VOYEUR CHIC

by Chris R. Morgan

motel

“Lately I’ve been frequenting bad houses, places no respectable man would be seen.” So drones Steve Albini on “Bad Houses,” the fifth song off of Big Black’s debut album, Atomizer. Released in 1986, Atomizer stands as the artistic statement of a band unequaled in its fervor to revel in absolute moral depravity. In honing its lyrical voice, there seemed to be no such thing as a subject too unseemly to tackle; indeed, by the time Atomizer comes around it takes on the air of policy. Big Black’s aesthetic could be described as sonic noir, a balance of new wave coldness and punk abrasiveness set to lyrical tableaus of unwholesomeness: child abuse in “Jordon, Minnesota,” domestic violence in “Fists of Love,” a corrupt cop in “Big Money,” and boredom-induced self-immolation in “Kerosene.” Compared to these songs, “Bad Houses” is rather understated, seething rather than igniting, howling rather than lashing, and there is less of a sense of character or place. “I hate myself for my weakness, my past sickens me,” the narrator goes, without going further. The liner notes are only slightly more helpful:

We do things, bad things, and go places, bad places, even when the thrill is seldom worth the degradation. Maybe we need the degradation, maybe we associate it with the thrill, and after a while, they become inseperable [sic]. Then the thrill becomes secondary.

But placed square in the middle of the nine-song album, “Bad Houses” is an unsettling black hole in an already bleak recording. Albini’s portrait is thematic and abstract, a lighted window with the curtain half-drawn, the concreteness from within being left to passersby to define. “I tell myself I will not go, even as I drive there.”

To the American, few things are less demanding of introduction than the roadside motel. By that I don’t mean the various chains strewn almost side by side on every turnoff: the Holiday Inns, the Shoney’s Inns, the Howard Johnsons, the Super 8s, etc. Rather I mean the independent hospitality center, easily distinguished by neon signs bearing names with “manor” or “court” in them, the single-floor ranch house architecture, the clashing colors, the paneled walls, and the leafy, opalescent swimming pools. A society as dependent on its highways as ours is ever knowing, even respectful, of its early lore; a time of smoother infrastructure, all-night diners and service stations, offbeat attractions and the extra time to actually see them, and the postcards accrued along the way memorializing all of these things. Historically, the roadside motel is very much a part of the lore, while spiritually being kept at a distance. Early romance always deteriorates. The deterioration of freeway travel is never more emblematic than it is in the independent motel. Seeing them on the road, they stick out like unhealed sores. When abandoned they are depressing, when still in operation they are unnerving. They are places of exhausted options on the one hand, hidden shames on the other. Being in one of its rooms, the spiritual debasement is palpable, as is the awareness of what is left behind with every stay. And no one escapes without leaving an impression on that secret history. In an age of corporate plenty, what resort leads people there?

The decay of the roadside motel has something of the chicken-or-egg to it. Was its decline signaled by the road itself? Of the freedom and individual determination it engendered? Did they become life-sized disposal units in which travelers appeased their inhibitions or changed their stories? Or was it the imagination? When Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates removed the picture in his office and stared secretly into Janet Leigh’s room as she undressed? If the latter contributed at all, that would have given the motel a haltingly short peak from 1945 to 1960. It never really stood a chance. But its roots don’t matter so much as the perception itself endures. In fact Gerald Foos was counting on it when he bought the Manor House Motel outside Denver, CO in 1966 (or 1969) with the intent, as he put it to Gay Talese, “to satisfy my voyeuristic tendencies and compelling interest in all phases of how people conduct their lives.” Peering from the attic through fake ventilator screens, Foos spent decades acquiring “research” on the activities of his paying customers, mostly sexual, some illegal, and claiming to take inspiration from Talese’s book The Neighbor’s Wife:

I have seen most human emotions in all their humor and tragedy carried to completion. Sexually, I have witnessed, observed and studied the best first hand, unrehearsed, non-laboratory sex between couples, and most other conceivable sex deviations during these past 15 years.

My main objective in wanting to provide you with this confidential information is the belief that it could be valuable to people in general and sex researchers in particular.

Nearly a week after Talese’s feature went online at The New Yorker, it remains the magazine’s third most popular article after an Andy Borowitz piece and something on the “pasta revolution” by Adam Gopnik.

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Voyeurism in art has often been depicted as a byproduct of other factors rather than a central theme or trait. In Rear Window it was set off by restricted physical circumstances, in Sliver by technology, in The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker by domestic breakdown, and in Psycho it was a kind of side dish, if not a manifestation, of a larger malady. To stray beyond this territory seemed too unsavory to even be considered, if you wanted to earn a profit anyway. That pattern has been broken effectively only once.

