At the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the wheel-chair bound James Stewart finds himself confronted by the man he has been spying on all Summer long. Briefly lit by flashbulbs, the murderer advances upon Stewart from out of the shadows before lunging at him. In this scene, the voyeur gets his comeuppance. Once so powerful in his capacity to observe his neighbours without being seen, Stewart is impotent to prevent one of them attacking him. As an audience, our pulses race. Not only because of the technical perfection of the scene, or because Stewart’s character is sympathetic, but because we are complicit in the character’s voyeurism. The murderer is not just lunging at Stewart. He is lunging at us.
Hitchcock’s teasing analogy between the cinema audience member and the voyeur is one that has continued to inspire film-makers. However, while Rear Window was recently remade in the shape of Disturbia (2007) – a teen thriller starring Shia LeBoeuf – it is in its more oblique descendants that we find this central analogy best explored. Indeed, many of the films of Michael Haneke express furious moral outrage at his audience’s passivity and prurience. In Benny’s Video (1992) he suggests that watching violent films desensitises the audience. In Funny Games (1997) he has his characters break the fourth wall in order to make the audience complicit in their crimes. In Hidden (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009) he follows genre guidelines in order to build tension but pointedly denies his audience the cathartic release of an answer to their questions or an unambiguous resolution. Haneke and, to a certain extent, Lars von Trier are animated by a deep sense of suspicion about the power of the audience. We sit in front of our TVs or our local cinema screens and we watch moments of heart-break, happiness, death and redemption. We vicariously experience these emotions and yet we are safe. We have risked nothing except boredom. What have we done to earn these emotional experiences?
Some of the more intriguing attempts to answer the question posed by Hitchcock, Haneke and von Trier are found in the works of Charlie Kaufman. In Being John Malkovitch (1999), Kaufman presented one of his characters with the opportunity to stop being a voyeur and to actually participate in the life of the character he was surreptitiously observing. This allows the character to experience love and career success that would have been impossible to achieve on his own but the success ultimately turns to ashes as real love eludes the character who eventually winds up trapped inside someone else experiencing the love that he craves but will never receive. Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (2008) further explores the emotional hollowness of the voyeur as the film’s central character, a stage director, attempts to adapt his life for the stage only to realise that, no matter how lavish the production and how much authorial control you have, real life is always outside of your control and always capable of messing you up.
Andrea Arnold’s debut film Red Road returns to Hitchcock’s original set up but expands upon it not with Hitchcock’s amusement or Haneke’s anger, but rather Kaufman’s sense of sadness at the ultimate impotence voyeur.