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Original at (Guardian archive)
Stabbings in the dark
Peeping Tom: the remake
The Guardian: Wednesday March 15, 2000
It is, literally, a sight gag. One of the most famous images in British cinema comes in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), re-released this month as part of the National Film Theatre's Powell and Pressburger season. It's a shot from inside the eye of a patient in surgery, with veiny eyelids closing over the camera lens: point-of-view taken to an absurd physical extreme.
What seems like a flippant visual pun takes on more grotesque connotations given Michael Powell's later career. The logo of Powell and Pressburger's Archers company was an image of arrows piercing a bullseye; it's seen at the start of their films together, and of Powell's 1960 film as a solo director, the notorious Peeping Tom.
Peeping Tom is full of piercings, culminating in what's effectively a symbolic stab right in the film-maker's eye. Its serial killer anti-hero uses his movie camera as a weapon: it's equipped with a stiletto and a distorting mirror. He simultaneously kills and films women, showing them their own fear in the reflection of their screaming faces. He finally commits suicide, plunging the stiletto into his throat, while gazing at his own terrified reflection. Peeping Tom effectively ended Powell's career. Critics found it hard to believe that anything so sordidly psychosexual had been made in Britain - it took the later efforts of fans such as Martin Scorsese to rehabilitate him.
Peeping Tom has now been remade - at least, parts of it have - as an installation by an artist who shares the name of Powell's murderer-voyeur, Mark Lewis. Peeping Tom, by Mark Lewis 2 (let's call him), re-creates the footage shot in the original by the amateur auteur Mark Lewis 1. We see restaged sequences including Mark's killing of a prostitute; the crime scene the next day; the dance performed by the Moira Shearer character just before her murder; and Mark's suicide - the key piece of footage that we never see in Powell's film.
Mark Lewis 2 has used some of Powell's original London locations, and retained the costume conventions of 1960, although they now take on a retro feel. His footage is in vibrant colour, close to Powell's palette, rather than Mark Lewis 1's black and white. It's also elegantly edited: where the fictional Mark left his images in a raw state, his successor uses fades and fast montage sequences, the images recurring rhythmically. This is less a remake, more a trailer for the film that the homicidal director never completed.
But what kind of film was the murderous Mark making? Played by Carl Boehm, Mark talks about making a "perfect film". At one point, he refers to it as a documentary; at others, it seems to be fiction. According to Peeping Tom's writer Leo Marks, Lewis's film actually had a story; Marks once confided its subject to Martin Scorsese, who agreed to keep the secret. We can only speculate about its nature: avant-garde confessional, quasi-New Wave fiction-reality melding, or even, with the killing of the dancer Vivian, a pioneering stab at a snuff musical?
What Lewis 2 hasn't remade is Powell's other home-movie footage: the films made by Mark's scientist father, recording the scientific experiments that used his terrified son as a guinea pig. One thing the critics found especially unsavoury was that Lewis Senior was played in these sequences by Powell himself, with his own son as the young Mark.
The new Peeping Tom is less about voyeurism than about repetition, and is part of the current trend among artists to use existing films as material for speculative remakes. Films about repetition clearly lend themselves to this treatment: last year's Hitchcock exhibition in Oxford included Stan Douglas's looped re-creation of a scene from the kleptomania story Marnie, and Pierre Huyghe's spartan shot-by-shot remake of Rear Window. In its elegant production values, Lewis's film is closer to Gus Van Sant's misunderstood Psycho - which is better viewed as big- budget conceptual art than as a standard Hollywood remake. Lewis is already a specialist at this game: another of his works re-creates the opening of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil - upside down.
Lewis has said that a prime concern in his Peeping Tom is the question of signature in film. Is Mark Lewis the artist producing a pastiche of Powell's film-within-a-film, or plagiarising the work of a dead fictional film-maker called Mark Lewis (who, as a murderous obsessive, perhaps surrenders any conventional claims to being considered an auteur)? Interestingly enough, the Mark Lewis character whom we see killing himself in Peeping Tom (2000) is not played by the living artist Mark Lewis. That would be too confusing.
Mark Lewis's Peeping Tom will be at Norwich Gallery (01603 610561) in June.
A Matter of Life and Death opens at the NFT, London SE1 (0171-928 3232), and the Curzon Soho, London WC2 (0171-439 4805), on March 24.
See also Letter from critic Alexander Walker
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