Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Hour Photo: Image Capture

When I first started thinking about the idea of spending an October writing about non-horror horror films, I didn’t really think of it too much in terms of specific themes. It was more just thinking “hey, this is a film that is in its own way scary even though it’s not really considered horror.” But as I’m thinking through the films I want to write about, I’m starting to see some themes emerge. The first is the idea of surveillance.

Horror uses the idea of surveillance as a tool to build tension all the time - shots from the point of view of the antagonist are a time-honored way to signal that something bad is going to happen, and this idea is taken to its queasily logical extreme in the recent remake of Maniac, where it implicates us in the antagonist’s violence while at the same time making us feel helpless - we are seeing what the killer sees, but we cannot intervene. Omnipresent surveillance situations create a sense that your life and fate are not your own, that if every move is tracked, any attempt to escape would be futile. Whether it’s a supernatural creature or a killer or technology is irrelevant. It’s always a monster, ready to rob us of our lives, if only metaphorically.

One Hour Photo is putatively a thriller, so I’m maybe fudging my own non-horror thing here, but it’s by no means an obvious one. It’s a measured, smart take on the idea that appearances are deceiving - which is an easy thing to bungle by being too on-the-nose - and more importantly, the ways in which our apprehension of those appearances are in and of themselves a potential form of violence.

It opens with a shot of a camera, its lens staring back at us unblinking. The shot is held just long enough to make us uncomfortable. Nothing happens, just a single lens looking back at the audience. Even though it's a representation (an image of a camera taken by yet another camera) and not the real thing, that sense of being watched is palpable. It resolves with a video rendering of the actual image it’s seeing. It’s a man, having his mugshot taken. Something bad has happened, though we're not quite clear on the specifics yet.

The man is Seymour “Sy” Parrish, and he’s as quiet and mild-mannered as can be, which makes the detective’s statement that the photographs they took from Sy “aren’t very nice” even more puzzling. What could this man have done, that he’s being held by police pending the arrival of his attorney from Legal Aid? This sets the stage, and the clock is turned back to many days before this moment.

Before this moment, Sy works at Sav-Mart, a large WalMart-type megastore in the suburbs. He works in the photo department, where people drop off rolls of film and he develops them for quick pickup. Sy loves his job and take pride in it. He has all sorts of regular customers, and he pays attention to them. Among his customers is Nina Yorkin, by all appearances a reasonably well-off housewife. Nina is married to Will Yorkin, who runs a design firm, and they have a sweet, sensitive young son named Jake. Sy’s been printing their photos ever since they got married - their wedding, Jake’s birth, anniversaries, vacations, birthdays - all in vivid color. Nina drops off some film, and asks Sy for two sets of prints of each.

Sy prints three sets.

As it transpires, we discover that Sy is a very lonely man. He’s one of the last to leave at the end of the day, and after he stops for a late dinner alone at a diner where the waitress knows him by name, he takes the bus home to his nearly-empty apartment. Just him, a hamster, and the Yorkins’ photographic memories. There’s almost no there there, he’s a desaturated nonentity, and he lives his life through the Yorkins. As time goes on, Sy imagines himself more and more a part of their life, as if he were a close family friend, or perhaps a relative. He’s not a bug-eyed madman, he’s just lonely and doesn’t have much going for him, and the Yorkins’ life makes for a warmer, more colorful alternative. Of course, nobody’s life is as wonderful as it looks - even Sy himself points out that nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget - and as his obsession with the Yorkin family grows, so does the disillusionment as the cracks in their own façade are revealed. Sy becomes angry with them, and starts to come unraveled.

So right off, we know this is a film about appearances, about form. Will works in design - his job is to attend to both form and function. He creates images. Conversely, Sy is a servant to images - it's his job to bring images of other people's lives into the world, and other peoples' lives are what he has instead of a life of his own. His own home is empty, devoid of any identity, save what Sy borrows from others. He hangs on to image the way a drowning man hangs on to a life raft, and over time begins to mistake the life raft for the life it’s supposed to save. When the life he’s imagined for himself fails to match up neatly with the reality of what it means to be Will, Nina, and Jake Yorkin, Sy can’t handle it. It’s all he has.

