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Film Review: Voyeur

on December 02, 2017, 11:28am
B-
Director
Myles Kane
Cast
Gerald Foos, Edward Sabol, Gay Talese
Release Year
2017
Rating
TV-MA

Before it reaches its unnerving conclusion, Voyeur explores its own title in several different respects. In the most explicit, it’s the story of Gerald Foos, a former motel owner who brought the Manor House Motel in Aurora, CO in the late 1960s, and retrofitted it with vents in the ceilings of each room, along with a gangway that allowed him to move from room to room and spy on his tenants. It’s equally the story of Gay Talese, the venerated journalist who connected with Foos in the early 1980s and continued to follow his story until 2016, when Talese ran a highly controversial piece on Foos and his “research” in The New Yorker that irreparably altered the lives of both men. And in a broader sense, Voyeur also comments on the nature of so many true-crime documentaries, inviting audiences into a realm of perversion (in the literal sense) and deceit even as it asks them to maintain a sense of detached objectivity.

Whether you’re able to do that in the case of Voyeur will largely depend on how interested you are in granting that detachment to a figure like Foos. Myles Kane and Josh Koury‘s documentary vacillates between the studied distance that Foos applied to his time in the Manor House and various attempts at emotional connection, to compelling if frequently mixed results. From his childhood, when the evidently repressed Foos discovered the practice of voyeurism through the clandestine viewing of his nude aunt, he developed an overwhelming curiosity about human behavior. By way of the motel, Foos was able to indulge this urge to disturbing ends, bearing witness to everything from sex to drug use to the banal tedium of nights spent in transit, the occupants frequently killing time with phone calls or dinners or simply laying motionless before a television set. All the while, Foos kept meticulous notes, dubbing himself a “researcher” to Talese and his infinitely patient wife Anita alike. He charted sexual practices, he stole drugs out of vents to keep them away from kids, he watched as events both shocking and banal unfolded right beneath his gaze. He simply watched.

Eventually Foos moved on from the Manor House, but Talese’s fascination with him never wavered. Much of Voyeur is devoted to interviews with both men, chronicling the run-up to and fallout from the New Yorker article about Foos, one that Talese would then expand into a full-length book, The Voyeur’s Motel. Foos is a candid subject to a point that many will find shocking, openly admitting with the occasional chuckle that he would purposely give low rates to regulars of particular interest to keep them in the motel, or that he never found any kind of vicarious thrill in his work. It was research, you see. Kane and Koury’s objectivist approach to Foos is as maddening as it is faithful to Talese’s approach to his subject, in that Foos is granted a kindness and all-sides rationality that he scarcely applied to his years of stalkerish voyeurism. To call Foos a scientist of a kind, as he does himself, is to assume some degree of complicity with the fiction he’s fed himself for years, that his behavior was perfectly rational and not the work of a man who’s arguably disturbed at best and something of a deviant beyond that.

Yet Foos is hardly the only complicated figure at the center of Voyeur, and the film’s more intriguing thread follows Talese through every journalist’s worst nightmare. If Kane and Koury pull some necessary punches in their handling of Foos, their film is (as much as anything) a searing chronicle of what happens when a writer gets too close to his subject. Talese made his name on Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a 1981 documentation of his time living with a free love colony, and that outdated and dilettantish approach to sexuality comes to inform his handling of Foos to a reckless extent. In the modern era, the notion of handling indecent behavior with the “oh, he’s just curious” ethos that Talese (and after a point, Kane and Koury) applies opens up several different dialogues about whose indescretions are and aren’t forgiven, and it’s a point that Talese woefully overlooks in his own research. At its best, Voyeur wrestles with this conflict, particularly when its focus shifts away from the relationship between the two men and toward what happens when their equally deluded approach to Foos’ pursuits is dragged into the scrutiny of the public eye.

There, Voyeur becomes a documentary of a different kind. Not all is as it seems with Foos, or Talese for that matter, and by the film’s end you may well find yourself shocked that both men allowed the directorial duo to keep filming for as long as they did. Nobody emerges as a particularly sympathetic figure, but the film makes a case for truth as an endlessly elusive fog from which few ever escape. After all, the truth is only as good as those who attempt to offer it, and if anything, Voyeur leaves its viewers with more questions about what happened in the Manor House and what it meant than they’ll have coming in. If that’s hardly the note of finality that many will want or expect, it’s the aspect of the film that perhaps feels the most authentic and honest. It’s the one facet of the film that simply asks you to look, as Foos did, and decide for yourself.

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