The New York Civil Liberties Union reported last year that there are approximately 4,200 street-level surveillance cameras below 14th Street, and if the proposed $90 million Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (partly funded by the Department of Homeland Security) comes through, expect an additional 3,000 cams poised to catch your every crotch readjustment by the end of 2008. If such measures can capably thwart terrorist attacks, hurrah. But beyond all those busts, the distinction between “security” and “invasion of privacy” grows a murkier shade of gray. Are we actually any safer? Who’s collecting the data? How long will our trip to the dry cleaners remain archived? And most dire, but never answered: Who watches the watchmen?
The average American is captured about 200 times a day via an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras recording over four billion hours of footage a week—or so shocks the opening title cards of actor-filmmaker Adam Rifkin’s lurid ensemble drama, Look. Rifkin—who made his bones writing studio family comedies like Mousehunt
and Small Soldiers, and directing moody indies like The Dark Backward and Night at the Golden Eagle—wasn’t inspired by the critical questions above, nor by our Philip K. Dick nightmare-in-the-making, but by receiving an unexpected photo of himself in the mail, attached to a traffic ticket. “Who are we when we don’t think anyone’s watching?” he asks in his director’s statement, seemingly more concerned with the dangers of YouTube than Big Brother.
Rifkin shot his feature entirely from closed-circuit viewpoints, mostly awkward God’s-eye angles that faithfully mimic today’s security-camera realities: from elevators and parking lots to police-car dashboards and public restrooms. The first sequence holds the most promise: Two ripe teen girls in a department-store dressing room strip to their G-strings, discuss getting their assholes bleached like porn stars, then shoplift. Intentionally played for titillation (we shouldn’t be watching this!), it’s the petty crime that warrants the voyeurism—or does it? From there, the intertwining plot threads get progressively more sensational: A student seduces her high-school teacher, a sales clerk bangs all of his co-workers and masturbates in the stockroom, a lurking pedophile stalks mall prey, and two misfits shoot a cop.
There’s plenty of gimmick here, but no gravity, partly because Rifkin is too easily distracted by perverse office pranks and fart jokes, and often because the actors aren’t savvy enough to hide their awareness of the camera from us—an extreme no-no for this gag. (In the actors’ defense, why would they be? If ever there were a need for a docu-fiction hybrid, this is it.) Rifkin’s flickering cameras are suspiciously smart, zooming in on the right details and picking up crystal-clear sound—so who’s manning and editing this omnipotent point of view, and why isn’t that role being given as much attention as those hotties on the other side of the lens? At least Brian De Palma’s Redacted and George Romero’s Diary of the Dead wield their peeping-tom filters for more ambitious purposes, and Michael Haneke’s Caché teases and implicates audiences by drawing focus to the camera’s eye. Look isn’t processing, critiquing, or even warning; in the end, it’s just recording.