dir. Alfred Hitchcock
PG, 112 min.
Now showing at Green Hills Commons 16
In 1954, as Sen. Joseph McCarthy scoured the country for Reds, the American film industry faced a far more insidious threat: television. The year before, the biblical epic The Robe introduced CinemaScope, a widescreen process designed to counteract the siren song of the small screen. But not even making Richard Burton’s ass the size of a Buick could stem the defection of viewers to their homes. You could still see I Love Lucy or Milton Berle, and you could do it without leaving your living room. All you needed was a big box with a little window in the middle.
By 1954, that box was the hottest luxury item in the country. But you wouldn’t know it from watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Windowor perhaps you would. At first (backward) glance, the most striking thing about Hitchcock’s portrayal of the year 1954 is the absence of television. In this movie that’s built around the ability to peep into other people’s living rooms, not a one of those rooms is marred by rabbit ears or test patterns. But the impact of TV is more than just notable by its absence. Whether Hitchcock intended it or not, Rear Window today looks like a preview of TV’s damaging effects: on community, on the psyche, even on the libido.
First and foremost, Rear Window, adapted by John Michael Hayes from a Cornell Woolrich short story, is a crackerjack suspense movie. Its basic setupcopied, remade, and riffed upon endlessly over the past 46 yearshas photographer L.B. ”Jeff“ Jefferies (played by James Stewart) laid up with a broken leg in his Greenwich Village apartment. Stuck upstairs, unable to move, Jeff passes the time by watching his neighbors across the courtyard. It’s hot as hell, and all the windows are open: He’s got his choice of watching a scantily clad dancer or a solitary wallflower. But his attention is drawn to the apartment of one Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr)and more importantly, to the sudden disappearance of the ailing Mrs. Thorwald. Against the initial skepticism of his nurse (the inimitable Thelma Ritter) and his ”too perfect“ model girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), Jeff uses his camera as a telescope (a surveillance camera) and trains it on the Thorwalds’ place.
The apartment building Jeff watches divides the movie frame into modular units: There’s a justly famous crane shot that scans from window to window, perusing the activity inside. Whenever Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks show the entire building, it resembles nothing so much as a bank of monitors. Each window becomes its own little screen, and Jeff’s restless scanning is a low-tech version of channel surfing. But the neighbors are all as disconnected from each other as Jeff is from them: Each stays within his own little box. One of the common gripes about TV is that it triggered social withdrawal and the splintering of the family, as the world shrank from the front porch to the den to every separate room that could hold a set. Even without TVs, that could describe the isolation of each apartment unit we see in Rear Window, including Jeff’s.
What’s more disturbing, though, is that the people inside those windows aren’t just isolated from Jeff; to him they basically exist only as entertainment. (He even gives them labels that could pass for TV episodes: ”Miss Lonelyhearts,“ ”Miss Torso.“) Of course, Hitchcock’s kidding us moviegoers about paying to watch strangers enact fantasies of desire, murder, and depravity. But it’s doubly shocking when Lisa ventures into Thorwald’s apartment looking for evidenceit’s the first time someone Jeff knows has appeared in one of these boxes, and he’s terrified by his impotence when Thorwald appears in the hallway outside.
”Impotence“ is the right word for Jeff in this movie, even with him swinging around that long, long lens. Hitchcock, teasing his audience’s naughty hopes, makes voyeurism the inverse of desire: The more you peep, the less you crave, even with Miss Torso parading around topless across the way. (What’s the old joke about TV being the most effective contraceptive ever invented?) In a funny but exasperating scene, Lisa, looking like a core reactor of moist heat, keeps up a seductive patter with Jeff, who’s anything but interested; he’s trying to watch Thorwald’s apartment. Excuse meyou’ve got Grace Kelly snuggled in your arms, brushing your skin with her soft parted lips...and you’re peering over her shoulder at freakin’ Raymond Burr? The only people getting any in Rear Window are the young married couple whose exhausting sex life is a running joke. Of course, they’re the only ones who keep their shades drawn.
