Window Dressing

In Rear Window, we learn much about the past lives of our three protagonists in our very first meeting with each of them. It is easy to see that the ingredients for their voyeurism at the window have long been brewing not only beneath the psychological surface but in their daily lives as well. Their very professions and statements about such make it clear that they are predisposed to fits of over-imagination and over-interpretation both by force of habit and occupational necessity. Stella, as an insurance company nurse who has many short-term clients, by her own admission attempts to decipher what certain ailments mean in the psychological sense; and Lisa plants items in gossip columns to facilitate the voyeurism of the general public, and professionally clothes them as a small girl might clothe a doll. Jeff, as the main character who carries the film and to whom we are as tied as Jeff is to his wheelchair (whereas we do not follow Lisa out of the apartment to her job), is the character with the most voyeuristic tendencies and history because he is, in effect, a narrator and voyeur-for-hire – a photographer.

As a professional photographer, Jeff spends his days taking photos of others, but never of himself. This brings to mind a quote from the television series My So-Called Life: “I became yearbook photographer because I liked the idea that I could sort of watch life without having to be a part of it. But when you’re yearbook photographer, you’re never in the picture.” Jeff has made sacrifices for his inherently voyeuristic lifestyle, to the point where he really has no social, non-professional life to speak of other than his girlfriend. No friends visit him while he is laid up at home other than Lisa; Doyle arrives only in a professional capacity, and Jeff’s phone calls are limited to occupational topics. Jeff is so consumed by his profession that he doesn’t know how to do anything else – he doesn’t read books, the magazines on the table are untouched, he doesn’t watch television or listen to music. He is unprepared to live in his apartment for more than three days at a time; it is possible that he is unprepared to live in his apartment, period.

Jeff thrives in an unfamiliar environment that he must document with pictures; not only does he fear losing that lifestyle and fulfilment of his needs if he marries Lisa, but it is likely that his apartment is the most foreign environment of all in its basic function as a domestic dwelling. Lisa asks him, “Isn’t it time you came home?” but what she doesn’t realize is that Jeff does not really have a home, not in the truest sense of the word. The subjective mundaneness of his everyday life forces him to seek out the stories of others whether he is in Pakistan or looking out his own picture window.

By the fourth shot of the film, we know practically everything there is to know about the courtyard apartment dwellers (via the second, third, and fourth shots), Jeff, and even a little about Lisa. This lengthy shot begins on the dog/balcony couple, moves down and left to Miss Torso, then down and left more into Jeff’s apartment where it holds on the sleeping Jeff for a few seconds and then shifts quickly (in the same direction; even Jeff’s body is angled in that same down and left orientation, helping to lead the viewer’s eye in the direction of camera movement) to his “here lies the leg of L.B. Jefferies” cast. At this point we are aware of two things: that Jeff is a temporary invalid; and that he has a snappy, sardonic sense of humor that we see him display throughout the rest of the film. The camera continues its movement to the left in a sharp pan to the table, where it alights in close-up at six different stations during its eye-like movement (there are no cuts).

  1. The broken camera – this is not a normal Brownie-esque, 35mm camera. Jeff is either an avid photographer hobbyist or takes photos professionally.
  2. The fateful photo – we don’t know its significance yet, but this is presumably the picture Jeff refers to in his subsequent phone conversation with his editor as what landed him in the leg cast. It is an in-the-thick-of-it picture of the crash of a race car.
  3. The other photos – I think it is safe to assume at this point that Jeff is a professional photographer. These are the kind of pictures one would find in National Geographic or Life magazine. Jeff is not in any of them.
  4. Other camera equipment – various and sundry camera pieces and accessories litter the table, verifying (1) and (3).
  5. Pause on blown-up negative of Lisa – our first glimpse of Lisa Carol Fremont, and the one sign of her existence that Jeff keeps displayed in his apartment, is a wholly inverse representation of reality. This is the most interesting object in this extremely long shot, which I will discuss this further below.
  6. Stack of Life magazines with positive photo of Lisa on the cover – the camera finally rests at this point for five seconds and then fades out. We learn that Lisa, who is probably Jeff’s significant other because he has framed her picture separately and not hung it on the wall with his “work” picture, is also something of a public persona instead of a normal working (or non-working) woman.

There is a wealth of information in this one shot, much of which, though subtle, bears importance on Jeff’s subsequent extreme voyeurism. The best source of this is the work photographs on the wall. As mentioned above, Jeff is not in any of them and they are clearly not the kind of photos one generally finds on the wall of a home – that is, there are no family members in them, no shots of picnics or pets or community baseball games. They are high-quality, high-action photographs that tell a story. Jeff’s job is to travel to foreign lands and snap pictures of civil unrest, wars, sporting events, etc., for a glossy magazine. The adage “a picture says a thousand words” applies here – Jeff has been watching, ferreting out, and telling other people’s stories for the entirety of his adult life. He never actually partakes in an event because he is always watching and looking for the photo opportunity. His photographer’s eye has been trained to home in on an image and see the poetry and story behind it, which, when compounded by extreme boredom and physical incapacitation, leads directly to the events that make up the bulk of Rear Window. Jeff has spent his life making up stories about other people. Staring across the courtyard at his neighbors and trying to figure out what their lives are like, when his life is so very boring and inactive by virtue of never “being in the picture,” is a logical extension of his previously demonstrated psychological and sociological patterns.

