Rear Window

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“I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens. Do you suppose it’s ethical even if you prove that he didn’t commit a crime?” So says L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) the hero of “Rear Window”. Maybe it’s because I’m taking an ethics class right now, or maybe because this movie has just fascinated me since I first viewed it as a teenager, but this remains to me the philosophical quandary in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterfully directed classic, my personal favorite of his, and one of the best comments of film as it applies to the audience.

Alfred Hitchcock was a director who made films for the wide audience, and “Rear Window” plays like a crowd pleasing murder mystery/thriller, with charismatic stars James Stewart and Grace Kelly taking the lead and iconic character actress Thelma Ritter tagging along as the comic relief. But “Rear Window” has depths beneath the surface that I feel Hitchcock wanted to explore, for him, he uses the framing device of a man watching his neighbours out the window whilst wondering if one of them killed his wife as a way to explore how he wants us, the audience to view his own movies.

“Rear Window” tells the story of L.B. Jefferies or Jeff (Stewart), an adventurous photographer who is recovering from a broken leg after he takes one too many risks while shooting a photo. We see from the beginning the only thing Jeff does to fill his time is look at his neighbours through his window of his Greenwich Village apartment. At first it seems harmless, many of their neighbours are carrying out their days in their usual routine, but one night Jeff hears a woman scream, and notices one of his neighbours a salesman, making curious trips out in the middle of the night. Could it be that this man may have murdered his wife? Pretty soon Jeff is playing detective with the help of his girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) and his nurse Stella (Ritter), all three of them looking out the Jeff’s window wondering what has happened to the wife, speculating where the man may have buried her, or what clues might be found inside his rose garden.

The idea Hitchcock is making with his three protagonists, but mostly Jeff is that they are fill ins for the audience. As Francois Truffaut pointed out in his indelible book of interviews about Hitchcock, entitled “Hitchcock”, he states “We’re all voyeurs to some extent, if only when we see an intimate film. And James Stewart is exactly in the position of a spectator looking at a movie.”

Hitchcock goes on to claim in the book that he believes everyone is a snooper, we simply can’t help it. Hitchcock is quoted in saying to Truffaut “I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undress for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look…” That is really the business of cinema, we are all the onlookers going into a world we are unfamiliar with because we want to look into the lives of someone else. Hitchcock sees voyeurism the same way he sees cinema, as a way to escape into another world, it points into this psychological obsession of wanting to be able to view someone else as if they don’t know we are watching them.

The idea of cinema as voyeuristic isn’t just implied by the murder mystery storyline Hitchcock establishes in the film, but the entire world seen outside of Jeff’s window. Outside we are given multiple types of human behaviour happening before Jeff’s eyes, represented by each of his neighbours. There is a musician who is frustrated while working on a new song, a lonely middle-aged woman who only wants to find love in her life,  a young married couple who have just moved in after their honeymoon, and an attractive ballet dancer who is usually seen dancing in tight outfits or having fancy cocktail parties with eligible looking bachelors. This fills in a realistic universe for Jeff to see, an uncanny one to real life if you think about how little is shown of this outside world. Hitchcock creates these little vignettes mostly through ambient sound bites from the actors playing the roles, but their lives are mostly related through us visually as if Jeff’s backyard is populated by a silent movie, Hitchcock of course believed in pure cinema and started out in silent film, so this idea that the world reflects the movie is a rather poignant metaphor within the film.

The other main angle to voyeurism comes from the relationship between Jeff and his girlfriend Lisa. The main dramatic through line in the couple’s relationship comes from the fact that Jeff isn’t sure if he wants to marry Lisa as they come from two different worlds; he’s a guerrila photographer who goes out on dangerous assignments, while she is a social butterfly who spends her time at cocktail parties and wearing fancy dresses around town. It isn’t until Lisa becomes embroiled in the murder mystery and in fact puts her own self in danger that Jeff seems to start admiring her. Take the moment where Lisa goes to deliver an envelope to the salesman’s house. Jeff looks at her through his binoculars, as she just evades meeting the would-be murderer, and when she gets back, Jeff has a look of affection that wasn’t seen since. The suggestion might be interpreted that Jeff begins falling for Lisa once she becomes part of the action he is observing, in what might be considered somewhat of a sexual kink for Jeff, he is turned on by watching Lisa in imminent danger. Take that for what you will, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if that might be what Hitchcock had in mind, considering Hitchcock’s own obsession of putting his own women in danger particularly the blondes which Lisa played by the luminous Grace Kelly very much is.

