In the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s mesmerizing 1994 movie Red, which stars a young Irene Jacob and an older Jean-Louis Tritignant, the subject of how much right we have as human beings to judge others was explored in ways which were not only striking, but were likewise seamlessly interwoven into an entirely offbeat love story. Jacob plays the model Valentine, who in returning a dog whom she has accidentally run over with her car to an aging judge played by Tritignant, discovers that the judge has an elaborate electronic spying system set up in his house through which he can listen to the lives that unfold in the houses of his neighbors, one of them which he discovers exists on the edge of familial catastrophe.
At first Valentine is utterly repulsed that someone would do such a thing, and even considers the judge to be a pathetic figure. Yet when after the dog he has given her to keep runs home to the judge, and Valentine comes back to his house to retrieve her and then attempts to warn one of his neighbors of the electronic spying game that has been transpiring under their noses, she finds that she can’t go through with it. In doing so, she begins to confront, as has the judge for years, the futility of attempting to make others lives just by interfering with them. From there Valentine learns from the judge how after being unable to keep his personal feeling about a man he had to pass sentence on apart from that sentence, the judge had immediately retired.
From there the discussion between the two of them moves toward how the judge believes that if he were any of the people who had appeared before him in his court – charged with murder, robbery, what not – given their lives, he would have committed exactly the same crimes that they did. And as the friendship between the two lonely people grows, and as the judge gives up his spying game and even turns himself in, he begins to come out of his isolation and Valentine begins to grow less angry toward the world. Eventually, through a series of circumstance brought on by the judge admitting his crime, Valentine meets the man she was destined to meet, a younger version of the judge himself.
This is obviously the sort of film which makes one wonder about the synonymous real world implications. In this case, to what degree is the voyeurism of the aging judge in Red really our own, only on a different scale? For aren’t we all, if we’re honest with ourselves, at least somewhat guilty of the same type of eavesdropping that he was practicing? As much as people want to, they can have immediate access to the details of other people’s personal lives on the Internet; a tendency that is continually manifested by the degree to which people can download the readily available personal information of others in which they are interested and then comment about it on Facebook or Twitter. Indeed, ours is more and more becoming a voyeuristic culture.
The larger question of course is whether or not we have learned, as the judge did, that intrusion into the lives of others really serves no greater purpose. That is, commenting about others on social media after gaining access to the details of their personal lives, something that would have been impossible to do some twenty years ago, isn’t really going to change anyone’s mind or anyone’s behavior for the better. It’s only going to cause either hurt or embarrassment. So the question becomes one of why so many people are drawn toward this type of behavior in which they cannot only probe the personal lives of others, but even revel in any embarrassing details that they discover.
One reason may simply be that, as the great country singer Kris Kristofferson wrote in one of his songs from the 1970s, Jesus Was a Capricorn, “everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on.” And today, as our culture becomes increasingly comparative by numbers (who has more followers on social media, how much money does somebody like Jeff Bezos have, students and schools being exclusively defined by standardized test scores) the tendency to search for someone online whose life compares less favorably in the digital world with one’s own has been significantly exacerbated. Of course, the cost for this sort of untoward behavior may well be one’s integrity. Yet, like the aging judge in Red, if people are inclined to do so, they may yet save themselves from their own digital voyeurism.