Cornell Woolrich, John Michael Hayes, and Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
#1 of 28 in the 20th century series
First, an explanation of the line above. A few months ago I saw that people on the ol' Facey McBookbook were posting lists of their seven favorite movies, and it occurred to me that I could not do the same, despite the fact that I've written a Calendar article about every movie I've seen in the past sixteen years. There were just too many movies that I had in my mental list of favorites but which I hadn't watched even once in the 21st century. So I decided that once I was done with my list of movies from 2013, instead of jumping straight into 2014 I would go do that backfill. But how would I decide which 20th-century movies to rewatch? It turns out that, before I started up the Calendar section of my site, I had an "Etcetera" page with a link to a list of my fifty favorite movies circa 1999. Twenty-two of these I have rewatched and written up since then. That leaves twenty-eight to revisit in the months to come. I aim to tackle them in chronological order, and the oldest movie on the list is Rear Window.
I first watched Rear Window in college, for a class, back when I hadn't seen many good movies so anything good ended up on my list of favorites. Like a lot of Hitchcock movies, this one's part of the canon, so I assume you know the premise, but for the record, the premise is this: photographer L.B. Jefferies is stuck in his apartment with a broken leg. The Internet hasn't been invented yet, so instead of watching cat videos all day he looks out his window and into the windows of the apartments across the way. And though the evidence is circumstantial, he becomes convinced that the man in apartment #2R has murdered his wife. I don't remember why this movie appeared on the syllabus, or even which class I watched it for. If it was for my film survey class, then the point was probably how content mirrors form: Jefferies sits in the dark peering at people going about their lives within brightly lit rectangles, just like we do when we go to the movies. Professors love that shit. If it was for my '50s pop culture class, then we were probably supposed to focus on the big speech by the woman on the balcony: "You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbor'! Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies! But none of you do!" It fit in with the articles we were reading about the anomie of postwar society. But the reason Rear Window struck a chord with me the first time I watched it was a lot more direct. Here is a map of Berkeley's high-rise student housing when I was a student there. The high-rise buildings are for some reason designated in pink:
These buildings each consist of eight residential floors and a
On each residential floor there are nine windows along each long side of
the building and none along the short sides.
You will notice that the buildings are oriented such that the windows of
one hall do not face the windows of another, with one exception:
Spens-Black Hall is oriented so that its windows are north- and
south-facing, rather than east- and west-facing like its counterpart
buildings in Units 1 and 2, Freeborn and Davidson.
The year I first saw Rear Window, I lived in
My roommate and I actually had first pick of the rooms therein, since
we were both Regents' Scholars and I was technically a senior due to the
number of credits I had racked up.
We chose room 803.
It was as far as we could get from the street noise, close to the
elevator, and on the west end of the building where there wouldn't be as
much foot traffic going by.
And it turned out that from our window we could look directly at, and
down into, the windows of Priestley Hall:
little terrariums for our voyeuristic delight.
We knew the people who had lived in room 803 before us, and they told us
that during their year, this had basically meant free porn on demand,
which was a bigger deal back then, before the advent of graphical web
Stories circulated about what the Spens and Priestley residents had seen
going on in each other's building; one of the most oft-repeated of these
stories ended with the punchline, "Do the thing with the bear
My year was a lot tamer.
No bears, not even a lot of bareness.
But we still had fun.
For one thing, the dorm phones were sequential — I actually
lived in 208 Priestley my first year and knew that the phone number
was 643-1991, which meant that 209 was 643-1992, 210 was 643-1993, and
so on — which meant that we could not only look at the people
across the way, but call them up.
One Friday night we saw a guy in 708 playing a computer game alone in the
We gave him a call.
His name was Greg.
Meanwhile, half a dozen girls were having a party down in 103.
So we called up the girls and convinced them to move their party to
Greg kept playing his computer game, but now he was surrounded by girls
as he did so.
Good deed: done!
And yes, I recognize that all of this sounds a little creepy —
spying on people (even if we were just looking out our own window) and
messing with people (even if altruistically).
And it's not like we didn't realize this at the time!
Part of the appeal was the sense that we were participating in a long
tradition of collegiate hijinks, and you can't have hijinks without a
certain amount of jinkiness.