The framed picture of Lisa that Jeff keeps on his table is fascinating. Why does he have only an “abnormal” symbol of her – that is to say, I don’t know many people that keep framed negatives of their beloved. This is another symptom of Jeff’s inability to deal with and accept reality and is linked with his discussion of Lisa with Stella two scenes later. Where every other man on the planet would jump at the chance to marry somebody as perfect as Lisa, Jeff is frightened of commitment and the strain a woman like Lisa would put on his lifestyle. He views her in exactly the opposite way as the rest of the world; to him, she is “too everything but what I want.” The negative photograph is a physical representation of how he sees her, a story that he has authored and how he encourages the rest of the world to see her. Stella, naturally, doesn’t believe a word of it and tells him he is being a fool.

Stella constantly berates Jeff for his treatment of Lisa and his “window-shopping.” Not surprisingly, the very shot in which she makes the “window shopper” comment is a two-shot of her slightly behind Jeff, looking out the window at the newlyweds. Stella materializes from the kitchen out of thin air, and her eyes are not initially on him but on the newlyweds, watching just as Jeff is and being a bit of a window shopper herself – or, if not a window shopper, than at least a voyeur. Her eyes shift to Jeff when she makes her comment, then flick back and forth between Jeff and the window in a window-Jeff-window-Jeff pattern – she’s just as bad as he is, although she won’t admit it. Her pretense of minding her own business and ignoring the window is ironic, considering both her eye movements in this shot and her own history of making up stories (a better term for her assumptions) about her patients. She tells Jeff about her prediction of the 1929 stock market crash, but isn’t her tale just another made-up story? I believe that it is, and so does Jeff – she viewed a series of incidents and put them together in her head to come to the conclusion that “when General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country’s ready to let go.” Even her job choice is more voyeuristic than normal. Instead of working in a hospital or doctor’s office, she travels around from patient to patient, learning their individual stories and making up her own. She does the same with Jeff, imploring him to marry Lisa; and she eventually joins him in his spectatorship and speculation, although at the end of the film both she and Lisa actually become a part of the story, while Jeff remains immobilized at the window.

Robin Wood describes Lisa’s entrance scene as a metaphor for acting, claiming that “she turns herself into a public performance” (104) with the announcement of her name in conjunction with turning on the room’s lamps. It is as if she is an actress in her relationship with Jeff, but later she transfers this role over to the women across the courtyard. She proudly informs Jeff that she has “planted several items in the columns” about him, yet another construction of a story for public consumption just as she constructs herself to attempt to win his favor by playing into the acting metaphor. Most significantly (and proof that the groundwork had been laid for her voyeurism in the film long before), Lisa works in the fashion industry, clothing women in high-class fashions and dressing them up, constructing her own form of reality for them by dressing them as she sees fit to recommend. Her need to construct her own reality is also apparent in her own clothing – Jeff remarks, “Is this the Lisa Fremont who never wears the same dress twice?” The shot changes to Jeff’s perspective, a medium shot of a posing Lisa. She replies, “Only because it’s expected of her,” takes a step forward and slowly twirls around, showing off her dress (today’s persona) for him. She then moves to the table and places her pocketbook right next to the negative photo of herself; it creates an interesting contrast with her own outfit, which is also black and white (more white than black, a “positive” image). Lisa “tries on” different personalities every day and watches as others do the same at fashion shows and stores. Creating stories about those people is second nature, and postulating about activities across the courtyard is, for Lisa, just like dressing them up in different garments and determining which is the best look and fit.

Stella, Lisa, and Jeff fabricate stories and, in effect, lives for the people across the courtyard because it is what they do when they are outside the apartment, it is what they do professionally, and it is what they do because they do not really have lives of their own. They must construct stories about others in order to validate their own existence. It is not a conscious effort in the apartment because their minds habitually create narratives – we all live our lives as a story to some extent and take joy in creating and immersing ourselves in the stories of others. The three protagonists of Rear Window do so perhaps more than the average person, but it is not out of the ordinary and certainly to be expected when investigation of their activities before the events of this movie reveals their predisposition towards extensive creation of narrative. All three were voyeurs in some way, shape or form before Rear Window proper; the events of the movie draw them together and crystallize their voyeurism, making for good characterization, good viewing, and most of all, good story.

Sun Apr 19 13:38:44 EDT 1998

note: it turns out that the girl in the picture isn't actually grace kelly, but prof and i agree that within the fiction of the film, she is an acceptable substitute because jeff views her as he views lisa.
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