Charlie Call's comic short film Peep Show (1999) opens with a close-up of two letters from a red neon light. The electrical hiss from the light, cracks of thunder, tapping rain bring to mind the close-up on the neon lights of the El Rancho nightclub in Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) as the camera tracks pass them before descending through the skylight. As the camera pulls back to reveal the words spelt by the neon sign, "Peep Show," arced over a cashier's counter, non-diegetic music begins playing on the soundtrack to anchor the seediness of the location. Whereas a saxophone playing nightclub jazz conjured the atmosphere of the El Rancho, a Mexican-tinged, reverb-soaked guitar, accompanied by an accordion conjures this disreputable locale. On the soundtrack a singer, the Reverend Horton Heat, sets the tone of the film and the themes associated with sexual desire that seeks its fulfillment beyond the conventional outlets permitted by the middle-class mainstream. Unconventional desires are relegated to peep show fantasies and dreams:
Late at night, and you're sleeping,
You'll hear my lonesome call…
In an approach similar to that of David Lynch in Blue Velvet (1986), Call implies that accessing the forbidden blurs the distinction between dreams and reality. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey's grandmother admonishes him to stay away from Lincoln Avenue, a symbol of urban decadence in Lynch's film, but he goes anyway. The lure of the forbidden draws the camera to this marginalized point of intersection between something desired and desire's fulfillment where fulfillment must be bought. Commercialized sexual behavior such as peep shows is embedded in the American system of sexual behavior ( 29). But they are a marginalized element, from which the middle class averts its attention or participates in surreptitiously. I will briefly examine how Peep Show establishes the marginal peep show environment before revealing it to be a comic deceit that allows its to address additional concerns about middle-class heterosexual relationships.
To enter the marginal world of peep shows, the camera pans down the wall beneath the neon sign to reveal the accoutrements of boredom – radio and newspapers – beside a cash register, past small lamps, dim sources of lighting, past the rain, and past a sign for an emergency fire exit. The images draw on motifs traditionally associated with the tattered world of the peep show. It is night, it is raining, and, as the Reverend Horton Heat sings
But it's only as real
As any dream can seem
I'll see you,
In your wildest dreams
Fern (Jane Leyden) appears around a corner bathed in bluish light. She is apparently middle class, dressed in dark blue business attire. She seems somewhat hesitant as she rounds the corner. As she pays her one-dollar admission price and a cigar-smoking cashier (Matt Cohen) slips her a ticket without even looking at her, Heat's lyrics intimate that Fern is emotionally prostrate:
Though I may be now,
I'm before you on my knees.
Call develops the comic deceit by suggesting that Fern has come seeking emotional restoration in a place where interpersonal concern will not be forthcoming. This is reinforced by the acute lack of feeling between Fern and the cashier in their purely commercial exchange. They do not share so much as a glance since nothing connects people on these margins of the public sphere, where, ironically, intimate, sexual aspects of private life are made public for a price.
Immediately, we are confronted in Peep Show with notions of propriety. The setting, atmosphere and music combine to suggest this is not somewhere a well-dressed, attractive middle-class woman like Fern should be. Her hesitancy implies she knows she should not be there and has not been there before, but something draws her. People drawn to peep shows are typically not women. Peep shows, like other forms of commercialized sexual behavior such as prostitution and pornography, are traditionally a male-dominated and male-oriented domain. Yet, Fern, hesitant and gasping slightly as she first peers past the curtained entrance to her booth and then draws it back to enter, has come to this male entertainment niche seeking satisfaction.
Working within the temporal constraints of the short film, Call skillfully uses both synecdoche, showing us fragments of this border world, and metonymy, using imagery often associated with marginal sexual behavior in its commercial incantations, as Orson Welles did in filming the parlor to Tanya's (Marlene Dietrich) bordello in the film's Los Robles Mexico, in Touch of Evil (1958). In Peep Show, dated lamp fixtures, an old radio, kitschy flowered wallpaper, and a one-dollar admission price invoke the tawdry atmosphere of adult entertainment. Call skillfully sketches the closed world of the peep show, an aspect of adult entertainment that has a historical, if tangential, relationship with mainstream cinema in the United States. Given the peep show origins of the film industry in the United States, as well as the importance of sex and humor for early cinema, Call's combination of the two is apt.