Released the same year as Atomizer, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is many things to many people. It is a deconstruction of classic noir, high art sexploitation, an ironic postmodern critique of middle class hypocrisy, or a moralistic (but still postmodern) defense of middle class values. Under certain moods it could easily be any or all of these things, but the film is nothing without its center, main character Jeffrey Beaumont, and his confrontation with his own depravity. Brought back from college to his small hometown when his father has a stroke, Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey discovers a severed ear while walking from the hospital, which sets him off on a journey, at once Conradian and Buñuellian, in which he discovers a seamier side of his world that many are aware of but few explore. Forbidden streets are walked on, and forbidden homes are entered. The culminating scene, and according to Lynch the genesis of the entire film, is Jeffrey’s spying on Isabella Rosselini’s Dorothy Vallens from the closet in her living room as she is brutalized by Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. Jeffrey is compelled by the mystery, but keeps returning upon its discovery and becoming pulled well into the center of it.

All of Lynch’s most strictly Lynchian films—that is, all excluding The Elephant Man, Dune, and maybe The Straight Story—are gauntlets of subconscious sensations hurled at, or emanating from, a single victim, applying inner space to horror the same way J.G. Ballard applied it to science fiction. Yet Blue Velvet remains the most effective of his films for the down to earth Jeffrey, a clear stand-in for Lynch but most ably one for ourselves as he sets aside his clearly directed moral compass to indulge his long stagnant compulsions. (Granted, deleted scenes recently made available show Jeffrey indulging this habit well before coming back home. They were wisely cut for several reasons.) Blue Velvet is a film about voyeurism as a natural tendency, as a feature rather than a bug. In discovering the ear, Jeffrey is catalyzed, not traumatized; in impinging on Dorothy’s life he is conflicted, disgusted, irreversibly drawn in, but not demonized.

Just as with Jeffrey’s pretensions toward unraveling a mystery, Gerald Foos’s own scientific ambitions make for a barely sheer veil over his true motives:

He was miserably employed, sitting in a cubicle all day, keeping records of the inventory levels of oil tanks. To escape this tedium, he said, he began to undertake what he called “voyeuristic excursions” around Aurora after dark. Often on foot, although sometimes in a car, he would cruise through neighborhoods and spy on people who were casual about lowering their window shades.

Given that many sex studies done under anything approaching reasonable scientific standards have their own instabilities under scrutiny (see Trilling on the Kinsey report, for instance), Talese is a sharp enough reporter to know where the real story lies. And while Foos, his motel, and the people whose privacy he preyed upon are and were real (well, maybe), it is hard to say that “The Voyeur’s Motel” constitutes a story properly so-called.

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The prevailing attitude towards pornography is that it affects relationships between the genders, whether in enhancing them or in brutalizing them. A shirt popular among younger Christians and conservatives for instance reads—in beautiful typeface clearly mimicking Deafheaven—PORN KILLS LOVE. But this is to aim at once low and high. Talk of “porn” in any context or sympathy is invariably talk of smut, vignettes against propriety, vulnerability, and good sense that, depending on one’s level of self-awareness, are either parodies of modern values or its propaganda. Pornography, like free speech, is a concept that breaks out from the clinical restrictions others would seek to impose upon it.

“Even before our marriage,” Foos recounts in confessing his activities to his wife, “I told her that this gave me a feeling of power.” Foos took ownership of a business that would almost exclusively attract a variety of the debased: the poor, the drug-addled, the lascivious, and the lonely, committing acts not unheard of in human flourishing; but, in never having seen them, and not wanting to be of them, he took to watching them, literally looking down on them, these incomprehensible and uncomprehending creatures who, in a perversion of his role as a business owner, submit their services to him. Under the journalistic veneer, The New Yorker published a work of pornography, in which a man assumes empathy with God. Porn does not so much kill love as it engenders heresy, which admittedly doesn’t have the same ring on a tee shirt. But because Foos went above and beyond to pursue this fantasy, that does not make him exceptional.

Humanity is the most pornographic of all the species. Foos’s story, in as much as it is the recounting of events, is also the crystallization of a mentality: of voyeur chic. The idea that pornography is watched for emulation is merely to condemn the delusional, and to excuse a vaster number of people who seek pornography’s true power wherever it can be gotten. Wherever there is a detected trace of “lower” living—whether aesthetically, economically, or spiritually—pornography emanates out from it. This includes the proliferation of “amateur” pornography, or the appearances of found Polaroid photos—not to mention selfies and other likely ill-gotten ephemera—on image trading sites. It includes any number of reality shows, but in particular those like Intervention and Hoarders, which seek to cure the damaged but not before parading their damage before millions of enraptured and disgusted viewers. And it also includes “people watching,” a comparably innocent and easy activity for the bored that nonetheless rings as condemnation of any random miscreant for the crime of living publicly.

To seek a cure for voyeur chic, assuming the desire to allow its curing even exists, would seem impossible. The first option would be to impose a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. In a way, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” in elaborating a fantasy, also demonstrates how it is undone: through confession, but one that seeks to lower rather than redeem or empower the confessor. The second option would be a spiritual individualism, a kind of Victorian-tinged libertarianism that reasserts public propriety while also being simultaneously incredulous of and respectfully indifferent to the private nature of private vices. Admittedly this option has the air of prison reform to it, but in a culture of exhausted, hubristic loneliness, a refined, meditative loneliness seems worth seeking. “We see but one aspect of our neighbor, as we see but one side of the moon,” Walter Bagehot wrote, “in either case there is also a dark half which is unknown to us. We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.”

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