Friday, August 10, 2018

Cinema and Surveillance

From Nick Pinkerton's 7-2-18 Baffler article entitled "A Thousand Unblinking Eyes:  A History--Cinema and Surveillance from Fritz Lang to Michael Mann":

There is a moment in the 1960 Fritz Lang film The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse which, even though it has since been seen in countless subsequent variations, seems jarring in its newness. A couple, played by Peter van Eyck and Dawn Addams, sit talking at a table adjacent to the ballroom floor in Berlin’s swank Luxor Hotel. They’re filmed in a two-shot discussing her troubled mindset, her unhappy marriage, and the possibility of a divorce from her beastly husband. We may notice that the quality of the image in this setup is unusually murky before Lang’s camera pulls back to reveal that we are looking at a frame within a frame, and that our protagonists are being captured by a surveillance camera and observed by an unseen figure in a control room whose location is unknown. As soon as this sinister information has registered, we leave behind the monitor on a cut that returns to the Luxor Hotel itself. “You see,” says Addams’s character, referring to her date’s unsettled frame of mind but suggesting much else, “You can’t just switch off either.”

This sudden encroachment by an observer, underlining the voyeuristic nature of the cinematic illusion (by crossing through the media of observation), had appeared in films before: What is the Wicked Witch of the West’s crystal ball in The Wizard of Oz (1939) but a prototypical surveillance device? In how many Westerns and adventure movies has matte shot masking been used to create the illusion of the view from a pair of binoculars, traversing a vast distance? Film had been a consciously scopophilic medium since the days of keyhole spying in early cinema works such as Ferdinand Zecca’s What Happened to the Inquisitive Janitor (1901), but movies like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and its contemporary, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse responded to a new eruption of technology-driven voyeurism in the real world—pornographic permissiveness in Powell’s film, and the state-sponsored surveillance apparatus in Lang’s.

Lang himself had shown the ownership caste using audiovisual oversight to keep tabs on the working classes in his Metropolis (1927), an idea that Chaplin would appropriate for comic fodder in his Modern Times (1936). These futuristic examples aside, the realistic, practically functional moving-image surveillance camera had appeared in several movies before The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Henry Hathaway, a director more than usually attentive to cutting-edge tech in his semi-documentary-style thrillers—he gives meaty supporting roles to the Linotype, lie detector, and wire photo transfer machine in his Call Northside 777 (1948)—shows the use of hidden microphones and motion picture cameras positioned behind two-way mirrors in his The House on 92nd Street (1945), here working to capture and eventually incriminate Nazis.

What is different about the spy setup at the Luxor, and what distinguishes it from any of these earlier examples, based either in speculative fantasy or fact, is that it is distinctly a then-still-new closed-circuit television (CCTV) device, or video surveillance system, a technological development that many worried would make real the possibility of the Orwellian security apparatus. If it is not the first appearance of an extensive CCTV system in a contemporary-set, non-science-fiction feature film, it is the first that I know of, though in subsequent years they would appear with increasing regularity—Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned (1962) imagines an almost literal nanny state, in which a CCTV-type system is used to educate a new race of irradiated, A-bomb invulnerable children from afar....

To read the rest of Pinkerton's article, click HERE.

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