One Hour Photo (2002) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #7]

Mark Romanek (dir.). One Hour Photo (Killer Films/John Wells production for Fox Searchlight Pictures/Catch 23 Entertainment: 2002).

Sy “The Photo Guy” Parrish (Robin Williams) works in the photo development studio and kiosk located at the back of the local SavMart store. His otherwise solitary life is dedicated to the underappreciated art of developing prints for casual shoppers and regulars alike. Through his work, Sy becomes a minor figure in the lives of his customers. Likewise, Sy becomes invested in the subjects of these prints: he comes to know them in a very particular way, through the moments thought to be the most important or happy by the photographers. As Sy himself is aware, “no one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.”

Conventional narrative cinema is at a disadvantage compared to experimental or documentary film, when it comes to enacting or producing a theory or original engagements with thought. Often, what the film industry takes to be its most cerebral legacies (at its most supposedly laudable, the tired gods Inception and The Matrix) are composed, in essence, as empty vessels, carriers of “philosophy stuff” that imply hasty readings of existentialism and pop science. Rarely do films, mainstream or otherwise, ask us to confront media themselves, to approach the questions of representation and performativity via the processes of capturing images with cameras. One Hour Photo is not a theory-fiction about film, but it does depict textual becomings (or becoming-textualities) through the medium of photography. In this narrative, Sy Parrish is both a conscious and considered author-theorist and a willing participant. Over the course of the film, the stories Sy crafts through the prints he receives gradually become inextricable from his own. In a sense, he lives entirely through the carefully-selected memories of others, like a reverse hyperstition: “element of real culture that makes itself effective.” Or, to take another pop culture example, like the subject of The Cure’s “Pictures of You”: “I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you/That I almost believed that the pictures were all I could feel.”

Let’s trace Sy’s world-building fiction as it unfolds over the course of the film to explore this idea in depth. Early on, we are introduced to the family that becomes Sy’s object of desire, the neatly-arranged Oedipal triad of father Will, mother Nina, and son Jake Yorkin. The Yorkins have been regular customers for years: Sy commments that he’s watched 9-year-old Jake grow up through photos of birthdays, that he “feels like Uncle Sy”; deliberately letting slip his desire to enter and disrupt the equilibrium of the family unit. When, at the beginning of the film, Nina and Jake arrive at Sy’s kiosk (the absent father is another recurrent theme), and Sy notices that the last shot on their latest reel hasn’t been used, he uses the opportunity to take a picture of himself. This is a critical act of self-portraiture, as it marks the moment where Sy is able to cast himself into the family household, in a continuum of images, happy memories for the photo album, coffee table or refrigerator. As no one but Sy is aware, he possesses extra prints of all of the Yorkins’ photos, in a striking collage on the wall of his apartment; the same images existing in two places at once, Sy’s unattainable desire is to assimilate the two sets of prints into one.

As well as the more obvious limits to social acceptability (the unmistakably Walmart-esque non-place that is the setting for much of the film illustrates the corporate code of conduct repeatedly), there’s an economic barrier to the fulfilment of this desire too. The Yorkins’ light and spacious minimalist house (more like a suburban mansion, paid for by Will’s profession as the director of a design company) sharply contrasts Sy’s out-of-town, dingy flat. This is especially apparent during a fantasy sequence in which Sy breaks into that house, and sees that self-portrait on the fridge door alongside the (very) familiar snaps of the family. The differences between the two households are clear to Sy: the Yorkins’ lives are abundant, joyful, idyllic, and literally picturesque; his life, on the other hand, is lonely, cold, and a perpetual economic and emotional struggle. Where the Yorkins are extrovert and public, willing to perform their fantasy of a perfect life to the eye of the camera, Sy is an introvert, a scavenger for images that would imbue his life with significance.

Yet as carefree as the Yorkins’ photographic story appears, it fails to illustrate the family’s much more turbulent domestic situation. At the core of this is husband-father Will’s “neglect”, the source of which is revealed to Sy to be his affair with another woman, Maya Burson. Sy is wounded by this discovery, to an almost personal degree. These two people, Will and Maya, stand to jeopardise the photo-narrative he has invested so much into, and so the remainder of the film sees him planning and enacting his revenge on them both. Perhaps here we can sense a degree of self-loathing in this reaction: their desires not especially different, Maya is merely a more successful interloper than Sy, so it seems Sy is weighed down by a refusal to face his own hypocrisy. Instead, he assumes control of a narrative he takes to be his (and in a sense, he is right), to cut off the flows of desire that have disturbed the harmony he needed to believe in.

At the centre of One Hour Photo are the photos themselves; it is a story about static images, told through moving images. At the time of the film’s release, digital photography was set to replace film photography, rendering Sy’s lab work antiquarian for the general consumer. If the twentieth century was dominated by the presence of photographic images, the beginning of the twenty-first has put this process into hyperacceleration, with the infusion of the digital photo, all-in-one portable devices (mobile smartphones), Wi-Fi and 4/5G, and image-centric social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook). It may not even be possible at this stage to measure the full impact of these technologies on social behaviour, but it ought to be evident that this revolution of images gifts all of us photo producer-consumers a great source of power. This power of the image (some might say glamour) produces in us a cocktail of thoughts and emotions which is often overbearing for individual human users, and can (and indeed does) manifest in sociopathic expressions: shame, terror, self-harm, suicide. We are (implicitly or not) keenly aware that without online presence, especially for the otherwise isolated, we risk not existing at all, and our photographic identity is a key component in this. We are all encouraged to shape our own photographic narratives, driven by an almost cultish sentiment of keeping alive. Sy’s observation – that we don’t have photos of things and times we want to forget – is more resonant now than ever: the surgical tools granted to us ensure that the deletion of an image no longer leaves behind even a physical residue.

The image One Hour Photo forces us to confront is that of Robin Williams, whose widely-publicised suicide in 2014 consecrates the actor’s visage as a Yorick-like memento mori. It’s too easy to grant hindsight the agency for subsequent interpretations of Williams and his work, of which much of the best has often been able to suggest a melancholic aspect. Georg Rockall-Schmidt says that while many remember Williams’s talent for being funny, he remembers more sharply Williams’s talent for being sad, and I think this comment is very astute. Regardless of this ability during life, the impact of Williams’s death surely does affect the watching of One Hour Photo. The film does more than portray a dead film star; our cultural memory coerces us into seeing a dying one. If Sy’s narrative is one of pornographic voyeurism (however platonic in its expression), that is at times uncomfortably close to our own photographic lives, then the position of One Hour Photo in the narrative of Robin Williams invites a voyeurism of a different kind: proto-snuff. And as Paul B. Preciado notes, “the notion of snuff is opposed to the dramatic or simulated and mimetic quality of all representation.” As bodily and somatic theory-fiction, snuff “affirms the performative power of representation to modify reality, or a desire for the real to exist in and by representation.” The danse macabre of Williams on screen is fully actualised in his portrayal of the desperately lonely Sy Parrish, speaking to the daily whirlwind of images we produce and consume, the legitimacy they promise but which we can never possess or embody, the dualistic celebrity/nobody of our spectral subjectivity. Sy’s thanatropic desire for the illustrious, elusive real is ours too: a mortification that is already under way.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.