Voyeurism and Subjective Understanding in “Rear Window”

The following is a transcript of Robert Pippin’s concluding lecture to our free screening of Rear Window on December 3. It has been lightly edited. You can listen to the original lecture by turning up your volume and you can find a list of discussion questions here. The relevant scenes from Rear Window will appear as they did in Pippin’s lecture.

Transcription done by: David North, Varun Joshi, Meera Joshi, Steven Chen, Lucy Johnson, Anna Prisco, and Felix Chaoulideer

Here’s a simple question to begin: Why don’t we see many scenes of the older couple? Because Jeff isn’t interested in happy marriages. He’s interested in unhappy marriages — and this projective understanding that Jeff is doing throughout the movie is one of the limitations of his character and the various things Hitchcock is thematizing.

First of all, there’s the theme of voyeurism. Movies are not voyeuristic enterprises; the things we’re seeing aren’t happening, but we don’t like voyeurism at least not in real life. We shouldn’t invade others’ privacy. We shouldn’t assume that what we see even while we’re unobserved is the truth. Now, it’s true that we feel a higher sense of credibility when there’s nothing theatrical. In our ordinary lives when we’re dealing with people there’s always the possible suspicion that when people are engaging with us, for some more than others, they’re being performative and might talk differently if we weren’t there. There’s an interpretive necessity to be on your toes. We always feel there’s a way in which someone might be presenting themselves disingenuously.

It isn’t the case though that if we voyeuristically observe them that they’ll be speaking more truthfully. People are often misguided about themselves. Suppose you overhear someone say something critical about you. Our tendency is to think we now know what the other person thinks about us. Of course this isn’t true because that person said something at a particular time to a particular person with a particular intention. So when we overhear someone say something negative we tend to believe that’s how they really feel.

But the problem with voyeurism isn’t just the invasion of privacy or the illusion that because we’re unobserved we see truth. It’s because we treat others as objects for our subjectivity: they’re for us but we’re not for them. There’s no reciprocity. It’s not exactly a kind of entertainment, though that is the suggestion at the beginning of the movie, that Jeff is entertained by these people, but you will notice that Jeff’s attitude is always projective of his perspective, his point of view. He’s always backing away from the window. He doesn’t want to be seen. Therein we get the first indication of the relation of the two plots. He isn’t willing for himself and Lisa to enter into a mutuality. Lisa must be for him and he must not be for Lisa. Without her being for him, there is no Lisa, there is no relationship. That element of the voyeuristic theme, that he is a subject looking at others as objects, whether for entertainment or not, and is unwilling to be on the other end of the dialectic between subjects who are also objects to each other, is one of his main limitations in this movie.

This couple, they have an objective problem. She wants to stay in New York and live the life of a fashionable rich person. Jimmy Stewart, who’s approaching middle age in this movie and wants to continue photographing spectacle, proves that Lisa has a point: he’s already broken his leg and isn’t getting any younger, he should change his lifestyle. But his attitude is much more dogmatic than hers and much more unreceptive to seeing things from her point of view. That’s the first general portrayal of voyeurism, but as I’ve been mentioning, we also get the sense of Jeff as a man who’s watching these scenes unfold as if he’s watching a movie screen. It’s 1954, so there’s already the suggestion that these little boxes are television screens. (Hitchcock was aware of this and soon after this movie he would go on to create a very successful television series where his brand became internationally much more famous.) Hitchcock implies that the way in which Jeff watches movies is deficient: he’s merely observing. We’ll have to see more about that when we see the transition from how he watches to when Lisa involves herself.

Throughout the movie, we are set up to think of the window as a screen, that Jeff is watching from the outside, unobserved, and having to carry that attitude into life is wrong, selfish, highly over subjectivist, projective: he’s unwilling to be seen, to be loved. Once we get that framework and we’re used to it, even if we’re only used to it implicitly, the scene where Lisa actually goes into the movie, and thus solves the case even though Jeff never could, is quite suggestive of what I think Hitchcock thinks is the limitation of watching a movie as a pure spectator: to be entertained by the object. We’ll see this some more in the Thorwald scene at the end.