The cinema of the ’50s ended with a movie that’s an interesting companion piece to Rear Window: Russ Meyer’s 1959 nudie flick The Immoral Mr. Teas, the tale of a dorky chap who sees women without their clothes. All he does is look; he might as well be separated by steel plates from the busty models he sees. Clearly, the eye, not the heart or the mind or the groin, is the only organ that warrants satisfaction.
Of course, after the 1950s, TV would expand to 24-hour programming, and portable sets, and kaleidoscopic cable channels devoted to scratching whatever visual itch we might have. Seen today, Hitchcock’s brilliant movie is a partial reflection of life 46 years ago. But in its portrait of a world of isolated voyeurs, linked only by hungry eyes, it’s practically a glimpse of the future.
I went to high school in the mid-’80s and was pretty much a nerd, with a budding devotion to the minutiae of movies and rock ’n’ rollwhich meant that I was the ideal audience for the teen-flick oeuvre of writer-director John Hughes. I especially got a charge out of the fact that the pretty girls at my school who spent their weekends memorizing the dialogue to Pretty in Pink were also getting exposed to Psychedelic Furs, Echo & the Bunnymen, and The Smiths...stepping onto my turf, in other words. Suddenly, covering my knock-off Members Only jacket with New Order buttons didn’t seem quite so geeky.
John Cusack only appeared in one of those early John Hughes films, but he was in a bunch of the pictures that got green-lighted because of Hughes’ successfrom the guilty-pleasure Savage Steve Holland movies to Cameron Crowe’s elegant kiss-off to the genre, Say Anything. Now Cusack pops up as Rob Gordon in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, playing what amounts to a grown-up version of one of those Hughes-ian misfits. But like myself and many other closet Lloyd Doblers, Cusack’s character has gone from expressing his musical taste subtlywith a T-shirt or a posterto making fandom into his whole life.
High Fidelity was adapted by Frears and a team of screenwriters (including Cusack and several of his friends) from the well-loved novel by Nick Hornby, a British writer who has turned his own love of soccer and pop music into a flourishing literary career. Hornby’s book is told in first person by Rob, a record store owner who obsessively makes lists of his personal Top Fivesfrom his favorite album-opening songs to the girls who most broke his heart. The appeal of the novel is in its endless digression, which speaks to those readers who share Rob’s compulsion to categorize the five best all-time Cheers episodes.
Frears’ film version maintains much of the flavor of Hornby’s novel, chiefly by having Cusack directly address the camera with his unceasing opinions. The events of the novel are moved from London to Chicago, which is largely a painless shift, except that it makes Rob’s love of Americana somewhat less than exotic. Otherwise, the movie follows the book very closely, with the protagonist telling us about his troubled love lifeparticularly his problems with Laura (played by Iben Hjejle), the successful lawyer girlfriend who has just left him for an aging hippie (played by Tim Robbins).
By hewing to the novel, though, Frears and company also inherit the main problem with High Fidelity, which is the central relationship between Rob and Laura. Hornby himself never seemed entirely committed to the romance and used it only as a device to drive the hilariously tortured self-examination of his lead character. In the movie as well, whenever Cusack and Hjejle appear onscreen together, High Fidelity loses its rhythm and becomes another stale love story.
That’s because the real romance in High Fidelity is in the relationship between Rob and his record store employees (played by the scene-stealing Jack Black and Todd Louiso), who all engage in that particularly macho fanboy game of trying to one-up each other with their impeccably obscure musical tastes. The movie itself follows that lead, cramming the frame with posters, T-shirts, and songs by hip indie-rock and classic soul musicians. Rock-o-philes will be in heaven, spotting favorite bands as if they were Pokemon.
High Fidelity may ultimately be about getting over cultish obsessions and learning to be a grown-up, but the real pleasure in both the movie and the book comes from toting up the characters’ Top Fives. The film has musings about love to interest the pretty girls, while its paeans to the Beta Band are for the rest of us geeks. It’s high school all over again.
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