“Rear Window” of course isn’t the only time Hitchcock became obsessed with voyeurism, like all great auteurs, his themes pop up in many of his films. For Hitchcock, he always seems to see us watching, like in the nine minute long silent sequence of James Stewart (again) following Kim Novak in “Vertigo” or Anthony Perkins peeping through the small crack in the wall seeing Janet Leigh undressing, it’s all around his films, but “Rear Window” is the most explicit example on the subject. Hitchcock was one of the great filmmakers, and he understood cinema perhaps greater than anyone else, which is why his films are still studied perhaps more than anyone save Orson Welles by people who want to make movies. But Hitchcock understood his audience perhaps better than anyone else as well. Movies were like an obsession for him, which is probably why he could put himself in the audience seat more than any other filmmaker. When it came to the movies, Hitchcock knew it was a way to live out our fantasies, to live vicariously through other people’s experience, to peer into a world we don’t know, to see, to look, to watch.

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My Favorite movies each year since I was born

  1. raging-bull-2_01980-Raging Bull
  2. 1981-My Dinner with Andre
  3. 1982-E.T. The Extraterrestrial
  4. 1983-Zelig
  5. 1984-Stranger than Paradise
  6. 1985-Witness
  7. 1986-Hannah and her Sisters
  8. 1987-Raising Arizona
  9. 1988-The Last Temptation of Christ
  10. 1989-Do the Right Thing
  11. 1990-Miller’s Crossing
  12. 1991-L.A. Story
  13. 1992-Unforgiven
  14. 1993-Schindler’s List
  15. 1994-Three Colors Red
  16. 1995-Heat
  17. 1996-Fargo
  18. 1997-Boogie Nights
  19. 1998-The Thin Red Line
  20. 1999-South Park:Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
  21. 2000-O’ Brother Where Art Thou?
  22. 2001-Mulholland Drive
  23. 2002-Punch Drunk Love
  24. 2003-Kill Bill Vol. 1
  25. 2004-Kill Bill Vol.2
  26. 2005-Munich
  27. 2006-A Prairie Home Companion
  28. 2007-Once
  29. 2008-In Bruges
  30. 2009-Summer Hours
  31. 2010-True Grit
  32. 2011-Midnight in Paris
  33. 2012-Moonrise Kingdom
  34. 2013-Inside Llewyn Davis
  35. 2014-Under the Skin
  36. 2015-Mad Max:Fury Road
  37. 2016-?

Things I Saw in December

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Girl on a Train (2016): This was inspired by the best-selling book from last year, a lot of hype went into it. Emily Blunt is terrific as the alcoholic woman who was scorned by her husband but is now obsessed with a missing girl, as she tries to remember an encounter she had with her while inebriated. So many talented actors pop up in very small supporting roles, you wonder what was the point in having them, but it does make this rather predictable and shoddily shot film bearable to sit through. Forgettable, but Blunt is a great actress. 2 stars out of 4

Green Room (2016) This film goes along with “Don’t Breath” and “The Invitation” as sort of a 2016 trilogy of claustrophobic small spaced horror/thrillers where someone is trying to kill someone else, and they’re trapped. “Green Room” is probably more thriller and less horror, though it does have that sense of dread that something bad is about to happen. It has a sense of humour about it too. When a scene is set up that is so spine chilling, you don’t want to look, you know they are doing a good job. I’m really enjoying these sub-genres, they remain tightly made with good story telling and great performances. 3 stars out of 4

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016): I nice installment into the “Star Wars” franchise. I know I complain that I grow tired of franchise movies always looking the same, but this one directed by “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards had its own unique look to it. Unlike J.J. Abrams Spielbergesque/Nostalgic aesthetic in “The Force Awakens”, this one looked less familiar. “Star Wars” is known for their spaceship dog fights, but one hasn’t been filmed quite like this, also the ground battles have a uniqueness of their own as well. The characters remain stock clichés from old war movies most of them, but with a b-movie mentality like this, it didn’t bother me. They also played around with the idea of the Force being the of a kind of faith which really hasn’t been explored in this much depth before. One of the best blockbusters of the year. 3.5 stars out of 4