We also get a thematization of Hitchcock’s control of what we see. In the beginning of the movie, a man’s alone in his apartment, and this is what we see:

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How are the blinds going up? Very innocent, but that’s not possible for normal blinds! The first convention being suggested is the convention of the theater – suggesting again that we aren’t just magically present at the events; that someone is showing us something. That showing has a point. Sometimes that point or purpose is to create a funny movie that will entertain us, or one that will frighten us. But sometimes the point is to illuminate something about human life that the director thinks he understands and wants to portray, that has a certain kind of credibility and power. And if we aren’t attentive to this as well, the way the set is designed, how the lighting works – if we aren’t attentive to this, we only see what Jeff sees when he looks into other people’s windows – the play of the human drama. Superficial, needy, narcissistic, not letting the scene we see to affect us, we view it only as an object out there that we have to attend to.

Hitchcock usually makes cameos in his films. The one here is unusual. He’s repairing a clock. He seems to be saying “I’m controlling the time, the pace, the narrative flow.” And he’s glaring in a certain way in our direction, as if its a certain kind of challenge: “Pay attention! This is not a piece of froth, a light Hollywood entertainment. This is about a man watching people in a way you might find objectionable. But what are you doing? You’ve come here unobserved to watch events in the same way that he does.” Yet, Jeff even has trouble understanding what he sees. I mean the worst is him not understanding that Miss Lonelyhearts is in fact committing suicide. Stella tells him, he’s watching, but then stops, because he’s got the other plot. So, when Lonelyhearts takes out a piece of paper to write a suicide note, he thinks, “Well, Stella’s wrong, she’s not committing suicide, she’s writing a letter.” It’s incredibly dense. So, Hitchcock’s glare at us, I think, and his mentioning the fact visually, that he’s controlling the temporality of the movie, the pace, all the events that are unfolding, as well as the music, whether we hear music or not, is meant to remind us that the movie has a certain narrative form that Hitchcock is responsible for, and that form is the form of the movie’s own intelligibility. It’s the point of this control being narrated and shown visually in a way that he wants us to attend to. I also think Hitchcock is always making some kind of joke about our willingness to be contemptuous of Jeff’s denseness at various points, whereas we’re not as willing to reflect on whether we’re understanding the movie, taking it seriously enough, probing enough, or allowing it merely to be an object of entertainment that we watch.

When we’re introduced to Jeff, the last connection with the theme of movies is that Jeff is a photographer. He’s a very unusual photographer. When we started the movie, he’s trying to convince his war buddy Lieutenant friend Doyle that a murder has been committed, and he’s got his camera out from a very early part of the movie, and he sees Thorwald go out with the suitcase, but he doesn’t take a picture. He sees him come back, go out again, doesn’t take a picture. He sees him unwrapping saws and knives in the sink, he doesn’t take a picture. He sees him watching down the walls of his apartment and doesn’t take a picture. It’s another way for Hitchcock to emphasize that even though he’s a photographer, because of his walled-off-ness from the scene, it doesn’t even occur to him that he can in effect penetrate into the scene photographically. He’s just watching. He doesn’t even take pictures. Another instance: when Lisa gets caught. Remember, Thorwald comes back, and she has that scene where she shows the ring, “I got it.” How easy would it be for him, and Stella, to say, “Thorwald, leave her alone, the police are coming. Don’t kill her! We see you.” Instead he pulls back and leaves the lights off. Who does that? Again, Hitchcock doesn’t comment on it, but if you ask yourself, what would you have done in that situation? All the windows are open. If he knows he’s being seen, and the police are coming, he’s not going to do anything. Another indication: there’s no film in the camera, no willingness to intrude into the scene, because that means he’s visible to the scene, and this sort of one-way dialectic that is the premise of his relationship to the events, the premise of his relationship to Lisa, and the premise Hitchcock assumes we assume in our way of watching movies, are all tied together in the film. We see why he’s injured and the movie sets up this debate between him and Lisa. He wants to photograph spectacle, he doesn’t want to do anything psychological, like portrait photography, where you’d have to figure somebody out, and understand their personality in order to do a proper portrait photograph. He just wants to photograph surfaces. He’s like a little boy. You know, he wants to be out in the world, and he’s very concerned about his own masculinity and adventurousness in a way that makes us a little suspicious. Anybody excessively interested in their own masculinity is a problem: defensive, worried, anxious, and so forth, and he reminds us a little of this.

