Film Studies: We're all on Candid Camera now

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The Independent Culture
Allen Funt is reported dead, but I'd prefer to see the body and put a few sharp stakes in it before I relax. I know, that sounds unkind. But while, often enough, I remember myself falling off the sofa at what Allen Funt was up to, there was always some dread in the joke that made laughter more hysterical. In the fields of universal anxiety, I'm not sure that Allen Funt doesn't deserve to be up there with Kafka, the Bomb, and mirrors.

Come to think of it, what Funt did was to insinuate the idea of a two-way mirror everywhere. He said he was just a student of human nature, but perhaps there was a kind of spontaneity he helped stifle. And he did it on gales of laughter - that's how the end will come, not with that stale, promised whimper. You see, Allen Funt invented Candid Camera.

It comes as no surprise to learn that he began in the army in the Second World War, when technologies began to be cleverer than the minds running them. He was a bugger, an expert recording engineer. He could get a wire in anywhere - enemy trenches, wherever dissident whispers might be gathering, or in his own bunkhouse. It was as an eavesdropper on GIs grumbling or telling tall stories that Funt came up with a radio show that delighted the services. He went for the funny side of things, of course, but lord knows how many malcontents or malingerers he picked up. Or what he did with them.

Once out of the army, Funt took the idea to commercial radio, and in August 1948 Candid Camera began on ABC television. It ran until 1990, and it is in the top 50 shows of all time. Versions went all over the world. And it worked with disorienting shock, as a race of people known as "the public" came to see that they might be in a movie, too.

Funt rhymes with "stunt" - he had an instinct for elaborate routines that built through repetition. There was a human hand poking through the grille of a manhole cover. Or a letter- box talked - was there really someone trapped inside? A diminutive car rolled into a gas station. "Fill her up!" said the driver, and the toy car consumed 10, 20, 50, 80 gallons!

The ordinary people caught up on the street proved to be magnificent dumbies. They waxed incredulous, indignant, embarrassed, yet were too shy to cry out at absurdity and the impossible. And there was the real humiliation. The way "we" would whistle away Gregor Samsa as a beetle. Until Funt appeared, put his fraternal arm round catatonic shoulders, indicated the hidden lens, and said, "Smile, you're on Candid Camera!"

That many of the audience were with me, on the floor, helpless with laughter, explained the success of the show. People easily mock early TV, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s, one could already behold astonishing invasions of genre. Candid Camera was something like "documentary" and Buster Keaton going on at the same time. Except that "documentary" before the war had been political and aesthetic. Now it was new and virulent, and the alleged message was so much less important than the mere fact of the camera and its helpless record. People in funny-but-real situations began to look about them for the spying camera. "Candid" became a style - and all of a sudden, a new, half-comic, half-shaming nakedness was exposed.

Early on, some doubts were raised - which Funt never bothered to answer - as to whether some stunts were worked on to polish the joke, or even whether something now known as "privacy" was being invaded. When privacy was the real thing, of course, it was never referred to. It was a natural state, and one that was being betrayed. The understanding was that these people spied on by the camera had to give their consent before their "scenes" could be broadcast. But who could be sure about that? Especially when Funt sometimes just recorded life: he put a camera behind a mirror and gathered in the footage of how young men and women did their hair. It was as funny as Alf Garnett or Friends. And there was miles of it going on all the time.

Still photography had seen this already: its art of the "snapped" moment was taken for granted. But duration or boredom suddenly intruded upon by some monstrous, poker-faced comic routine - that was new. Within 20 years of 1948, every form of documentary - from Fred Wiseman's movies to the preying long lenses of the paparazzi - had realised that if the camera waited long enough, "scandal", "news" or even "truth" might be stolen away and given to the faceless masses of democracy.

We still have little idea, let alone rules, for the rights of those cameras or of the people spied upon. "Privacy" is now a condition defined by its loss: the only true privacy may be loneliness. And there are millions so impressed by the candid camera that they live all the time as if being seen, or being filmed. As witness Leelee Sobieski, the young actress in Eyes Wide Shut, as quoted in Seventeen magazine: "I love my breasts because they were never there before. And now, I wake up in the morning and they look at me in the mirror and say, `Hello, Leelee!' I put them away in a shirt, but I always leave a little bit showing."