FILM DECEMBER 31, 2007
Billy the Kid
By now it is so common that we almost miss it when it isn't there. When television reports a robbery or a street fight, we wait for the surveillance-camera footage that will intensify the report. We now take it nearly for granted that the world is no longer watched by Big Brother but by Small Camera. (I have had my picture taken getting into a taxi.) Thirty million surveillance cameras, one source says, are now in place in this country, and each of us, in any fairly busy locality, may be snapped two hundred times a day.
These facts, these atmospherics, have percolated in the film-maker Adam Rifkin. Apparently he thought that since surveillance cameras are turning life into film, the spy camera could give film a new verity. Nearly ten years ago, The Truman Show treated life as a cosmic television play; now the ubiquitous tiny camera could, for our conditioned eyes, transmute fiction into a reality show. The result is Look, shot almost entirely as if in surveillance.
From the start Rifkin must have known that he had to temper his plan. Spy cameras have no sound (as yet), and a silent fictional picture would, oddly, nag at reality, would keep reminding the viewer of the new mode instead of ingesting it. Sound and a few conventional camera sequences of transition had to be added to support what was unconventional.
The very first sequence bamboozles us nicely. A surveillance camera spies on two sixteen-year-old girls in the dressing room of a clothing shop. They strip to try on dresses, and they kid around together. Then one of them puts on her own dress over one that she is stealing, and they move out. (But not out of the rest of the picture.) The scene is so convincingly written and directed by Rifkin that we look forward to more peeking.
Several stories are then woven together, all of them relatively usual except that, through the spy view, we see aspects that deepen their usualness, rather than render them surprising. A sales manager in a huge shop feels up salesgirls behind the counter as he talks to customers; he and various girls sneak into the stock room for quickies. A married man installs a protective viewer in his home so that he can spy on intruders, then is himself observed in an adventure of his own. The butt of office jokes in one company is revealed to be something more complex than a nerd. One of those first teenage girls seduces her high school teacher, for ulterior reasons.
These stories are all acted with the requisite unconsciousness--that is, the performing is like all film acting, only more so. More, if possible, than in conventional film, these actors must seem unobserved. They must be "off-camera" all the time. Rifkin thus stresses in a new way a standard aim of much realistic film acting: invisibility. No Marlon Brandos or Jack Nicholsons need apply.
The stories all have at least a modicum of interest, but the most striking aspect of Look is the way in which it looks, not what it sees. Its materials confirm that the essence of this new viewing mode is embarrassment. We all do at least a few things every day that we are glad to keep private. Now we live in the round, completely encircled by eyes. Prime, however, is the fact that Rifkin touches, albeit slightly, a philosophical theme that Beckett dramatized in his one film (called Film). Beckett based his work on an idea of Berkeley's, Esse est percipi--"To be is to be perceived." More: existence depends on being perceived. Therefore the surveillance camera is ruthlessly expanding existence. But for Beckett as for Berkeley, the idea of perception meant the eyes of people around us; now it means thirty million additional eyes. In Beckett's and Berkeley's and Rifkin's terms, existence has become absolutely engulfing.
But the camera is a diabolically clever contraption. Not only is it a spy, in many instances it is an intoxicant--of civilians as well as actors. Protagonist by Jessica Yu would not exist if she had not been able to induce four men to speak on camera about their privacies. No doubt Yu herself was persuasive; but the fact that these intimate chronicles were going to be filmed and recorded, that they were going to be on screen, surely helped overcome reticence. (Thus is the word "paradox" redefined.)
Protagonist braids the life stories of four men worth investigation. Yu, however, has burdened them with irrelevant baggage. She says that she started out to make a film about Euripides (!), and in re-reading some of the plays she found that the problems of those characters still trouble human beings. Recovering from the shock of this revelation, she decided to deal with some contemporaries as bearers of perennial agons, and she certified her classicism by interrupting her interviews with Attic drawings and masked figures, along with bits of Euripidean choruses in classic Greek. But the relevance of the much-quoted Bacchae--about a god's vengeance on an offensive mortal--to any of Yu's four men is a wee bit remote. All this classic decor only burdens her real achievement here: she used the very prospect of film to get four men to speak colorfully about their troubled lives.
Hans-Joachim Klein, a German, was a terrorist in the Baader-Meinhof days. (His talk is subtitled.) As a youth he went through the spasms of revulsion about the German past and much of the German present that afflicted thousands of young Germans (and were so memorably treated in Margarethe von Trotta's Marianne and Juliane). For Klein, terrorism seemed the only moral response to contemporary conditions, which led to crime and punishment. After prison, now middle-aged, he works on a French farm, reconciled apparently to the world as it is because he once tried jaggedly to improve it.
Joe Loya comes from a Mexican-American family. Beaten badly by his father, he left home as soon as he could and, out of motives that he understood, tried to build a person for himself by robbing banks. He says that he liked the money, of course, but liked even more the feeling of self and power. His robberies succeeded more than thirty times, then came jail and prison. Eventually paroled, he now works as a journalist, which is easy to believe after hearing his vivid descriptions.
Mark Salzman, physically small, comes from an affectionate family and, in an almost good-natured way, was surprised by his treatment at the hands--and feet--of his schoolmates. His size and delicacy soon brought him taunts and insults about his sexuality. In the course of time he studied martial arts, became proficient, and met the boy who had been his most vicious tormentor. That boy was impressed with Salzman's skills, studied martial arts as well, and became Salzman's buddy.
The life of the fourth man, Mark Pierpont, is the stuff of a film, not merely one story in a multiple film. Pierpont has made a journey through sincerities, each of which was genuine at the moment, and each of which conflicted with what preceded or followed it. As a boy, Pierpont discovered that he was homosexual, and, as he grew, he lived a homosexual life contentedly. Then he met an attractive young woman, began to view homosexuality as an affliction, left it, married, and became a missionary in Asia with his wife, exulting in what he considered his new-won purity. But more changes occurred: the conclusion of Pierpont's story--to date--is a stunner.
Yu, whose directing has grace, is now preparing a comedy. Good. At least she (presumably) won't be able to haul Euripides into that one.
The camera is not short of other blandishments. Besides seducing the reserved person into volubility just by looking at him, it can seduce the film- maker herself to exaggerate the value of what she is doing simply because it is on film. Thus anything filmed seriously must ipso facto be taken seriously and, by its very being, deserves attention.
This camera wile has worked on Jennifer Venditti in her debut documentary, Billy the Kid. The title is a mild prank: this Billy is a fifteen-year-old Maine high school boy. Venditti follows him through several seasons of his personal, family, and school life. Billy is loquacious, bright, sure that he is exceptional in some way, troublesome but not excessively so. He has an intelligent and wise mother. (His father is away, living in Florida. In some still shots, his face is deliberately blurred.) In due course, Billy gets his first girlfriend, a waitress in a luncheonette that he frequents, and they go through initial romantic rites. Expectable things continue to happen.
So, articulate though he is, all through the film we keep wondering: why Billy? As against the particular qualities of the men in Protagonist, this documentary could have been made about thousands of other fifteen-year-olds. We are led to suspect that Billy was chosen because he was garrulous and smart and because he likes movies and wanted to be in one. As for Venditti, we can infer that when she began to see this material on film, it confirmed her venture simply because there it was, engraved on film. Billy the Kid is not a series of home videos: Venditti has visual skill. But her film is less a broadening of our experience than proof of the narcotics that lurk in the camera.
By Stanley Kauffmann