It has been a long time since I watched a movie that was not a documentary, and after seeing constant advertisements for Amazon’s The Voyeurs, I signed back on to Prime just so I could see what all the fuss was about.
And, I have to say, I was not disappointed.
Premiering on September 10th, 2021, the film stars Justice Smith and Sydney Sweeney, two actors that I have been watching since Smith’s role in Netflix’s now canceled series The Get Down and Sweeney’s role in HBO’s Euphoria. In The Voyeurs the two play a couple who have moved into a beautiful warehouse style loft together. After a few days in the apartment, they notice that they can see into the window of the building across from theirs. Over the weeks of them living in the apartment they become fascinated with their neighbors, with Sweeney’s character Pippa becoming even more obsessed than her partner Thomas. Over the course of the film the couple’s voyeurism becomes even more intense, leading to unexpected and horrific outcomes.
Referencing multiple films within the horror genre, the film also offers an almost dystopian critique of our postmodern day surveillance culture. With significant commentary on the way that we use social media and even the ethics of performance art, the film made me think a lot about the genre of the psychological thriller and other films that have played on the theme of neighborhood watch as well as the many ways that life can sometimes be stranger than art.
Rear Window, Disturbia, and the Neighborhood Watch Genre
In watching The Voyeurs I started to think about how the concept of the neighborhood watch could be its own genre or style of film and social media use. For those who don’t know, Neighborhood Watch is a group of people (usually in the suburbs) who gather together in order to monitor “crime” in their neighborhood. They usually do this through scheduling planning meetings about common concerns i.e. noise violations, unleashed dogs, etc, as well as times to meet and walk or drive around patrolling the neighborhood, similar to the role that police tend to play in most urban settings.
With platforms like the Nextdoor Neighborhood app, we have further normalized this surveillance of one’s neighbors and criminalized their actions in both public and private forums. Therefore, these films act as a representation and critique of these societal norms by using the elements of horror and psychology to demonstrate the more sinister repercussions of taking on the role of neighborhood watch.
As another neighborhood watch film, one of my favorite films of all time is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), and I have not only written entire papers on the film and it’s descendants, but I have also crafted multiple exercises around the unique shots that Hitchcock introduced to the cinematic universe through this film and many others.
Focusing on the story of Jeff, played by James Stewart, a journalist who is relegated to spending his days in a wheelchair in his apartment due to a leg injury, much of the film is shot through the window of his apartment. These window shots were unique in that through the window the audience is able to see into the apartments of all of the other people living in the building. These shots were incredibly complicated for Hitchcock to get and there is a lot of writing about the mechanics of this aspect of the film. However, within the plot, these shots also become especially important when Jeff witnesses a murder in one of the buildings and dives into investigating his neighbors in order to discover who done it.
We see this same conceit in my favorite Rear Window spin-off Disturbia (2007), starring Shia LaBeouf. In Disturbia, LaBeouf plays the character Kale Brecht, who is stuck in his home on house arrest. Adding the technological elements of surveillance and policing to the neighborhood watch genre of films, much of the film’s action revolves around Kale attempting to spy on his neighbor turned murderer without setting off his ankle monitor.
Similar to The Voyeur’s, each of these films plays with different and unique forms of looking with the film camera taking on the appearance and angles of other technological devices. In Rear Window we see Jeff looking through his camera, and in Disturbia we also get camera shots through binoculars, cell-phones, and other forms of technology.
As psychological thrillers, these films also reference the idea that sometimes life is stranger, or more horrific, than fiction because the movies pre-date some very real murders that come from policing and/or a lack of authentic neighborly concern. For example, the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in a New York City apartment building is notable because Kitty’s murder was witnessed by dozens of neigbors in the building yet no one helped her or involved the police.
In contrast, when thinking about the dangers of neighborhood watch, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 is also an example of the dangers of surveillance and viewing some people as neighbors and others as criminals. In this sense, there is a Catch-22 when it comes to neighborhood watch as a form of policing that each of these films explores.
The Sensuality of Surveillance, or the Politics and Pleasure of Looking
The dangers that the characters befall in the film, and the dangers that we see happen in our own realities, are also a reflection of the politics of looking and seeing. In the case of Trayvon Martin, his story is an example of the role that our perceptions of others, from their identity to how they address, influence how we interact with them. And whether we choose to help them, or harm them, with our interactions. Within the neighborhood watch genre of film we also tend to see how the main characters of the film, who are usually the lookers (or voyeurs in this case), create judgements about who they are viewing based on stereotypes and assumptions.
