Spycam Chic

The Surveillance Society: Part Two

Jerry Bruckheimer knows his market. The mega-producer's latest flick, Enemy of the State, opened on November 20 and promptly became America's hottest thriller. It couldn't have come at a better time. Privacy is the word on everybody's lips— what with Linda Tripp's infamous wire— and Enemy of the State provides a crash course in high-tech spying.

Opening with an orgy of rapid-fire, low-res footage, the film hypes cutting-edge bugging devices even as it conveys the terror of being stalked by the superspy National Security Agency. Will Smith plays the unwitting mark, but the real star of this movie is its look: semioticians might call it hyperreality, but Bruckheimer has a snappier tag: virality.

"It's borrowed from those cop shows that use real imagery," the producer of Armageddon and other high-tech blockbusters explains. "What we do is stylize that imagery, speed it up, color it, degenerate it— to make it look almost like art. It's exciting and it creates an anxiety, because your eye is so conditioned from having seen it so many times that you think something will happen."

Will Smith sports the surveillance look in Enemy of the State
Touchstone Pictures And Jerry Bruckheimer
Will Smith sports the surveillance look in Enemy of the State

While civil libertarians focus on the tangible threat of spycams— not to mention the FBI's new license to bug any phone it deems relevant to a criminal case— the most troubling aspect of our surveillance society is its transformation into spectacle. Nothing has done more to make the invasion of privacy palatable, and even arousing, than the riveting new television format known as "reality programming." Call it SPY-TV, a heady mix of monitoring and entertainment that glosses over the anxiety about being spied upon with a more seductive emotion: voyeuristic delight.

Lately, SPY-TV has taken over the tube. About 45 hours a week are devoted to shows that recycle video from police proceedings, emergency rooms, courtrooms, even workplaces— and that's not counting the many Hard Copy imitators that hinge on hidden-camera footage. Grab the remote and you can run with the Rescue Squad, huddle with the brain surgeons in Trauma, or tag along with Cops as they collar the underclass. Playing authority is fun!

But so is checking out the corpse carving in Autopsy: Confession of a Medical Examiner, or watching errant employees get Busted on the Job. During sweeps month last spring, FOX News put hidden cameras in local men's rooms to monitor cruising, but that was nothing next to 60 Minutes' second-highest-rated broadcast: Jack Kevorkian's deathshow.

Not everyone who stars in these surveillance spectacles volunteers. Your remains can end up on TV if they figure in a criminal case, and if you're convicted of a crime, any footage of your arrest is probably up for grabs. This spring, the Supreme Court will decide whether police can allow intrusive reporters to ride along on raids. The Justices will hear the case of a couple who were sitting around in their nightclothes when police burst through their door with a TV crew in tow. The ruling could have landmark implications for the right to be free from media invaders.

But the most striking thing about SPY-TV is that many of its subjects give their consent. "It was nice to watch, because there's a lot from that time I don't remember," says the star of a parachuting accident who ended up on The Learning Channel. His only regret was that his major surgery was cut from the show. Still, "Everybody I know watched it. I got a lot of cards from people from the past, people I hadn't seen in years." The network was also pleased; the accident— which left him in a coma for five weeks— drew more viewers than the World Series.

Not even George Orwell, who created the model of a telegenic tyranny, could imagine that the watcher's gaze would be replaced by candid commerce. If Orwell were alive and contemplating a sequel to 1984, he might cast Big Brother as an executive producer in the infotainment complex. Here in the digital dream machine, PhotoShop artisans edit hours of video into X-treme action that serves the bottom line of today's multichannel environment. This product is cheap, abundant, and easy to market abroad as pure Americana.

But pleasure only hints at the effect of SPY-TV. "It's the formation of a new norm through repetition," says social anthropologist Ron Lembo. "By presenting scenes over and over, in which whatever you regard as the boundary between the public and the private is invaded, these shows create a sense that surveillance is normal." Think of these shows as the aesthetic accompaniment to the end of privacy, and a happy premonition of the transparent world to come.

In Enemy Of The State, Will Smith fights the power by turning the master spy's own weapons against him. It's a classic scenario of human ingenuity triumphing over an evil teched-up system. But that saga has currency only in Hollywood. In the real world, it's hard to resist the pixelated cool of being watched.

Surveillance has become a look, sexier and more sinister than any documentary. It lends the power and glory of infotech to anything it touches, from a sneaker ad to a blockbuster thriller. The most ordinary image becomes charged once it is invested with a time/date stamp, a grainy low-res surface, and the other signatures of spycam style. These cues prompt the sense that you're somewhere you shouldn't be. It's a short step from this predatory vibe to an ad for Gucci stiletto heels.

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