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The Journalist and the Masturbator

Nonfiction, Film, and the Unreliable Narrator

ISSUE:  Spring 2018

<i>Voyeur </i>.Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury. Netflix, 2017. 96 minutes</p><i>Risk</i>. Directed by Laura Poitras. Neon, 2017. 86 minutes.</p>Autumn stalled, the heat lingered, and an interim season began. In lieu of leaves, the sky rained with tales of sexual predation. More curiously, the world took notice: On the ground there occurred a clamor for stories of harassment and assault, which were gathered with an altogether new sense of industry, indignation, and consequence. A bonfire subsisted on the shredded reputations of high-profile men; communal nests of solace and of recourse were fashioned from the feathered remnants of their careers.

In accounts of the predations of certain powerful men, masturbation emerged as a prominent theme. Helpful articles sought to educate a baffled and disgusted public; experts certified that what is defined as the practice of sexual self-gratification can also be an act of taking, of theft, of violence. Women who have experienced this particular form of degradation confirmed what was evident but not well understood—which is to say that it stems from rage, and a hatred of their kind. In mainstream media accounts, the act of masturbating in front of an unwilling participant has been described as “sexual misconduct,” existing in the gray area between unwanted attention and outright assault. The perpetrator’s claim of wanting to be seen, to be made a sexual object, is a sort of feint: Compulsive, targeted acts of masturbation and their gratifications hinge not on being observed but on watching. More than the penis, the gaze seeks its victory.

In the midst of all this comes Voyeur, a documentary that follows Gay Talese’s attempt to chronicle the life and exploits of a Colorado man named Gerald Foos. Of the many things the viewer comes to learn about Foos over the course of the film, only one stands out as completely reliable: This is a man who spent most of his life devoted to a predatory form of masturbation. In his thirties, Foos purchased a motel in Aurora, Colorado, with the intention of turning it into a personal masturbatorium. He fashioned a catwalk in the building’s attic space and installed ceiling vents in each room, through which for several decades he would watch motel guests argue, pick their noses, eat their garbage dinners, and, ideally, have sex. 

In recounting these events, Foos emphasizes his role as a sort of documentarian, a sex researcher more interested in observing and recording what he sees than exercising his perversions. An obese man who enters his eighties during the documentary’s filming, Foos is a figure of pompous mirth, a self-dramatist who details with misty nostalgia the inception of his career as a sexual predator—masturbating at his aunt’s window as a boy. And what’s the harm, really? He just wanted to watch; none of Foos’s victims discovered him. If a victim is unaware of being violated, has a violation occurred?

Codirected by Myles Kane and Josh Koury, Voyeur offers no explicit challenge to this idea, and bears no interest in litigating events long past. Instead, it focuses on the project at hand, presenting Foos and Talese, his stalwart interlocutor, as creatures engaged in the dance of journalist and subject, which is to say an enterprise of mutual violation. On learning about the pending publication of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Talese’s 1981 treatise on shifting American sexual mores, Foos wrote to the author in January 1980, describing the motel and his adventures in satisfying what he calls “my unlimited curiosity about people.” It is unclear whether Foos hoped to attract Talese’s attention as a possible subject or command his respect as a peer. Intrigued, within a month of receiving Foos’s letter, Talese traveled to Aurora and saw the motel for himself, even joining Foos on the catwalk, where he watched from above as a man and woman engaged in oral sex. Unwilling to cooperate with a story, Foos strung Talese along in the years that followed, sending excerpts from his extensive voyeur logs to keep his suitor’s interest alive.

The film is hazy on precisely when and how the two men reconnected, except to emphasize that both had reached an age of peak preoccupation with legacy, each perhaps seeking one last run at the mountain. In “The Voyeur’s Motel,” the 2016 New Yorker article whose writing and publication Voyeur chronicles, Talese writes that he contacted Foos in 2012, after the mass shooting in an Aurora movie theater, and the next year Foos agreed to make his story public. Also omitted from the documentary are the roots of its own existence, the fact of which adds to the film’s substantial case against Talese’s judgment. The famed journalist’s instincts appear dulled, his sensibility trapped in a bygone era, one in which the detailed exploits of a sexual voyeur might pass as a great—perhaps even a watershed—story. “A great story” is how Talese repeatedly describes the material. “You can’t believe this story, you can’t make it up,” he says, repeating the second part for emphasis.