In The Voyeurs, we see this as the main characters make up names for their neighbors and assumptions about their relationship solely based on what they see through the window. Much of what they see is the intimate relations of their neighbor, therefore the film focuses on what Laura Mulvey describes as “scopophilia” or pleasure in looking that comes from viewing the female body on film. This viewing is not only seen through the viewing of women (as much of the film includes scenes of nude models being shot by the character Seb, played by Ben Hardy), but also through Pippa’s viewing of Seb. Playing on this pleasure that comes with looking, we also see Pippa and Thomas using their viewing of Seb and his partner, Julia to fuel their own sensuality.
We also see the role of the senses as something that is played on throughout the film. I personally enjoyed the constant references to eyes and looking in subtle ways throughout the film. For example, Pippa works at an optometrists office, the next door neighbor, Seb, is a professional photographer, his girlfriend Julia is also a model. In this sense, the characters are not only watching each other, but they are also engaged in what could be called looking professions, where they are paid to look and be looked at.
This also complicates the ethics of looking, which Pippa and Thomas struggle with, as they question whether it is actually okay to be looking at their neighbors and whether or not the neighbors have somehow invited their gaze through performing their lives so openly in front of the window. This open window performance creates another assumption from the main characters, who theorize that their neighbors might be exhibitionists, an assumption which acts as a way to excuse their own voyeurism.
The Theater of Life as Performance Art
This question of performance and what we are allowed to look at when it comes to the conditions of performance is another interesting ethical quandary that the film plays with. And while I don’t want to get into too many details for fear of spoiling some of the best parts of the film, I will say that The Voyeurs turns the concept of performance on its head, by showing how we perform identity online through an offline art piece. In many ways, we are always performing ourselves, but the question of whether others are allowed to look in on that performance is always a question of public versus private, or what sociologist Erving Goffman would call front stage versus back stage.
In the book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman writes that the front is “That part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (22). Therefore, the front stage is the public realm of performance, whereas the backstage is the area in which the performance can be dropped. From Goffman’s work we can then understand the public self is the societally acceptable performance which we want people to see, whereas the private self is the performance that we do not want others to see or when we attempt to stop performing or masking for others.
If you have watched the film, you will then understand my assessment that The Voyeurs really complicates this understanding of public versus private performance of self, as well as the conception of front stage versus back stage and who is an audience member and who is a performer. Primarily because, as Pippa and Thomas note early on in the film, their neighbors seem to be giving them a front stage view of their lives due to the way that they are performing. Similar to a theater performance, if Seb and Julia wanted to perform backstage, the only thing that they would need to do is close the curtains and the audience would be forced to wonder.
Final Commentary on Social Media and Surveillance Culture
At the same time, one of my favorite lines from the film is when Pippa tells her co-worker that:
“Just because someone is allowing you to look in on their lives doesn’t mean that it’s okay for you to watch”.
The line so perfectly encapsulates the major take-aways of the film which speak to a theory that I also have about the role of sharing online and the consumption of online performance. In many ways, social media has conditioned us into believing that it is normal to watch and surveil others. And while it doesn’t seem like a big deal, due to the ways that we view the internet as a non-real or virtual space, something that the pandemic has taught me is that the normalization of social media surveillance has also pre-conditioned our society to in-person surveillance.
For example, within the era of COVID-19 many people have also taken on the role of neighborhood watchdogs when it comes to policing mask wearing, vaccinations, social distancing, and other aspects of the performance of public health. Throughout the pandemic I have been reminded that it does not take much for individuals to blindly ascribe to the rules and restrictions of the government and institutions that offer an authoritative stance. Similar to the Milgram Shock Experiments, this moment in time has also offered its own form of social experimentation when it comes to how easily people embraced a culture of both informal and institutionalized policing and surveillance.
Therefore, the film left me thinking a lot about what is next when it comes to the many fights for greater privacy and autonomy of citizens in the 21st century. In many ways, this moment in time feels like a step back when it comes to convincing people that they have any rights to privacy when it comes to their personal lives, social media, and even data around health and well-being. Through over a year of being forced to bear all in order to return to “normal”, we have now normalized so much of what many activists in the sphere of law and public policy have been fighting against. And, while I don’t know what is next for us all, The Voyeurs was a chilling look into the “Black Mirror” of surveillance culture.