Surveillance Cinema, by Catherine Zimmer

Linnie Blake extols a study on films using the technology to tell their stories

August 13, 2015
Review: Surveillance Cinema, by Catherine Zimmer

As surveillance technologies have become an increasingly important aspect of state and corporate power, there has been an exponential increase in the number of films adopting technologies of surveillance as a means of telling their tales. These range from big budget action thrillers (The Bourne Ultimatum) to handheld creature features (Cloverfield) and the torture porn of youth-oriented offerings such as the Saw franchise. Television has followed suit with 24 and Homeland not only revolving around plots of espionage and counter-terrorism but incorporating the look of CCTV and other forms of surveillance technology into their cinematography, editing and mise en scène.

Catherine Zimmer’s excellent study explores the unstable boundary between the real world and the screen, tracing the ways that digital technologies not only echo and reinforce the hegemonies of our age but have the capacity, in cinematic form, to problematise and undermine them. This has profound implications, she argues, for how we think about temporality, the political sphere and subject formations, as surveillance culture constructs a self-regarding “networked” self that exists on the permeable boundary between individuated private selfhood and the matrices of public, social and political power; ideologically interpellated and technologically penetrated at every turn.

For Zimmer, the proliferation and ubiquity of surveillance culture demands a form of filmic critique that moves beyond the psychoanalytically informed studies of voyeurism that have characterised much work on surveillance cinema in the past to address the historical and technological specificities of our age. What is needed, she argues, is a historically grounded materialist critique that reframes the urge to look not simply as a psychosexual drive but as both a political tool and a political project. Her analysis is grounded, therefore, in the realities of a world characterised by economic depression, corporate supremacy, an unending War on Terror and widening financial inequalities. In such a world, technologies of surveillance have become ever more sophisticated and ever more intrusive, leading whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to expose the anti-democratic impulses of Western democracies.

Under these conditions, she argues, the narratives of surveillance cinema both echo and reinforce global hegemonies in their deployment of real-world surveillance practices, even as they retain the capacity to critique and indeed remediate. Thus surveillance cinema both articulates and problematises the political and economic structures of our age of anxiety, torture and war – most particularly in its preoccupation with violence as the primary means by which individual bodies, transnational spaces and global systems of power both come into being and meet their end.

In deploying pertinent theoretical perspectives, and conducting highly insightful readings of these films, Zimmer has produced a genuinely groundbreaking study. Timely, ideologically engaged and passionate in its critique both of contemporary geopolitics and the cinematic works that depict its sites of contestation, this is a book of significant interest to scholars in the fields of film studies and surveillance studies…and to those of us who are, quite justifiably, haunted by the sense that someone, somewhere is watching.

Linnie Blake is head of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University, and co-editor, with Xavier Aldana Reyes, of Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon (in press).

Surveillance Cinema
By Catherine Zimmer
New York University Press, 288pp, £62.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9781479864379 and 836673
Published 3 April 2015

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