In fact, what Talese makes of Gerald Foos, “epic voyeur,” is rather mundane. Dazzled by the details of the situation—and his own role as a character, chaperone, collaborator—Talese fails to cohere much of a story. This is never more clear than in his handling of the numerous discrepancies that begin to emerge in Foos’s account of his years at the motel, in particular his claim of having witnessed a woman’s murder at the hands of her boyfriend. Talese is willing to overlook glaring and apparently willful inaccuracies (Foos’s voyeur log begins in 1966, but records show he did not purchase the motel until 1969). His solution is a boilerplate disclaimer: My subject is fallible, not everything he says is reliable, and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of every detail. Talese, a self-described “very accurate chronicler, an observer,” appears in Voyeur as a journalist long-enamored with himself as a subject. In allowing a documentary crew to follow and manipulate his process, his desire to be watched getting the story contributes to an already rampant case of what mountaineers call summit fever, where delirious climbers, close to the top, press on despite obvious peril. In his determination to publish well—to win—Talese loses sight of the story, its merits
as well as its credibility.

One imagines that Kane and Koury, whose filming spanned several years, struggled to maintain a sense of the story they might choose to tell. Where they landed proposes a more skeptical and involving approach than Talese chose for either his New Yorker piece or the expanded book published some months later. Voyeur makes apt use of a storytelling device more commonly associated with fiction: the unreliable narrator. The film finds much in common between the journalist and the masturbator, aligning them primarily as co-narrators of equal and abiding unreliability. 

Among nonfiction modes, documentary in particular lends itself to a deconstruction of narrative layering. A typical Michael Moore documentary, for instance, merges director (we might think of him as the implied author) with a narrating “I” (Moore commenting in voice over), and a narrated “I” (Moore as he appears onscreen, moving about in the story). In a typical Moore documentary, there is no discrepancy between the implied author’s perspective and the values articulated by either the narrating or narrated “I”; in fact, the success of his films might be gauged in direct relation to his success in establishing reliable narration all down the line.

At the most basic level, as the critic Fiona Otway notes, the unreliable narrator introduces inconsistencies within a text. In her study of Laura Poitras’s 2010 documentary The Oath, Otway argues that Poitras is successful in making an unreliable narrator of her main subject, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden named Abu Jandal, because “irony is achieved through the disconnect between the character-narrator’s [Jandal’s] presentation of his story and the implied author’s…presentation of the story.” Discussing The Oath, which comprises interview and raw footage of Jandal (Poitras does not appear in or narrate the film), a cab driver in Yemen who may or may not be recruiting jihadists to the cause, Poitras described the decision to create tension between what Jandal says and her point of view as a matter of narrative expedience: Certainty is boring. Jandal is often charming, and claims reform. Rather than present him as a monster, Poitras says, “we show that he’s a very good liar and that he’s media savvy. And so, there’s a bit of a push-pull between drawing you in and giving you clues to not always trust what you’re hearing.” 

By contrast, Risk, Poitras’s 2016 documentary portrait of Julian Assange, offers a less successful example of an attempt to work with unreliable narration. The original cut of the film, which screened at Cannes in 2016, contained no voice-over, and festival reviews indicate a portrayal sympathetic to Assange, whom Poitras filmed over several years. In the course of the 2016 US presidential campaign, Poitras began to reconsider her judgment of Assange and of WikiLeaks, and thus her film. She recut Risk, adding her own doubt-filled voice-over narration. 

The result is unpersuasive: In quoting from her production notes and offering candid impressions, Poitras appears more interested in mitigating criticism than in complicating her role in the film. Her capacities as narrator and implied author appear unified. She presents questions directly that a more sophisticated approach might have invited the viewer to raise for herself, and she neutralizes tension by spelling it out. Poitras lacked either the nerve or the time to make of herself a truly unreliable narrator, and so a film with the potential for two unreliable narrators falters for having none.

