Some movies, no matter how old they are, never age a day. Their situations and themes remain as relevant now as when they were first released. Watching them today, they reflect and comment on our present in ways they couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Every month we’re going to pick a movie from the past that does just that, and explore what it has to say about the here and now.
For sixty years Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window has remained a classic not just because it’s a perfectly crafted thriller, but because it’s one of cinema’s greatest commentaries on our voyeuristic impulses.
Those impulses haven’t gone away, which is why it’s not surprising that Rear Window continues to be a potent reflection of society—all the more so since technology has further enabled us to peer in on each other’s lives. Here then are five ways—not all of them exclusively about surveillance—that Rear Window continues to speak to us today.
1. We’re Still “a Race of Peeping Toms”
The most advanced surveillance technology in Rear Window may be binoculars, but Jeff’s (James Stewart) snooping is no less recognizable now that rear windows have been replaced by computer screens. We’re now even more—as Stella (Thelma Ritter) puts it—“a race of peeping toms.” We use our smartphones for things like live tweeting breakups for others’ entertainment, taking pictures of unsuspecting people in public for a joke, and peering into the dating lives of our exes on Facebook. Imagine what will happen when Google Glass takes off.
It’s not just happening on an individual level either, but on a corporate and governmental one as well. Edward Snowden famously revealed that the National Security Agency looked at hundreds of thousands of our private email address books. Netflix effectively watches us watch its movies to study our behavior. Google and Amazon track our search histories so much that privacy protection guides exist.
Everybody’s watching everyone now—more than Stella could have ever have imagined—thanks to the technology that’s only making it increasingly easier to do so
2. We Keep Our “Curtains” Open More Than Ever
It’s no justification, but a big reason Jeff is able to be a peeping tom is that his neighbors’ lives are so accessible (i.e. their curtains are always open). He sees because their lives—unwittingly—are easy to see. Yes, logically, that’s because nobody closes their curtains all day, but symbolically it recalls how much we leave our own curtains open all the time now.
We expose huge swaths of our lives online, with little thought towards those looking in on where we’re traveling, what we’re eating, who we’re dating, what we’re reading. In the words of the film, that’s “pretty private stuff” and yet it’s all right there to be seen.
3. The Dangers of Stereotyping Remain
Miss Torso. Miss Lonelyhearts. The Newlyweds. Jeff’s neighbors don’t have names, but nicknames based on whatever characteristic is most superficially apparent. It’s a common human impulse: to narrowly categorize people based on instant, limited or superficial impressions. There’s a danger in that because people are more than one thing, one moment, one act. Yet in an age where we’re reduced to data, 140 characters, an image in a camera lens, we’re all the more prone to narrowly defining people in claustrophobic boxes. You see it in the examples above. The NSA, Google, Netflix, all seeking to reduce us to one basic element: threat/non-threat, consumer, movie watcher. You see it especially with internet outrage (the non-social cause variety).
When a tweet or article, for example, makes the rounds to be raged against, there’s a tendency not to regard the author as a writer who has written a series of articles, or a person with a range of nuanced opinions. They become solely defined by the offending piece with no other context. Patton Oswalt even hilariously mocked this tendency to reduce and write off a person based solely on one thing they did (unless, of course, we’re talking about Ann Coulter). Which of course is no more representative of a complete person—with emotions, motivations, an unseen life—than calling someone Miss Torso.
It’s a point Rear Window does, after all, make with a bit of humor when Miss Torso’s true love is revealed to be a short, nerdy-looking soldier. Hitch’s point: people are more than one thing or what they appear to be at any given fraction of a moment of a life.
4. Our Inner Ghouls Persevere
Technology hasn’t simply enabled the ease with which we clandestinely view. It’s enabled our morbid curiosity. What’s arisen is the same thing that comes up in Rear Window when Jeff wonders about the morality of his snooping, and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) thinks the greater offense is their ghoulish fixation on (and even desire for) the possibility of seeing violence across the courtyard.
Now we continue to lunge for pictures of athletes breaking bones, journalists being decapitated, police officers turning on peaceful protests. Of course part of it is wanting to be informed, bearing witness, trying to understand the horrors that happen in our world. But part of it is also that same instinct that finds us rubber necking highway accidents. It’s why even something as minor as an actor tweeting about being beaten up by a police officer nets him hundreds of followers. We look, we peep, we peer because we’re just a little bit ghoulish (and we’re increasingly offered the technological means to enable that).
5. We Want Our Talented People to Be Ordinary
Jeff has a conflict in Rear Window. Lisa, his fashionista girlfriend, is, by his own admission, beautiful and talented—something he clearly admires in her. But the one hurdle he can’t get past? “If she was only ordinary.” It’s a curious complaint for someone essentially dating a celebrity model, but it recalls the curious relationship we as a society maintain to this day with our own celebrities.
On the one hand we want them to be beautiful, talented demi-gods we can worship from down low. On the other hand, we want them down here with us and be relatable, normal, ordinary. We worship the Jennifer Lawrences, Emma Stones, and Mila Kunises for their ability to be both better than us and just like us.
We want them to win Oscars, but trip on the stairs along the way.