When films first appeared in the United States, there were moves to regulate their content and exhibition. During the first decade of the century, many middle-class Americans perceived films as "a cheap show for cheap people" (, "The Original Sin" 133). Early censorship legislation came in part in reaction to the "peep show" quality of early films originally shown in vaudeville houses, amusement parks, and fairs. These "public amusements" were largely regulated through theatrical licensing, an inheritance from colonial days. Throughout the nineteenth century, public officials had "used licensing laws to prevent the exhibition of shows that in their judgment endangered public morals" ( 164). In the early years of the film industry, these local theater ordinances were occasionally expanded to cover movies; or new ordinances directed at movies were modeled on theater licensing laws.
Throughout the twentieth century as the middle class abandoned cities for suburbs, various local zoning ordinances situated the venues of adult entertainment such as grindhouses that screened films that otherwise would have been censored in "shabby, third-rate houses on run-down streets leading off the main drag" (, "The Nudies" 124). Peep shows existed alongside movie theaters called "grindhouses," as well as "single-room occupancy apartment buildings, cubicle hotels, and other cheap lodging houses that catered mostly to single men… taverns, pawnshops, and rescue missions" ( 428). Peep shows were an element of lower-class popular entertainment in the commercial sphere in such urban areas, known as skid row in many cities.
Skid row was an area "where a city relaxed its ordinary standards of street civility" as it did in Red Light Districts and thus enabled the police "to informally zone street disorder into particular districts" ( 429–30). Steven Seidman describes this isolation as an inheritance of "the Victorian era, which ghettoized public sexual expressions – i.e., sex was cordoned off into illicit or stigmatized urban spaces" (124). This marginal, impoverished urban geographical space and its marginal inhabitants buffered peep shows from the constant threat of prosecution. Skid rows supplied peep shows with such a large portion of their clientele, much mainstream public discourse equated those who frequented peep shows with white male lower-class skid-row loners and misfits.
Because adult entertainment has been relegated to the sociocultural margins in the United States and because it has been the province of men, Fern's presence at a peep show contradicts traditional expectations. Those expectations are further subverted by the interior of the booth Fern enters. Such cubicles are normally sparsely furnished, with perhaps nothing more than a chair for the customer to sit in—the austere décor of such a booth in Paul Schrader's Hardcore (1979) is typical. This one, though, has lamps, flowers, Kleenexes, a hook for Fern's coat as well as what appear to be a jewelry box and a powder decanter. Apparently, this peep show caters to women not men and because the customers are women (and, presumably, heterosexual), the performers (Damon Jones and Bob Kirsh) are men.
Having established its comic reversal of traditional expectations, the remainder of the film narrative shifts between the backstage banter between the two male performers and Fern's verbal and physical reactions to their monologues and dialogues, including her decisions to spend more and more money to receive greater and greater satisfaction. The themes available for purchase in the peep show booth link the impersonal public sphere of commercial interests with Fern's – women's – private sphere expectation that romance, love, affection be integral aspects of their sexual relationships.
The scene shifts from Fern alone with her positive reactions to what the men say to the men's own critique of what they've just said. Thus, Fern's fulfillment is based on a misperception, perhaps analogous to men's willful misperception that their commercialized sexual experiences have the same meaning for the female performers that they have for them. In other words, the male performers in Peep Show perform the romance equivalent of the fake orgasm. The notion that women desire non-sexual emotional fulfillment in order to reach sexual orgasm is, of course, a driving component of the film's narrative. Thus, what the men believe Fern wants is a series of flattering comments; narratives of behavior such as cooking, cuddling, and romantic films chosen above the Super Bowl; and roles such as fireman.
But the scenes are as false as a fake orgasm: the man sipping coffee from a cup is actually drinking beer; he has not seen a romantic film Enchanted April (either the 1935 original, directed by Harry Beaumont, or the 1991 remake, directed by Mike Newell), which he claims to have seen six times (he thinks it is a pornography film); and he claims his own wife "couldn't find the kitchen with a fucking map," when he had earlier claimed she had been "right," and the fireman's uniform is, of course, only a prop.
Seen from the perspective of the men's experience of their work space, the room is littered with signs of an all-male and chauvinistic environment—a basketball goal, photographs of women in swimsuits or underwear, cigar smoke, and so forth. As framed by the window through which Fern sees it, the room appears tidy, almost sterile. Similarly, the men seem uncouth and slouchy behind the scenes but blandly casual as seen by Fern. Call humorously plays the effort to present oneself attractively against the cliché of the inner male slob hidden carefully from view. In so doing, he allows his performers to remain confined to their preconceptions. The men's perceptions of Fern are framed by the window by which her view of them is framed, which provides Call with a nice commentary on the construction of fantasy images in film. Things seen on screen are not what they appear to be.
