a quick death—quite literally. As the two examine the device that killed the pig, which Benny “nicked” from the farmer, he presses it into his chest and says, “Press the trigger.” She does not, and Benny calls her a coward.
Then, we are forced to watch as Benny methodically executes her. We witness the first discharge directly, while only witnessing the several subsequent discharges through a small television screen which Benny has hooked to his video camera, which is on and recording the interior space of Benny’s bedroom. We are forced, therefore, to experience the murder in the same way that Benny experiences the world, through truncated images.
From Benny’s Video
From this point forward, we experience the film through the narrative-eyes of Benny. There is one scene, in particular, that reinforces our assimilation of Benny’s voyeuristic gaze and, in doing so, solidifies the audience’s complicity with the filmic narrative.
Having fled to Egypt after the murder, Benny and his mother are in a phone booth, of which the audience has a front-on shot strongly imbued with the visual, with scopophilia. The audience sees them through the glass of the booth. The audience, intrinsically voyeuristic at this point, is watching them both, but then Benny passes the phone to his mother and exits the interior of the phone booth. He walks around to the front of the phone booth, and the shot becomes exactly the same, except Benny is now, like the audience, on the outside of the phone booth looking in at his mother through the booth’s glass. In this moment of slight shift, the critical distance between Benny and the audience is nonexistent and, therefore, the audience becomes entirely complicit with film’s diegesis; it doubly assimilates Benny’s cine-televisual voyeurism and the role of murderer.
The audience, it seems, is as caught up in the fictional narrative of the given movie as much as the characters, and it is pushed to become aware of itself and its participation therein through the use of Hitchcock’s voyeur apparatus. This apparatus is one that has been picked up on and utilizes by a director some might say is equally unique and inventive—Michael Haneke. By looking at Haneke through the lens of Hitchcock, we are able to evaluate Haneke and his films while simultaneously reevaluating Hitchcock and his amazing contributions to cinematic history.