NYFF: In buzzy doc ‘Voyeur,’ viewing a journalistic icon — and society — through a two-way mirror

Meta layers pile up with regularity in these “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Deadpool” days. But a film in which we watch a man watching a man who watched other men and women? That may set a new benchmark for the form.

In “Voyeur,” Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s disturbing, absorbing and eerily timely new documentary, the idea of peering in on other humans is keenly on display. As the movie world-premiered last weekend at the New York Film Festival (Netflix will debut it on Dec. 1), it brought a controversial story into the light — and asked profound questions about our collective need to watch when no one thinks we’re looking.

A New Yorker story last year, written by New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese, describes the improbable tale of Gerald Foos. (The piece became an excerpt of a book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” that would come out a few months later.)

Foos owned the Manor House Motel in Colorado for years beginning in the 1960s. Running a business, however, was the least of his interests. Foos was a hardcore voyeur — so hardcore that he bought the motel expressly to secretly watch guests in their rooms, personally building a hidden observation platform on a second story and then peeking in on acts both banal and titillating.

Vents in the ceiling allowed him an unobstructed view from the platform into the rooms below; they also were constructed in a way that prevented anyone from spotting him. Foos was never caught.

Oh, and he did this for up to two decades.

“You have this crazy story of a man who was watching his guests,” Kane said, seated next to Koury at the New York festival. “And then you have this journalist watching him. You couldn’t write a better set-up.”

As the film documents, Talese and Foos go back more than three decades, when the motelier reached out to the journalist following the publication of the latter’s pioneering sexual history, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” Foos was interested in opening up to the writer but not in revealing his identity, which headed off any possibility of a story. That changed in 2014 when Foos, perhaps due to his advancing age, decided to go public. (The film uses re-creations to show how Foos did it and what he saw when he did. There is footage from the motel, but well after Foos had sold it and stopped using it for that voyeuristic purpose. The motel has since been knocked down)

That would all seem to make it an open-and-shut case: Journalist gets the story, and we then watch it land like the bombshell it is.

Except the story was just beginning.

As it turns out, Foos may not have been telling the whole truth — an event that we see in stunning real-time as the Washington Post reveals key discrepancies between Talese’s account and public records, and Talese disavows the book (sort of).

“We wanted a journalist dealing with a story in real time, not a look-back after the fact,” Koury said. That real time leads to the kind of spontaneity that happens when documentarians follow a subject whose fate is far from determined. Talese reports and writes the story, the piece is challenged, tensions flare between the journalist and subject (and journalist and filmmakers), and the film generally has the kind of combustibility and ethical slipperiness that one rarely sees in a documentary.

It also has the effect of making us feel like we’re privy to a story from an uncomfortably close proximity, like we’re seeing something we shouldn’t be seeing… Well, you see where this is going.

“You mean like when they’re watching a documentary?” Koury responded slyly when asked how audiences might feel like they have more in common with Foos than it would appear. This is a story that’s at once outré and weird and very distant from the audience — and then boomerangs right back to ask if, in the age of docuseries and reality television and social-media-lurking, there’s a little Foos in all of us.

Kane and Koury (the pair met in graduate school 15 years ago and have been making scrappy docs ever since), originally just wanted to make a film about Talese. Kane knew the writer through some multimedia work the two had done together at the New Yorker, where Kane worked; he approached Talese with an idea of a documentary following the journalist during the reporting of a story. That it turned out to be as rich and thematically resonant a tale as Foos’ was a happy coincidence.

That tale also, it should be said, created some tension with some Hollywood luminaries.

Around the time of the book’s publication, Talese’s agent had made a movie deal for it with Steven Spielberg to produce and Sam Mendes potentially to direct. News in the Hollywood trades of an in-process doc did not sit well with the “American Beauty” director, Talese said. And the completed film sat with him even more uneasily.

“I was thinking if Sam just saw it, he wouldn’t be offended,” Talese said in a separate interview about his strategy after the film was completed. “Well, he did see it, and he was offended.” The project now appears to be dead, Talese said.

The doc may stand plenty on its own. In larger part, that’s because of Talese’s and Foos’ natural rapport. Despite their differences, Talese the patrician dandy and Foos the hefty hustler, bond almost implicitly over a shared desire to peer in on other peoples’ lives. (In “The Kingdom and the Power,” Talese’s seminal look at the New York Times, the author opens the book by calling himself a voyeur.)

Indeed, one of the many ideas rippling below the movie’s surface is how journalism, even practiced at the highest level, can be a form of voyeurism too.

“Most journalists are probing people — they’re restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world and imperfections in people and places,” Talese said, invoking the opening section of “Power.”

Viewers seeking answers to what really happened in the Colorado motel decades ago or why some inconsistencies exist — they include diary entries about him peering from the observation deck in years when he didn’t own the motel — might be disappointed. The mystery is a red herring of sorts — we care about what really happened, but of greater interest is how Tales goes about finding out what happened. And, needless to say, how his own voyeuristic instincts may have led him to make mistakes.

Indeed, a gap exists between how Talese is perceived and how he perceives himself. The movie leaves a clear impression of someone who gets carried away with the story in a way that leaves some blind spots, ethical and journalistic, as he declines for the most part to raise questions about Foos’ behavior; it can also show him as short-tempered. In the interview, however, Talese said he thought the movie did an admirable job honoring him.

Those with an interest in the history of reportage will find an up-close dissection of how a journalism groundbreaker goes about his work both illuminating and at times problematic. Talese relies on a single source, and because of his closeness to Foos, flirts with a loss of objectivity.

But even more than what it says about the journalist or even Foos, it says something about us.

“I don't love what Gerald Foos did and don't ask viewers to love him,” said Koury. “He’s a specifically problematic personality.

“But I think there are voyeuristic tendencies in all of us — it’s human. We’re sneaking glances at people on the street or eavesdropping on them on the subway.”

The movie, the director notes, will premiere on Netflix, a service we watch on screens in the privacy of our own living rooms and bedrooms. And, oh, yes, he points out, Netflix is known for monitoring us as we watch. Once it starts, the chain of voyeurism never really stops.

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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