Voyeur’s frequently berserk depiction of journalism as a moral, personal, and professional minefield reaches a dizzying apex during what might be described as the film’s climactic scene. In the run-up to the book publication of The Voyeur’s Motel, we are to understand that Talese travels to Colorado to babysit Foos, calm his nerves, and keep him away from the press. During the visit, the two men sit for one of the film’s numerous staged interviews between them. The extent of the staging becomes clear when Talese balks at a certain of the directors’ prompts, and begins to unravel. If the presence of the filmmakers has been suggested and occasionally made explicit (in their solo interviews, both Talese and Foos look off camera, addressing themselves to interlocutors; when Talese hears of the directors’ plan to get footage of the destroyed motel he asks to join the trip; in one stressed-out moment, Foos expresses appreciation for their company), in choosing to include the moment of their exposure as the architects of these interviews, Kane and Koury lose their sole status as implied authors and become implicated in the journalistic chaos they depict.

Up to this point, the viewer has had cause to doubt the directors: Tabloid-TV reenactments and ponderous resort to a dollhouse version of the motel feel overdone; the terms of certain key interviews and meetings are muddy; at times, tricky editing makes it unclear whether Foos is speaking with Talese or the filmmakers. As Talese’s meltdown makes explicit, Foos himself has reason to be unsure. During their seated interview, Talese becomes irate when the directors ask Foos a question in Talese’s presence that we learn Foos has already answered on his own. At this point wildly compromised, Talese claims the high ground, chastising the filmmakers. He explains to Foos that they are attempting to make him look unreliable, expose him as a hypocrite. “These guys are not even credible journalists, they’re cameramen,” Talese huffs. “Did we hit a sore spot on you?” Foos replies.

On the publication of Talese’s book, more discrepancies in Foos’s account emerge. Talese disowns the book, then sheepishly reclaims it. As much as Talese’s sloppy reporting, reviews of The Voyeur’s Motel emphasize his failure to treat his subject’s inconstancy with more skepticism, to make a story of it. Instead Talese deflects, insisting on a larger scheme of reliability. As the critic James Phelan points out, “An implied author of a nonfiction narrative who endorses a narrator’s erroneous report about a historical event is constructing reliable narration just as much as an implied author of a fictional narrative who endorses a narrator’s racist views. As members of the flesh-and-blood audience, we should deem both kinds of narration deficient, but, again, such fault finding is not an activity to which the implied author guides us.” 

Both Risk and Voyeur suggest the hazards of working with unreliability in nonfiction narrative. A keen authority and consistent intention are central to pulling it off. Kane and Koury make it work with only half measures of both: That the filmmakers drift into their film’s carefully constructed realm of unreliable narration feels inevitable, so strong is the gravitational pull of its twinned subjects. If I found some of their choices suspect or even deficient, their transformation into Foos’s and Talese’s fellow unreliable narrators only strengthens Voyeur’s invitation of the viewer’s scrutiny, its challenge to grasp the incongruities between the story told by the film’s (four) narrators and that ultimately encoded by its directors.

It is saying a lot that Talese appears in Voyeur every bit as self-deluded as Foos, a man who believes his actions were harmless because his victims were oblivious to the crime. In fact, Foos believes himself a pioneer, a view Talese endorses—one of many instances where it’s impossible to distinguish between the journalist’s manipulations and his genuine feeling. Talese also believes that his work does no harm, and in Foos’s case bestows what Talese considers the ultimate reward. “Even if he hates the article, he’s gotta love the prominence,” Talese says, admiring his New Yorker story’s cover placement. “He wanted to be discovered…Now if he dies, this thing will put him on the map, it will get him an obituary in the New York Times…Why? Because he’s a voyeur who talked—talked to me.” As Voyeur makes plain, legacy is a funny thing, often bearing a capriciousness in direct relation to the pride and desperation of those who spend long lives attempting to secure it.  





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