Film Review: Voyeur

Enthralling look at literary lion Gay Talese, as he researches and writes the book intended as the capstone of his career, only to see things go fascinatingly awry thanks to its unreliable, perhaps even delusional subject.
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Shot as slickly as a brooding thriller, the spellbinding documentary Voyeur, about the 30-plus-year relationship between journalism star Gay Talese and the peeping Tom subject of his 2016 book The Voyeur's Motel, dispenses quickly with the obvious metaphor of journalist as voyeur. Talese, aged 80 during the making of the film and now 85, says he has lived his life through others' experiences—and then paradoxically and perhaps questionably argues that in order to tell the truth as a reporter, one must not only observe but participate.

He did just that when the well-mannered and articulate Gerald Foos—whom The New Yorker articles editor Susan Morrison describes as "disturbed, a certain kind of sociopath"—invited Talese some years ago to accompany him to the secret attic Foos installed above several rooms of the Manor House Motel in Aurora, Colo., which he had bought for the express purpose of peeping on people via air vents in the rooms' ceilings. Talese accompanied him on at least one occasion, spying on couples having sex. (That's less shocking than it might appear, if one remembers Talese lived in a nudist colony for several months and indulged in what a pre-AIDS culture called free love while researching his 1981 bestseller about sexual mores in America, Thy Neighbor's Wife.)

Talese has faced criticism for letting Foos' crime go unreported for decades, though an argument can be made he's a reporter, not a law-enforcement officer, and that journalistic objectivity and guaranteeing confidentiality to sources are crucial in the larger perspective. It's tricky terrain, and the documentary walks it without spending undue time away from other, even trickier terrain. And bit by bit, the filmmakers—New Yorker video producers who'd simply planned on documenting a celebrated journalist actively working on a story—discover to what must have been their own surprise that they were on a runaway train of plot twists, manipulation, secrets and lies so extreme that Talese eventually disavows his own book before later wanting to take back his disavowal after new facts emerge.

Before reaching that point, the documentary plays like a Christopher Nolan-style labyrinthine crime drama. For years, Foos had supplied Talese with meticulous notes of his grandiloquently self-described "research" observations, in which Foos even charted the sexual activities of the two to three thousand people a year he says he surreptitiously saw. He even went so far as to introduce variables, such as leaving sex toys and pornography in the room, to see what people would do. Outside the sexual realm, he even cooked up a scheme to tempt occupants with a left-behind suitcase they were led to believe contained $1,000. "Sociopath" seems an apt description.

And as Wednesday Addams once said of homicidal maniacs, sociopaths can look like anybody—even an old whitebeard who needs a stair lift to get up and down the floors of his well-appointed home in the Denver suburbs. But criminals are often sloppy, and Foos is no exception: Fact-checkers and editors at Atlantic/Grove Press, the book's publisher, and reporters at The Washington Post start poking holes in Foos' story, holes the highly experienced Talese castigates himself for not catching. A reporter in his 80s could be forgiven for missing a step, but Talese's wits seem as sharp as ever. Did he get too close to his subject? Did he begin identifying with him? It doesn't seem likely, but it's possible—and whatever the reason, it's to the filmmakers' great credit that they allow the viewer into myriad interactions that convey the complicated psychology of writer and subject, while never letting the mounting facts become muddy or muddled.

Indeed, both Foos and the filmmakers show more clarity than a testy Talese in one amazing scene in which the writer berates the crew over their asking Foos if he has any regrets about coming forward. Talese interrupts Foos, talks over him, and treats both Foos and the crew as cretins. He insults the filmmakers as "cameramen" who "aren't credible journalists," and claims they're trying to trick Foos into answering a question Foos answered previously when Talese wasn’t there. "Our goal is not to trip you up," the crew assures Foos—who as Talese takes his leave disagrees with the great man, telling the crew they had asked "a good question." He's even more astute with Talese, asking him directly, "Did we hit a sore spot on you?"

His protestations to the contrary, this documentary should be no sore spot on him. In oddly parallel ways, Foos and Talese, both now octogenarians, have an eye on their legacies. We can't speak for Foos, but Talese's New Journalism legacy and string of acclaimed nonfiction best-sellers like The Kingdom and the Power (1969) and Honor Thy Father (1971) have cemented his place in literary history. It's not cuddly or comical to see him as a cranky old man, but it's human. And that's something to see.

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