Rear Window: A Modern Reflection? by Anna Purrington #KowalaCinemaThrowback

Rear Window: A Modern Reflection? by Anna Purrington #KowalaCinemaThrowback

Submitted to a nation of stir-crazy people confined to their homes I give you Rear Window, a story of a stir-crazy man, also confined to his home. This guy is crabby, he’s bored, and he’s sick of being in his apartment until one of his neighbors inadvertently provides him with something to do--solve a murder! Is this simply a straight-forward suspense story? A cautionary tale of men versus women, the old school versus modernity? Nearly anything goes in terms of defining what it all means, but if anything positive is to come from our own sheltering at home it should be for all of us stir-crazies to unite in our love of film (and voyeurism). Let’s dig in.

Alfred Hitchcock’s films are a dream to review and discuss because like many auteur directors whose work carries a collection of recognizable properties (almost like a personal seal or thumbprint), Hitchcock puts a ton of interesting elements into every film he does. For example the slowness of the moving camera commonly conveys suspense, the classic composition of shots can portray power or vulnerability, and all the little items that inhabit the setting (in this case, camera lenses, cigarettes, jewelry, and saws) together with the way these items are used go a long way in showing, not telling, some of the important things we need to know about the characters. L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photographer confined to his apartment having been severely injured at a photo shoot.

His days are scattered with visits from the insurance-appointed nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his love interest, Lisa (Grace Kelly), but Jefferies seems to be preoccupied with the goings-on of the apartment dwellers across the courtyard, fully on display through open windows. Notable tenants include Ms. Torso, a young, pliable ballerina, Ms. Lonely-Heart, a heavy drinker who imagines interactions with beaus, a party-throwing songwriter and pianist, and the Thorwalds, a man who lives with his wife, also confined to her room. Jeffries becomes suspicious when Mrs. Thorwald suddenly disappears, and after noticing several occasions of strange behavior from Mr. Thorwald, Jefferies decides the man must have murdered his wife. Technically speaking, this film is easily an aesthetic masterpiece. A soundstage this massive (three separate apartment dwellings, courtyard, background street, and distant restaurant) is impressive on its own, but the filmmaking techniques, color, and music are all pleasantly memorable. The camera, which serves largely to stretch out scenes or reveal things slowly, is quick and sudden when it needs to be, usually in moments of fear, danger, or measuring Jeffries’ reactions to fear and danger.

Lighting has a huge effect on the story: whose windows are illuminated, how shadows protect or hide Jefferies as he spies, or where Thorwald is and whether or not he’s watching as betrayed by the glow of his cigarette. Color explodes in the summer environment through the flower bed, the choices in paint inside the apartments, and the outfits of the female characters. The musical choices and sound design amplify the interconnectedness of the neighbors through an ongoing accompaniment of piano (courtesy of the musician), vocal scales, folk fiddle, and whistling while also giving way at crucial moments to more sinister elements such as breaking glass, a thunderstorm, and a woman’s scream.

So how does it all come together and what’s being said under the surface events of the story? Questions of impotence and inferiority have been raised (why does Jefferies keep rejecting Lisa, physically?) as well as the play between more traditionally-valued Stella and Detective Doyle who have a stated aversion to psychology versus Jefferies and Lisa, who take a more modern approach to thinking things out and analyzing their feelings. Jefferies speaks at length on what he considers to be barriers to a future marriage with Lisa that really only amount to differences in class and personal interests, but seems to put all his concerns to rest once Lisa begins to take his side in questioning Mrs. Thorwald’s disappearance.

The issue of voyeurism is not exactly subtle in this story; in a precursor to Ira Levin’s Silver as well as reality television proper Rear Window is about a man peeping in on others’ lives. How do we feel about this, and how does it translate to the things we watch today? At a bit of a reach yet still worth mentioning-- Jefferies' perception and treatment of Lisa changes pretty significantly once she leaves his apartment and becomes a player in the events across the courtyard, after she becomes someone to be watched. In school, one of my professors from the West Bank (photography and art history department) preferred to keep discussions on film contained to the narrative and technical arenas, whereas several others on the East Bank (comparative literature and film theory) lived for the discussions of the underlying themes and what it all meant in the scheme of the universe.

This film was a top pick for both camps, but for decidedly different reasons. What are your thoughts? What bank are you on, and why?

