One Hour Photo: Viewing Humanity Through a Camera Lens
It is safe to say that there will never be an actor, quite like the beloved Robin Williams. While he may have starred in some poorer films, they feel irrelevant when compared to some of his best films. He made children and adults laugh on the floor with the fourth walls breaking humor in Aladdin. He also hammered in the importance of literature by simply standing on a desk in Dead Poet Society. He certainly knew how to pick a unique role, yet he always played a good guy because of his household name. That was certainly not the case in his 2002 film, One Hour Photo, in which he played a disturbed stalker.
In the film, Williams played Seymour Parrish, a.k.a Sy the Photo Guy, who works on developing customers photos in a one-hour photo lab. He sees a family that he has become very friendly with, but the more we step into his psyche, the clearer it becomes that he has grown an unnatural obsession with the family. In the wrong hands, this film could have become another formulaic thriller, but that is not what director Mark Romanek did at all. Sy is not a killer, nor does he show any real sexual desire to assault someone; he is just old man who is simply feeling alone. He does not want to hurt the family physically, he just wants to preserve the family’s happiness, as he sees them in their photos.
Sy’s Character arc
The important thing to ask regarding Sy’s character arc is what is his obsession with this particular family? The Yorkin family is just the same as any other white suburban family, so what makes them so distinctive from the rest? The most likely reason is because Sy continuously sees pictures of the family always being happy; therefore he sees them as a perfect and welcoming family. In the film, Sy keeps referring himself as an uncle to the Yorkin family, and in a way, it perfectly represents how he wishes to be integrated into the family. He does not want to sadistically kill the family, nor does he want to be in a sexual relationship with the wife. All he wants is to feel like he belongs in the family, which is an understandable emotion when someone is alone in life. However, it is not his reasoning that makes him a disturbed character, it is how he goes about trying to observe the Yorkin family.
It is clear that Sy is an insane stalker is when we see he has a wall of photos dedicated to the Yorkin family. An interesting way to interpret Sy is as a deranged guardian angel because of how he watches over the family, as if it is his duty. In particular, he watches over the son Jakob to make sure his life is as Sy thinks it should be, almost like Sy sees a little bit of himself in Jacob. While it is never deliberately stated in the film directly, it is possible that Sy had a bad childhood, and he does not want Jakob to go though the same thing. When a shocking discovery is made about the father Will, Sy sees it as his obligation to the family to help the wife through drastic actions. Another way to interpret Sy comes in the scene when Sy’s TV is showing the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. The film is about an alien coming down to earth and sending a message of peace and the shunning of war. Symbolically, this is describing Sy as an alien; not in the literal sense of course, but more that he is a man that is not well accepted into society, and studies other peoples’ lives to understand how to be normal. It makes sense, considering that he has no friends, family, or even a lover in his life. To further establish this, he puts a random photo of a middle-aged women in his wallet, and pretends it is a picture of his mother.
At this point, the audience knows that Sy is alone in life, but it is not specifically mentioned why he is alone. It is most likely because he is old, therefore implying he has lost his chance to have a family, or to even have an exciting life in general. One scene that is very symbolic of Sy’s old age in when he is walking through a yard sale, full of discarded and unwanted materials. Even his job is very obsolete, considering all photos now-a-days are digital, so there is no real point in photos being edited by other people. Without this job, he has no way to be with the Yorkins, as he can only understand their lives through photos. Disturbingly, he even keeps a picture of the Yorkins family, and says that he is Jakob’s uncle. This quote perfectly sums up why photography is so impotent to him.
“And if these pictures have anything important to say to future generations, it’s this: I was here. I existed. I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture.”
The Yorkin Family
The point of a family photo is to capture the good moments in life, almost as a way to distract us from our problems and struggles in reality. People do not take photos of bad moments in life so they never have relive those awful experiences. This is exactly what the Yorkin family represents: a family that looks happy in photos, but are actually dysfunctional in real life. The mother Nina spends too much money, and the father Will is neglectful, and does not pay much attention to his own family. This is because he is selfishly having an affair with another woman behind Nina’s back. At first, Sy sees Will as an ordinary suburban father in this family’s photos, but when he meets him in the flesh, he senses something troubling about him.
And then there is Jakob, who befriends Sy even though he feels sad towards him at the same time. Jakob is just a kid, and he does not understand how someone like Sy can hide behind a smile every day, even though they are miserable. At first his mom tries to reassure him by saying Sy probably has friends and a girlfriend, but she does not want to lie to her son, so she simply replies “not everyone is as lucky as us.” In other words, she is saying that people like them are meant to live a happy life with others, while people like Sy are just presumed to live alone. It is a defeatist way to view humanity, but it is sadly true. Not everyone gets to live with the ones they love, whether it is because of person’s own actions, or the person was just misunderstood. In Sy’s case, he either became deranged because he has always been that way, or people in society simply neglecting him, forcing him in to a life of seclusion.
