Voyeur (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): The confession of a voyeur

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Netflix documentary film “Voyeur” gives us a fascinating story coupled with considerable morbidity and absurdity. Here are two different men who happened to get associated with each other after one tried to approach to the other with a story to tell, and the documentary closely observes how their long relationship went through several unexpected ups and downs as the story in question came to be widely known in public.

They are Gay Talese and Gerald Foos, and the early part of the documentary focuses on how Talese came to know Foos in the early 1980s. Around that time, Talese drew lots of attention thanks to his nonfiction book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife”, which explored the sexual culture of the contemporary American society. For the research for his book, he even spent several months in a famous open sexuality resort in LA, and that certainly raised the eyebrows of many people when the book came out.

Not long after the publication of that book, Talese received a letter from Foos, who was eager to tell what he had done for many years since he bought a motel in Aurora, Colorado around the 1960s. As a longtime voyeur, Foss built an ‘observation platform’ in the attic right above the rooms in the motel, and he secretly watched his motel guests through ceiling vents from time to time.

In his interview clips, Foos frankly tells us many things including how he discovered his naughty desire when he just entered adolescence, but he emphasizes that he was not just a voyeur but also a sort of researcher. According to him, he observed some weird things as many different people came and went at his motel, and there is an amusing moment when he tells us an anecdote on two certain male motel guests and their rather odd sexual play. He also talks about his several ‘social experiments’ on motel guests, and he cheerfully describes to us the results of his experiments.

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While listening more and more to Foos, we cannot help but wonder how much of his story is true, and Talese also had some reasonable doubt while preparing an article on Foos for the New Yorker magazine in 2016. Although he did go to Foos’ motel in Colorado and then observed his voyeuristic activity after receiving Foos’ letter, there was no other reliable source to support the veracity of Foos’ story, and, like any good journalist, Talese saw possible problems inherent in the story.

We see the employees of the New Yorker magazine beginning their fact-checking on Talese’ article, and some notable discrepancies are soon revealed. For example, an unsolved criminal case Foos claimed that he witnessed is not found in the local police record, and it seems quite possible that Foos fabricated that anecdote from a real incident which happened in the other place not so far from his motel. In addition, Foos’ motel, which he eventually sold to a Korean family around 1997, is now completely gone at present, and that leaves a big hole in Foos’ story.

As we keep wondering as before, Talese and Foos come to us as two compelling human figures to watch, and we come to notice common aspects between these two vastly different men. When we look at Talese’s private space in his posh residence in Manhattan, New York City, we are astounded by his vast collection of articles, notes, and photographs, and we cannot help but admire his thoroughness. When we look into the basement of Foos’ suburban house, we are astonished by his huge collection of many different items including collectible baseball cards, and we cannot help but notice a parallel between his collection and Talese’s.

There is a certain irony in Foos’ decision to come out as a longtime voyeur. Once that New Yorker article on him was eventually published in 2016 April, he and his secret came to be fully exposed in public, and the relationship between Foos and the world was completely reversed as a result. As Talese wryly points out, Foos will be associated with this notoriety for the rest of his life, and he will probably get obituary articles from major newspapers when he dies someday.

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During the second half of the documentary, the mood becomes tense as showing the growing strain in the relationship between Foos and Talese. While Talese is busy with preparing for the publication of his book on Foos, Foos becomes nervous due to the growing attention toward him, and we later get an awkward moment between Foos and Talese as they try to be candid and honest in front of the camera. There are still many unresolved or unclarified matters between them, and Talese becomes quite exasperated at one point when he does not get a satisfying answer from Foos.

As some of you may remember, there eventually came a big problem shortly before the publication of Talese’s book. Talese hurriedly disavowed his book, but his distinguished career was irrevocably tarnished as a result. In case of Foos, he regretted over his mistake of not telling one crucial fact to Talese, but there was nothing he could do about the consequence of his mistake.

Although it tries a little too hard for drawing our attention at times, “Voyeur” is worthwhile to watch for its morbid but engaging presentation of human nature, and director Myles Kane and Josh Koury, who also edited their documentary together, tactfully handle their subjects without resorting to cheap sensationalism. You may not like Foos much in the end, but he is pretty interesting to observe at least, and you will not forget him easily after watching the documentary.

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