Is it ethical for a motel manager to peep on his customers for over 30 years in the interest of indulging his voyeurism and collecting research on human sexuality and behavior?

No.

Is it ethical for a journalist who was not only aware of the motel manager’s actions but also once personally observed him peeping on his customers to have done nothing about it in the larger interest of eventually getting the man to go on the record for a book about his experiences and the research he’d collected?

Probably not, though there are certain schools of thought in the journalism world which could maybe justify that.

Is it ethical for a group of documentarians to simply passively capture the period of time when the motel manager and journalist decided to go public and write a book even though the manager’s facts and records weren’t all adding up? Did they have an obligation to discover the full story and press harder for the facts or simply remain flies on the wall watching the slow-moving implosion of the manager and journalist’s grand plans?

That one’s trickier to answer and might well determine what you think of Voyeur, Netflix’s new documentary from Myles Kane and Josh Koury, the same duo behind 2012’s little-seen Journey to Planet X. The motel manager is Gerald Foos, a deep-voiced everyman who purchased an Aurora, Colorado motel in the 1960s and retrofitted it with an intricate ventilation and attic system which allowed him to spy on his guests from above. The journalist is Gay Talese, a pioneer of New Journalism thanks to his 1966 essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and 1981 non-fiction book Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

Voyeur is ostensibly about Foos and Talese partnering on the book The Voyeur’s Motel (preceded by an article in The New Yorker). For his part in the story, Foos comes off as a self-deluded fool led astray by Talese, who suspected Foos didn’t know what he was getting into but chose to keep that to himself. Foos’ desire for recognition followed by his near-immediate retreat from the spotlight provides Voyeur with an effective human element. The doc, however, is arguably more interesting when it acts as a profile of Talese. Already in his early 80s by the start of the documentary, his reckless need for one last ride in the spotlight leads him down a path of professional ruin.

The documentarians seem to sense as much, resulting in an electric moment when on the eve of the publication of Talese’s book he steamrolls over the directors when they dare to press him and Foos on the various factual discrepancies that would have given any other journalist serious pause. It’s the only moment in the documentary when we actually hear and/or see the directors or camera crew, and Talese’s vicious put-down of them as not being real journalists comes back on him fairly hard when after the publication of his book other outlets discover just how much of Foos’ story had been massaged and exaggerated.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Voyeur is a documentary about a journalist who lost sight of the story he was supposed to be telling or a documentary that lost control of its own subjects or both. Either way, it makes for a fascinating viewing experience for anyone who is not put off by the admittedly skin crawling revelation that Aurora, Colorado had its own Norman Bates (albeit a less murdery version of him) for over 30 years and knew nothing about it.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT

Kane and Koury liven up staid talking head sequences with recreations of what Foos describes, filmed through a vent looking down on actors in nondescript motel rooms in various states of undress. This is later paid off beautifully with a surprisingly powerful sequence where those same actors look directly up at the camera while Foos is discussing his unease over becoming the center of attention thanks to Talese’s New Yorker article.

ROTTENTOMATOES CONSENSUS

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

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