Watching you

Two-way mirror, from
Two-way mirror, from

We are planning some grand project at my work place, and part of the inevitable procedure is to find out what people think about the idea. So we get some marketing firm to track down different types of people who use our services, or who don’t use them but might do, and other such categories, and they invite these people to come in groups to a place in central London. There they sit them down in a room, ply them with food and drink, and ask them questions. And all the while we watch them.

The use of two-way mirrors (or one-way mirrors as they are confusingly also known) is common in marketing. While the subjects are being asked what they think about the subject under review, those who are keen to know the answers sit in a darkened space watching the proceedings from behind a mirror which we can see through but the subjects cannot. The sound of their conversation is relayed to us through speakers. In some marketing set-ups there is a video camera recording the whole proceedings. We keep quiet all the while, communicating only in whispers, and being most careful not to move too close to the glass, shine a light, or in some other way make our presence known. The subjects are presumably unaware of our presence, unless they know something about how marketing and focus groups are managed these days.

An irate audience researcher reveals himself behind the two-way mirror, in The Simpsons episode The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show
An irate audience researcher reveals himself behind the two-way mirror, in The Simpsons episode The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show

It’s a bit creepy. It’s bit comical. Whether it is useful or not I find hard so say, but presumably its widespread adoption suggests that it is recognised as having real value. We are able to sit in on opinions being expressed which might be expressed differently were we sitting in on the session, as opposed to the marketing firm’s interlocutor, though I’m not convinced that this would be the case. We are able to express opinions between ourselves as to which of the subjects we agree with and which not, but that is a by-product of the process, not an advantage as such. So why are are we watching?

Of course, two-way mirrors aren’t just used for market research. They are used for surveillance, in police interrogation rooms and in security observation areas. They are applied wherever we want to be among people without their being aware of our presence. They are probably most familiar for the use made of them to hide the cameras in the Big Brother television series, while in the cinema Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas concludes with a famous, if rather contrived sequence in a club where Harry Dean Stanton speaks via a telephone to Nastassja Kinski, who he can see but who can’t see him.

Paris, Texas
Paris, Texas

There is of course something deeply analogous to the cinema in the idea of the two-way mirror. We sit in the dark, looking in on people unaware of our presence, who act out that which would not be witnessed unless there was this special arrangement between the observers and the observed. Cinema every now again tries to break through this mirror, by having its characters stare at us as a stroke of cinematic shock (the final shot of Les quatre cents coups), by talking to us directly (Alfie), or by having characters step out of the screen – though they still remain behind the real screen (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Such exceptions merely reinforce the rule. We are the observers; they are the observed, and they are unaware of this.

Monsieur Hire, the point where Michel Blanc's character is revealed from behind his window thanks to a lightning flash
Monsieur Hire, the point where Michel Blanc’s character is revealed from behind his window thanks to a lightning flash

Volumes upon volumes have been written about cinema’s voyeuristic nature. Motion pictures began with the peepshow (the Edison Kinetoscope), early cinema made a speciality of keyhole-peeping films, and spying on people from behind glass features significantly in such films as Rear Window, A Short Film about Love and Monsieur Hire. But of course the cinematic gaze extends more generally than that, making us all (so the theory goes) into voyeurs, wielding impotent power over the objects of our desires. Or something like that.

But I’m interested in other matters. I’m interested in the relationship between two-way mirrors and documentary. Specifically my concern is with the will to see everything, to be a fly on the wall, to get the ultimate truth by being there – all-seeing, yet unseen. At a recent screening at the British Library of Humphrey Jennings’ Fires Were Started Professor Brian Winston championed Jennings’ artfully-crafted portrait of a time, a place and a condition, over the contemporary documentary fly-on-the-wall impulse. Not all documentaries today are fly-on-the-wall (and the style is more prevalent on television than on film), but the belief that capturing your subject while being unobserved will reveal a special truth is common. It is a belief prevalent in news programming, current affairs documentaries, and of course reality television. The camera hidden in a bag by some journalist pretending to be someone else to entrap an MP on the make has become all too familiar. The camera will catch them out, and in doing so will get at the truth finally.

This belief is fundamentally flawed. Film does not get at the truth by rendering itself unseen by its victims. It obtains the truth by co-operating with them. Yes, a crime or some interesting unwitting action may be secured by a hidden camera, but it will only capture one instance, in what were probably atypical circumstances, which might just as easily happen quite differently at some other time. Entrapment is the antithesis of documentary, which is as must be as much the creation of its subjects as it is of the filmmakers. Humphrey Jennings understood this; the great anthropological filmmakers have known this (just as the poor ones have not). We treat our subjects honestly, by working with them to create our document, or else we end up producing dishonest work.

There should be no two-way mirrors. There should be only glass.


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2 thoughts on “Watching you

  1. The keywords here are perhaps “Editing” and “Selection”, the first the technical one used in any publication (print, sound or vision), the second what everybody does in order to manage the information the senses pick up.

    As for film (or tape or disc or digital whatever) they are all *recordings* of something that happened, not the thing itself, so the *truth* starts to wander straight away.

    And memory – what’s that: a *selected*, *edited*, *recording* of what has happened, a re-creation, so inherently “false” rather than “true”.

    Good luck with the book launch tomorrow – any chance of seeing CU on old media (television) – as a result of your labours?

  2. Editing and selection, yes, but co-operation too.

    John Grierson wrote of newsreels that they mistook “the phenomenon for the thing itself”. It’s an observation that’s always haunted me.

    It seems that Charles Urban’s acolytes (Edward Turner, Percy Smith) become the subjects of programmes, but not the great man himself. So there’s nothing in the pipeline, and wouldn’t really expect there to be so. But thank you.

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