But, Hitchcock, like he always does, just throws him one more little clue: this bizarre portrait, a negative. The film goes on, we see the magazine cover, but he doesn’t frame the magazine cover, which is a portrait, a fashion portrait that he did. He can do what Lisa wants him to do, I mean he could do it if he did it more, if he practiced and so forth. One of the reasons he doesn’t is that it is a kind of crude indication of his personality. He sees only the negative side of marriage, personality, he doesn’t allow the picture to be developed. If he were to be a portrait photographer, they all come out looking like this — naked, undeveloped, critical. In the same way, his attitude towards marriage is boyish, adolescent. In the scene with the editor at the beginning, as I said before, he is more interested in watching this torso because then he has no involvement with her. This is not a very flattering movie about men: a man kills his wife; a poor, lonely woman is assaulted while they just watch, Jeff can’t have an adult relationship with this woman unless she does everything he tells her to do, and lives the life he wants her to live. It is a real portrait of male pathology in a certain way. (Actually, Hitchcock has a adolescent sense of humor too. When Lisa says “I got a problem” and she is sitting on Jeff’s lap, kissing him passionately, and he says “I got a problem too,” that is obviously a reference to his erection.)

One of the aspects that exemplified his projective attitude is when Jeff sees the Thorwald marriage as what he is heading into, which is terribly unfair.  But even worse, remember when Lisa serves Jeff dinner, and it paralleled with Thorwald serving his wife dinner in bed. So we are watching the two scenes at the same time and we again see Jeff’s projected anxiety towards his own feminization by marriage: “If I get married, I will just be like Ms. Thorwald — my masculinity will be gone, I will be dependent on my wife, I will be somebody like her.” And you remember the scene keeps playing out. Ms. Thorwald is terribly rude. She throws down the flower, she laughs at him, she puts the tray aside. Jeff gets this incredible meal that Lisa has gone through so much trouble to arrange and looks at it and says in an ironical way, “It’s perfect. You are perfect.” That’s not very nice, but again it is a feature of his anxiety about domestic life and about his being made into a domestic pet in the way he sees the wife be. Lisa tells him at one point where she’s starting to be convinced “tell me everything you saw and what you think it means.” Jeff is not so good at the second part. He’s pretty good at the first part. I think his friend Doyle realizes that there is a great deal of fantasy, anxiety, and defensiveness built into the second part. It is gonna take Lisa to really help him figure out what he saw means, and then again it also has to be connected to the way that Lisa is not a purely spectatorial social being. She doesn’t just look, she tries to figure out what it means. The real indication of that is her involvement by jumping into the bedroom from before.

Well, this quotation from Stella is I think the most important one in the movie to get my main claim that this movie highlights a dialectic between subjects who are also objects to each other and how we work that out. We don’t want other people just to be subjects to us, because one way in which we come to understand ourselves is not purely by individual, internal introspection, but by the engagement with others, and the way in which that engagement with others teaches us something about ourselves. That’s what Jeff doesn’t have. When Stella says by the way, we’ve become a nation of peeping toms, she can’t possibly mean that we’re all sitting at our windows, looking with binoculars at other people. She means we’ve adopted a mode of being with respect to other people that is a mode of non-involvement, a mode of spectatorial display and privacy. Privacy is, in a way, an important human right, but it’s also, if overused, over-invoked, a way of excluding other people from our lives. And when she says we’ve become a race of peeping toms, her solution is we have to get outside our own house and look in for a change. And we have to do both at the same time. We have to look out and look in from others’ point of view at the same time. But just looking at it from another’s point of view involves both an interpretation of what their point of view might be and a qualification on whether it’s what they actually have as a point of view or what they have for us for their own reasons.

So this tissue of interactive interpretive engagement is partly what she means by saying “we can’t just be peeping toms.” We have to get outside and look in and not just be inside and looking out. And what a social world that would be like — this is not just a feature of individual psychological limitation. A whole form of life has to develop in which this is possible. A form of life based on a certain kind of minimum trust. And, there’s a social dimension to this movie as well. These people look like they’re in little cages, little rabbit huts; apartment living in the lower East Side of New York. The dog is the most important indication of that as we’ll see.

