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.

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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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IMDb’s terse description of One Hour Photo is rather saucy: “A mentally unstable photo developer targets an upper middle-class family after his obsession with them becomes more sick and disturbing than any of them could imagine,” the site exclaims at breakneck speed. But watching the film itself is a curiously calming experience — so much of it is clean, all soft yellow, pale blue, and a velvety green light (the striking cinematography, that renders each frame a photograph, is by Jeff Cronenweth). So much of it is looking, sitting, thinking. If we were to read IMDb’s description before watching the film, we might spend its entire duration expecting Sy’s “sick and disturbing” nature to terrorize a picture-perfect suburban family. But if we pay careful attention to the plot as it unfurls and Williams’ gentle nuances that buffet Sy’s frustrated outbursts — the gentleness that punctuates, and at times punctures, the narrative that certain of the film’s characters are weaving — it’s tough to ignore something key: Sy doesn’t do anything really terrible to anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Even in this latter case, Sy’s damage is stunningly, subtly psychological, as Ebert says.

The film begins with Sy, a photo lab technician at SavMart, getting his mugshot taken. He’s been arrested for an as-yet unspecified crime against the Yorkin family, composed of Nina (Connie Nielson), her husband Will (Michael Vartan), and their young son Jake (Dylan Smith). Detective Van Der Zee (Eriq La Salle) asks Sy what Will Yorkin could have done to make him so angry at him. What follows is Sy’s retelling of the sequence of events that leads to him being arrested.

Sy is good at his job, calibrating SavMart’s photo lab to be the best in the state. Many of his customers are returning, and they know his name and seem to trust him. Sy in turn remembers facets of his customers’ lives, and this is information that customers seem not to mind him knowing. Nina Yorkin has been coming to Sy to get her family’s film developed for 11 years, since before Jake was born, and she now brings Jake in with her regularly. It emerges that Sy has taken a liking toward Nina and her family, developing an extra copy of the Yorkins’ photos to keep for himself. Sometimes Sy drives by the Yorkin home and sits in front of it in his car, imagining a life with the Yorkins where he is “Uncle Sy.” When he’s not looking directly at the Yorkins, he is sitting in his home actively and vividly imagining a happy life with thim, physically surrounded by the Yorkins’ images. Some critics have said that Sy lusts after Nina, but there is little in the film to absolutely suggest this, for his imaginations about Jake and Nina always involve Will. It seems that Sy, above all else, wants the close familial ties the Yorkins seem to share in their photographs.

One day, when a technician refuses to fix a minute error in one of Sy’s printers, Sy gets visibly frustrated, creating a minor scene in the store, which Sy’s boss Bill (Gary Cole) notices. When Bill discovers discrepancies in sale logs that show Sy has been printing extra prints and not selling them, he fires Sy. It is Sy’s dismissal that brings on the film’s third act, wherein Sy learns of an affair Will is having. Sy breaks into the hotel room that Will is liaising in with his girlfriend, and forces the adulterous couple at knife-point to pose in various sex acts as Sy takes pictures of them. It is this event that leads to Sy’s arrest. It emerges in the film’s final scenes that in his infancy Sy was sexually abused and exploited by his father.

A few elements of the plot that ought to be reiterated, for emphasis: Sy is damn good at his job and he takes it very seriously; it is his life. He falls into an obsession with the Yorkins through developing their photographs over the course of 11 years. And Sy doesn’t kill anyone. Sy keeps to himself, even at lunch, he’s never the most boisterous person in the room, though he is in his element in his photo lab and when serving customers, socially he is reserved. Bearing all this in mind, I would like to argue that Sy in One Hour Photo embodies a being in the world that is natural or intuitive: though his job at SavMart is just that, waged labour, he performs it with passion and interest, interacting with the photographs he works with in a way that we all intuitively do in our private lives. Notwithstanding the moral valence of Sy’s actions in the first two acts, they are ours, and we are him.

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Susan Sontag, in her essay “In Plato’s Cave,” which appears in 1977’s On Photography, describes the dialectic or the mechanics of how we look at photographs:

“The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of a mystery. Any photograph has multiple meanings; indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination. The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is the surface. Now think — or rather feel, intuit — what is beyond it, what reality must be like if it looks this way.’ Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.”

When we snap a photograph, Sontag says, we pluck a moment from lived reality to serve not only as document of our life, but also as an object that facilitates remembering or sparks imagination. This latter phenomenon of sparking the imagination is what happens primarily when we look at photos that we haven’t taken ourselves. We look at an image, and our brain becomes fascinated with it to the extent that it rather reflexively begins filling in some kind of context — the causality preceding and succeeding the event depicted. Of course, this filling in on our part, as Sontag says, is pure deduction based on how we know the world to work based off our own experience. In other words, the context is our imagination, our fantasy. This imaginative activity is what most photographs prompt in most people.

