Saturday, March 31, 2012

Time in Rear Window [1954]

Hitchcock's Rear Window [1954] is widely regarded as one of his classic films, as well as a classic of the Noir Whodunit tradition, though it was made in color, and depends less on the dark-venetian-blinds-and-hatted-private-eye tropes than most movies in that category.

Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it employs the static setting of a New York high rise inner block courtyard. The story is very simple: A photojournalist, known for his intrepid pursuit of subject-matter, has been confined to his third story apartment following an accident in which he's broken his leg. Wearing a big white cast, he sits uncomfortably in a reclining chair, with only his open windows for diversion. In the pre-television world in which the story is conceived, he has little choice but to stare idly out the rear windows, taking in the little dramas which unfold in the other apartments across the courtyard. This naturally leads to the construction of imagined plots and situations about the other tenants and residents, which Jefferies (played by Jimmy Stewart) indulges in as a vicarious pastime.

Jefferies is attended by a visiting nurse, played by Thelma Ritter, and he's visited from time to time by his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), and his friend Detective Lt. Thom Doyle (played by Wendell Corey)--each of whom tries to cheer him up and divert him from his claustrophobic depression. For a man of action constantly on the go, having to sit still 24 hours a day is sheer torture.

People confined by disability or legal order develop odd ways of coping with their plight. Our human minds and bodies are constructed for movement and stimulation, so when these inputs are withheld, we invent situations or intrigues to fill the void. Dreaming is thought to be a form of personal entertainment, which the brain employs to divert itself during sleep; it's also thought to be a practical way we have of working out psychological problems in our waking lives. If there is no interest in our immediate environment, we may literally create stories from the raw experience of our daily existence. It may even be an involuntary tendency in some people, whose appetite for such narrative is unquenchable.

The popularity of mystery and fantasy stories in popular media is one obvious symptom of the human desire for social intrigue, the need to find mystery and meaning from the complexity (or the puzzles) of interpersonal interaction--the need to find underlying motives, or a manipulation of events beneath the quotidian surface of experience. It's a habit shared by millions. There's a back-story, or a circuit-board of meaning to every movement, every event. Anyone habituated to thinking of life as the analysis of the underlying organizations of phenomena will feel a keen sense of deprivation, if robbed of the sustenance of data.

Humans are the only specie of the animal kingdom which is able to objectify relationships from the world, which is what enables us to see symbols as representations of other individuals or things--things which stand for something else: Images, symbols, letters and words. As a professional photo-journalist, Jefferies "sees" the world as a panorama of event, as a collection of camera-views, and what he sees out the windows of his apartment--which is a metaphor not only for his actual camera--with its giant front-mounted tele-photo lens--but for the eyes in his head--becomes simply more raw material for the investigative skill he's learned on assignment. He just can't help himself.

The vicarious invasiveness of Jefferies, watching his neighbors activities unfold, day in, day out, stimulates his curiosity, and generates narratives based on the evidence of what he can see of their lives through the un-curtained windows of their apartments. It's an invasion of privacy, but one not necessarily discouraged by its subjects. We're given to understand that it's Summer time, and most folks don't possess air conditioners, or can't afford them. As Jefferies idly marks time, sitting in his chair, he begins to suspect that one of the unfolding dramas across the way may have abominable implications. He begins to suspect that a man may have murdered his wife. At first, this suspicion is treated by his Lisa, Tom and the nurse Stella as evidence of Jefferies' excessive boredom and lively imagination. There must be a sensible explanation. Like the dancer, the songwriter, the old couple with a dog, whose lives proceed with the fitful but largely unmarked progress of the ordinary, the Thorwalds must be acting out the usual uneventful relationship of the typical married couple.

Jefferies' confinement, though, implies a certain passivity. He can't get up out of his chair and do the detective work which a curious snoop desires. And it's this stir-crazy frustration, the cooped-up, cabin-fevered claustrophobia which drives him to prove or disprove his thesis about the crime he thinks has taken place. As members of the expectant audience, we know there has to be a mystery somewhere, though in real life that possibility is a stretch. The tension isn't so much that Thorwald may have killed his wife--which we accept without question, since this is, after all, a Hitchcock movie--but in how Jefferies may or may not prevail upon his small circle of friends to accept his deductions as anything more than silly speculation. As participants in the narrator's omniscient overview, we share their skepticism, because it's our place to do so, to see the dialectic as the practical solution versus the improbable one, even as we know that the unlikely outcome is the preferred version. After all, that's entertainment!

The other dramatic tension in the plot exists between Jeff and Lisa. Lisa would like Jeff to give up his constant traveling, to settle down and live together with her, as a married couple, something he feels entirely reluctant to undertake. A permanent, settled relationship would impose the same kind of restriction on his life-style, as his broken leg does. Lisa's willingness to indulge Jeff in his crackbrained theory about the Thorwald "murder" gradually gives way to a grudging acknowledgment.

Jeff's imaginative fantasy-becoming-reality is a metaphor for the power of mind over events, the power literally to influence, even to create an alternative reality for himself. His thwarted desire for movement, excitement, stimulation, which enables Lisa to keep him captive to her seductive designs upon him, is a premonition of his own vulnerability, fragility, mortality. He feels entirely uncomfortable as the passive beneficiary of care, and "creating" a situation from the data entering through his tiny window (the lens) on the world becomes a campaign against that dependence, a self-justifying expedition. Crime-solving becomes a form of recuperation, or of vicarious omniscience.