But that’s the most obvious aspect. Which isn’t to say that it’s not worth considering - Sy and the Yorkin family are largely painted with a great deal of sympathy and humanity, which isn’t typical for a film about someone’s obsession - it’s just not the most interesting bit. It’s not just about image, but also about the act of recording that image. Photographs are documentation, memorialization, but, the film argues, there's a predatory aspect to them too. Even discounting the largely apocryphal stories of indigenous tribes who believe that taking someone's picture steals their soul, think about the language - "image capture", "taking a picture", "shooting.” As Sy observes at one point, "snapshot" is a term taken from hunting. It's this idea that further helps to elevate the story above what could in lesser hands have been a painfully trite story about how not everyone is as happy as they look, ending with an important lesson learned. No, it's this idea of photography as an act of taking that gives One Hour Photo its low, humming undercurrent of tension and dread. We know something bad has happened when the film opens, and the more the film plays on the idea of being watched and of life moments ending up in the hands of someone to whom they don’t belong, the more afraid we are to see exactly where it goes

It's further supported by a strong attention to visual style - it's a film about image and appearance, and what we see communicates who these people are. The Yorkins are shot in warm, soft light most of the time, their ultra-modern house all rich browns and polished metal and tasteful sprays of color from flowers and Jake's art on the refrigerator. Sav-Mart is all sterile, gleaming whites and cold fluorescents, devoid of humanity, and both Sy's apartment and Sy himself are beige and washed-out to the point of near-colorlessness. The only color in Sy's life comes from the photos he has of the Yorkin family. The film is interspersed with photographic montage, recalled moments lit like photographs, replayed in slow-motion as if the moments themselves are slowing down to their final stasis, captured on film. Sometimes the photographs become scenes of their own as the line between life and its documentation, between your life and the life of others, begins to blur.

Even with all of this, though, it could have still been easy to fall into the trap of pat answers - the flip side to "they seem like this" is "but they're really like this" which risks reducing these characters to type, and the film neatly dodges this at several points. We're lead to expect events to go one way, and then they don't - it's not so much a twist as a sidestep. The Yorkins are a troubled couple, but it's never really clear exactly where fault lies - both Will and Nina make bad decisions, each has legitimate grievances, and when Sy's obsession finally overwhelms him and he acts out, the rage you expect from someone in his position is there, but it's shot through with raw pain that comes from a place much older than his fixation on the Yorkins. We expect someone who is obsessed to become angry when his obsession lets him down, but it's unexpectedly human, and the film's final moments unspool for us exactly how Sy became the kind of person who would take solace in the life of another, and feel so in thrall to photography as a way to capture, or take something. After all of the tension and fear and violence that has come before, it’s this awful confession that, in a few sentences, lays the idea that images are a form of violence out for the audience, not just naked, but flayed in its directness.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable from Netflix (Available on DVD)


  1. Thanks for this review; I have such a soft spot for this movie. Mark Romanek's aesthetic has always had a visceral appeal for me, so I was bound to like One Hour Photo for that reason alone. But somehow this film has always felt so much deeper to me than any surface reading of it would ever indicate, and you've touched on that here. There's a poignancy to it, and a devastating lightness of touch that gives it an impact that many 'better' films never achieve. I think it's one of Robin Williams' best performances - certainly it's the one I'll carry with me the longest.

    I also find the movie's anachronistic quality to be strangely compelling. It was really outdated even by the time it was released, in the sense that digital film and video were already so established that photo processing was already a curiosity. For me, that's part of the reason the movie works. There's a self-aware, unironic nostalgia to that aspect of it that, combined with the liminal time in which it was made and released, marks it as something unique. I can think of a lot of other films that touch on the same themes and motifs, but I can't think of another film quite like it.

    And ugh, those last 5 minutes are heartbreaking.

    Again, thanks for giving such an undervalued movie its due.

  2. (I also feel the need to follow up with a link to Romanek's video for Fiona Apple's 'Criminal' - obviously the same director, clearly the same themes.)

  3. A quick IMDB check tells me that he's done exactly one feature film since this (Never Let Me Go) and now I need to go track that down to see if he brings the same striking visual sense to that as he did to this. Otherwise it's all music videos and a new "rumored" project. Which is a shame.