Voyeur Fails to Add Much Insight to Gay Talese’s Notorious Story of the Manor House Motel

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Photo: Cris Moris/Netflix

When Gay Talese’s article “The Voyeur’s Motel” came out in The New Yorker in the spring of last year, it provoked a divisive, often angry response, and a lot of soul searching over the role and responsibility of the journalist. Talese’s subject, Gerald Foos, had spent two decades as the proprietor of the Manor House Motel in Aurora, Colorado, which he had purchased specifically for the purpose of spying on guests. In addition to walking a tricky line over the course of his research, including participating in voyeurism with Foos in the 1980s, Talese somewhat mystifyingly never thought it necessary to bring in another source besides Foos and his handwritten records of his guest’s activities. The outcry over the story seemed justified when, months later, around the time of the release of the book-length Voyeur’s Motel, factual discrepancies about Foos’s timeline and his ownership over the motel seemed to throw the entirety of his account into doubt. These concerns were strong enough to drive Talese to briefly disown his own book, on the eve of its release.

These concerns were seemingly cleared up days later, but with the release of Voyeur, a third iteration of the story in less than two years, another element of Talese’s account seems to have been left in between the lines: There was a camera crew present for much of the later encounters with Foos, a presence that ultimately appears to have driven a rift between author and subject. In Voyeur, both are now ostensibly subjects, adding another layer to the nesting doll of watcher and watched. But the question of what exactly to do with all this material escapes the filmmakers, just as it did Talese.

The filming began as Talese set out to finally write about the man who had initially contacted him over 30 years ago with his story, and directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury met him while working at The New Yorker’s video department around 2012. If you’ve read the New Yorker story, you will surely spend the first half of the film wondering why you’re watching this rehash of such questionable taste — in addition to a few early, staged-feeling interview scenes, Kane and Koury had a miniature replica of the Manor House Motel constructed, for a Foos look-alike to lift the roof off of and peer down into creepily, in case the viewer missed the title of the film while clicking on it on Netflix. Despite Talese’s long-standing, if tarnished, journalism pedigree and three-piece suits, Voyeur accurately and appropriately brings the the Foos story back down to its true value as a would-be Investigation Discovery special, all hammy scores and lurid reenactments and Cliff’s Notes insights into human nature.

Once the story is published, and Foos finds himself in the glare of publicity that he had flitted toward for so long, Kane and Koury strike upon the one thrilling and insightful note, which is the inverse of voyeurism: attention. Foos is genuinely in agony as the public sentiment turns out to be — surprise — largely negative, and threats start arriving at his home. But airing out his secret is also what his life has been building toward since contacting Talese, and watching him writhe in the misery of getting what he wants is a uniquely poignant and uncomfortable human phenomenon to observe. He’s as much of a narcissist and self-mythologizer as he is a voyeur, which makes him and Talese too similar to ever really get along.

This comes to a head when Talese, as dogged by criticism as Foos is after the New Yorker piece goes live, comes once again to Aurora to sit with him face-to-face and let him air his grievances over the story (among them, Talese’s not-unfounded implication that Foos was trying to get publicity for a baseball-card collection that he estimated was worth millions). But it’s actually Talese who ends up far more heated, when Kane and Koury suggest, off camera, that he ask Foos whether or not he would still write to the author if he had it all to do over again. This is the one piece of the documentary that’s left unbuttoned and reveals a completely significant journalism triangle between the filmmakers, Foos, and Talese, which almost certainly had bearing on the story, the book, and the film. But Kane and Koury aren’t quite equipped to step far enough outside the circle to examine this. And so by its close, Voyeur spouts some lines about how we all like to watch, and we are left with three documents of the Voyeur’s Motel and no closer to knowing why we should care.

Voyeur Fails to Add Insight to Gay Talese’s Notorious Story