Alone and awake in the middle of the night, the only sound I can hear inside my home is of a clock ticking. The world feels quiet and I am safe, inside. I am oblivious to whatever is happening outside. The barriers we create operate twofold: they keep us in, and they keep others out. Home invasion, then, is something to be feared for how it breaks down the physical and ideological barriers we put in place to protect ourselves. Whatever else the concept of ‘home’ might be, it is fundamentally reliant on structures and mechanisms: open and close, lock and unlock, isolate and separate. In Graeme Arnfield’s Home Invasion, a video essay that, in a non-linear way, charts the history of the doorbell, the fears and anxieties that those binary positions create are heightened and hyper-focused, offering audiences a purposefully and ironically narrow view.
Inspired by so-called ‘nightmares’ from which their inventors awoke, Arnfield tells the stories of Jamie Siminoff (the inventor of Ring, 2004), D.W. Griffith (an early adopter of cinematic cross-cutting in 1906), Mary Molyneux (whose involvement in the Luddite protests of 1811 was instrumental), William Murdoch (a Birmingham patentor who created the doorbell in 1817) and frightened New Yorker Marie Van Britten Brown (who created new a form of domestic surveillance in 1966). But Arnfield’s accounts are far from celebratory. Instead, he argues that human invention that is led by fear and anxiety allows technology to takeover, an invader rather than a saviour.
Concerned, in the first instance, by and about the surveillant properties of the peephole Cam, Home Invasion begins with footage captured via Ring. As Arnfield builds his key argument about the ways in which technologies that are specifically designed to ease anxiety and assure safety (the doorbell, the doorbell camera, the telephone) can become the very invading force they are wrestling with, he zooms out (only metaphorically, the whole thing is confined to the parameters of the peephole lens) to include a wider-range of images; illustrated news clippings from the 1800s, even a home interior and clips from famous films (everything from Lois Webber’s 1913 narrative thriller Suspense to the many contemporary Scream sequels). But widening his pool of resources never shifts or widens the perspective he presents: the entire film remains hyper-focused through the same small, circular masking. These secondary images of film clips and news illustrations maintain their flat surface texture. The convex of the peephole is reserved for the onscreen text that Arnfield adds over the images to make his argument. As the view is so small, focused and singular, his essay is writ in fitting dot point text. The effect highlights – quite literally, in lurid green, red and yellow text – the crude nature of such an argument: an image tells one aspect of a story, how we write the narrative is another thing entirely.
What we watch, then, as viewers is cinema as invasion: intertitles, obscure framing and carefully chosen images edited in a calculative sequence, paired with a rousing score (Baudouin Oosterlynck and Sarah Naylor use prepared piano pieces and manipulated field recordings to great effect) create a sense of creeping anxiety, almost as if someone were slowly scheming, edging towards your own front door. If it is technology that Arnfield is afraid of, then he is, in manipulating the very stuff to make this video essay, exacting revenge and undermining its pixelated power.
“What is to be done when our homes and dreams have been invaded?” Arnfield asks, drawing connections between the replacement of human labour in the Industrial Revolution and the tell-tale nature of a camera that unfairly persecutes along socio-economic, classist and racist lines. Arnfield finds “customers rather than neighbours” and “terrified consumers” in the wake of such technology, highlighting how police can access Ring footage on the basis of “public safety” and how the real value of such a system lies in the data it gives to Google, FaceBook and Amazon, as well as other marketing companies who access IP addresses, location and sensor data to further build their empires of exploitation.
Arnfield’s text interrupts and intrudes on the IRL footage of kids licking, petty criminals spray painting, and in one instance, a woman fighting with the Ring peephole Cam. Oosterlynck and Naylor’s score does more than just underline the actions of naughty opportunist parcel grabbers grinning into to lens of the Ring; it adds fanfare. Though some moments are comical – as when an officer of law enforcement delivers someone’s pizza following their altercation with the delivering perp – the tone is overwhelmingly dark. Arnfield’s intention is clear: a restricted view tells a story, but is seeing something better than nothing when there’s a bigger, potentially invisible system at play.
Anselm Franke, writing in Technology and Desire, cites 19th century rationalist science as frequently referring to the soul as an image. According to Franke, “the photographic image, too, moves through time and space, appears as a phantasma-bearing likeness, continues to exist after death, and has a certain physical and mediumistic power to ‘possess’ other bodies, as any observation of a crowd in a cinema suffices to show.”
Systems of capitalism, industrialisation, neoliberalism, surveillance, crime and punishment, inequality, and even cinema itself, are spectres. Forget the ghost in the machine, we haunt ourselves through a process of alienation: projecting our own souls into the tech we use to deny the existence of another. We open and close, lock and unlock, isolate and separate.
Tara Judah is a writer, editor and improviser. She writes film criticism and hybrid fiction, edits festival reports for Senses of Cinema, critics’ reviews for MUBI, and performs at Bristol Improv Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic.