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Rear Window

The first film we watched in our film class, to represent the height of the "classical" period of film-making, was Rear Window, by Alfred Hitchcock. It is (so I learned) a meditation on voyeurism--and what is watching films, arguably, but a type of voyeurism. The key moment of the critique of voyeurism--a critique of watching instead of living--is how Jimmy Stewart's character cowers behind his nurse's skirts as his girlfriend Grace Kelly is apparently about to get killed by Raymond Burr. All he has to do to stop him is to yell--across the courtyard--"I see you, stop!" Instead, he says nothing. He's impotent (in more than one sense, apparently).Any thoughts? Are we still voyeuristic?

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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I recall that in that scene, Grace Kelly and Perry Mason, I mean Raymond Burr, are not just across the courtyard, but inside another apartment, and hence Stewart's frustration is that he can't yell so as to be heard through the windows. Am I wrong?

I think Stuart is right about his not being able to yell. But you make out Jimmy Stewart to be a wimpy voyeurr??? I'm out of here!

Windows are open. Yeah, film school is tough.

If you think that's wrenching, try watching "The Conversation".

Freaky stuff. Classic Hitchcock. Of course we are voyeuristic. The popularity of so-called reality tv is testament enough. Have we become more interested in observing attrocious behavior than acting spontaneously against it? Probably. But Ihave no off-the-cuff explanation as to why.

Cathleen, I don't think that "watching films," per se, is "a type of voyeurism."Watching erotica, porn, or sensual/sexual scenes from a mainstream or independent film may be voyeuristic, but I can't associate voyeurism with watching, for example, a Western, a horror flick, sci-fi, etc. unless, of course, such films include scenes that lend themselves to --- well --- voyeurism!

What is voyeurism? Is every case of A watches B doing C an instance of voyeurism? We could argue over the definition, true, but without a tentative definition the discussion will go nowhere.

Voyeurism, I think, is defined as a) a deliberate and sustained attempt to watch other people b) in situations which they expect to be private, c) while remaining unobserved oneself, d) for purposes that are not purely instrumental to discovering a suspected fact.So. . . a private investigator is not a voyeur. Neither is an undercover cop.

Is photography a form of voyeurism?The opening scene of "Rear Window" shows the photo that resulted in Stewart's broken leg -- a stray wheel from a crashing race car careening towards the camera. This seems to symbolize reality destroying the barrier between the voyeuristic photographer and subject.

That's interesting--and much of the dialogue talks about how voyeurism is dangerous to the soul. The movie, incidentally, doesn't end all that well. He's asleep, doubly broken, and she's bored-reading Bazaar. In a way, what we've just seen is bizarre and a bazaar (little booths) of human life.

I'm trying to remember the scene - if Stewart had yelled, wouldn't Burr also have heard him?I agree that the film is, in a sense, a meditation on voyeurism. I disagree that the act of watching a film is itself a form of voyeurism. A film like "Rear Window" is a drama - a very ancient literary and performance form - on a technological platform. I don't think it's voyeuristic to watch a drama. There are reasons for drama, e.g. the catharsis experienced from watching a tragedy.

I think that's the point==Burr would have heard him, and stopped.

Jim: Actors in a drama, or actors in general have no expectation of privacy when they are acting--quite the contrary.Cathleen: Sounds like a good definition. What about this? Someone is doing something on a deck or behind a picture window in full view of any neighbor who happens to face in an otherwise appropriate direction. If the neighbor takes note of and becomes interested in odd or possibly criminal behavior, is that voyeurism. What about behavior that is merely entertaining. Suppose the neighbor is an exhibitionist.

The Stewart character starts out like most photographers, who see without bearing witness. Initially, he's concerned with the image and remains at an emotional remove from the reality behind it. Over the course of the film, he's gradually enveloped by that reality.

I'm with Joe J. on this and I think Hitchcock was the master of sending chills and suspense.A look at his body of work would be a worthwhile affort if you haven't seen his picture\es -I mention above all the glorious "Spellbound" and the chilling "Strangers on a Train."Now if you want to discss voyeurism, how about the old TV series "Twin Peaks?"

Hitchcock also had a mischievious penchant for mocking audience expectations by either killing off the star (Janet Leigh) or casting good guys as perverse villains. i.e., Joseph Cotton (Shadow of a Doubt), Robert Walker (Strangers...), grandfatherly Edmund Gwenn as the murderous body guard in Foreign Correspondent, Cary Grant (Suspiscion), etc. The ending of Suspicion was changed at the last minute when the studio got cold feet about tampering with Grant's on-screen personna.What's more, Hitchcock loved to mock other sacred icons, such as the presidential images during the chase scene on Mt. Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur.In that regard, Truffaut's interview of Hitchcock makes for interesting reading.

If you want to discuss voyeurism, see the Matrix movies, which is about a group of semiconscious people in a darkened room watch motionless while all action plays out in their minds.Seriously, Hitchcock is a better choice than almost anything.

Speaking of Hitchcock and icons, Pauline Kael observed that the villain in "The 39 Steps" resembled non other than FDR.

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