Tuesday, June 11, 2013

When surveillance culture was funny

Posted By on 06.11.13 at 04:11 PM

One of the Candid Microphone comedy records
  • One of the Candid Microphone comedy records
The night after Edward Snowden claimed responsibility for one of the biggest leaks in U.S. history—concerning the National Security Agency's surveillance of countless civilians at home and abroad—the Northwest Chicago Film Society screened a Candid Microphone short from 1952 as a lead-in to Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Like the long-running TV series Candid Camera (which first aired in 1948), Microphone was based on a popular radio show in which comedian Allen Funt played pranks on unsuspecting people and used hidden equipment to record the results. After he played his mark as a fool, Funt would admit to the gag, and everyone would have a good laugh. "You're in the movies!" he said in last night's segment, a variation on his usual catchphrase, "Smile, you're on Candid Camera!" In light of recent events, it all seemed kind of creepy.

Funt, in particular, came across as more sinister than I'd remembered. I wonder if anyone else in the Patio Theater auditorium saw him as a forebear of the shadowy NSA employees conjured up by recent news stories. (Also I wonder how many employees of the Agency have adopted Funt's catchphrase as their own.) In any case, his project of documenting normal people off guard clearly anticipated the current era of YouTube and reality television, in which public humiliation regularly gets repackaged as entertainment.

Compared to its successors, though, Candid Microphone feels like such an innocent form of voyeurism. The cameras and microphones of 1952 are much larger than present-day models—most of the fun is in seeing how Funt and his crew go about hiding them. That seems to have been the appeal for the people Funt pranked in last night's segment. They were fascinated that the technology could be used like this, and their fascination—coupled with the allure of knowing strangers would be interested in seeing and hearing them—outweighed any sense of being exploited. The program put a happy face on surveillance, even though that face belonged to Funt—an oily-looking loudmouth with the aggressive, calculating charm of a door-to-door salesman.

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