Sy’s knowledge of photographs (conveyed through his narration which fills the first two acts of the film) suggests that he has an acute understanding of why we take family photos, and how he looks at the photographs he develops follows exactly the trajectory that Sontag describes. We like to think of ourselves as rational beings not given to imaginative reveries, so this is why we think Sy is creepy — it’s weird he’s so in his head, right? But every time we look at a photograph, we make believe, we pretend, as Sontag says, just like Sy.

None of this is to excuse Sy’s obsession with the Yorkins, but rather to explain how it began. Because photographs are objects of fascination sparking intuitive imaginative work, and because Sy has been looking at the Yorkins for so many years, and because Sy interacts with his work more personally than others do, the bond he has created with the family seems if not warranted then at least to have a stable, causal foundation.

Sy, while performing his job, interacts with the photographs he works with in a way viewers of photographs generally interact with them: in a natural way as a looker, as an audience member. Though the photographs he processes are certainly private objects, he can’t not look at them as he develops them. He could certainly ignore their content, but he doesn’t… and this is because he genuinely cares about his job. It is conceivable that, as he tinkers with the colour balance of the images he processes, his mind gets sucked into the fantasising work that the images incite.

It ought to be noted that Sy’s relationship with the Yorkins isn’t entirely one-sided: we see that Nina and Jake genuinely seem to like Sy, or at least sympathise with him. When Sy hands Jake a free disposable camera for his birthday, not only does Nina allow Jake to accept it, but mother and son bring it back to have its film developed by Sy — they happily make use of his gift. And for the most part, until he is fired, Sy is relatively friendly, though he does seem lonely — but loneliness without qualification isn’t a moral failing in the way being unfriendly might be. One night before bed, Jake tells Nina about the intensity of his pity for Sy; he doesn’t know how to handle the image in his child’s brain of Sy the photo guy standing alone behind his counter, a context that paints him as sad and in dire need of friends.

“When someone seems sad, they don’t have any friends, and people make fun of them, that makes me feel bad for them,” Jake says to Nina. “We don’t know that Sy is sad,” Nina replies. “We really don’t know that much about him, you know.” And this latter point is uncontestable. All the Yorkins know about Sy is that he is friendly to them, remembers facts about their life, and that he works at SavMart. But Nina and Jake still like him, to the extent that they tack the photograph Sy takes of himself on the Yorkins’ Leica to complete a roll of film to their fridge. Nina cares for Sy so much that she is visibly perplexed, hurt even, when Sy is cold toward her, seeming to forget her address. Yet this occurs the day he gets fired, when he is understandably very upset. We continue to see that Sy’s relationship with the Yorkins isn’t absolutely one-sided, and neither the Yorkins nor his other customers are visibly repulsed by him.

Something you might not be able to glean from the film’s various reviews is that Sy’s customers don’t shudder at his friendliness. Many of them are on a first-name basis with him as they frequent his lab often, and they seem to trust him to be discreet and professional and efficient. If he does ask a few too many questions, it’s in an attempt to build a relationship with a new customer — none of his behaviour toward his customers is glaringly creepy, or very obviously and alarmingly invasive. Sy’s coworker Yoshi (Paul Kim Jr.) actually likes Sy too, so much so that when Sy gets fired, Yoshi is surprised and thanks Sy for being a thorough teacher. Even at the diner where Sy regularly eats, “alone, methodically,” as Ebert notes, looking at the Yorkins’ photographs, the server interacts with Sy in a friendly way, initiating the conversation by asking Sy about the pictures he’s looking at. He tells her that Jake is his nephew as the server shuffles through the glossy prints, noting a particularly good picture.

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For his loneliness, for the way in which he interacts with photographs, I propose that Sy is more like us than Ebert or many other writers give him credit for. It is certainly weird that Sy makes an extra copy of each of the Yorkins’ prints, keeping them around his home. But note a scene earlier on in the film when Sy is walking around a flea market. A vendor is selling vintage black and white photos — photographs of people’s families, yearbook photos, children playing in mid-century America. Sy buys a small, square picture of a young woman from the vendor. It’s a fairly common thing that people do, collecting vintage photographs, surrounding themselves with images of strangers, whom they look at from time to time, constructing a fantastical context around these objects of fascination they’ve gathered.

Sy tells Nina later that the woman in the photograph is his mother — an obvious lie. Sy fills in the blanks surrounding the small portrait, imagining that this bygone woman could be his mother because his real childhood was terrible. In my reading of the film, I maintain that up until the third act of One Hour Photo, Sy functions as a rendering in the extreme of how all of us interact with photographs.

The creepiness that so many reviewers see in Sy is a creepiness gleaned not from Sy’s interpersonal relationships, but rather is something that is extrapolated primarily from Sy’s visible loneliness. Sy’s loneliness, the time he spends in his head thinking about photos, is taboo culturally. Sy ought to have a family, and that he doesn’t must be because there is something gravely the matter with him, we reason, so as to ignore our own imaginative tendencies Sy represents, because to be in our heads means we’re not being materially, societally productive. Romanek’s script recognizes Sy’s loneliness’ taboo nature, and personifies the cultural repulsion to it, with the character of Sy’s boss Bill, who reacts to Sy in the way that some of the writers who deem Sy creepy do.