Jeff is creating a story, in the same sense that the director (Hitchcock) is--and in fact both are fictions. Jeff's determination that his story within a story be the real one is almost supernatural. All the suspensions of disbelief must be vanquished upon the alter of his desire for a meaning and purpose to his existence. The whole point of his life has been spent in securing a narrative through the lens of his camera; to be deprived of that freedom, that identity, is a symbolic casualty.

The architecture of the apartment houses is the compartmentalization of identity. In Jeff's line of work, he moves freely through the world, unconfined by permanent residence. Unable now to perform that duty, he substitutes an alternative project, now limited to the grid of residents visible across the courtyard, which becomes his whole world. Each artist is a kind of prisoner within the parameters of his existence; the skill to transcend that condition is partly what all art is designed to accomplish. Our ability to imagine other lives, other stories, even if we must build those stories from a limited set of models, is crucial.

The true soap opera of life is the individual imaginative desire and need for storied life script. None of us can really help doing it. The Freudian realization that we all dream, and that dreams constitute an important record of our need to create alternative versions of the world we inhabit, to sublimate and augment and "correct" our personal life narrative, is a key to human socialization, the individual's ability to adjust to the necessities of our immediate society. Jeff, trapped within a disabled body, conjures up an artistic noir version of the limited set of facts. His need to do so is so powerful that it must be realized.

The telling of Jeff's story is like pointing a powerful lens back at him. When Thorwald discovers that Jeff is stalking him, has in fact figured out what he has done to his wife, he turns on Jeff. Viewer (stalker) becomes the stalked, and the focus of attention is reversed. When Thorwald enters Jeff's apartment, Jeff's only weapon of defense is the flash-cubes on his camera, which he uses to momentarily "blind" Thorwald. Thorwald is clearly insane, but his actions are perfectly rational within the context of his own purposes--to be rid of his nagging, demanding wife, whose dependence, demanding service and obedience, is a foil for Jeff's frustration with his own unwanted dependence. A selfish, voluntary invalid like the late Mrs. Thorwald, however, doesn't deserve to be killed.

Ironically, in the end Jeff's other "good" leg is broken in the struggle with Thorwald, and Jeff must look forward to a further postponement of his return to active life. In the final scene of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief [1955], Grace Kelly embraces John Roby (the cat burgler) whom she has finally caught. She crows "mother will love it here" (Roby's hilltop villa on the Riviera). In nearly the same way, Kelly (as Lisa) captures Jefferies. These symbolic capitulations to marital confinement are nearly identical. As womankind plots to ensnare her prey, the male games of hunting and gathering, of plotting and scheming, playing tigers, are curtailed, civilized.

In Rear Window, all of the formulae of detection and pursuit are played out in miniature--the symbolic confinement of the narrative, brilliantly exploited as a theatrical proscenium of the central character's consciousness. All of the "action" takes place within the scope of a single studio apartment, designed for the efficiency of a single person's existence. Here will be played out a version of Plato's Cave, where the shadows of reality, reflected off the wall of Jeff's imagination, become the stuff of improbable noir fantasy. The story takes place through the metaphorical "rear window" of the unconscious mind, where dreams and stories and the hidden aspects of our waking selves reside, in a back yard of our daily lives. Jeff's violation of the principle of psychological privacy isn't the result of breaking the rules, as much as it is a skill for seeing what isn't immediately apparent. His attention to the activity of his neighbors begins casually, then becomes organized into schedules, connections, and finally little narratives of others' lives.

The movie in fact could be done as a play, with all of the action off-scene described by the characters in Jeff's apartment. And that in a sense is the primary device of the story. In movie-making, it's a feat, like fighting with one hand tied behind your back, or trying to represent cinematic action without sound. Take away the camera's restless freedom--its ability to pan, to follow action wherever movement and the demands of the story, take it--and you have Jeff's claustrophobic confinement. Jeff's camera is Hitchcock's camera. Hitch himself, always the ingenious scene arranger and editor, must have felt a special challenge with this film, since all the devices he'd ordinarily call upon, had to be set aside. In his Strangers on a Train [1951] the confinement of passengers within the linked segments of the cinematic tunnel facilitated the accidental meeting of the two conspirators. In Rear Window, the static immobility of the framed action demanded that the central character construct a cinematic sequence out of pure speculation. Trains move through time and space, but buildings in a city are fixed, given structures which don't move. Time is recorded by the passage of the sun and moon, day into night, waking into sleep, reality into fiction. Time slows down, is suspended in Jeff's world, while he recuperates. And action is suspended cinematically for the audience, and the director.

In Vertigo [1958], the Jimmy Stewart character embraces the fantasy of his infatuation with the Kim Novak character, while the Barbara Bel Geddes character (his usual girlfriend) frets over Scottie's waywardness, he's slipping from her grasp, and falling deeper into delusion. In film after film, Hitchcock dramatizes the dysfunction of the male-female dialectic, showing how the male's debilitating character-flaws lead to enrichments of potential. The female characters, passively-aggressively manipulating circumstance and opportunity, usually triumph in the end, or are destroyed in the attempt. In Rear Window, Lisa (Grace Kelly) will win her man, but whether she can hold him once he "recovers" from his symbolic debilitation, is an open question.

No comments: