Who watches the watchmen? The answer is “only people who can’t be arsed reading the graphic novel”. In the early days of the movies, themes of surveillance were traditionally found in science fiction visions of dystopian future societies like METROPOLIS (1927) and the various adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four. More recently the shift has been towards the cinema camera itself as a form of surveillance, perhaps starting with Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954) and Antonioni’s BLOWUP (1966). Surveillance is central to several other Dirk favourites that can be traced to that lineage, such as Haneke’s CACHE (2005), Gilliam’s BRAZIL (1985) and Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974). After Watergate there was an explosion of such devices in American films, until the image of a watchful camera lens has become a kind of cinema shorthand for universal unease and paranoia. Here’s a personal list of five films that exploit that anxiety. What’s missing?
WATCHING THE DETECTIVES
1. ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
Guilty of a whole shedload of “daft movie computer” sins (“Rotate image by 75 degrees”, “Enhance! ENHANCE! ENHANCE!!!”), some people have claimed this as a sequel of sorts to THE CONVERSATION (1974) as the two characters played by Gene Hackman bear numerous resemblances. They have the same face, most strikingly. Oh, OK: they’re both surveillance experts, their workstation set-ups are very similar, a still photo from the earlier film is used as the picture the NSA have on file in the latter and at one point a character is wearing a cheap plastic raincoat but it’s not Hackman. But really, there are more holes in the theory than there is supporting evidence. Hackman doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through when he rubs crisps into Will Smith’s torso in a lift.
2. THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971)
Newly released from prison, master thief Duke Anderson (Sean Connery) formulates an intricate scheme to rob all of the wealthy residents in the apartment building where his girlfriend lives, before forgetting about the plan entirely and just walking round punching people in the face until they give him their stuff. Unbeknownst to him, a tangled web of surveillance has been woven around his crew: the NYPD narcotics division is monitoring the Kid (Christopher Walken), the FBI is keeping tabs on the antiques specialist (Martin Balsam), a jealous ex-lover has bugged his girlfriend’s flat and the IRS is listening in on the mob boss financing the operation. Each has captured a piece of the conspiracy but because none of the organisations are working together, none of them realises what’s about to go down. I especially like how every time a piece of electronic surveillance equipment is revealed the soundtrack makes a noise like a seventies Doctor Who extra being shot by a Dalek. Because that is what technology sounds like.
3. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)
Being a big Philip K. Dick fan I never thought this would work as a film. And it doesn’t, quite, perhaps because it actually tries to be too faithful to the novel, but it’s still an interesting experiment. It was shot digitally then made to look like an animated film using interpolated rotoscope, which is a fancy way of saying tracing, but it achieves a dark, trippy look that complements the themes of Dick’s story. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover narcotics officer attempting to track down the source of a powerful hallucinogenic called ‘Substance D’, a drug to which he himself has become addicted. Living among the junkie community, he must bug his own house and report back on his own activities as well as his housemates’, as his direct superiors don’t know which one is the mole. As the paranoiac effects of the drug and his double life take hold, he begins to see things differently on the scanners to how he remembers them and starts to doubt what is fact and what is fiction.
4. DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN (The Lives Of Others) (2006)
After several lighter, more comedic films set in the GDR such as GOOD BYE LENIN! (2003) or SONNENALLEE (1999), THE LIVES OF OTHERS focuses on the merciless system of observation and control in East Berlin by agents of the Stasi. The most frightening aspect is the banality of it all. People talk about wire taps and dawn raids by the secret police like they’re discussing Excel spreadsheets or the office stationery order. A stunning directorial debut from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which was unfortunately followed up by critically-mauled THE TOURIST (2010) and his IMDB page lists no upcoming film projects: let’s hope he gets back in the game soon.
WATCHING THE WHEELS COME OFF
5. BODY DOUBLE (1984)
Brian de Palma seems to subscribe to the Randian maxim that “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing”. I’ve never really been a De Palma fan, he always seemed to be playing catch-up with his contemporaries instead of doing something truly original. Coppola makes THE CONVERSATION (1974) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), so De Palma has to make BLOW OUT (1981) and CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989). SCARFACE (1983) and CARLITO’S WAY (1993), aside from basically being the same film, are bastardisations of Pacino’s sublime work in the seventies when he was working with better filmmakers. And so BODY DOUBLE is supposed to be a parody of REAR WINDOW (1954) and VERTIGO (1958) or something. It ends up bludgeoning the audience to death with not-so-subtle layers of self-reference (voyeurs watching voyeurs, films within films with (porno) films) and provoking more laughs than suspense.