Voyeurism, scopophilia and other visual pleasures

In the Lacanian account of the origins of our sense of self a critical event occurs during infancy. During this "mirror phase" infants grasp the fact that there is a world, and others, beyond them. This awareness comes to us from outside, an image of ourselves as an individual is built up from the feedback we receive from others.

The very act of seeing ourselves as others see us necessitates a form of splitting, a fragmentation of the unity we have experienced hitherto. Our mourning for this lost unity, that which we seem to lack (although it was never truly there) stays with us for all our lives: although we recognise our lack is irreversible we search for it still.

It may be said that our capacity to look, and to see ourselves through the eyes of others, is at the core of our psychological formation.

Mulvey [1975 p 208] has identified three forms of looking in cinema: the look of the camera as it records events, the audience's look at the image and the looks between characters within the diegesis. The look of the camera is, wherever possible, denied or suppressed in the interests of verisimilitude. But it is always apparent due to the confines of the frame.

The look of the audience at the screen is one which reproduces the lively curiosity of the infant deriving pleasure from what it sees. As Mulvey [1975 pp 200-201] puts it, "looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as ... there is pleasure in being looked at". The look has a darker side however.

The scopophilic drive is a constituent of the polymorphous sexuality of the infant, one which is gradually "trained" and normalised but one which may

become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.

The latter words diagnose with some accuracy the murderous impulses displayed by Mark Lewis. Social sanctions against "staring" or being "nosy" reflect deep-rooted cultural taboos which forbid looking too closely. An exception is made when, with a crowd of others and in the safety of a darkened auditorium, our urge to gaze may be indulged and we may escape, temporarily, forget who we are as we become bound up in the scenes replaying before us.

Peeping Tom shows us this pleasure-in-looking enacted in Mark's private cinema in, for example, the scene where Mark shows Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who occupies the position of the audience-within-the-text, his father's film of him as a child [commencing at 0:20:45]. A recurring piano motif imitates the extradiegetic soundtrack provided by the pianist in the silent movie era. The music also signals the point when Helen's pleasure turns into displeasure, though her curiosity is unabated, when Mark as a child reacts to the lizard dropped onto his bed by his father.

These scenes exemplify the argument advanced by Mulvey and others that the look we cast upon the screen may have a displeasurable aspect. Our experience of looking at what we know is not really there reminds us of that presubjective time, of before we came to know who we are... and of what we imagine we lack. Our knowledge that what we see on the screen is not real and is somehow incomplete can never be suspended completely.

So a feeling may be aroused in the audience, as it casts its look upon the screen, that something is being withheld. As Helen comments: "I like to understand what I'm shown" [0:23:25].

Aroused in the spectator, re-evoking infantile fears, is an awareness of lack. Conventionally cinema overcomes this by, for example, the use of reverse angles which show scenes from another point of view. These complete our look, an important component of the process commonly referred to as "suture"

Another strategy identified by Mulvey is cinema's response to the assumed point of view of the male spectator as he gazes at cinematic images of women. The image of woman "brings with it what the spectator's look would disavow, the fact of sexual difference" and this arouses fears of castration.

Typically films ward off this threat in one of two ways. The first is to couple the voyeuristic aspect with sadism, to show the woman confronted by her lack and punished for it. The alternative is to make the woman into a fetish object, disavowing her lack, representing her as complete and perfect. This is notable in representations of female stars where Marilyn Monroe's legs, for instance "stand in" for her whole. [Lapsley and Westlake 1988 p 78] Both strategies are deployed on numerous occasions in Peeping Tom.

As is apparent from the discussion so far, Mulvey saw dominant cinema as the mirror reflection of the patriarchal society in which it was formed (and which is inscribed in it). Pleasure in looking has been split into an active/male component and a passive/female component and films reflect this.

Women's traditional role in Western culture (and many others) is exhibitionist: women "connote to-be-looked-at-ness " [Mulvey 1975 p 203]. Hollywood cast men as possessors of "the look" and women as spectacle. In-built "patterns of pleasure and identification impose masculinity as `point of view' " [Mulvey 1981 p 69].

Silverman (1988) applies the same logic to women's voice in the cinema. She likens the relative passivity of women's voice in cinema to an "acoustic mirror" of women's subordinate position in a phallocentric society.

Fittingly, the ultimate device within Mark's apparatus of fear is a mirror mounted atop his camera which forces his victims to look at their own faces in the final moments of their lives. This only becomes apparent when Mark reveals the device to Helen in the film's final scene [1:33:10], saying "... I made them watch their own deaths.... and if death has a face they saw that too."

