P:O.V. No.11 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, PEEPSHOW

Whom are we making fun of?

Lene S. Kristoffersen

It is a dark and rain-drenched evening where anything might happen and where only those afraid of daylight venture out. The raindrops glow in a red neon light. The neon tube spells the word "PEEP SHOW". Where can all this lead? Our imagination works overtime while we prepare ourselves for exciting and illicit experiences in the following nine minutes. But nothing turns out as we had expected.

I am one of the lucky ones to have seen Peep Show in a cinema. It was shown last year at Clermont-Ferrand. Without question it made a deep impression on everyone in the audience. They laughed at the men's offer to spoon and fun was made of the woman's orgasm after the line "Have you lost weight?" Yet, who laughed at whom, or more specifically, what did we make fun of? Did the men laugh at Fern and her yearning for romance, her readiness to be cheated and to make them scramble for her money? Did the women make fun of the men because they really did behave so disgustingly when the "curtain" went down? Is the explanation why Peep Show is a fascinating film that it unashamedly permits one to make fun of the opposite sex's stupidity? I don't believe the explanation for the laughter is so simple and in this article I will try to explain why. To aid this discussion, I wish to move a little outside the field of the short film and into the discussion of how theories of communication have changed from the idea of exerting an influence on the receiver over towards a communication between the sender and receiver.

In my opinion, Peep Show and many other short films are crucial in discussing the question as to why the projected image or film screen fascinates us. The significant feature of the short film is the fact that the film's message as a whole would not function unless the receiver were willing to communicate. In this connection, of course, I am thinking of Richard Raskin's reminder that the short film's simple story contains its depth and that one's expression has to rely on the receiver's own ability to form the impression. My thesis relating to Peep Show is, in fact, that we are not only restricted to an unambiguous interpretation, because of the film's unique way of relating its own story of the otherwise rather transparent cliché about man and woman's eternal dilemma, but that we lift the perception of the short film up to a level where we also recognise ourselves and where the cliché has an integrating rather than a fragmenting effect.

It is therefore surprising that the short film is such unknown territory for many a good film analyst. It has never been given the seal of approval: partly because (I think) it doesn't have the cinema's screen as its primary means of visualisation, and partly because many of the feature film's analytical tools would be inadequate when applied to the universe of the short film, in particular the concept of fascination. The closest we can come to the framework of a definition is Richard Raskin's set of seven parameters, a short film's ABC. This definition, however, is primarily a starting point for a story teller's guided tour through the short film's many potentialities for telling his or her story in the best way. Therefore, although it completely describes the short film's many (possible) essential features, it does not provide any direct suggestion for a concrete analytical framework or any direct theory of the sender-receiver relationship in the universe of the short film. The simplest question, why are we fascinated, is also one of the most difficult to answer.

In order to approach this question, we cannot avoid such heavy analytical concepts as identification and emotions.

Throughout film study's (in fact, relatively short) lifetime, a number of publications have described, or endeavoured to describe, the extent of film's fascination. There have been a number of attitudes and suggestions as to how and why film can capture and move its audience. In particular psychoanalysis has had a strong hand in shaping film study's understanding of such concepts as identification and emotion, both on the conscious and the subconscious plane! Psychoanalysis has provided the paradigm for many critical analyses of film's seductive character. The word "criticism" should be taken very literally, since the central emphasis has all too rarely been an attention to the film's message, but rather a criticism of its attempt to address our secret dreams and latent needs in its pursuit of success. Peep Show would be torn apart by many a feminist as the worst form of male-chauvinistic rubbish. The woman is the passive one, who merely accepts (and even pays for) that pleasure and the men are the active party: "Let's bring this one home", as they say, while they no doubt laugh all the way to the bank.

The receiver's identification with the actors has been the fascination parameter most analysts have treated. Film was made of the stuff dreams are made of. Therefore the degree of fascination has something to do with the wish to become one with the protagonist on the film screen. This is, of course, a broad generalisation, but if one is to judge from the films which have been popular objects of analysis and have reached the wide screen in the past 15 years, then it is the mainstream film which has been given all the attention.

