• October 31, 2019 | ,

    screen memory

    rear window and why we watch movies

    article by , illustrated by

    At what age, if any, are we old enough to truly watch a movie? What threshold of time and space must be crossed before we can fully understand how a film works and the limitations of the magic it offers? There’s an obvious answer: It depends on the movie and the maturity of the person watching it. But even then, it’s incredibly rare for a child—let alone an adult—to watch one of our modern myths without being told beforehand what to anticipate and what to avoid. I speak, of course, of film ratings. Anonymous bureaucrats provide parents with content warnings, leaving it to them to determine whether their children can handle decapitations or the word “crap”—and God forbid there be any nudity. Societal thresholds for mental and emotional maturity are handed out before the film is even released. But such labels are useless in estimating the influence a film may hold over someone. Perhaps even more crucially, they fail to inform viewers of the many ways film language can guide these perceptions. All ages welcome here.

    Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window is all about that influence—an influence you have to see through in order to understand. I first saw the film when I was nine. Was I mature enough to understand much of the film’s secondary elements—its subtext, its shot structure, its condemnation of the protagonists’ sexual immaturity? Hell no! I didn’t even know that film cameras moved in different directions on purpose until I came to college. And this is coming from a film actor and a film buff—someone who has spent half his life either on or in front of a screen. But even at the age of nine, something about this movie seemed…well, different. As I leaned forward on the couch, the sequences on screen pulled me into a world of watching—both literally and figuratively.

    For those unfamiliar, Rear Window (eventually sorta remade as Disturbia, if you remember Disturbia) follows injured photographer L.B. Jefferies in the aftermath of a horrible accident. Restless whilst confined to a wheelchair in his apartment complex, Jefferies decides to use his window as a vantage point to spy on his neighbors across the courtyard. He quickly begins to suspect that the man who lives directly across from him has murdered his wife. Throughout the film, supporting characters straight up tell Jefferies that both his hobby and his hunch are creepy. And yet they still want Jefferies to be right. They want the wife to have been murdered. Why? Well, don’t we? It’s an entertaining story, after all.

    At nine, I was wholly absorbed by this surface question, the one that fascinates Jefferies: Did the neighbor do it? Was he truly responsible? But as the movie and I have grown older, I have begun to see the hidden layers, the subtext I was incapable of deciphering as a child. This movie isn’t just a whodunit. It’s a movie about the art of the whodunit. It’s a movie about watching movies. 

    We do not just see the plot unfold through Jefferies’ eyes—we watch with him, and in a deeper sense, we become him. Hitchcock ingeniously aligns the audience’s perspective with Jefferies’ actual field of vision. More than half of the film is composed of “point-of-view” shots from Jefferies’ window; when he scans one room or another, we engage in the same voyeuristic, creepy “watching.” He is our guiding light, our lens into the film (pun intended); as he looks into his camera and we look through him, we make the same connections and observations. As he grows convinced of his neighbor’s wrongdoing, so do we. In a sense, the very process of filmmaking itself is laid bare before our eyes. Mature viewers will understand the power the camera wields—over what we see, what we think, and what ideas are implanted into our minds. 

    It is this understanding—of the dangers of voyeurism, of film as a medium that allows us to indulge in the creepy shit we’re normally not allowed to do—that has replaced my youthful excitement at a plot whose problematic undertones I had never considered (and I won’t spoil the ending, but it goes without saying that Jefferies—and, by extension, the audience—are rightfully punished for that voyeurism). You’d think it was impossible to reclaim the same sense of wonder, of being whisked away into a story and absorbed solely by the strength of its composition. It should be easy to see the film now as explicitly a message, a moral—a ham-fisted explanation of why movies are dangerous and why nine-year-olds shouldn’t watch a damn thing.

    Yet I still feel just how brilliantly Hitchcock turns the process of the investigation—discovery, anticipation, the twisted fun of the waiting and watching—into the most riveting aspect of it all. Watching this movie, you are somehow both utterly immersed and made completely aware of your immersion. Maybe that’s the secret: The whodunnit makes you a nine-year-old viewer again, but the resolution proceeds to complicate your carelessness. Perhaps that’s the line we must walk every time we watch a movie: give in completely or stand back, cold and intellectual. To find that middle ground, it really does take a certain kind of maturity you can’t simply age into. Being directed can only go so far.