This may be taken as a metaphor for a fourth look, that which cinema casts back upon us, as identified by, for example, Willemen [1976 p 216]. It is not a look "that can be seen, but a look, imagined by men in the field of the other". This is the look of the film back at the spectator which "surprises me in the act of voyeurism and occasions a feeling of shame."

Denzin [1995 p 44] likens this feeling to the embarrassment one might feel upon hearing footsteps while in the act of peeping through a keyhole into a room.

In a variety of ways and on numerous occasions Peeping Tom delivers this frisson - shameful yet thrilling (and potentially comic) and then confronts us with it. Do we identify with what we are seeing? Can we remain detached from what is happening? What part are we playing? These questions are posed most clearly in the film's remarkable opening sequence.

We are confronted, within seconds, with the knowledge that

our experience of watching Peeping Tom is being paralleled, within the work, at what we are meant to regard as another level of reality, by the murderous voyeur at its centre. [Prawer 1980 p 217]

For around ninety seconds (all the time it takes to take a life) we are forced to identify with a killer; seeing through his eyes. We are forced wrote Twitchell [1985 pp 291-292] to

confront the relationship between watching and participating.... We see life just as he does.... We are forced, simply by opening our eyes, to conspire with his designs. The camera makes his reality ours.

But what the camera also does, and Twitchell seems insensitive to this, is to shield us to some extent.

Twitchell [1985 p296] claims that the film offers "nothing to protect us.... Once we start to look, we cannot help but see...". But the visible frame and/or the camera's crosshairs are there throughout to remind us of a mediating Other which prevents us fully "seeing ourselves" carrying out Mark's actions. Mark's camera is at once a device which draws us into the film and a distancing apparatus which reminds us that this is "just a film".

The same is true of all cinema cameras but this is usually disavowed; with Peeping Tom Powell dared to make this explicit.

The positioning within the frame is echoed at frequent intervals in, for example, scenes which frame the action within a window frame or a doorway or as in the scenes which Mark shoots from above the studio set with the lighting rig obscuring part of the view. These effects, but above all that of the visible camera,

function as a powerful metaphor for the barrier Mark tries to erect between himself and his victims so as to disassociate himself from them. [Silverman 1988 p34]

By way of comparison consider the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Here the shower curtain parallels the cinema curtain, ripped aside to show us the consequences of our looking.

Kaja Silverman [1988 p 32] describes Peeping Tom as giving new emphasis to the concept of reflexivity. The film foregrounds the workings of the cinematic apparatus and

the place given there to voyeurism and sadism... its remarkable structure suggests that dominant cinema is indeed a mirror with a delayed reflection.

One of the films-within-the-film, Mark's "documentary", is a re-enactment, or more accurately "an inverted reflection", Silverman suggests, of his own role in the films of his father - the other film-within-film. Mark is placed outside of the fiction and in a position of "apparent discursive control" where, by way of his camera's mirror, he forces his victims to look at their fear "just as his father's films have obliged him to see his own." [Silverman 1988 pp 33-34]

Silverman describes the killings as acts of symbolic castration and sees special significance in the scene where Mark films the disfigured features of Lorraine (Susan Travers):

the `bruise' is the site of libidinal investment, and Mark has eyes for nothing but it and the psychic pain it elicits in its wearer. [Silverman 1988 p 34]

Peeping Tom is by no means the only of Powell's films to exhibit a preoccupation with looking and the camera-eye. Take, for example, the opening sequence of A Matter of Life and Death (1946) where a surgeon gazes into space through a telescope. This image reminds us that the gaze may be analytical and passionless as well as erotic and sexually charged.

It is this look, the scientific gaze to borrow Foucault's usage 1, to which Mark is subjected as a child by a father obsessed with a will to know the face of fear. The same will, the same curiosity, Foucault claims, is at the heart of the advancement of knowledge in Western culture.

And Dr Rosen (Martin Miller) reminds us of this dimension of Mark's looking, commenting that Mark "...has his fathers eyes..." [1:22:00].

It is significant that Rosen makes this comment to one of the policemen investigating the murders. Denzin [1995 p 50] argues that the figure of the detective (the "investigative voyeur") and the narrative form of the investigative drama has made "vision an analogue for knowing".

A rather different take on solving puzzles is provided by John Hill in his study of British social problem films of the later 1950s and it is to Hill's thesis which I now turn.

Introduction: A puzzle and a half
Photographing me photographing you
What the critics saw
Appendix 1: Cast, credits and technical information
Appendix 2: Filmography and picture sources

Please send any comments or feedback to Derek Baldwin, the author.

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