Ed’s Note: There are spoilers for movies that are over 40 years old: The Secret Cinema, and Private Parts. Just a head’s up.
Watching movies is, by its nature, a scopophilic activity. That is: we, the audience, take pleasure from looking. Few people understood this better than Alfred Hitchcock. He took a perverse pleasure both in watching, and in creating for our viewing pleasure. His 1954 feature, Rear Window, was about the audience watching a watcher watch (and occasionally direct). Photographer L.B. Jefferies is trapped in his apartment after he broke his leg taking pictures of a race car accident. So, like many of us, he whiles away his time by watching. Unlike many of us, he spends his time watching his neighbors who range from piano players to newlyweds to a sexy young dancer known as “Miss Torso.” In Rear Window, Jefferies’ gaze is a benign obsession of innocent objectification. However, in 1960, Michael Powell perverted that gaze with Peeping Tom. Mark Lewis is a photographer who stalks and murders people while filming them so he can capture their exact moment of fear.
Paul Bartel was obsessed with watching. But, he was also obsessed with watching watchers. And watching watchers watch watchers. His first short film, The Secret Cinema (an extra featured on Criterion’s release of Eating Raoul), is about watching watchers watch. Originally a satire of the concept of “underground cinema” creating “in” and “out” groups who know about forbidden filmmaking, The Secret Cinema is about the idea of making films out of reality. Dubbed a paranoid fantasy, Jane, an everyday secretary, suffers a series of humiliating indignities at the hands of everybody around her: her boyfriend dumps her, her mother dismisses her, her obese boss makes perverted passes at her, and her best friend convinces her to go on a date before giving her a terrible haircut. There’s a reason this all happens at once; Jane is the subject of a new series of underground cinema features whose audience derives pleasure from watching Jane suffer for the camera.
Bartel isn’t just letting us watch the story unfold. He shows the underground series’ cameras early and often. The audience is already in on the gag long before Jane is. As the audience, is watching Jane, the audience is acutely aware that we’re watching her life be manipulated by people for the pleasure of another watcher. We’re watching people watch her. When The Secret Cinema finally makes it to the theater showing Jane’s films, we’re listening to people watching the films who are, in turn, watching what the watchers want them to watch. In a way, Bartel is also indicting the audience for creating the market that leads to the humiliation, but he also takes a pleasure in watching the watchers, and in making the audience engage in watching the watchers watch the actress.
Paul Bartel’s 1972 feature Private Parts, in turn, takes this watching to a new level. Everybody is watching everybody in Private Parts. The opening credits are of high contrast monochromatic photographs of naked body parts separated by a camera flash. The final one of a male’s naked behind fades into full color to reveal a couple having above-the-sheets sex. Neither of these are Cheryl, Private Parts‘ protagonist. Cheryl is actually standing behind a curtained room divider, spying on her roommate having sex.
We’re not even five minutes into the movie, and Bartel is complicating the concept of the Male Gaze. According to Laura Mulvey’s 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the heterosexual male dominance behind the camera turned women into passive objects or images that exist for the scopophilic pleasures of the (usually) heterosexual male protagonists and the (almost always) heterosexual male directors, usually with an intended male audience. Thus, the audience was inadvertently forced to look through these two sets of eyes.* In the case of Hitchcock’s “Miss Torso,” she was being eroticized by Jefferies, Hitchcock, and the audience. Being a woman, Lisa, who watches Jefferies watch Miss Torso, sees Jefferies eroticizing the unknowing woman and admonishes him for his invasion of privacy.
In this opening sequence of Private Parts, the women are the watchers. Cheryl is watching a couple have sex, where the man is on top and the most exposed (his penis is even caught on camera for a frame or two). On top of that, her roommate is the one who sees Cheryl’s feet under the curtain divider. She sees Cheryl watching them. To top it off, Paul Bartel is a gay male filmmaker. The audience is now looking with a gay male filmmaker’s eyes at a woman watching a man and a woman having sex, and a woman and man watching her watch them.
This gets even more complicated. After being discovered, Cheryl seeks refuge in a hotel owned by her Aunt Martha, where everybody is engaging in sexual worship of some kind. Cheryl doesn’t give up her snooping ways, but everybody in the hotel is constantly spying on or watching people. Aunt Martha is always watching people in her lobby. An old lady is keeping an eye out for former resident Alice, and repeatedly accosts Cheryl looking for Alice. A gay priest has a secret altar of gay porn and a giant cut out of a muscle man in his room, worshiping the printed image. And then there’s George.
George and Cheryl are matched in their scopophilic fetishes. George is a photographer who has giant photographs of Alice posted around his room. He also has access to a room right between Cheryl’s room and the bathroom, with spyholes cut through the walls so he can watch Cheryl throughout the night. George also has a couple fetishes with the bodily form. He sends Cheryl clothing to wear so he can watch her wearing them. He has a clear plastic water-filled blow-up doll on which he tapes a picture of Cheryl’s frightened face, literally turning her into a transparent eroticized image. But, he’s always watching. At one point, when Cheryl snoops in his room, he is watching her from his cabinet. Similarly, once Cheryl knows she’s being watched, she takes pleasure in the idea of being an object being watched and invites George to keep watching.
But, she’s also watching him watch people. An extended sequence in the middle of the film has Cheryl stalking George through the city as he goes to sex shops and takes pictures of people having sex in public. The audience is watching Cheryl watch George watch and take pictures of people having sex, as directed by Paul Bartel.**
With all the gender confusion of Private Parts, one can easily guess where it is going (and, yes, the ending is as gross and transphobic as you would expect). The trans reveal, however gross, is in keeping with the scopophilic theories of the movie (which pre-dates Laura Mulvey). Alice/George is, essentially, the audience in the before time. A woman would usually turn into a man by indulging in the scopophilic fantasies of cinema watching. But, with the new feminism, there’s room for women to take charge of both the role as a watched object and the role of the watcher. Even after Cheryl knows she’s being watched, she takes charge of her role as an image to be watched and literally invites the watcher. But, Cheryl is also an active force of watching, as the camera frequently uses her point of view. In doing both of these, Cheryl also walks the line between being a sex-negative critic (she chides her roommate for having sex all the time) and a sex-positive observer (she goes into a sex shop without the fear of perversion).
It’s telling that this movie was made by a gay man, a person who indulges in the pleasures of watching but usually looks through the eyes of those rare female protagonists. Women in cinema are sometimes allowed to look at and eroticize men (especially in 1950s/1960s beach movies) while, at that time, gay protagonists were rare (and sexualized gay protagonists were rarer still). To that end, gay men usually co-opted the female gaze in order to indulge in their own scopophilic eroticization. Private Parts and The Secret Cinema constantly spins the gaze until the gaze becomes theories unto themselves.
*Laura Mulvey’s essay erroneously used Vertigo as an example of turning women into passive images, when much of that movie centers on a woman making sure that a man is watching her at every moment. Though the camera rarely takes Madeline’s direct point of view – we’re almost always watching Scotty watch her – she is calculatedly watching Scotty to make sure Scotty is watching her at the exact moments.
**In I Heart Huckabees, there’s a brief five-shot sequence that beautifully and precisely captures this whole sequence of gazing. 1 – We start watching a pair of lady’s feet walking through a parking lot. 2 – These feet belong to Isabelle Huppert, walking through a parking lot. 3 – Isabelle is actually following Lily Tomlin through a parking lot. 4 – Isabelle is following Lily following another woman through the parking lot. 5 – And, they’re all headed to the Huckabees headquarters.