Stanley Cavell was not writing about Rear Window. He was writing about something completely different. But this quotation sums it up too: “Our condition has become one in which our natural mode of perception is to view, feeling unseen.” That’s not talking about movies, he’s talking about human skepticism about other people. “We do not so much look at the world as look out at it from behind the self.” And I think that’s what’s being thematized in the movie. And we’re being shown that form of life; that the general assumptions about social proprieties that are so deeply ingrained in the people who live in this warren of rabbit hutches is what partly makes it so difficult for what Stella was encouraging us to do and what Cavell clearly thinks is a limitation on our social world, what makes it so difficult for that to be overcome. I mean, when we first see Grace Kelly there’s that little joke, where after all their engagement, Jeff says, “I’ve got a question,” “What is it?” “Who are you?” This is the scene after they see Miss Lonelyhearts assaulted and they’re finally embarrassed, and they’re finally convinced that Doyle was right, that that’s a private world and it does not follow that if you see it unobserved, you see it in its truth. It’s too hard to understand. There’s a lot of things you can’t explain.

That’s also a message from Hitchcock about movie-watching. Just because you’re unseen and you have it in front of you, that it’s for you, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t ask anything of you. And I think Hitchcock is expressing some frustration with our inability to do that.

“Which one of you killed my dog?” This is not a question. And then we see the kind of indifference of the neighbors as they all go back to their lives, having been interrupted. Very lightly done, but this kind of indifference is to some extent upsetting, but what’s most upsetting is the oddness of the question “Did you kill him because he liked you?” Suppose you’re in an apartment building and somebody kills a dog and you look out and somebody says, “You all killed him because he liked you.” It wouldn’t make any sense to you. In the context of the movie it does.What she meant was, this intrusion into your life by the dog’s love so upset you that you killed it. It’s just another feature of this broken dialectic between a subjective point of view and the other’s point of view on you. It’s all projected subjectively from one side and here we get this little indication that the dog’s love is so upsetting to people that he was killed. Of course that’s not the reason, but we know what she’s trying to say.

We don’t expect this, he doesn’t expect this, and then suddenly we’re scared out of our mind. But what I think is so dramatic is the frame of the film since movie watching is here challenged. He doesn’t want her to go in — stay outside, just watch. She knows you can’t do that. Now, I can’t prove this, Hitchcock was a silent film director of some renown, but I’m sure this is a reference to a 1924 film by Buster Keaton called Sherlock Junior:

That’s what Lisa did in this scene. She entered the movie. Now finally we have the denouement, Thorwald is in Jeff’s apartment, and we have just this perfect illustration of all of these themes. In order to protect himself, Jeff has to blind somebody, who’s coming in, asking him, “What do you want from me?” But in order to blind the person who’s intruding into his space, he has to cover his own eyes. He has to make himself blind in order to have an advantage over the person who’s blinded. So it’s a perfect illustration of the whole theme of voyeurism and excessive projective subjectivity, the broken dialectic, the superficial way of watching movies. I can’t prove this, but I don’t think it’s an accident that Hitchcock cast a heavy man to come out of the movie world into Jeff’s world and ask him, as Hitchcock is asking us, “What do you want from me? What do you want from these movies? You just want to be entertained — is that it? You don’t want to think” Thorwald is saying, “You don’t want to understand my life? You don’t know what it was like to be married to that woman. You have no idea what my life is like. What do you want from me? Why are you involving yourself in all this?” And Hitchcock as well has his avatar in this movie — he’s saying, “What do you want from me?” And it’s also a moment of pathos; Thorwald had been this monster, and now we find this broken human man and not a monster, asking, “What do you want from me? Why did you involve yourself in my life like this?” But this scene, it’s just so perfectly done, both with the theme of vision, and the denial of vision by Jimmy Stewart’s character, Jeff.

There’s the whole plot obviously, he doesn’t want to get killed and this is a good weapon, but as a theme for the movies conflict of spectatorial relationship it’s a perfect ending to the movie. But it’s not the ending. At the end, it’s twenty degrees cooler, and, you saw it, he’s got another broken leg. He’s even more immobile now than before. Not encouraging in terms of the symbolic economy of the movie. He’s laid up, both legs broken. He’s got a kind of fatuous smile at the end, but then we see Jimmy Stewart’s broken legs followed by a pair of legs that aren’t in a cast. (The song, by the way, is called “Lisa.”)

At the end we get another reminder that Hitchcock is in control, that the movie’s over because he wants it to be over. Not much has changed besides our appreciation of Lisa. You could say the movie’s got a depressing, weak ending, that we’re back to where we were, they’re going to keep fighting about the same thing. But I think we get a sense that the dynamics in the relationship have changed and that Lisa is quite a formidable person to have established a change in this dialectic and that she’s quite confident in her strategy.

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