The concept of identification has therefore focussed on the receiver's role as the passive one, where the self is eclipsed in favour of the active person external to oneself, that means, after all, to put it brutally, to vanish. Although this rather bold interpretation has long since been under question, it has been barely 10 years since cognitive theory has started to take form. In cognitive theory the receiver's passivity is challenged and preference is given to a far more active role as co-communicator. Many factors contribute to this: partly an improved understanding of human brain function, partly a much more subtle approach to the extent of the media's influence, but certainly partly also to the fact that the receiver is no longer confined to a small number of narrow information channels. The receiver has become a trained perceiver and much more demanding, so that the sender is forced to a much greater degree to take the receiver into consideration. Some will no doubt think that this will lead to poorer television or film, and perhaps they will prove to be right, but in exchange we will be given the opportunity of analysing the visual media in much more detail than was the case just 10 years ago.

Of course this also has consequences for the concept of identification. Carl Plantinga writes in the article The Scene of Empathy and the Human Face on Film (Passionate Views, ed.: Carl Plantinga,1999) that the word "involvement" describes a much better concept to use, because the receiver does not lose his or her "self", but on the contrary, sets his own self into the story's context.

Another thing, which he did not mention, however, but which I think is important (also seen in light of Raskin's definition of the concept) is that the word involvement in the analytic context allows the receiver to relate to the narrative more as an open story, and not to expect the protagonist to fulfil the desires and dreams one might have wished in the traditional sense, had identification been the film's driving force, that is, to expect that the girl, however romantic she may be, waits for a good and sensitive father on top of the Empire State Building, where he, for good measure, looks like Tom Hanks.

It is therefore far more accurate and more precise to call the degree of immediate fascination the involvement with the story. The surroundings and the people, or the person, we follow should involve us by their mere presence. The story should be realistic and make us curious enough to keep us interested in the story. It is true that one should have a definite main character in a short film, but this isn't the same as to insist that one identify with the person in question. What would happen if instead, the pivot of the story were an event, an atmosphere or an object which is responsible for the story's development?

The other important concept in this discussion is the word emotions, a quantity which has created many problems for cognitive theory, since it is a very elastic idea. Many have tried to divide emotions into primary and secondary categories. This project is considered to be rather uncertain and vulnerable when applied to a specific film analysis. From the point of view of the short film Peep Show, it is difficult to decide which emotions enacted are primary and which secondary.

Therefore there are many people, including Carl Plantinga, who argue for calling it effect, that is, the reaction with which the receiver responds to a given situation, depending entirely on which effect the emotions enacted on the screen produce. Thus the reaction contains many different emotional components. The reaction, that is, the desire to see more and the curiosity aroused because one has become involved in the film's plot, becomes the dynamics of the analysis. At the very beginning of Peep Show we already have a definite expectation, in fact, perhaps even a desire, concerning the way the story should develop. There is no doubt that we want to accompany Fern into the red room. The motivation for this desire can vary, but the wish for something to happen is the same. Thereby it is the reaction to the story's continuation which is the centre of importance, and not an attempt to classify the feelings accurately, according to whether they are primary or secondary.

One man who has sought to systematise the effect, and thereby the expectation, about the plot's development is Professor Joshua Meyrowits at New York University. In his capacity of Professor of Communication, he has set up some rules for how we humans communicate and why we choose different strategies depending on with whom and where we communicate. His project has nothing to do with film but is concerned rather with the fact that communication between a human being and the (film) screen can be compared with, as he calls it, face-to-face communication.

The reason he is so important in relation to the concept of effect is that he argues that the receiver (of every form of communication) sees, experiences and draws conclusions on the basis of his or her own private background, in addition to the cultural context, in which he or she lives. The fact that one experiences this along with millions of others does not make the experience less private. He therefore sets up rules for communication: what is expected, what may happen and how is one to relate to it. Exactly this thesis is also a basis for Plantinga as a useful starting point whenever he wants to discuss the concept of effect, that is, our reaction pattern. These communications or effect platforms are classified in the following manner:

Forefront stage is the space which only exists because we, as receivers, are watching or, as senders, require an audience. It is the stage where the audience's reactions are what the stage acts on. It is created when we tell a joke in the lunch break and with dramatic phrases and gestures spice up the story, because we want so much for everyone to laugh.

