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The Best "Big Brother" Movies by Farr: "I Think I'm Being Watched"

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While the rest of the economy quakes, the security camera industry thrives. I know -- I have a friend in the business. I'm told that in some cities, there'll be a hidden camera on every street, recording you, me and any potential terrorist sharing the sidewalk. London already has this, apparently. George Orwell, wherever you are -- you were right!

Think of it: we all now experience this violation of privacy (never mind civility) each time we board a commercial aircraft, where any of our personal items may be gone through by anonymous, none-too-cheerful people wearing gloves. I had another (this time) lady friend who had her vibrator exposed for all to see on a business trip.

And you can discern this sea-change in movies as well, which increasingly reflect the behavioral impacts of technology and proliferating media on the next generation, and on our own.

I recently screened the modest but telling lol (2006) on DVD and beheld a new generation seemingly retreating into itself, intent on communicating constantly by cell phone, text or instant messaging. At one point, a young man looks longingly at his laptop while making love. At another, a jilted boyfriend wreaks vengeance on his ex- by releasing a very intimate, erotic video of her to the masses on the worldwide web. Ouch.

Truthfully, I do derive spine-tingling pleasure out of certain "Big Brother"- type movies, films which involve being watched, manipulated or exposed in some way -- quite often without the victim knowing it.

As the prescient Orwell demonstrated with his 1984, exploring the implications of loss of privacy and free expression was not born with the computer age. So here's a sampling of my favorite movies, old and new, that somehow reflect this unnerving theme:

Rear Window (1954) - After breaking his leg on the job, photojournalist "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) passes a New York City summer looking out his apartment window -- into his neighbors' windows -- and his natural nosiness causes him to study a battling couple across the courtyard. When the woman disappears, Jeff suspects the husband (Raymond Burr) of foul play, and enlists his high-society girlfriend (Grace Kelly) to help him investigate. This Hitchcock classic takes its time, but once the tension starts building, it doesn't stop until the heart-pounding conclusion. Hitch expertly blends the story of a crime that may have happened with the dark side of human obsession: voyeurism. The movie marks a high point for Stewart, who would be remembered as Hitchcock's most human, vulnerable hero. And who can resist the bewitching Grace?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - In Everytown, USA, your neighbors are acting strangely. They may look the same, but something has gone dead inside them. Soon strange pods are discovered, and it appears they serve to replicate extra-terrestrial creatures as these same neighbors, but only once the humans fall asleep. The nightmarish truth is that the aliens are watching and waiting, until in our slumbers we can no longer consciously resist them. Thus begins an insidious takeover of the earth itself. My personal '50s sci-fi favorite, Don Siegel's original Invasion, is an ingenious nightmare vision that reflects the paranoia of the time created by the Cold War and the blight of McCarthyism. Absent of the effects that characterize more recent entries in this genre, the film remains genuinely creepy strictly on the basis of story, direction and performances. After a respectable remake in 1978 starring Donald Sutherland, Hollywood -- in full "remake-itis" mode -- is now releasing yet another version with Nicole Kidman. Take your pick, folks: for me, first is best.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - In Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Drs. Dave Brown and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) are traveling towards Jupiter aboard space vessel "Discovery," equipped with the new HAL 9000 computer. Though it's presumed that whatever man creates he can control, HAL will put that theory to the test, bringing significant danger to the astronauts from a most unexpected source. The prior summary only begins to describe this most cosmic, dense and challenging of science fiction films, which Kubrick co-wrote with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. 2001 relies on images more than words to convey its multi-layered tale, which starts with the dawn of man. Profound and cerebral, the film may feel slow and ponderous to those accustomed to Star Wars, and its vision of the near-future betrays its 1968 origins. That said, it's still an impressive and absorbing mind-blower. (Inside joke: move each letter of "Hal" forward by one, and what do you get?)

Klute (1971) - A killer is quietly stalking Bree Daniel (Jane Fonda), a would-be actress and high-class call girl. He's also managing to record her sexy by-play with clients. Detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) meets Bree when it appears she may be connected with the mysterious disappearance of a male relative of his. It's clear that Bree is a pivotal link in Sutherland's investigation, but she has no idea what that link is, which only makes her more vulnerable. Could she be the next to disappear? The late, gifted director Alan J. Pakula builds a subtle mood of fear and dread that makes for mesmerizing viewing. Fonda brings texture and dimension to the central role -- part cynical, hardened hooker, part confused young woman too frightened to let anyone into her life. Fonda deservedly won the Oscar that year, and Sutherland is effectively subdued in the title role.

The Conversation (1974) - Detached and distrustful of others, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a virtually friendless man whose life is consumed by his special brand of freelance intelligence work. Hired by corporate director Martin Stett (a young Harrison Ford) to monitor the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), Caul is troubled by the fragments of talk he illicitly captures on tape and begins obsessively piecing them together, suspecting a murder is in the works. Made before he began work on The Godfather II, Francis Ford Coppola's haunting drama is a searing character study set in a pungent atmosphere of conspiracy and foul play. Hackman is the dark heart of the film, playing a solitary figure tortured by guilt and complicity. Arguably one of Coppola's most artful films, The Conversation is dark, brooding, and mysterious, but totally absorbing.

Secret Honor (1984) - Shortly after resigning in disgrace after Watergate, former U.S. President Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) sits alone in his private study late at night, dictating his memoirs, with security cameras in plain sight, and a bottle of Chivas close at hand. Downing a few drinks, then a few more, Nixon, still obsessed with monitoring and recording everything for posterity (the very tendency that sealed his fate), rants bitterly about Khrushchev and Kissinger, Castro and the Kennedys, revisiting past glories and failures, while attempting to rehabilitate his tainted image. Adapted from Hall's one-man stage show, Robert Altman's film presents Nixon as a blustering paranoid-obsessive consumed by rage and a crippling insecurity, but also a man with deep regrets about his life and legacy. Hall is spellbinding as the broken, isolated former leader, and Altman's unique visual sensibility lends a restrained but effective cinematic quality to the single-actor, single-setting environment. Disturbing and poignant, Secret Honor is a complex look at a tragic, twisted figure.

The Lives of Others (2006) - After seeing a stage drama by celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), Stasi (State Security) Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) places the writer under surveillance at the suggestion of a government minister who privately lusts after Dreyman's lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler quickly learns that Dreyman is patriotic, but as the GDR begins to crack down on his artist friends, his loyalties begin to shift -- and astonishingly, so do Wiesler's. Winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar, this elegantly plotted political thriller concerns a highly disciplined agent of the East German secret police who becomes emotionally involved in the life of one suspected dissident -- though they never meet. In a stoic, tight-lipped performance, Muhe is note-perfect as the cold, unhappy policeman who experiences a personal catharsis after monitoring Dreyman. Koch and Gedeck shine too as a couple doomed to suffer at the hands of abusive officials. Suspenseful and moving, "Others" is an aching tribute to obstructed love, and those individual rights of privacy we too often take for granted in this country -- but more than ever, shouldn't.