Surrendering to her fantasy perceptions, Fern slowly works her way up from the cheapest thrills to the more expensive. Her facial expressions indicate her pleasure and satisfaction as she eyes and pays for the "Date Fantasy" and eventually the "Tag-team Fantasy." In the tag-team fantasy, the men play out roles and spout cliches meant to melt Fern's designer label heart. The fantasy is interactive, as Fern makes requests and the men fulfill them with Michael Bolton tickets, a reservation at a Bed & Breakfast, a gift certificate to Bath & Body Works, all of which consolidate Fern's middle class background, her sentimentality, and her superficiality. The humor is, then, not only directed at men's assumptions about women and women's (presumed) emphasis on romance and emotion in interpersonal relationships; it is also aimed at the superficial pleasures (and concerns) of the mainstream middle class. Peep Show gently critiques the mainstream middle class value placed on surface appearances. Although Fern's desires are not physical, they are no less superficial.
One of the male performers tells her she resembles Audrey Hepburn and that she looks better without make-up. Her reactions to these compliments reveal that Fern's needs do not go deeper. She is satisfied by the images of Laura Ashley designer sheets and bric-a-brac from Bath & Body Works. In her use of commercialized sexual behavior, Fern receives satisfaction from a sexual fantasy that is itself highly commercial, filled with pecuniary offers of sundresses and other gifts. Sexual relationships based on emotional fulfillment, commitment, and communication cannot escape commerce. Tellingly, both men run out of things to say and they repeat each other, demarcating the limits of this game. Fern does not seem to notice, though, and tears into her "emergency funds" envelope to pay for the fifty dollar climax (as she becomes more and more aroused by her experience, she abandons her middle-class practicality (as well as her concern for appearances, as she becomes increasingly disheveled). After Fern pays fifty dollars for the most expensive thrill, the male performers finally (Call uses a delaying ruse that brings to mind the delaying tactics of sexploitation films in the 1920s and 1930s) tell her what she most wants to hear. That too concerns her appearance, and Fern has her final reaction just as the film ends.
Peep Show has been widely recognized for its subtle humor, winning the award for Best Short Subject at the 32nd Annual WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival and taking first place for Comic Short at Film Fest New Haven 1999. Although it walks a fine line between humor and sexism at some moments, Peep Show is an enjoyable twist on middle-class expectations about the marginal world of peep shows, about men's assumptions about women, and the middle-class's concern with appearances. Concerned only with appearances and gestures, Fern gets what she came for. Like the misdirection of the narrative cues in Citizen Kane, Call's comic misdirection insures that in this peep show, in the end, to quote "the little neighbor boy" in Bob Dylan's "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," "Nothing is revealed."
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Dylan, Bob. "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest." John Wesley Harding. Columbia, 1967.
Ellickson, Robert C. "Controlling Chronic Misconduct in City Spaces: Of Panhandlers, Skid Rows, and Public-Space Zoning." 1997 Zoning and Planing Law Handbook. Ed. Christine A. Carpenter. New York: Clark, Boardman, Callaghan, 1997, pp. 369-486.
Knight, Arthur, and Hollis Alpert. "The History of Sex in Cinema Part 1: The Original Sin." Playboy Apr. 1965: 127-37.
——. "The History of Sex in Cinema Part 16: The Nudies." Playboy June 1967: 124+.
Koukounas, Eric, and Marita McCabe. "Sexual and Emotional Variables Influencing Sexual Response to Erotica." Behaviour Research and Therapy 35.3 (1997), pp. 221-30.
Rampell, Ed. "Demographics and Marketing on the Adult Net." Adult Video News. http://www.avnonline.com (Sept. 2000).
Reverend Horton Heat. "In Your Wildest Dreams." Liquor in the Front. Interscope, 1994.
Schur, Edwin M. The Americanization of Sex. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1988.
Seidman, Steven. Romantic Longings: Love in America, 1830-1980. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Wertheimer, John. "Mutual Film Revisited: The Movies, Censorship, and Free Speech in Progressive America." The American Journal of Legal History 37 (1993), pp. 158-89.
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1 For example, Andrew Edmond, whose company, SexTracker, provides statistical analysis of the adult entertainment business on the Internet, told Ed Rampell of Adult Video News that roughly eighty-six percent of the visitors to the sites are male while fourteen percent are female.
2 Eric Koukounas's and Marita McCabe's survey of research into the different reactions of men and women to erotic stimuli suggests that there are differences in sexual response along gender lines.
3 Claims that sexual relationships outside of long-term partnerships were only, or merely, physical and therefore lacking essential elements of love and commitment, which would provide sexual behavior with a depth, were commonplace charges in debates that accompanied the decline of the dominance of the procreational rationale for sexual behavior and the emergence of the recreational rationale. See, for example, Schur.
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