Indie Flashback: One Hour Photo

Robin Williams in Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo.”

Robin Williams in Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo.” Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

If any film was ever built for the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, it is music video director Mark Romanek’s deeply unsettling 2002 feature debut, “One Hour Photo.” I hadn’t seen the film in years when I decided to purchase a $3 copy of the film at my local Reckless Records a few days after Robin Williams’ death. When I discovered that the disc contained the “Full Screen” transfer of the film, I was initially dismayed, yet as soon as the main titles began to roll across the screen, I realized that this was, in fact, the fitting format in which to view the film. The aspect ratio, designed for archaic television sets, is as outdated as the one hour photo lab where the film’s main character, Sy Parrish (Williams), works. It’s the perfect frame for Sy’s isolated existence, entrapping him on both sides with black bars that make the neon-lit aisles at his discount department store appear all the more claustrophobic.

Sy is the troubling photo negative of the classic Williams persona, which was much-beloved for its loud, manic exuberance. In contrast, the silence that surrounds Sy is practically deafening. Concealing his demons within the banal façade of a genial servant, Williams’ repressed character is clearly screaming on the inside, as unforgettably illustrated in a nightmare sequence featuring startling imagery evocative of Edvard Munch. Of course, it’s impossible to watch any Williams film now without having it haunted by his suicide, a devastating end to a life ridden with substance abuse and depression that still triumphed in bringing the world overwhelming joy. In many ways, the actor was every bit as powerful and as imprisoned as his Genie in “Aladdin.” Depression can cloud one’s rationality to such a degree that one can lose their sense of self much like Williams’ adult Peter Pan does in “Hook.” The scene where Peter remembers why he chose to grow up—he “wanted to be a father”—provides an achingly poignant metaphor for the “happy thoughts” that can prevent one from falling into the abyss. How tragic that Williams couldn’t hold onto those thoughts long enough.

What “One Hour Photo” provides us is a glimpse at the raw, naked despair that reverberates beneath practically every Williams performance. Photos become an externalization of the public gaiety that is used to mask one’s inner pain. Consider Sy’s chilling opening monologue, which is heard over footage of the generically photogenic, deceptively utopian Yorkin family (Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen and Dylan Smith) striking joyous poses in front of their camera: “Family photos depict smiling faces… births, weddings, holidays, children’s birthday parties. People take pictures of the happy moments in their lives. Someone looking through our photo album would conclude that we had led a joyous, leisurely existence free of tragedy. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.” The joy that Williams often exuded on-camera makes it difficult to accept the notion that he could’ve taken his own life. Perhaps his full-on embracement of humor provided a vital escape for himself as well as his audience. Yet exploring one’s own struggles in the fictional landscape of a film set can prove to be equally cathartic.

Fraught with crippling loneliness, Sy daydreams about the lives of the people whose photos he develops in the airless gloom of his solitude. When he stumbles upon Mr. Yorkin “in the flesh” for the first time, he’s as flustered and tongue-tied as a teenage girl fawning over Brad Pitt. The tranquil happiness that the Yorkins project through their photos provides a great comfort to Sy for reasons that are never fully explained. Critics have complained that the film’s final speech reveals far too pat a motive, though I believe it serves the same purpose as the psychiatrist’s concluding analysis in “Psycho”: it gives bystanders an answer they can accept without betraying the true mystery of the central character’s deranged psyche. Williams’ performance is one of such remarkable complexity and disquieting power that it transcends any stereotypical genre cliché. It is easily one of the greatest achievements of his screen career, arriving in the same year as his uncharacteristically dark turns in “Insomnia,” “Death to Smoochy” and his gleefully profane return to stand-up on Broadway.

When the Yorkins’ personal life turns out to be far more dysfunctional than it had seemed, Sy’s world is shattered. He eventually starts stalking them like a deranged paparazzi, yet the violence that he inflicts on his prey is purely psychological. So agonizing are his pangs of betrayal that he wants nothing more than for his phony idols to share in the helplessness of his misery. The film’s very final, positively Kubrickian image—hovering above this article—mirrors the infamous Greek masks of Melpomene and Thalia, juxtaposing the grimace of tragedy with the beaming grin of comedy. It also indelibly encapsulates the dichotomy of Williams himself, and the melancholia that managed to coexist with the laughter. How fitting that the smiling face of Sy contained on the left side of the frame is from an imagined picture where he stands posing with the rest of the Yorkin clan, who have embraced him as an honorary uncle. Fantasy has enabled Sy to be the star of his own picture, and it is the motion pictures, after all, that gave Williams a sense of belonging for so many years.

And yet, in this time of mourning, it is important to remember the great gifts of hilarity and elation that Williams gave us throughout his life, and how he was able to light up a cavernous theater full of people with his mere presence. One of my favorite pieces of footage I’ve found of the actor online was from the 2003 Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards ceremony, where Williams’ portrayal in “One Hour Photo” was honored with a Best Actor nomination alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York,” Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt” and no one else. To make matters even more absurd, Day-Lewis and Nicholson won in a tie, leaving Williams to sit awkwardly at his assigned table. Of course, no force on earth could keep Williams away from the mic, and his non-acceptance speech brought down the house on what was clearly a blissfully anarchic evening…

In closing, I offer another line delivered by Sy that sounds as if it was uttered by Williams from beyond the grave…

“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.”

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