More than entertainment

“You’re captured on screen by closed-circuit cameras at least 12 times a day. Are you at least dressed appropriately?,» New Yorkers are asked in a successful clothing advertisement. In this day and age the issue of personal surveillance, ranging from its most inconspicuous to conspicuous forms, is often the topic of analyses, both academic and not. Besides reality shows on television, surveillance has become an inherent part of our daily lives. Telephone calls, banking transactions, and credit card purchases at supermarkets, for example, all leave behind the traces of personal choices that can be made available to interested third parties. The question we should ask ourselves is whether we are in a position to critically view the various aspects of surveillance in modern-day society. Professor Thomas Y. Levin provided answers to the topic during a recent lecture titled «Anxious Intercamerality: Surveillant Aesthetics and the Remapping of Cinematic Space» at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The lecture was incorporated into an exhibition titled «Big Brother: Architecture and Surveillance.» Levin, who teaches history of aesthetic theory and history of mass communication at Princeton University, spoke exclusively to Kathimerini about the link between film – from its early roots until the present day – and the attempt to control man through visual means. Levin’s conclusions and advice left listeners feeling stunned. «Watch lots of television and films at the cinemas. This visual material, if examined carefully and with alertness, will teach you everything about the techniques, means and the objectives of surveillance! You see, film and television function in apocalyptic and prophetic fashion with regard to what we experience in daily life and, concurrently, provide us with tools to resist, and to make us think,» said Levin. «This is what I stress to my students: Consume these intellectual products in order to understand what is happening.» Making his point through a retrospective of film excerpts, Levin illustrated to the audience how film can be utilized for a better understanding of surveillance. Beginning with early efforts in film dating back to the late 19th century, the American professor supported that the film medium’s development owes much to surveillance: Louis Lumiere’s «Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory,» shot in 1895, is not just one of the first steps taken in film, but also depicts an employer’s close watch on his employees; «Call Northside 777,» the 1948 film-noir classic, casts lead actor James Stewart as a reporter who reopens a 10-year-old murder case by investigating an Illinois rehabilitation center; Alfred Hitchcock’s «Rear Window,» a 1954 film which also stars Stewart, portrays the actor as an injured man stranded at home with a leg in a cast who, while idling about and playing with his camera, turns into a voyeur, begins observing his neighbors, and eventually discovers a murder. But it was Fritz Lang’s series of «Dr Mabuse» films that truly introduced us to the idea of surveillance, as here the traditional narrative method used in film was overturned, Levin asserted. The viewer was no longer omniscient about the plot’s development and outcome but left in suspense until the film’s conclusion. This structure becomes more apparent in contemporary films such as Francis Ford Copolla’s 1974 production «The Conversation,» 1993’s «Sliver,» which shows a yuppie observing all his tenants with cameras, «Snake Eyes» and more recently, «Panic Room,» a yet-to-be-released film starring Jody Foster. «All these films do nothing other than familiarize the topic of surveillance,» Levin stressed. «September 11 did not create the issue of control, it simply brought back to the fore something that had been lying by for a long time. This tragic event essentially forces us to look closer at what we sometimes avoid: the position we must take as citizens on social issues.»

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