Wednesday, February 16, 2005

One Hour Photo

As if invoked (I'm not sure it would have arrived here by more conscious means) by my recent post, a video comes home about violation. 2003's One Hour Photo. Sort of a movie with training wheels.

Robin Williams (Psi) is a SavMart photo lab technician. He has been for 20 years. He's middle aged, balding, but in case we don't immediately recognise how unattractive he is, he wears big square metal frame glasses which he's forever pushing up onto his nose with the middle finger push, and he carries a retro airline bag—which only makes the filmmakers appear anachronistic, because didn't they notice that those are cool now? Robin Williams is unattractive and so therefore (the film implies...no, nothing implied...the film states, bluntly and often) he is without family. This is the film's central point and principle thesis about photography, as stated in an early wistful voice over by Robin Williams. The first line spoken along the film's timeline (after a Sunset Blvd-esque opening sequence where we see Robin Williams post-denouement, arrested and of course, mug-shotted) is: "Family pictures depict smiling faces." But Robin Williams has no family. He does, however, work in a photo lab and there he processes the family pictures for a lot of families. This is the opportunity the film seizes on for its horror effects: his access to other people's photos. A press quote on the video box says: "He knows your secrets." And one family in particular, the very attractive Yorkins (we know they're attractive because Mrs. Yorkin changes her hair stylishly in every scene, until the trouble starts, and Mr. Yorkin is stylishly "neglectful" as some sort of successful designer...he uses Macs), Robin Williams grows to like very much. He thinks of himself as Uncle Yorkin. He envies them, but other than occassional drop-ins at the photo lab where he works, his only access to them is through their photos. Photos are the vehicle for his envy. When the Yorkins ask for their photos in duplicate, Robin Williams prints them in triplicate, keeping a copy for himself. Creepy. In Robin Williams' house is this franky kind of gorgeous curtain of photos, spanning a very large wall, all photos of the Yorkins, taken by the Yorkins, attractively lit with flood lamps. Creepy. But Mr. Yorkin cheats on Mrs. Yorkin. Neglectful and a philanderer. Robin Williams discovers his philandering by cross referencing another customer's photos. Photos hold our secrets. Be careful what you photograph.

Robin Williams bathetically snaps. Does lots of cinematically crazy man things (scratching Mr. Yorkin's face out of all the photographs in his giant Yorkin curtain of photographs), exacts vengeance upon Mr. Yorkin and his lover, and ends up in jail, interrogated, where we learn that the particular form of psychosis-inducing abuse he suffered as a child was to be forced to photograph the "sick, degrading" things his parents did to him. Creepy. But with justification now. Defend the family.

Photos depict good families, but in the film they do more, they almost are the guarantee that a family is good—we know they are good because the evidence is there in the photos. Photos are intimate, they are the family itself, and so they can be violated, or the family can be violated through photos. But there is another theme that the movies works: photos sometimes get reality muddled up. Mid-way through the picture, Robin Williams fantasises himself into a Yorkin family photo and we subsequently are shown Robin Williams walking in their front door, exploring their house, putting on their clothes, watching football on their television. The scene is filmed as if he's broken into their home, the physical equivalent of snooping around their photos, a logical corollary, but when the Yorkins come home and find him on the couch, the tense moment is broken when they all embrace him as "Uncle Psi." He smiles and the fantasy ends with a cut to Robin Williams in his car, creepily staring into the Yorkin home from the street. This suggests (declaims) a possible instability between photographs and reality which sets us up for the film's climax. The film shows us Robin Williams exacting his insane (but is it?) vengeance on the husband and father who doesn't know how good he's got it, but we learn later that Robin Williams either didn't *load* his camera with film before photographing Philanderer and Lover in degrading poses, or, he never visited their trysting place at all. The photographs the film shows us from that encounter are innocuous (although still possibly insane) photographs of the inside of a (presumably Williams') hotel room.

To get this film made, the producers exploited two things: 1. the star power of Robin Williams and 2. the intimacy and vulnerability of family photographs, their genre potential for horror. But to make the exploitation work, the film has to invent a main character who works in a photo lab. And so maybe the film makes us aware of a small vulnerability in the privacy of our family lives (because don't we all have families like the Yorkins? Or don't we all want to?), potentialised by photographs, but activated by a betrayal of the family (Robin Williams might never have attached the Yorkins if Mr. Yorkin hadn't betrayed his family). Now, assuming that Hollywood has noticed photoblogs, flickrs and the like, they wouldn't need to make their antagonist a photo lab technician. He could be any old creep with an internet connection.

One thing we could say here would be that not only have people not noticed this form of vulnerability, they have extravagantly flaunted it in putting so many personal photographs online. But I don't think that photographs are any less vulnerable or intimate than the film posits, and I don't think that the public space of the internet, for whatever its differences, is less open to violations than any other kind of space. Maybe then (and there are other possibilities here) the internet creates conditions under which family life (or any kind of life) does not need, first and foremost, to be defended.
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