The competing forces of liberty and security have perhaps never stood at a more confusing impasse than they do right now. Complicating the traditional debate about the loss of liberty for the sake of security is a culture willing to compromise its own security just because it has the liberty (and technological means) to do so.
When the political purview of reduced privacy and heightened threat levels intersects with the social network of endless status updates and the democratization of the publicized life, it could be argued that the ensuing dissonance renders the debate pointless: People now choose to give away information that they would likely want to protect under other circumstances.
Indeed, choice remains crucial to the discussion of image making. Private moments made public can resemble violations of a physical sort, and cinema is often discussed in such terms. From a critical standpoint, there are films that metaphorically “gaze”, “assault”, and even “rape” both those on screen as well as the audience.
In a more passive sense, there are also films and photographs that simply “look”, and these are at times more dangerous. More visually aggressive films openly telegraph their intentions, but the detached “look” is a guise that might hide darker motivations. Surveillance is controversial for this very reason—the great potential for those doing the looking to corrupt the good aims of the activity. Films about surveillance and control are interesting and meaningful when the writer and director understand how the activity they are exploring cinematographically parallels their (voyeuristic) artistic endeavor.
Adam Rifkin’s Look might have taken its place alongside notable surveillance films by directors such as Wim Wenders, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Haneke. These directors (and others) have created thoughtful works about the power of visual and aural evidence to entice, indict and hold accountable. And while those big ideas are at the periphery of Look, the film’s considerable flaws undo any serious commentary it might offer.
Advertised as having been “shot entirely on surveillance cameras”, Rifkin’s film is fundamentally dishonest from the start. For a film that so frequently trumpets the most gimmicky aspect of its pitch, Look is astonishingly inconsistent. If, as we are led to believe, the power of the film comes from its realistic, fly-on-the-wall perspective, then why does the film seem entirely unconcerned with maintaining that perspective? Employing multiple angles cut together with matches on action, strategic zooms and pans, slow motion, fast-forwards, rewinds, flashbacks, a musical score, and perfect sync sound, Look undermines its own concept in dozens of ways.
Compare this fussiness to the infamous home-invasion tape in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. What gives that sequence its enduring impact is the cold fidelity; the unconcerned, uninterrupted VHS source that mimics the emotional disconnect of the sociopath.
Conversely, Look never attempts to identify the figure responsible for assembling all of this footage in such a way, and only very late in the proceedings does the compelling idea of footage as practical evidence figure into the plot. Though if the many technical inconsistencies formed the film’s largest problem, then those would still be forgivable. What the film cannot overcome is the contemptible way in which it uses the visual conceit to tastelessly exploit both actors and audience.
Like a low-rent La Ronde, the plot concerns a network of characters who connect sexually and/or criminally. The main characters of Look break down almost exclusively into predators and prey. There is the potential to take this dramatic situation and run with it—to make the film a study of primal human encounters, much like a nature documentary.
Instead, Rifkin repeatedly uses the supposedly passive video feeds to sensationalize his subject and contradict the film’s ostensible ethical position. For example, although the press materials for Look feign outrage that “37 states allow security cameras in dressing rooms and bathrooms”, the film begins with an extended sequence in which two teenage girls strip nude and play around provocatively in a dressing room.
The irresolvable contradiction between the film’s assumed message and its actual effect is most powerful in this opening sequence. Any evocation of the horror of being exploited is significantly outweighed by titillation.
It would be possible to buy Rifkin’s cautionary stance if he didn’t direct the scene like a nudie floorshow, featuring every last inch of the teenagers’ naked bodies as they playfully gyrate against each other. This perverse misuse is made worse by the film’s repeated reference to these characters as being underage. Rifkin might think he’s keeping it real like Larry Clark or teaching the spectator a lesson like Haneke, but all signs (including high quality video and lighting that leaves nothing to the imagination) point to him engaging in the same creepy predatory fantasy to which the film devotes much of its running time.
One of these girls, Sherri (Spencer Redford), stalks her high school teacher, Mr. Krebbs (Jamie McShane) in scene after scene, until the inevitable moment where his own predatory potential comes to a boil. There are also the stories of Willie (Giuseppe Andrews), a convenience store clerk who gets caught up in the adventures of two murderers on the lam (Rhys Coiro and Sebastian Feldman); Tony (Hayes MacArthur), a store manager who aggressively, sexually harasses his female employees and has sex with nearly all of them; and Ben (Paul Schackman), a family man/lawyer who is in a down-low relationship with George (Chris Williams).
Marty (Ben Weber) is what one might call the film’s put-upon protagonist. The never-ending torment he experiences at work and in public creates a high level of sympathy, and the film appears to head toward some great comeuppance for his enemies. Instead, Marty’s plot eventually connects to another seemingly unrelated one in the most ludicrous fashion. Any possible satisfying conclusion to Marty’s dramatic action falls away for the sake of a preposterous twist.
But Marty is not alone in concluding as a cheap narrative device rather than a fully- formed character. Despite the sometimes quite impressive efforts by the film’s ensemble, this is a script that almost always prefers the cheap shot and the low road to the dramatically fulfilling. Even the tension created by a minor character trapped in the trunk of a car resolves in a limp punch line. Compared again to the narratively similar but dramatically superior “suitcase” coda of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the person in the trunk, like most everything else in Look, is just another cog in the film’s insincere sizzle reel mindset.
The special features on the DVD fully support the opinion that Look is a film fatally at odds with itself. In the revealing behind-the-scenes documentary, executive producer Donald Kushner responds to Rifkin’s pitch negatively, indicating that it does not make much sense and would be difficult to credibly execute. Rifkin’s description of some generic “overlord” having assembled the footage does not inspire confidence that he has a firm grip on the organizational structure of the script, but that does not stop him from moving ahead with production.
Also in this feature, Rifkin has a hard time believing that an actress turns down the role of Sherri. Yet after one sees what Spencer Redford was asked to do as Sherri, it is no mystery why the unnamed actress would reject such a role.
The lively audio commentary is also telling, as the filmmakers discuss their pleasure and gratitude to line producer Alwyn Kushner for “doing [their] bidding with the young girls” in order to get the young actresses to remove their panties. The director and producers laugh through this anecdote over a scene in which a man statutorily rapes one of these “young girl” characters onscreen.
They also talk about how Hitler had some positive qualities and compare the feebly realized Tony story thread to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. This all adds up to one of the most conflicted, cognitively dissonant commentary tracks you are likely to experience.
In the end, it is not the content of Look that shocks, but rather the level of insensitivity and ineptitude with which the material is handled by writer/director Rifkin, who has occasionally proven somewhat capable with other films but totally misses the mark this time. The performers, as well as cinematographers Scott Billups and Ron Forsythe, are to be praised for rising to the challenge and turning in some great work to meet their director’s vision. But Rifkin’s vision in this film is not something to wish on anyone—not when it looks like this.