Friday, March 4, 2011

My Little Eye: The Camera Obscura

"The camera obscura (Latin; 'camera' is a 'vaulted chamber/room' + 'obscura' means 'dark'= 'darkened chamber/room') is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen." - Wikipedia

We have kind of a weird relationship with cameras. New inventions have a tendency to inspire discomfort or even outright panic when first introduced. The camera obscura, the "magic lantern" slide projector, moving pictures, talking moving pictures, television - all have been blamed for one kind of problem or another in their time. There's a sense of being watched or captured somehow, and anything that functions as a proxy for seeing can have this effect. Hell, one of the biggest villains in recent film history was nothing but a giant flaming eyeball. Make of that what you will. Being watched freaks us out. Watching someone else be watched, however, is entertainment.

These ideas pervade My Little Eye, and I think they help redeem the movie on the few occasions it drops the ball. There are some shortcomings - this is a movie about an Internet-based broadcast, and it's pretty much impossible to talk about the Internet in a movie without dating things right away or without revealing how little the writer actually knows about how the tubes actually work. There are some dubious story choices that are forgivable in the moment but leave kind of a doubt-flavored aftertaste. Still, these are small marks against a well-acted exercise in paranoia.

We learn pretty much everything we need to about the setup over the opening credits: Five people have applied to be on a reality show-style webcast, in which the challenge is to live in a house together in isolation for six months, at the end of which they will receive a million dollars (so 200k each), provided that nobody leaves during the six months. No phone, no internet, no visits from anyone, just the occasional package of supplies dropped off. The five contestants are even plucked straight from reality-show central casting. For guys, there's Matt (the modest All-American one), Rex (the sarcastic bad boy with a shady past), and Danny (the shy, awkward-but-means-well one). For girls, there's Charlie (the brazen hussy), and Emma (the bookish, thoughtful one).

This makes for a nice little riff on characterization -  the protagonists are clichéd, but they would be anyway, to get cast on a reality show. Or at the very least, the protagonists are good at living up to clichés in their audition tapes. We're watching actors and actresses portray fictional caricatures of people who are themselves knowingly participating in their own caricaturing for the sake of being watched - we're sort of both audiences, for the movie and the webcast within the movie, and this leads to some nice creepy viewer-implicating moments when everything starts going south.

When the movie proper opens, though, they've already been living in the house for awhile. We don't know exactly how long, but it's long enough for them to start getting bored and restless and to drop a lot of the pose. They've stopped being polite and started being real. Past events are alluded to without ever being explored further, the arguments feel well-worn, there's a routine. We're left to figure out the relationships for ourselves, stripped of artificial exposition. They've gotten to the point that the omnipresent cameras no longer bother them, either - Charlie even flashes the one in her bedroom from time to time. They've resigned themselves to the little indignities because there's a lot of money at stake and it hangs on all of them being able to stick out the stay in the house until the end of the 6 months. All of their little tensions and discomforts are laid bare for us, and it's obvious that it's getting harder and harder to stick it out. Even the most innocuous activities become tortuous if they're your only option. It doesn't help that they're headed into winter, and the house (of the old, creaky country variety, of course) isn't heated very well. And they're running low on food.

The thought that this is the production company trying to gin up some tension and drama for ratings does not escape them, and they're just cranky enough to thumb their noses at the production crew for this cheap manipulation. As a response, their next supply drop contains nothing but bricks and a letter telling one of them that there's been a death in the family. This is cheap, the contestants say - how hard are you going to tighten the screws?

The next one contains a gun.

From this point, we are treated to a series of turns and blind alleys, red herrings as to the nature of their confinement and the objects they receive (or the ones that mysteriously show up in the middle of the night, inside the house). All under the watchful eye of cameras that become increasingly harder to avoid. As the tension mounts, the conceit that we are watching live feed footage is abandoned for an increasingly omnipotent perspective - at one point, you realize that there would have to be a camera mounted inside a showerhead. At another, a camera appears to be attached to a pen, scratching out words in a journal. We move from a conventional audience to an all-seeing beast. The house is an inverted camera obscura in which interior events are projected out. The house is itself an eye turned inward. The movie begins as a crazy quilt of video sources - grainy video, nightvision, cleaner digital video - and the sound is equally collaged. Voices are sometimes clear, sometimes muffled, distorted and lossy. We are spies at the mercy of our equipment. The soundtrack is mostly whirs and clicks and hums, spikes of white noise and distortion, and all of this mechanical artifice falls away as the residents of the house get closer and closer to the truth.

By the end, we are watching as a conventional movie audience would, fully part of their situation. Secrets come to light, relationships fracture, and it's all too late, because by the time they figure out what's really going on, they're in it, just as we're no longer afforded the distance of security camera footage. We're in it too, which makes the end that much more brutal and unsparing when it comes. We think we know how bad it is, but we really don't. Not until we're watching someone squirm on a cold, hard floor like we might an insect. Seeing is powerful, being seen is not.

IMDB entry
Purchase from
Available on Netflix


  1. Watched this one last night and I must say, I was do disappointed. I have never seen a movie as poorly acted as this one. That's not an exaggeration.

  2. Then by all means, watch Kill Theory.