Front stage are the situations we all know about, but where we do not need an audience. That is when we shop in a supermarket, when we have coffee together with our colleagues and speak about what we will have for dinner. Here everyday affairs are discussed in our everyday language and the platform is safe to move on. No unpleasant truths are allowed to arise here.

Centre stage is the private scene, which is not so personal, however, so that it might just as well take place next door. Nevertheless, we would be very embarrassed if our neighbour were witness to the situation. It is here where we confront general conflicts and topics, where the majority can express an opinion and the argument is mutually recognisable. It is private because, although it is a public area, we prefer to be on familiar terms with those we speak to here.

Back stage describes the situation a level deeper within the private sphere. It is here we keep the door tightly shut. Here we scream at our children and hear their defensive retorts with the slamming of doors and a parting remark which would make a sailor blush. It is the chamber one shares only with one's closest intimates. This is the place where our attitudes, personality and sexuality can be discussed openly in both negative and positive terms.

Deep back stage is neither private nor public, but concealed from both these platforms. This chamber is dark and hidden because what happens or is discussed here is forbidden or morally disapproved both in the private and public context.

As receiver and sender, one will always try to decode a situation, a scene, a person, in order to find out the manner in which one can communicate. If one happens to be in a forefront situation, then it doesn't matter if one makes a scene, if one holds forth, but if one does that in a supermarket, then one has stepped out of the situation, that is, one has lost one's situational tact. In this respect the boundaries are not flexible; this is not like a temperature theory. By small adjustments one can in a sense change platforms and hence the premises for communication. Perhaps we are not so shocked to hear about a personal tragedy when friends are visiting us, but when we meet them in the supermarket, our intimate conversation would be misplaced. Here we find it hard to listen and communicate, because there is always a stranger passing by with a shopping cart and the woman beside us can hear what we are discussing. In other words tension arises where boundaries are exceeded and the possibility for reacting is suddenly changed.

It is my assertion that this holds in the case of many short films, and in Peep Show it is the very nerve of the drama, that is, by changing the rules of communication in that situation, those events it relates and the scenery chosen for the narrative. This is precisely because it has to economise its expression, and not merely change the "scenery's" appearance or the story's starting point, but it can easily change the "scenery's" rules for the atmosphere and thereby the communication with the receiver. Nor does Meyrowitz speak of identification as the opposite of communication, but on the contrary refers to involvement in the communication itself. It is crucial that one is capable of deciphering the rules applying in the particular place and the person one is communicating with. This applies also to decoding what is on the film screen. Therefore the key to understanding the narrative and thereby the rules existing in the room and with the people who are acting, is fundamental in order to decipher the story, that is, what is permissible and how the situation may develop.

One can of course encounter a place one definitely does not know, yet somehow ought to recognise! The short film Peep show is played in a setting completely alien to us. The camera ventures out into the rain and catches the red neon sign in its lens. In every way we are entering a space hidden from the public and that stimulates our senses. Nor is there very much cutting in the introduction. We, the receivers, are gradually encompassed by the unknown-known. Furthermore it is a woman who pays to come in and that is, of course, surprising. Yet, why couldn't every form of sexuality be satisfied by peeping? Once Fern is inside the red room, the outside world is excluded. The rules we know, the normality of daily life we act in, are unavailable as deciphering parameters. The space is established as a hidden, erotic and perhaps even vulgar place. We do not identify with Fern (which would of course exclude quite a lot), but we involve ourselves in the story because we are curious about what will happen. The film's first minutes are devoted exclusively to giving us this reaction, to making us follow right into the red room and find out why the woman would frequent a peep show.

