The Eye as a Window to the Real: The Implications of the Gaze in Peeping Tom

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In addition to making bold statements about the connection of psychoanalysis and cinema, Michael Powell’s controversial masterpiece Peeping Tom is groundbreaking in its address of the medium itself through audio and visual means. In the final scene in which Mark turns his blade on himself, many of the film’s central themes such as displaced castration anxiety and voyeurism vis-a-vis narcissism and exhibitionism come to a head. The mirror apparatus on the camera is revealed to us for the first time. This delayed gratification of sorts attempts to divulge a logic to Mark’s madness, though no such logic exists. The mirror provides a distorted image, partly due to the large hole through which the camera’s eye protrudes. In this way, both the camera and the mirror capture the moments of horror at the image of one’s own death and the realization of who is responsible for it. Is the camera’s eye a mediation or a passage to this encounter with the real? Does this filtered representation dull or amplify it?

Bearing the theories of Freud, Metz, and Silverman in mind, we are able to parse out the camera’s relation to the mind and perchance the real. In his book The Imaginary Signifier, Christian Metz proposes the idea that film is always a product of the symbolic due to its representational nature. It is “the signifier itself…a little rolled up perforated strip which ‘contains’…whole life-times,” (page 43-44.) Conflating this with Freud’s notion that the mind is like the camera in that it takes in information and processes it through signifiers and perceived meaning, brings an interesting point to light. The fact that this encounter with the real is mediated by the camera itself discounts it as the real, and enters it into the symbolic.

Does naming the trauma, or representing it as such make it less effective? Perhaps not. The reveal of the mirror on the camera is a physical manifestation of Kaja Silverman’s notion that “cinema is a mirror with a delayed reflection” (page 35.) This mirror shines a light on the viewer just as Mark was illuminated by the projector lamp when he failed to perfectly capture the murder.  Powell draws attention to the spectator’s perverse gaze. Though it is mediated by Powell’s camera, we are still left with a blank screen and nothing but “goodnight, Daddy, hold my hand” to leave us dangling on in a dark abyss before the lights come on, and we return to “reality.” Depictions of the real are never the real itself, and cinema can never capture it despite its attempts through the hole of a distorted mirror.