Blog Directory CineVerse: Rear Window ethics

Rear Window ethics

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock's best works employ techniques of "pure cinema" that use masterfully framed visuals, careful juxtapositions via editing, and creative sound design to provide information to the viewer that would otherwise be given via excessively talky dialogue or voiceover narration. Perhaps the best example of Hitch's "pure cinema" is evident in "Rear Window," which, despite its confined setting, subjective point of view, and lack of dialogue, fully exploits a movie's potential to provide an immersive and intelligent experience and evoke a strong emotional response better than virtually any other art form. Volumes could be written about how technically innovative, psychologically complex and laden with meaning "Rear Window" is, but here's a condensed summary of some of the major truths and theories about this masterwork offered during last night's CineVerse discussion:

We identify with Jeff, who is immobile, and are forced to see and hear what he sees and hears, making us complicit in his voyeurism. Even though what Jeff is doing is morally wrong and probably against the law, which makes him a less-than-admirable character, he still earns our undivided attention and serves as a reliable, identifiable audience surrogate.
We learn things as Jeff learns them, making us dependent on his voyeurism to ascertain new information; there’s only one scene where Hitchcock provides us with more information than Jeff (when he falls asleep), which ratchets us the suspense and tension.
Additionally, almost every scene of the film is shown from inside Jeff’s apartment, adding to the claustrophobia and dependence we have on his POV.
This ties into the major theme of the film: voyeurism, and the practice of watching people as well as watching movies. “Hitchcock wants us to take a long, hard look at how we interact with movies and where our pleasure at watching them really comes from. The lesson seems to be: choose carefully what you look at because you might get more involved than you bargained for. Watch the opening credits again. The shades in Jeff's apartment window slowly rise, just the way a curtain in a theater rises before the show starts,” according to the website Shmoop.
Playing into that theory, consider that Jeff and Lisa are so captivated by their own private cinema—watching Thorwald’s apartment—that they almost permit a nearby tenant to kill herself; later, Jeff can do little but watch as he sees Lisa threatened by Thorwald.
Window frames, hallways and door frames symbolize the cinematic frame, as if each of these were a private movie choice for Jeff and the audience. Thorwald breaks this escapist viewing fantasy by figuratively stepping out of the screen, crossing that framing threshold and literally trespassing into Jeff’s private world.
Online movie essayist Mark Ciocco wrote: “Jefferies watches his neighbors to escape his problems, just as the average viewer watches movies to escape his or hers. In fact, the set design reproduces the conditions of spectatorship in the conventional Movie Theater. Much like Jefferies chose apartments relevant to his problems, we pick movies that fit our own attitude towards life. Both the viewer and Jefferies are unaware of the connections between what they are watching and themselves. This represents an unconscious way of working out problems in a fantasy form.”
Ultimately, this is a film “about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience—look through a lens at the private lives of strangers,” wrote Roger Ebert.

Each person or couple in each different home depicts a different take on relationships and love or lack thereof, each making a comment in a way about Jeff’s relationship with Lisa.
Jeff doesn’t want to commit to or marry Lisa; yet he sees things in his many of neighbors that mirror his feelings for or fears about Lisa:
o Consider how Thorwald is irritated by a disabled, nagging spouse, and Jeff suspects Thorwald of murdering his wife—possibly a bit of subconscious wish fulfilment in Jeff yearning to be free of Lisa.
o Meanwhile, the newlyweds are constantly sexually intimate; if Jeff’s broken leg is a symbol of impotence, perhaps he wishes he could be as virile and active as the newlywed husband and fears being able to perform with Lisa; to compensate for his impotence, Jeff uses an ostentatiously huge telephoto lens, a phallic symbol. And the itches he needs to scratch are like sudden sexual urges that—ahem—need release.
o Ms. Torso stands as an object of voluptuous desire, quite the opposite of the well-dressed, suave Lisa.
Also, these neighbors are mostly strangers to one another, disconnected and isolated from each other despite living in close proximity. Charles Taylor of posits: “It isn’t peeping that’s on trial here as much as the propensity of human beings to detach themselves from one another.”
The major theme of the film, then, is love and relationships; the murder mystery element of the story serves as the MacGuffin to drive the story along, but ultimately it’s not the important takeaway here; this movie is all about Jeff and Lisa learning to coexist, compromise, and not take each other for granted.
Through most of the film, Jeff is depicted as the adolescent unwilling to grow up—turning to quick thrills for escape and adventure and not reciprocating Lisa’s affection. Lisa, by contrast, is acting adult and demonstrating that she wants to be a part of his world. Jeff’s character needs to mature and appreciate Lisa before the movie resolves.

James Stewart is playing a bit against type here; he established a likable guy screen persona in the 1930s and 1940s that begins to reveal a darker side by the late 1940s, and Hitchcock capitalizes on the actor’s range.
Arguably, Hitchcock makes us sympathize a bit with the murdering husband by showing him at first being berated by her and, later, confronting Jeff by asking “what do you want from me?” as if he’s protesting the spying on him that we and Jeff have been doing.
There’s very little music: mostly, we hear diegetic sounds and music that the characters experience in their space, not a proper score or voiceover they can’t hear. The sound design is superb, forcing us to listen closely to faint, far-off sounds and words coming from across the courtyard.
Our protagonist isn’t the typical Hitchcock “wrong man accused” or person tangled up in dangerous affairs like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest”; “He’s not personally involved in the crime. He isn’t horrified or frightened, or motivated by a sense of justice or outrage over a woman’s death; he’s turned on, which is made a bit too obvious by his use of a huge, phallic zoom lens to do his peeping,” wrote Taylor.
Much of this film’s power lies in its ability to show with telling; to use images and “pure cinema” to tell its story visually, without having to resort to unnecessary exposition via dialogue or narration.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
The Window (1949)
Witness to Murder (1954)
Wait Until Dark
The Conversation
Body Double

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