In this week's STILES Film Club, Maxwell Tait reflects on stone-cold classic Rear Window, and why Sir Alfred Hitchcock's love-letter to cinema is perfect viewing in 'these uncertain times'. That, and another two films that offer different takes on cinema in lockdown.
How this classic Hitchcock thriller paved the way for Gogglebox
So, what’s film all about anyway? Sometimes, I consider a scenario where humans are making first contact with extraterrestrial life, and I’m tasked with assembling a collection of culture to best exhibit the artistic enterprise of our species. It changes, but today, Nina Simone Live at Montreux, 1976 has gone in, along with Twin Peaks: The Return, a keg of Guinness, Picasso’s Demoiselles, a big bag of fish and chips, and Piero Mingoia whipping it postage-stamp from 30 yards with the inside of his boot. After all of that, the alien recipients are confused, tired, and really full. They need a good film: one that acts as a perceptive analogy for the medium itself, encapsulating the multitude of feelings and emotions that cinema viewing transmits — but is also a laugh. They’ve pulled out a USB stick, plugged it into their weird alien adapter, and sat down on their alien sofa to watch Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window on their big alien telly.
Hitchcock made a lot of excellent films. If an artist's impact on 20th Century pop-culture were measured by the number of references to them in The Simpsons Seasons 1-9, then Hitchcock ranks very highly. As is another great indication of someone excelling in their field, you could quite easily make a case for many of his works being his best: North By Northwest is the proto-Hollywood action-thriller, Psycho revolutionised the Horror genre whilst fundamentally altering film censorship, and in 2012 Vertigo dethroned five time winner Citizen Kane to top Sight & Sound’s decennial poll ‘The Greatest Films of All Time’, widely regarded as the definitive best film list. Whether or not it is his best, however, Rear Window is inarguably Hitchcock’s love letter to cinema itself.
L. B. Jeffries, or ‘Jeff’ (James Stewart), is a very bored man. A magazine photographer accustomed to travelling the world with nothing but his camera and his wits, we find Jeff wheelchair-bound and confined to his apartment. Entering the seventh and final week of his recovery, most of his time is occupied by hard-to-reach itches within the cast on his broken leg. Regular check-ups from his witty nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his socialite love interest, Lisa (Grace Kelly), do little to rouse Jeff from the monotony of his long, idle days. But Jeff’s spirits are raised when a Manhattan heatwave turns his apartment complex into a hive of activity; with a buzzing courtyard and prime views straight into his neighbours’ homes, his apartment window becomes the best show available to a voyeur like him. As we all know, all good shows are spiced up with a bit of murder, and after the sudden disappearance of Mrs Thorwald in the building opposite, Jeff develops an unhealthily obsessive suspicion of Mr Thorwald.
What follows is a sublimely paced escalation of tension. Jeff’s wild imagination is facilitated as Lisa and Stella become engrossed in the melodrama, enabling further meddling in his neighbours' affairs. You can feel Jeff’s giant telephoto lens growing to the point where it might reach into the windows opposite. And throughout, Hitchcock is just pumping more and more air into this balloon of a film. The ‘Master of Suspense’ wrote the handbook on this, he knows exactly when to make it pop.
We have a series of parallel stories alongside this, with each apartment having its own characters. As we watch Jeff watch them, we are constantly reminded of our own voyeurism as a spectator. Camera in hand, barking instructions to Lisa and Stella, Jeff is our director, and the courtyard is his set. We don’t find out if Jeff’s grisly suspicions regarding Mr. Thorwald are warranted until the end, but he’s unnervingly determined to make it true, if only for the sake of entertainment.
With the unstoppable march of time, even classic works of art erode; their colours fade as fresh paint brightens everything around them. After the best part of 70 years, it’s inevitable that the standards of entertainment shift, and this comes largely at the expense of the old — like antiquated toys in a museum that cease being recreational, and become an exhibition of times past. I’m not old or young enough to engage in a Lego vs. Minecraft debate, but my point is that these classic works need constant reevaluation — an MOT, basically. Rear Window is a great example of a film that still runs beautifully, and remains universally compelling. Hot take: old films can be fun too.
Rebecca Nicholson makes a great point about the prescience of the film, in particular regarding waning attention spans. In Lisa, Jeff has Grace Kelly — one of the most glamorous women of the 50s in her first of five outfits — bringing him a slap up lobster dinner with a Montrachet on ice, and all he can do is gaze over her shoulder. There’s always something else going on, and for some reason it’s more interesting because it’s happening to someone else.
As a globetrotting journalist confined to a wheelchair in his small apartment, Jeff represents the extreme ends of our collective frustrations during lockdown. Funny that he finds solace in the windows of the apartments opposite, lit up like the panels of a giant Zoom quiz. We’re all sat in small rooms thinking that we should be travelling the world right now, making it the perfect time to watch Rear Window — if only to connect with Jeff’s ennui on a deeper level.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
(Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)
Over the last twenty years, the role of the cinema as the hub of a community has changed dramatically. There’s plenty of blame to go around here: the rise of watching films at home (which really came out of nowhere), unhelpful infighting between cinema chain giants, and your mate that says you can buy a bag of popcorn in the supermarket for much cheaper. Questionable staff treatment aside, most people will have been disheartened by the closure of local cinemas — a feeling that is enchantingly distilled in 2003’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn.
It’s the final night of admission for an old Taipei multiplex. Whilst its final screening plays out in real time to a handful of spectators — Dragon Inn, a Taiwanese wuxia (martial arts) classic from 1967 — we accompany the ticket woman and her braced leg as she limps through the ghostly building in search of the projectionist.
Calling a film slow is often perceived as a slight. But, like the best of Chantel Akerman and David Lynch, Tsai Ming-liang understands that to create such a strikingly distinct atmosphere, one must eschew urgency — the least that the magical, cavernous setting of the run down multiplex deserves. And if slow cinema means a three-minute long scene of urinal-etiquette that plays out like a sedated Jacques Tati gag, then count me in. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a poignant tribute to all of the different feelings that only the sacred temple of cinema provides, sticky carpets and all.
One Night in Miami (King, 2020)
It’s only fitting that the directorial debut from Regina King would be an acting masterclass. A likely candidate for ‘last film completed pre-pandemic’, One Night in Miami imagines a fictional meeting of minds of four of the most influential black men of the twentieth century: Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). Based on the Kemp Powers stage play of the same name, the film documents a pivotal night for all four, with the action predominantly unfolding in a single hotel room. Heated debate takes place over the Civil Rights movement, the Nation of Islam, Bob Dylan, and vanilla ice cream. What a relief that the ultimate dinner party fantasy wrapped just before the bedlam of last year; clever editing masks the fact that the final shoots took place under lockdown conditions.
In such a quintessentially American work, it’s London-born Kingsley Ben-Adir’s sleek performance as Malcolm X that shines — no mean feat considering the quality around him. Such icons demand nuanced performances, and Regina King gets just that out of her cast, with Ben-Adir transmitting the warmth and assuredness required for such a complex, vital figure. I’m not saying you should lump on him becoming the next Bond, but…
One Night in Miami is available to stream on Amazon Prime.