On our cultural mis-reading of 'One Hour Photo'
Many critical interpretations of the 2002 film starring Robin Williams view protagonist Sy Parrish as a "creep," but Alisha Mughal argues that this says more about our judgment of loneliness than Sy.
Twenty years ago, when Mark Romanek’s psychological thriller One Hour Photo was released, Roger Ebert, in a review, described its protagonist Seymour “Sy” Parrish (Robin Williams) as being similar to the murderer Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Michael Powell’s 1960 horror-thriller Peeping Tom. Where Mark Lewis uses a knife, “a stiletto,” concealed within his camera to kill his victims, Ebert describes Sy as using a “psychological stiletto.” Despite their differences in choice of weapon, Ebert notes that Sy is “the same kind of character, the sort of man you don't much notice, who blends in, accepted, overlooked, left alone so that his rich secret life can flower.”
Ebert’s understanding of Sy as a psychological outsider is similar to the reckonings and judgements of many viewers and writers. Perusing critical writing on One Hour Photo, you’d be hard-pressed to avoid the terms “creep” or “creepy” in descriptions of Sy. The film is about a photo technician who inserts himself into the lives of one of his customers and her family. Some pieces, such as the latter-linked Observer piece (and even Ebert’s own review), can lapse into bad faith as they melodramatically describe events that don’t take place in the film, events animated by the writers’ impression of “creeps,” which they stamp onto Sy. (The Observer piece reads: “his customers take the lollipops he offers them with their rolls of film and regard his sickening smile with mild curiosity and an occasional shudder,” though Sy never offers any of his customers candy.)
Readings of Sy that render him a psychotic, creepy loner elide not only this character’s complex psychological build, but also Williams’ emotionally acute portrayal of Sy the photo guy — insecure but possessing a staunch moral compass, flawed but generally kind and endlessly sympathetic, alone but desperately desiring love. To compare Sy to a creepy serial killer is to paper over an endlessly complex character who’s more similar to us viewers than Ebert gives Sy credit for. Ebert ends his review saying of Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham in American Beauty that Lester falls “within the range of emotions we understand,” while Sy does not, because Sy is foreign to, so far removed from, the general and shared human experience. This is a deeply uncharitable reading, a mis-reading, of Sy, but it is one that is common, perhaps because Sy is more like many of us than we would like to admit.
Romanek’s film is an intriguing, curiously warped looking glass that not only shows us an endlessly familiar type of person — a reflection of ourselves — in Sy, it also prompts an aversion to that selfsame familiarity (by placing a great physical distance around Sy, along with characters along his path who shirk him on an intuitive level), ultimately daring us to countenance our own fallacies, weaknesses. Where Ebert argues that Sy’s distance from society is almost voluntary — that he wants to be alone so his imagination can roam — I would argue that Sy’s distance from society is involuntary... he wants more than anything to be a part of it.
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