By the third act of the film, Sy realizes that Will is the weak link in this perfect family. At first, he puts photos of Will cheating with the other women in Nina’s photo envelope. After stalking the family even more, he observes that nether Nina nor Jakob have the guts to confront Will, so Sy decides to take matters into his own hands. He breaks into a hotel room that Will and the other women are in, and threatens them with a knife to have sex while he takes pictures of them. He doesnot do this for sexual thrills, but instead to reveal Will’s true nature of being an adulterer. Will never thought twice about having an affair with another women, but now that pictures are being taken of their immoral acts, he is now ashamed and disturbed by his actions. Sy is soon put into custody, and Will is allowed to go back home with a guilty conscience. While his family is glad to have him back alive, he may never be able to live down his betrayal of his wife and son’s trust.
With a film so entrenched with pictures and images, it makes sense that the film cinematography itself would be very metaphorical. The cinematography was done by Jeff Cronenweth, who is known for doing the cinematography of most of David Fincher’s films Like Fight Club and Gone Girl. What specifically stands out is the use of color in the film, and how it symbolizes Sy’s unstable mind. One obvious example is the color red, and like most other films, it symbolizes a character’s anger and frustration. In one specific scene, Sy has discovered that Will has been having an affair, and he hides in the corner of a dark room. Since the whole scene is drenched in red, it shows Sy’s rage, but also his fear, as he does not know what he may have to do to fix the problem at hand. Then there is the color blue, which is supposed to invoke the feeling of comfort, which makes it ironic that Sy is shown wearing a blue vest. The color blue in the film is metaphorically saying that people need to be careful who to trust because the individuals that come off as kind and normal may be more mentally disturbed than one may think.
Yet the color that is inescapable in the film is the color white. This stark color can be seen in the store where Sy works at, in Sy’s lonely apartment, and even in Sy’s clothing. The color white is certainly not symbolizing that Sy is heavenly or even morally good, but instead symbolizes his loneliness. He does not fit in the world, so the color white shows he is alone wherever he goes; whether it be his job, or even his own apartment. White also symbolizes that he is insane because the walls in his apartment and even in a dream sequence oddly resemble an insane asylum.The dream sequence itself has become the most iconic scene of the film, but what does it actually mean? Since the scene is so ambiguous, it can be interpreted in many different ways. One way the nightmare could be interpreted is Sy attempting to hide his inhumane side, as he can no longer hold back his inner insanity. Another way it can be interpreted is Sy has seen the true colors of Will, and now his pure image of the Yorkin family is forever ruined.
Since Cronenweth has worked on David Fincher films, he has mastered the art of slowly delving into a character’s psyche by showing disturbing and psychological images. He tells the audience that Sy is delusional using almost no dialogue, and instead relying on the method of ‘show don’t tell.’ One scene, for example, shows Sy’s delusional fantasy as he walks into the Yorkin’s home while they are out, and acts like he lives there himself. When the Yorkin’s do arrive home and catch Sy in the act, they are not frightened by him, but instead treat him like he is a part of the family. In this one scene, it is established that Sy has no social stills at all, and also how he is living in a fantasy that even he knowns he can never have. What really enhances the disturbing images is the haunting score by Reinhold Heil & Johnny Klimek. Without the soundtrack, the scene in which Sy breaks into the house might be interpreted as sad, considering it is a lonely man longing for a normal life. However, when placing a haunting score in the scene, it gives the scene a whole new unnerving feeling to the audience.
When getting right down to it, what makes Sy an interesting character study is that he is clearly delusional, yet at the same time tragically sympathetic. Don’t be mistaken, he is not a good human being, considering he stalked a family and threatened two people to imitate sex while he takes pictures. However, the fact that he is trying to warn a mother about her adulterer husband is actually commendable; because he just wants to see the family be happy. In the end: who is the real villain of the film? A man that would take drastic measures to expose an adulterer, or is it the man who would throw away all his family’s trust and respect for a hotter woman. Maybe they are both immoral men for different reasons, it is just that Sy’s motivation is more understandable. All Sy wanted was to feel like he would mean something to the Yorkin family, and in a twisted way, he got his wish. By the end of the film, the Yorkins will never be able to forget Sy, and what he did to their family.
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