Free Film School #126: Films ARE Voyeurism

Psycho peephole

Welcome back to CraveOnline's award-winning Free Film School, winner of the prestigious Made-Up Award We Give To Ourselves award. This week, we're going to accuse you of voyeurism.

Films, of course, turn us all into voyeurs. All films offer us, the audience, a chance to peer through a window, into the lives of others, all from the safe distance of a movie theater. We can look and look, and judge and judge, and not worry about ever getting caught. Indeed, since the events in a movie (fiction, documentary, and otherwise) were by necessity recorded earlier, and have to be projected in a room far distant from the subjects, we have become almost the Platonic ideal of a voyeur. We are digging through these people's purses, totally unbeknownst to them.

And that is actually the very nature of film. We must be voyeuristic to want to watch a movie. We must spy. We must be passive absorbers of other people's lives. When looked at a certain way, watching a movie is tantamount to committing a pathetic crime. Film's very nature transforms us into solitary peeping toms who are getting our thrills vicariously through the lives of others.

But this is not always acknowledged. The voyeuristic nature of film is rarely brought our attention because, well, it's an intrinsic part of absorbing arts and entertainment. Films, books, paintings, theater… all of these media can (and most often do) present us with a fictionalized version of life, often authored by someone else. The audience is invited to leave the “real” world behind, and absorb a new world, peeking in on the imagination of another. The new world may not be an idealized world, or even something too far removed from actual reality. But by being put in an objective place, the art in question instantly forms a “watching/watched” relationship with the audience.

Peeping Tom

I've always resented when a movie or piece of entertainment is referred to as “escapism” (is life so horrible that it needs to be escaped from? and can stupid action movies really provide that?), but that is exactly what all films provide. A kind of cognitive separation from the real world. Plato was right. We may be physical beings, but we are constantly living in a metaphysical universe. Movies provide us with windows into various metaphysical universes.

He said pretentiously.

Sorry to delve so abstractly into the psychology of movies for a moment there, but my point remains valid. We are all spies, and movies are all exhibitionists. For the most part, movies openly allow us to spy in, unabashed and unashamed. We are invited to spy on people having personal dramas, exciting adventures, tender emotions, dark impulses. Movies are laid bare, and we consume them. We are not made to feel guilty about our voyeurism. We are openly encouraged. In a way, the audience is always superior to a movie, because it's sacrificing itself for us. It's feeling its emotions for us, and we get to judge and feel at our whim.


Except on those few occasions when a savvy filmmaker will bring the “act of watching” to the fore, and make us suddenly aware of our part in the movie-watching process. Sometimes a movie will cleverly hold up a mirror, and we'll see ourselves as part of the objective experience. I would argue that these films are some of the best movies because of this relationship. When a movie can call attention to the audience and still remain engaging, then it's done something clever and interesting.

Of course, that brings up an important question: Are all films exploitative? The simple, easy, and totally correct answer is a resounding yes. True, you may be invited to feel sympathy for the object on screen, but we're also looking at it. By being filmed, everything on screen becomes an object. If you point a camera at an attractive actress, for instance, you are hereby encouraged to ogle. Don't feel bad. She is a real person on one level, but most immediately, she is an image to consume. Same with attractive men. Same with anyone, really. All movies, then, are exploitation movies.