The first meeting immediately establishes a deep back stage room, where we expect to find exciting immoral things, exciting because that reaction is inseparable from a place, which no one willingly would admit visiting and which we personally are not acquainted with. Seen through Danish eyes, it is also really more or less forbidden and it would be unbearable, if anyone discovered that we had in fact visited such a place ourselves. Just then the scene changes radically, because we are not presented with what we expected. The short film Peep show chooses to play on these expectations of the room's ground rules. The music, the lighting, the way the camera slowly approaches the place all play a part in creating an expectation and determine the agenda for which room and which rules are to hold there. However, instead of setting the man's erotic dreams on the agenda, the main focus is directed to the woman's emotions and her husband's lack of understanding for her needs. As observers, we may perhaps shrug our shoulders and laugh at the unusual situation, but we are drawn further into the story, since the question remains: what is it she is looking for in the red room?

We see two men speaking about football and women in a tone reserved only for those who belong to the same club, the men's club. It is the back stage room with its very own rules about what is important, what is interesting and how one speaks to one another. Women are barred admission, whether as partner or opponent for their dialogue, and the men sitting in the audience will no doubt feel themselves exposed, even though they recognise the tone and the clichés just as well as the women do.

Fern puts the first dollar in the machine and the curtain goes up. The very same men now act in a much more sober manner. They exaggerate their roles and are very sensitive and charming. The contrast is especially striking, since we saw them a few seconds earlier drinking beer, smoking and using completely different language. The men are in the forefront room when they perform for the woman. They are only there because she is peeping and because they are hired to carry out a definite job. The men's "tension field" stretches between the hidden back stage room and the diametrically opposite forefront room. The "tension field" and thereby the dynamics in Peep Show arise because the rules of communication change. The men obey the rules we use ourselves whenever we perform or converse with understanding intimates. The tension arises, of course, because one can perceive the contradiction between the two rooms, that is, one recognises the cliché.

In the "tension field" between the men's communication sits the receiver, Fern. She only experiences what occurs in the forefront room, where her most burning desires are fulfilled. The men's back stage room is however the reason for her visit to the sinister-looking place. What she receives for her money is fulfilment of her innermost dreams. In order to achieve this she must seek out a murky place.

Her secret desires become completely exposed under the premises of the forefront stage, and it is here that the short film performs a stroke of genius. This is where the essence of the film lies. Its success lies in exposing something personal and delicate in a space and in a form which does not seem vulgar, because the ground rules of communicating have been observed. They have to perform.

The effect of the drama performed there in the red room is naturally that we make fun of ourselves, of our own sex. Fern has seen through men. She knows what men say and what interests them, because it is the reason for her doing such a drastic thing as to seek out a peep show. On the other hand, the woman is also exposed. Her innermost dreams are performed in public. Nothing is swept under the carpet. In this way the nuance is created, namely, that we can recognise the cliché about ourselves and one another in the battle of the sexes. The cliché is difficult to manage if one were to choose sides in the story, if the dynamics of the film were identification. The question is therefore whether it would be seen as amusing at all. In my view, identification is something very personal, while involvement is open to unexpected turns and comments, when, for example, we can laugh at one another and ourselves. If one sees the film without investing one's own experiences and background in the story, then the film will be misunderstood and turn out to be a noisy, and perhaps even a vulgar film. However, if one can recognise the different communication rules of the rooms, then one can probably supply the overtones to the picture and the film will remain full of clichés, although not without depth and useful truths.

The dark and rain-drenched evening was not an invitation to be a fly on the wall and experience something hidden and secret about other people or to find the hidden and erotic in ourselves. It was an invitation to laugh at ourselves. This makes Peep Show one of the many short films which exploit the short film's potentialities to the full. It knows its limitations and economises with its effects. It is committed to its project. The theme it takes up is timeless and it wraps it up in a different and stimulating manner. It is daring because it chooses to make a frontal attack on the clichés. In order not to become a flat cliché itself, it has to rely on its audience. In this respect, it is an example from which quite a number of films could learn.

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