By Ray Pride
Thirty million surveillance cameras. Four billion hours of video a week. Two hundred sightings of you, me and everyone we know each and every day. These are the sturdy statistics that open Adam Rifkin’s low-budget “Look,” burdened with a mini-Post-It of a title that sounds like a studio remaking a minor J-horror entry starring Luke Wilson.
There are many salient points and lasting fears under the conceit of a movie told entirely from the perspective of spy-cams. Brian DePalma’s exhibited his own filthy-minded, ruddy-faced fixation upon voyeurism in its sticky particulars for decades, ranging from the bank-of-monitors shot in “The Fury” lifted from Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” all the way to last year’s “Redacted,” which asserts a diversity of media to attempt to portray a fractured world and its battlegrounds (literal and virtual). Andrea Arnold’s underrated sexual revenge thriller, “Red Road” (2007), posits a female cop in Edinburgh who mans the “Eye,” a darkened room with dozens of monitors, seeking out transgression with a flick of the eye and a touch of the finger on a console toggle. Her choice is to make what she sees personal, and Arnold’s take on voyeurism haunts with bloody efficiency.
Set in and around a drab shopping mall, the Valley’s Northridge Fashion Center, “Look” doesn’t rise above its gimmick: moments of humor or frightening implication fall apart under the synthesized every-eye. Vulgar, shambling and haphazard, “Look” opens promisingly as a pair of half-dressed young women strip to their thongs in a dressing room and discuss “bleaching your asshole.” Suitably in-your-face and more than a little embarrassing, both as portrayal and as something you’re watching in a room with other people, it’s among the rude eruptions that become the movie’s most consistent attraction. The acting’s bad, and some of the ideas are ragged, and arraying a false vocabulary atop the fragments that mosaic the everyday and pothole the memory don’t quite come together.
Each time the movie veered, I tried to imagine what kind of movie could encompass this approach, another movie, not remaking Rifkin’s, but something more like the consolidated eidetic memory of the point-of-view of Stuart Cooper’s brilliant “Overlord,” which snaps to and fro from the preparations of a young man to likely die on the beaches on D-Day to the manifestations of all manner of clever and ghastly killing machines.
Rifkin’s making a different sort of perceptual mash-up, and his sensibility runs more to hijinks and modest mortification, far from the short of coolly curated passages of surveillance footage that might propel a film project into an attractive, arty (and even less commercial) formalism that might parallel the “typologies” of work of influential photographers like Berndt and Hilla Becher, where similar subjects are shown in repeating formats for maximum comparison and contrast. (The titles of some of their books give you the idea: “Cooling Towers,” “Blast Furnaces,” “Gas Tanks” and “Industrial Facades.”) Rifkin’s more a Roger Corman kind of kittycat, though, and a John Landis cameo is more than appropriate. Rifkin, after all, had a hand in “Mouse Hunt,” “Small Soldiers” and “Underdog,” and wrote and directed “Detroit Rock City.” He’s a giddy vulgarian and his instincts are good even as the results disappoint.
To draw another haute Euro-analogy, Michael Haneke’s “Caché” plays tricks with its perspective in ways equally shallow and creepy, but the book-ended shots, a long take observing the façade of a bourgeois home and another under the end credits that provide a potential explanation, if properly noted, of the terrible things we’ve witnessed. The language belongs to the story.
More recently, George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” uses images from various formats and struggles to integrate them into a dramatic framework, yet the consistent use of surveillance footage seems self-defeating in a feature-length project. Glimpses of Mohammed Atta stutter-stepping through an X-ray machine at a small New England airport the morning of 9/11 need to be embedded in some other sort of montage to have the combination of the truly banal and the ultimately shocking that they deserve. Images like these have an imposing burden that Rifkin doesn’t truly acknowledge. Even someone picking their nose in an elevator, to use one of his examples, still holds strange weight.
Still, the mediation of experience and dilution of privacy by the surveillance society—Hello, London Mayor Ken Livingstone! Hello, Mayor Daley!—is potent as theme and as subject. This won’t be the last “Look.”
“Look” opens Friday at Facets.