“I’ve got a family, I’m not losing my job over this,” Bill tells Sy as he’s firing him, talking about the discrepancies in the print logs, that someone needs to be held responsible and punished. To Bill, it apparently makes more sense for Sy to be punished, because Sy is lonely and has no family, despite the fact that he is good at his job, that his customers like him, or that his co-worker Yoshi respects him no end. Log discrepancies that lose SavMart money surely are a fireable offence, but there is an unignorable acidity that undergirds Bill’s treatment of Sy: Bill is always watching Sy, and has been long before he fires him. It’s difficult to escape the sense that Bill seems to be looking for a reason to let Sy go, always observing him through windows, through security cameras, keeping a close eye on Sy’s schedule. Bill is creeped out by Sy long before Bill discovers the sale logs.

Though Bill’s aversion is never explicitly justified, it is fairly apparent, especially in comparison to Nina and Jake’s treatment of Sy. We can see on Bill’s face when Sy shouts after the technician who won’t fix his printer that Bill will be unsympathetic and disciplinary toward Sy, and he is. When Bill confronts Sy in the break room (Sy is sitting by himself, thinking), he is patient, but unfriendly, it seems as though Bill intuitively doesn’t care for Sy. Each of Bill’s interactions with Sy is so barbed, contains such a tense atmosphere to the effect that we expect Sy to be fired at each of his interactions with Bill, that Bill only comes to punish. Bill reads only the self-containment on Sy and overlooks all other aspects of him, which aspects Nina and Jake take notice of. Bill seems to take a visceral dislike of Sy’s silence.

That we think One Hour Photo is ultimately about a creepy, lonely photo technician (that we attach the morally charged term creepy to his loneliness) says much more about us and our understanding of loneliness than it does about Sy. We, culturally, take the normal way of life to be that which is surrounded by people, because this shows others that we are well enough, capable enough to be of service to society. We show through the people who love us that others can love us: our families and friends show, through their physical proximity but also through photographs, others around us that we are loveable – they are evidence of our wellness and worthiness, of our potential deservingness of love. When a person lacks this network of love, we think there must be something wrong with them, and accordingly that they don’t deserve love. But at the same time, there is something wrong with actively trying to attract this love, it’s too desperate, we say, creating a double bind for those who are perhaps shy, for those who are perhaps broken by the systems in place to care for us. Bill and we see Sy and see his isolation (his photo lab is so, so far removed from the rest of SavMart), and immediately call him creepy, discounting the goodness he shows to Nina and Jake, thereby denying him proximity to us, denying him entry into society, which he so desperately wants. Ebert says Sy is left alone so his inner life may flower, but he never addresses why Sy is left alone – this is why.

In calling Sy creepy we betray the fact that we don’t want to understand him or the film. Gary Cole’s Bill is almost a stand-in for us — the story line with Sy’s boss is secondary to the plot’s main action, and deals more with societal interpretations of loneliness, of being creeped out by someone who’s very much in their head, in spite of evidence of their goodness.

In Peeping Tom, Mark pulls out his knife after he has his victims in front of his camera, he has a mirror attached to his camera’s lens so his victims can watch the fear on their faces as they die; murder is the end here. In One Hour Photo, Sy uses a knife as a means to take photographs of Will committing adultery. Sy is angry at Will because he exploded the fantasy that Sy built up in his head. The film’s end is like a punch to the gut: it reveals that Sy didn’t take any pictures of Will at all, but rather he took pictures of the hotel room’s inconspicuous mundanity… a lamp, faucet, the wall that could be in any hotel room in any country of the world. What Sy achieves with his pointed punishment is prompting self-consciousness and self-interrogation in guilty Will. Back in the Yorkin house, after Sy has been arrested, Will clings to Jake, weeping, ashamed, believing that there are photographs that depict him in a compromising position for Nina and Jake to see. But no such photos exist.      

Ultimately, Williams creates before us an endlessly sympathetic character who is so viscerally like us in his relationship to photos, in his deep desire to be loved, to be seen as he sees others, cared for as he cares for others. With Sy, Williams holds up a mirror to us, showing us ourselves; but we, repulsed by what we see, label Sy creepy and further expel him from us in the way that SavMart keeps the photo lab at a great sanitary distance from its epicentre. All Sy wants is to be loved, all Sy does is take photographs, and yet we still label him insane.

Mark Lewis wanted to capture human fear on film, but Williams’ Sy argues throughout One Hour Photo that photos serve to express to viewers that “I was here, I existed, I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture.” But did anyone in the world care enough to take Sy’s picture? Throughout the length of the film, nobody takes Sy’s picture save for himself and the police. Few viewers could watch Sy without shrinking from him, writing him off as strange. Williams gives us a delicate portrait of Sy that we ought to carry with us, to see as more like us than unlike, and I think that we do a disservice to Williams’s portrayal in writing this heart-breakingly familiar character off as insane. What does this label of insanity say about us? What is more universally human than a desire to be loved?

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