2:40 PM EDT, August 29, 2013
Now in theaters, the British thriller "Closed Circuit" is for grown-ups who might enjoy a well-acted thriller based on the premise of omnivorous, omnipresent surveillance technology falling into the wrong hands. The film, like many before it, bemoans the death of privacy as its protagonists wonder if their apartments have been bugged, or visited recently, or if there is any such thing as a confidential moment in 21st century life.
This theme runs through so much of our popular entertainment today, even a dinky little crummy little chase picture like "Getaway." Opening today, this wing-nut features Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez stuck in a car, where their every word and each little twitch is monitored by their faraway overseer, played by Jon Voight in what amounts to an extended and maniacal GPS voiceover. He watches; the audience watches what he watches.
Born in sin and disrepute, the movies have always been about sneaking a peek and seeing things we "shouldn't" be seeing. As Thelma Ritter said it in "Rear Window" 59 years ago: "We've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change."
Global film audiences today, however, are not the audiences of 1954. We have an ever-more complicated and hypocritical relationship with technology, privacy and whatever lines are left to be crossed. We are rarely technologically alone. The natural urban gaze today is down, at the wee screen above the quivering thumb, not eye level with anyone else.
In its obsession with security monitors and all manner of surveillance porn, the average American thriller has a difficult time stoking audience outrage about technological abuses in the name of national security. Secretly, or openly, we think: Whatever. I love all that stuff. All that cool equipment? Sign me up for the David Strathairn role in the "Bourne" movies! Jason Bourne as played by Matt Damon is no Luddite; he simply outfoxes his handlers by out-teching them, besting them with their own digital tripwires.
Ordinary citizens are not Robert Ludlam spies. We don't fight surveillance with surveillance. We get nabbed by red-light cameras, and are confronted by the photographic evidence of our blunders. Does the camera lie? Are the cameras really everywhere?
In Andrea Arnold's stunning suspense drama "Red Road," a security surveillance worker, Jackie, spends her shift scanning a big wall full of CCTV screens. We watch as she watches. Then she sees someone from her past. Arnold cleverly withholds the information we crave until she's ready to deal with it. It's a remarkable picture. And although it doesn't indict the use of the technology, it provokes us to wonder: What does all that watching do to us?
It's a cop-out to allow the final sentence in any discussion about visual or communications technology to be: "Like it or not, it's here to stay." I think it should be: "What is it doing to, and for, and with our lives?"
And yet, I'm as hypocritical as anyone: I came to the movies as a kid obsessed with everything a camera and a screen could show us. I love the shiver a good thriller can produce, when someone in the plot isn't sure she or he is being watched. Of course these are paranoid times; most times are. It's up to the filmmakers to show us the allure and the limitation, the geek factor and the slippery slope, of all that equipment.
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