Philip Hensher: The dark side of surveillance

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At Rutgers University, New York State, a first-year student, Tyler Clementi, asked his room-mate, Dharun Ravi, if he could have the room for the evening for a romantic tryst.

Ravi went to his friend Molly Wei’s room, having first directed the camera on his computer towards Clementi’s bed. It is alleged that in Miss Wei’s room, the pair of them watched Clementi have sex with a man. Ravi streamed the film live on to the internet, alerting his Twitter followers – “I went into Molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

Two days later, the same thing happened, and according to the police, Ravi invited anyone with iChat to spy on Clementi again. The following day, Clementi expressed his anger on an online chat forum – it seems that some students were disgusted that Ravi was being asked to share a room with a known homosexual. Clementi then drove an hour to the George Washington Bridge and jumped off it. Mr Ravi and Miss Wei have been charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy, carrying a jail term of up to five years.

A horrifying story, but one whose horrors lie in how easy it was to film and broadcast someone in a private situation. Not only that, but Ravi’s account of what he did – “I turned on my webcam. I saw him making out” – reflects no sense of transgression, just a dull, affectless statement. This is just the normal stuff students do.

At some point in recent years, it has become extremely easy to film anything you want to, and many electronic devices now come with a camera as a standard accessory. It’s just as easy to distribute it. Just imagine the lengths a Dharun Ravi would have had to go to, before Skype and webcams and Twitter, to film his room-mate having sex, to advertise the film, and then to distribute it.

But surveillance and the gross invasion of privacy don’t just arise from technical possibilities. I don’t suppose students of thirty years ago longed to film and publish each other’s sexual misbehaviour, regretting that technology hadn’t advanced that far, unless they were pretty peculiar. What makes it seem like an ordinary jape is the utter normalisation of the means of surveillance and control by public authorities and others. The ordinary citizen is filmed without his permission hundreds of times a day, by local authorities, private businesses, for any number of reasons and for none. You can imagine a Dharun Ravi wondering why that surveillance should stop at the bedroom door. And why should public, licensed authorities have all the fun?

If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear, the proponents of the surveillance society tell us. Well, some people at Rutgers clearly thought that “making out with a dude” was doing something wrong. The fact is that cases of this sort only come to public attention when they end in tragedy. Ones which merely end in misery and humiliation must count in the unnumbered, unheard-of thousands.

Variations on a theme by Quentin Tarantino

Had you heard of Sally Menke, who died this week? Probably not – she had a fraction of the renown of Quentin Tarantino, her regular collaborator. She was a film editor, a job which is often much more creative than people imagine. It used to be said that if Brahms’s “Variations on a theme by Haydn” had been written in Hollywood, Haydn would be credited as the composer, Brahms as the “arranger”. Similarly, the film editor is often the truly creative figure, shaping a film out of an unwieldy mass of material.

Tarantino worked closely alongside Sally Menke, and has said that writing and editing are a seamless process for him. It’s striking, though, that almost everything which is most brilliant in Tarantino’s films is a decision of editing – the complex switchback structure of Pulp Fiction, or the rewind and double statement at the climax of Jackie Brown. Most film directors rely on a strong-minded collaborator in the editing suite, like Martin Scorsese’s long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Only a very few, notably the Coen brothers, retain charge of the editing process.

I don’t suppose we will ever find out whether it was Tarantino or his editor who first thought of shattering the narrative of Pulp Fiction to such mesmerising purpose. What seems certain is that some of the most powerful films of the last twenty years would never have gone with such a swing without Tarantino’s editor. Does a collaborator like that come along more than once in a director’s lifetime? Certainly many directors would change their spouse more readily than they would change their editor.

Franzen is not the only one to make corrections

The UK publishers of Jonathan Franzen’s superb new novel, Freedom, have had to recall 80,000 copies. It turned out that the typesetters had mistakenly forwarded a previous text for printing, containing typos and lacking some refinement of details. There was some hopeful comment that the first, erroneous printing might now become valuable, although with a printing on that scale it seems unlikely.

It casts a peculiar light on human nature that errors and blunders in printing are often more alluring to the collector than correct versions, which any fool could produce, after all. The most valuable stamps are the ones where a queen’s head is printed upside down. Early bibles with misprints can be immensely valuable, since they were often suppressed – the famous example is the so-called “Adultery Bible” of 1631, which contrived to omit the word “not” from the seventh commandment. Less valuable, perhaps, are the many early editions of Yeats which changed “solider Aristotle” to “soldier Aristotle”, quite unnoticed even by the poet, it seems.

Mostly, such blunders, like misheard songs, are wince-making, but very occasionally they have a poetic force which outdoes what was actually intended. Pope, editing Shakespeare, worked out that he must have written “and a’ babbled of green fields” at Falstaff’s death: still, the original blunder, “and a table of green fields” has a mysterious magic about it. I always thought Petula Clark was singing “Just listen to the music of the general bossa nova” in “Downtown”, rather than “gentle” – actually, I prefer my word. And is there any truth to the long-cherished rumour that what Philip Larkin actually wrote was “They tuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do”?