Gerald Foos, the story goes, is a man whose life was spent in the shadows, lurking in an attic above the Manor House Motel, where for more than 20 years he observed guests fight, sleep, watch TV, shower, and have sex. After purchasing the motel, Foos had—with the help of his wife—installed special air vents in the ceiling of most rooms, through which he scrutinized his customers, taking copious notes on the action within. Although Foos styles himself as a sociologist, describing his motel as a “laboratory” and his peeping space as “an observation platform,” he also freely confesses that the act of watching others without their consent was a sexual predilection, and that he masturbated several times a night while doing so. He explains this to the directors of a new Netflix documentary debuting Friday because Foos has come to be that most contradictory of beings: a voyeur who wants to be seen.
Voyeur captures Foos’s public uncovering at the hands of Gay Talese, the magazine writer and New Journalism pioneer who first met Foos in 1980, and who finally published his story in a 2016 New Yorker feature called “The Voyeur’s Motel,” followed by a book of the same name. “I’m a natural person to write about a voyeur because I’m a voyeur myself,” Talese tells Myles Kane and Josh Koury, the documentarians, referring to his longtime curiosity as a journalist. But that doesn’t quite begin to cover the strange synchronicity between writer and subject that unfurls in Voyeur—the metatextual layers of Foos unburdening himself to Talese, who in turn seems to divulge more about himself than he intends to the camera. The movie is built around the question of what could compel both men—studious longtime observers of human behavior—to turn themselves into subjects, given all the attendant risks of exposure.
Anyone who’s read “The Voyeur’s Motel” will be prepared for the more disturbing chronicles of Foos’s behavior. But on camera he’s stranger still, a burly man with dyed black hair and oversized tinted glasses. He’s absurdly grandiose at times, apparently delusional at others, and yet almost pathetically needy for Talese’s approval. “Nobody will ever be able to do what I did,” Foos boasts early in the film. “I know a lot of people are gonna call me a pervert, a peeping tom, but I just had to tell somebody, because I didn’t wanna die and have it be lost forever.” It isn’t enough for him to have the knowledge of what he got away with—he needs the world to understand how brilliant, how sly he was in doing so.
The arc of the film’s narrative follows the publication of “The Voyeur’s Motel,” before which Talese and the directors meet Foos at his home and interview him about his personal history. Talese also welcomes the cameras into his brownstone on the Upper East Side, and to a meeting with his editor at The New Yorker, where he pitches the story. The directors dramatize some scenes of Foos’s antics in the attic, and construct a dollhouse-like model of the motel itself to reveal how Foos toyed with his customers, planting sex toys and pornography in some rooms and empty suitcases in others. The metaphor is clear—“the voyeur,” as Foos frequently refers to himself in his records, feels godlike, with a power over the mortals he observes that spurs his ever more entitled behavior.
And yet Talese, far from being repulsed by his subject, seems to connect with him on a multitude of levels. When he writes stories, he explains, he’s being similarly omnipotent, setting the mood, the style, and the landscape, and choreographing the action to his liking. His too-close relationship with his subject seems to have been cemented in 1980, when Talese accompanied Foos to his viewing station and personally witnessed a woman engaged in oral sex in one of the motel bedrooms. When Talese’s editor comments that she’s glad he didn’t see too much sexual activity because it could come across to readers as creepy, he redirects the criticism to Foos. “This guy isn’t creepy,” Talese explains. “He’s everyman.”
The links between the two don’t stop there. Foos has large, professionally shot photographs of himself hung proudly in his stairwell; so does Talese. Both men are avid collectors—Foos of baseball cards, dolls, stamps, and other miscellanea; Talese of boxes of research regarding his various stories, all stored in folders that are covered in elaborate works of decoupage. Both men have spent large periods of their lives studying the oddities of sexual behavior, one from an attic, unseen, and the other as an active participant in the ’70s swinging scene for his 1980 book Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “What I really minded was the press about it,” is how Talese’s wife, Nan, responds when she’s asked about her husband’s sexual tourism. Mid-media storm in Voyeur, Foos’s wife Anita stares hesitantly at a copy of The Denver Post on their driveway, as if afraid it’s going to bite her.
And both men ultimately suffer life-upending scandal, as the camera captures it all. Foos is outed as a serial peeping tom in Talese’s story, which creates a maelstrom of media attention, and subjects him and his wife to threatening phone calls. Talese’s career is jeopardized when a reporter from The Washington Post finds sizable factual holes in Foos’s various accounts. “This is the end, this is the end of me,” a panicky Talese tells the camera. “I was lied to. I was interviewing a liar.” In his kitchen, Foos laments that the whole world is going to “point fingers at the voyeur, saying that he’s nothing but a creep.” “Well?” his wife replies. “You are.” But she isn’t angry. She’s long ago accepted what he is.
Voyeur is a fascinating, queasy portrait of exposure. Both Foos and Talese are inclined to talk, and the filmmakers give them space to do so rather than interject with follow-up questions. But this means the film sometimes suffers from a lack of pushback against its two primary characters. Just as “The Voyeur’s Motel” declined to ask Foos how he thought his victims might feel about being so studiously spied upon, even for the purpose of scientific research, Voyeur doesn’t compel him to do any soul-searching. Nor does it ask Talese how he felt after accompanying Foos long ago on his trip to the attic, or how he feels now about exposing him to so much public scrutiny years later. Maybe this is because to him it doesn’t matter. The story is paramount. It’s worth investing years of correspondence with Foos, and engaging in a dubiously personal relationship with his subject, to persuade him to finally go on the record.
What’s less clear is why Talese agrees to expose himself. In the film’s final scene, he marvels at how Foos responded to the cameras, given all the risks involved to his reputation. “He opened up his home to you, his bedroom to you, his wife to you,” Talese says, as the camera pans over his home, his office, a photo of him with his wife. “He liked the publicity of the camera. The camera turned him on. And there you have the reverse procedure. He’s now being watched.” But Foos isn’t the only one.