 

By Anna Purrington

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Mock the Government by Anna Purrington

Director Stanley Kubrick lets us know immediately the type of film experience we’re getting into with his 1964 satirical comedy, Dr. Strangelove. First, a text crawler at the behest of the US Air Force explaining how the events depicted in the film couldn’t really happen, and second, an extended collection of scenes of an airplane refueling another midair with a decidedly sexual theme.

The effect of this introduction is clear: we are about to see a crude, outlandish mockery of governmental situations. The mockery goes on to take several forms throughout the film, playing often upon character names, generalities of hawks, doves, Russians, and Germans (among many others), and a stubborn obsession over bodily fluids. That said, Dr. Strangelove will not be every person’s kind of comedy.

The Cold War was a very serious situation; not everyone will see the humor in making it ridiculous. Communism and Nazism aren’t light-hearted topics, nor are mutinies, hydrogen bombs, loss of life, or suicide. Kubrick is able to sidestep the seriousness of these issues by focusing not on the issues themselves but rather the poor decisions that led to them.

The theme here isn’t necessarily about the evil men do, it’s about the stupid, the confusing, and the outlandish, and we can feel fine laughing about these things. The narrative, driven by ongoing tension between American and Russia over nuclear weapons superiority (and any ‘gaps’ between the two nations’ perceived might over the other), is fairly straight-forward. An Air Force general goes rogue, sets in motion a nuclear attack on Russia, and the president’s cabinet bumble about trying to thwart the attack while maintaining diplomacy with the Russians. The character Strangelove (one of Peter Sellers’ three roles in the film) is minor but memorable as an advisor to American president, Merkin Muffley (also Sellers). Suggesting previous Nazi association, Strangelove’s behavior involving a maniacal right arm and constant verbal lapses into “Mein Fuhrer” provides not only comedy but tongue-in-cheek stylistic homage to German Expressionist cinema.

The Air Force Base, which sets the story in motion, is initially a very confused environment. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) suddenly ordering a nuclear strike and blathering on about fluids; is this guy for real? Yes, he is, and no, he won’t recall the code he’s just authorized, so a retaliatory attack on his base commences. Here we see the newsreel look of active battle juxtaposed with extended scenes of the Royal Air Force executive officer Lionel Mandrake’s (also Sellers) uncomfortable reactions against the paranoia of General Ripper and later, a comically dim set of interactions with a Colonel “Bat” Guano, a phone booth, and a coke machine.

Arguably the most stylized setting in the film, the War Room is composed of a giant oval table which seats the president’s cabinet and dignitaries and over which hangs an enormous board map of Russia, complete with lights and other strategic features. Size is definitely key, and the board is often acknowledged as a powerful tool that should be kept secret at all costs.

The comedic performances of the war room are dynamic and constant, fluctuating back and forth between the monotone President Muffley and General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott). Hawkish Turgidson’s character exists to egg on the entire attack, and comes off as both logically stoic and giddy at the prospect of dropping a warhead on a Russian target, but Scott’s portrayal of the general-- tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures-- steals virtually every scene until Strangelove arrives.

It’s been noted that George C. Scott was not pleased with the performances of his that Kubrick chose to use in the film, but it’s no understatement to say that nonetheless, Scott as Turgidson is a huge part of the film’s success. The B52 plane piloted by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) is the most light-hearted of the settings, and relies on music (When Johnny Comes Marching Home), close shots of the technical aspects of the aircraft and its gear, and Pickens’ gentle western drawl to color the experience of something serious that becomes funny.

Bombs are not funny; dropping a bomb on a country is not funny, but Kong and his crew make it so. The film’s famous conclusion takes this concept a step further by returning sexual innuendo to the final act as Kong rides a warhead out of the plane and onto Russian soil. We are somehow left feeling satisfied with such a resolution simply because the bomb and the entirety of international diplomacy have been treated as jokes, mishandled by a crew of incompetents.

Should politicians and generals be mocked if they’re shown to be incompetent? Kubrick thought so. The book Red Alert upon which the film is based does not take a comic approach to any of the events depicted in the story, but posited two serious thoughts that Kubrick chose to include: “You say, ‘War is too important to be left to the generals?’ Well I say war is too important to be left to the politicians!” Despite such bravado, neither make a very convincing argument in the film, which is clearly what Kubrick set out to show us in the first place.

How might Stanley see things today? I’m not sure I want to know . . .

 

By Anna Purrington

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