In any case, when I watched Rear Window for the first time, I couldn't help but be struck by how, hey, Jeff here and I have this in common — a view out our windows like a real-life version of Adrian Veidt's wall of TV screens! I could imagine transposing the events of this movie over to Unit 3 with only a few tweaks. And how many people could say the same? I've certainly never lived anywhere else that was similarly situated, not even when I lived in New York. That parallel — and the rarity of that parallel, the fact that not everybody watching this movie had lived in an apartment like Jeff's — was what really made me mentally bookmark Rear Window as a favorite the moment it was over. Not the deepest of reasons. But the movie still hits a lot of themes that resonate with me. Fairly early on, Jeff's girlfriend Lisa comes over and argues, "There can't be that much difference between people and the way they live," and while she's not talking about the people in the windows — Jeff has been trying to fend off wedding bells, warning Lisa that someone who defines the word "posh" the way she does isn't cut out to join him in his rough-and-tumble life as a photographer of distant and dangerous corners of the world — those people do undermine her point. Even in this far from diverse slice of 1950s Hollywood America, we see happy marriages, unhappy marriages, swinging singles, desperately lonely singles, potential murderers, potential suicides. I don't actually believe in all or even particularly many of the speeches I give my characters, but this line I gave Allen Mockery does tend to reflect my thinking on this issue: "I think the only thing you can say about 'everyone' is that everyone is really different. For everyone who's out there trading sex for scratch cards, there's someone else studying for ten different AP tests, and someone else whose life revolves around some boy band grown in a vat in Orlando, and someone else who's just trying to get through the day without being hit." It feels to me like every new person I encounter — in real life, in the media, in history books, anywhere — gives me an opportunity to learn yet another way that someone's life can be unrecognizable. I don't want to write a book about this right here — especially because I am trying to write a book that is partially about this, when I'm not taking time out to write Calendar articles — so rather than going into depth, let me just say a couple of things about Lisa's follow-up line. First, speaking of the Mockery clan — when Lisa contended that people couldn't be that different because "we all eat, talk, drink, laugh, wear clothes", my first thought was, "Molly doesn't!" But let's look at that first bit. "We all eat" — yes, Lisa, but look at what we eat. I've been watching a lot of videos about food around the world lately, and it seems rather blithe to look at someone down the street from me tucking into a Zachary's stuffed pizza, and tribespeople in Assam making a chutney out of hot chiles and stinging ants they've gathered out in the forest, and sum that up as "We all eat!" There are all sorts of photo essays you can find about typical meals from around the world; this isn't the one I went looking for, but it compares the daily fare of an Australian lifeguard, a Botswanan mother with AIDS, an Inuit sculptor, an ascetic Hindu yogi, and several others — people from the sorts of far-flung locales Jeff jets off to for his job. And closer to home… do Jeff and Lisa eat anything I eat? Do the people who live in the other half of my house? Diet may not seem like a particularly profound difference among people, but I think that as synecdoche it's at least slightly instructive.
Another line that made my ears prick up a bit was when Doyle the police detective told Jeff that "people do a lot of things in private they couldn't possibly explain in public". It's been hard to miss how many of the big news stories lately have revolved around privacy in one way or another. When I was counting up how many windows I could see from room 803, it occurred to me that on the street-facing sides of those buildings, some of the windows are tiny and nearly opaque — because those windows belong to the bathrooms. And of course for the past year or so there's been quite a hullaballoo, especially in North Carolina, over the question of to whom a given bathroom is public and to whom it's private. But this isn't the kind of privacy Doyle is talking about: excretory functions are private not because they're secret or shameful but because they're gross, and keeping them out of public view is as much for the benefit of the public as for the person performing them. In Rear Window, Jeff actually can see into one bathroom window, which conveniently enough affords him (and us) a view not of the schlubby bachelor taking a dump but of the naked young ballerina brushing her hair. (From behind and from the shoulder blades up. It's 1954.) Which brings us to the array of incidents in the Internet era in which people have had their naked bodies and sexual behavior put in the public spotlight against their will. In the case of revenge porn, the idea is that sexuality is secret and shameful, but it's been interesting to see how, at least in some cases, this idea is no longer sticking the way it once did. When a massive cloud hack led to pretty much every actress in the world getting her naked selfies posted to the imageboards, it didn't ruin anyone's career: people seemed to agree that taking pictures and recording videos are a standard part of the sex lives of the generation in question, and that there's nothing wrong with it, and that the shameful thing was the hacking. So while the eyebrow Doyle raises upon seeing Lisa's nightwear at Jeff's house suggests that it's precisely the sort of thing he had in mind when he talked about how we all have a potential scandal we keep under wraps, it seems that, happily, simply being a sexual creature no longer qualifies.
For that matter, even practices that were kept secret and are still considered shameful, like when former British prime minister David Cameron was revealed to have once fucked the severed head of a pig, or when former senator David Vitter was revealed to have paid prostitutes to diaper him, haven't raised much of an outcry — those things weren't what drove those men out of office. So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to hear a character, even in 1954, suggest that everyone secretly engages in some sort of shocking behavior, and that by the principle of glass houses we should therefore live and let live. The recent presidential campaign offered a few case studies in the application or over-application of this principle. When Russian hackers revealed the correspondence of some Democratic Party apparatchiks, in which they traded barbs about former candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Larry Lessig ("doofus", "I fucking hate that guy"), the targets tended to be forgiving: who among us is saintly enough never to have said something behind someone's back that he or she wouldn't say to that person's face? But then the Republicans tried to play on the same idea in the aftermath of the release of the Donald Trump "grab 'em by the pussy" tape. The strategy they went with was to dismiss it as "locker room talk" — to insinuate that in private all men boast about getting away with sexual assault, and that to castigate Trump was therefore rank hypocrisy. It was another instance of a cultural divide I've talked about before: between (a) those who have internalized that you're not supposed to be racist and sexist and homophobic and predatory anymore, and aren't, and (b) those who have internalized that you're not supposed to be racist and sexist and homophobic and predatory in public anymore, but take it as a given that secretly everyone is making racist and sexist and homophobic and predatory comments in private with their friends. And who chafe at having to put on a false front in public and bemoan the "political correctness" that forces them to do so instead of "telling it like it is". And obviously enough people fell into category (b) to trigger a dystopian result. It'll be interesting to see what happens to privacy under the incoming government — I expect that it will heavily step up surveillance in order to conduct personal vendettas and hound entire classes of people, while remaining the least transparent administration of modern times. But maybe I'm not one to talk about transparency. After all, it is only on the rarest of occasions that I ever open the thick, heavy blackout curtains that cover my own windows.