Brian DePalma Film Club Special Field Trip: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

by Sara Gran
Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan

Image via Wikipedia

Megan and a few other smart folks suggested that to understand DePalma, you’d want to watch Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. So I did. Wow. As most of you know (I’ve realized most of my readers have a much better film education than I do), this is a movie about a filmmaker, warped by a psychologist father with a sharp gaze, who does some very nasty things in his free time. The DePalma influence is pretty obvious: filming, fathers, girls, murder, pornography, psychology, tension, random murderous phallic symbols (in all senses of the term, I think).

Here’s what you don’t know. I’ve been working on a few Unnanounced Media Projects, as I’ve mentioned before. This is pretty common when you’re a writer with some years and sales and/or attention and/or luck under your belt–people hire you to write stuff that hasn’t been officially announced, so you can’t tell anyone about it. (irrelevant but odd: most of these projects never see the light of day, and since the copyright is usually held by whoever hired you, these projects often dissappear into a black hole of never-happened and never-read). These projects could be comic books, films, advertising projects, ghostwriting–you can imagine the rest.

So I’ve been working on one Unannounced Media Project for about six months now, and the work has picked up speed the past few months–just about the time I’ve been immersing myself in Brian DePalma. But I hadn’t seen Peeping Tom until about a week ago. And in my project, I wrote: three characters who had the same professions and perversions of characters in Peeping Tom, three strange and specific items that are seen in Peeping Tom (I’m sure it will be OK if I say one is a jeweled brooch in the shape of an insect, to give an idea of the level of specificity I’m talking about), and a character who shares a not-everyday name with a character in Peeping Tom, and a number of harder-to-name similarities in tone, style, POV, and pace. One scene in particular could have been entirely lifted from Peeping Tom. Except, of course, I’d never seen it.

For a few years I’ve been interested in the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (who I can’t read at all, because I find him impossible to understand, so I just read about), and in particular one book by a Lacanian psychologist named Annie Rogers called The Unsayable–I’ve mentioned it often. This all reminded me of a story from the book: there was a family where the mother had a terrible secret, one she’d never told anyone, from her childhood. Years later she had a teenaged daughter, and the whole family was in therapy with Annie Rogers, and the mother finally confessed her secret. And the daughter burst out that she’d been having dreams about the incident all of her life.

I think it’s kind of incredible how we’re never saying what we think we’re saying, and we’re never hearing what we think we’re hearing. No matter how conscious you are, we seem to be incapable of really understanding the conversation we’re having with each other and with the world around us. And that’s probably for the best. Until you wake one day and realize you’ve been entirely wrong about exactly every second of your life, which happens pretty often and is always a little odd.

7 Responses to “Brian DePalma Film Club Special Field Trip: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom”

  1. I love this post. For me, watching De Palma has always been like watching one of my own strange dreams — i’ve never been able to put my finger on it. Reading this, It made me think of the way things can curl back up upon you years later. My first novel, I had a line in it: “this is the end of everything.” then, I went to see Mulholland Dr. amid writing it and one of the characters says almost the same line (“This will be the end of everything”). Years later, writing my upcoming novel, I suddenly decided–not remembering either of these things, consciously–had a character say the same thing, and decided it should be the title. Then rewatched Mulholland Dr for the first time in several years, and it all came back. It’s like a tattoo that somehow only occasionally shows itself. So mysterious..

    • I love that story! As I’ve often said I have many times finished a pice of writing only to realize I’d rewritten a Shirley Jackson yet again. But what is your karma with/attraction to that particular line? It’s the perfect title for the new book so I’m surprised to find out you didn’t write it just for that!

  2. Haven’t seen “Peeping Tom” in many years. Michael Powell is probably my favorite director after Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder (at his best). His greatest films (with Emeric Pressburger) are almost inimitable. “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “Black Narcissus”, “The Red Shoes”, “I Know Where I’m Going”, “A Matter of Life and Death”, “Thief of Bagdad”. Wow. Those are great movies. “Peeping Tom” almost put an end to his career. It’s that nasty.

    I’m not really touching on your haunting post, or DePalma, but I enjoyed reading it.

    • Russell, I haven’t seen any of those, although of course I’ve heard of them–as I said, all of you know so much more about film than me. Learning from everyone has been the best part of doing this for me!

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