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August 17, 2007


Lately, in every newspaper I browse and on every visit to YouTube, I see reminders of our pitifully screened-in lives. In the headlines over the last few days: a plan to put TV monitors on New Jersey PATH trains (to beam news flashes and train schedules to commuters); a rash of new voyeuristic TV shows based on the online gossip sites and video blogs; failed attempts to find six doomed Utah miners by dropping a camera through a bore hole; a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics that for every hour a baby watches videos, he decreases his vocabulary by six to eight words; a proposal, in the aftermath of some recent runway near-misses, to require pilots to spend more time in cockpit simulators, practicing runway maneuvers; an initiative by Chinese authorities (purportedly for fighting crime, but with nefarious political and privacy implications) to scan the faces of all 12.4 million citizens of Shenzhen and encode them onto memory-chip-bearing I.D. cards that would also contain information about their criminal and credit histories, ethnicity and religious background, and, as the Times reports, “even personal reproductive history…for enforcement of China’s controversial ‘one child’ policy.”

This week, the significance of these news items took on added resonance for me after attending a sneak-preview for a new film that is set to open in theaters in December. Called Look (in the coming days, visit look-themovie.com, not yet an active Web site), the film, directed by Adam Rifkin, was produced by Barry Schuler, a lively, articulate, and visionary man, who, during his time as C.E.O. of AOL, was both fascinated and disturbed by the extent to which our public and private activities – on urban street-corners and in quiet neighborhoods, from the mall parking lot to the corridors and crannies of our workplaces -- are documented by surveillance cameras, then forever and unfungibly stored. “You create a clickstream every day,” says Schuler. “It exists forever. And it can be datamined.”



On Tuesday Schuler hosted an advance screening for Look. It is a film of overlapping L.A. narratives, locales, and characters (think Crash or Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A.), which purports to have been shot entirely from the perspectives that would have been afforded by wide-angle, extremely high-def digital surveillance cameras, had those cameras been rolling as the interlocking storylines unwound.

Conceptually, this is an intriguing premise, promising thesis, and imaginative format. And Schuler’s heart, pocketbook, and mindset are in the right place: he claims that part of the reason for creating the film (which he co-produced with Donald Kushner) has been to retool how movies are made, dispensing with the traditional studio structure. “The industry was founded by carnival owners,” he says, “who used the early technologies of moving pictures as a method of getting butts in seats. Zoetropes were big attractions at carnivals even before images were projected using Thomas Edison’s device.” He’s right, of course. The carny ethic is still very much in evidence in Hollywood. It is very, very difficult to turn a buck in the movie business. For a century, wide-eyed rubes -- called investors -- have flocked westward only to have new generations of studio executives assist them in parting with their money. Instead, Schuler says, he’s trying to toy with unconventional ways to shoot, market, distribute, and release films.

For all its promise and fresh patina, however, Look is upended by the same strained “faux reality” and the ultimately labored and unsatisfying execution that harmed the Mike Figgis cult classic Time Code, the appealing Rashomon-wannabe from 2000, which used four cameras, each shooting a single drawn-out take, simultaneously, in real time, from four perspectives.





Look certainly has spirit and energy and an almost puerile exuberance that, in many ways, has viewers pulling for the picture from the opening credits. It has a raw, driving score: the throbbing fuzz-metal ditty “Electrocuted” is destined for some major downloading. It has several winning and memorable characters: the Convenience Store cashier, the department store lothario. But its raison d’etre – the exploration of how The Ubiquitous Camera truly impacts our lives – is merely a stage set. The film never goes deep enough and rarely transcends the obvious, often feeling as static and one-dimensional as its battery of stationary cameras. While Look is occasionally charming, it is marred by missed opportunities, unalloyed stereotypes (women are almost universally depicted as objects, vixens, or victims), and what seem like rather arbitrary plot-thread resolutions.

That said, Look raises important questions at a perfect juncture in the culture: What safeguards do we have against perpetual visual intrusion upon our public and private actions? How do we maintain our privacy in a post-9/11 age when public security seems sacrosanct? Have we already become immune to (and apathetic toward) the prying eye of the surveillance camera? What recourse do we have when our financial data, medical histories, and online viewing and purchasing patterns fall into the hands of government, law enforcement agencies, and big business?

Since seeing the film, I’ve been haunted by one recurrent scene: the lone car in the mall parking lot, videotaped day and night by a lone security camera looking down from on high. The message implicit in the image: Despite this round-the-clock vigilance, the ever present camera has failed at its chief task – to alert authorities that a woman is hopelessly trapped in the trunk.

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