Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fincher's Panopticon

I can't promise how coherent or well-formed this post is going to be. I mostly just wanted to share a couple thoughts I had while watching "Panic Room" for the first time in a looong time.

"Panic Room" gets a bad rap, along with "The Game," as kind of on the bottom rung of Fincher's ouevre (discounting "Alien3." We all know why), because the screenplays are pretty, well, mainstream. David Koepp ("Room's" writer) is about as Hollywood as they come, and were you to just READ "Panic Room," I don't think it's actually a very compelling read. It's littered with devices -- Meg hates small spaces and gets trapped in a Panic Room, Sarah has diabetes and gets trapped in a Panic Room with no sugar, the thieves bring along a wild card who deviates from the plan, etc. etc. etc.

Where the film excels is its visuals. Part of this is because I think Fincher used "Panic Room," like all of his films, as an experiment. This one's an experiment in space. His camera careens in and out of rooms, up and down floors, inside vents, through keyholes, windows, beams, walls -- it's a pretty intoxicating blend of tracking shots and visual effects.

But the Panic Room, that titular plot device where the protagonists hide and the antagonists want to break into, is actually a reincarnation (albeit modified) of Bentham's Panopticon, the prison device that Michel Foucault has written extensively about. The Panopticon is a circular-ish prison with a guard tower in the center. The guard tower and cells are such that the guard can see into any cell at any given time, but the prisoners cannot see the guard. The idea is that the THREAT of being watched at all times is enough to dissuade criminal activity and teach discipline.

"Panic Room" is all about putting these power models on display and subverting them over and over. Meg sits in a Panic Room, the guard tower, with monitors showing every corner of the house. She has the power of sight over the thieves. After a while though, they start to exploit the blind spots, hiding in corners and organizing schemes to break in to the room. Audio becomes another key -- Meg has a PA system to talk to them selectively, but they have no way of communicating with her via sound. They occasionally make hand gestures or write on pieces of paper to send a message, but Meg ultimately has the power because she is in the tower.

But as I said earlier, the tower is also limited, because Meg is trapped there. She can't leave, or she'll be shot. She doesn't have enough food, she has no way to communicate with anyone outside the house. Eventually, the tables turn and the thieves get into the Room while Meg is outside. She destroys the cameras, undoing their sight and subverting the power of the panic room.

While "Panic Room" opens with a Panopticon-ish structure, Fincher's visuals want to complicate the idea that the panic room works. It can't sustain either party as a power position, and the people outside it can learn to adapt and exploit the room to try and force the others out of the room.

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