Loving (2016): The second film of the year by one of my favorite newer directors Jeff Nichols after his sci-fi gem “Midnight Special”. This is a more traditional material based on the true tale of the Lovings, an interracial couple who were arrested for being in a mixed marriage, but during the civil rights era changed that law. Nichols never makes this film into your normal bio pic but realizing the Lovings themselves were very low key, keeps things modest and tender like they were to each other. Joel Edgerton is quite affecting and subtle with his depiction of Richard Loving, while Ruth Negga is a pillar of quiet strength playing the wife Mildred. A loving film in every sense of the word. 3.5 stars out of 4

Detective Story (1951): Sort of a lost classic that isn’t talked about enough, this day in the life of a police detective bureau is an absorbing crime drama, and also an interesting character study. Kirk Douglas stars as a dedicated police detective who only sees crime as black and white, that is until his wife becomes involved with an important case he’s been working on. Pretty soon his flaws and prejudices start to show through. While this main drama is going on, there are plenty of smaller dramas happening throughout. Lee Grant is particularly effective as a purse snatcher who seems fascinated with being in a police station, and William Bendix is the voice of reason as Douglas’ seasoned partner. Famed director William Wyler frames his film realistically showing his actors in their natural environment, and affectively using deep focus cameras that he mastered with his film “The Best Years of our Lives”. This is a great film. 4 stars out of 4

No Way Out (1951): This film couldn’t be more relevant today, in one of his earliest roles, Sidney Poitier plays a black doctor who is accused of murder after the brother of a racist criminal (Richard Widmark) dies in his care. The film doesn’t hold back too much on the effects of racism in the fifties, especially in depicting race riots and their aftermath. Poitier is the perfect everyman trying to clear his name while also trying to stop any hateful violence to occur on account of him, while Widmark who was pretty well typecast as psychopaths back then plays one of the most hateful racists in film history, which is a great testament to his talent when you actually feel a bit of sympathy for him in the end. It doesn’t get above being too preachy here and there, but it still stands above some modern films as a realistic depiction of racism in America. 3.5 stars out of 4

Fourteen Hours (1951) One of those films that follows one incident on a single day. This one depicts a man who is threatening to jump off a building, until the police and everyone gets involved to try to talk him down. Paul Douglas plays the traffic cop who is first on the scene and Richard Basehart is the man on the ledge. The two form a bond as things like that happen in films like these. The action moves from the event on the ledge, to the public watching down below. Director Henry Hathaway keeps the tension moving, and the action rising, plus some great support by Agnes Moorehead who plays the batty mother to Basehart. This was also one of Grace Kelly’s earliest roles, which was interesting to see. 3 stars out of 4

La La Land (2016) So much to love in this film that has audiences at an uproar, this feels so close to what we really want from a movie musical, a love story, engaging stars, memorable dance numbers, and that classic Hollywood feel that is so often missed in movies today, often evoked for nostalgia’s sake. My biggest criticism to modern musicals these days is we never really get to see the choreography of the music most of the time; cameras jump around, cutting from the faces to the feet, with no real intention, it becomes maddening. “La La Land” avoids this thanks to Damien Chazelle’s masterful technique, showing bodies in motion, either moving in a traffic jam, or in a magical Hollywood street with two love birds always letting the actors motivate the camera movement, it was just so nice to see, this is from someone who was born to make musicals. I would say the music is more abundant in the first part of the film, and it fades to the background as it becomes a more realistic story of a relationship, but returns in triumph for the finale taking a cue from the famous musicals of Stanley Donen and Vincent Minnelli. The film remains a love letter to Hollywood musicals, but it doesn’t become nostalgic for nostalgic’s sake. It flirts with the idea that the tried and true traditional musical can still have a place in a world that is trying to be modern, but it’s also the tale of two artists who are deeply in love, but also in love with what they do, realizing they can’t have everything. There is so much to admire here, namely the direction and the two leads who are really truly movie stars, yes the hype is real I think so see it already. 4 stars out of 4

Some Favorite Things From 2016

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Favourite Old Movie I had not seen before: Chimes at Midnight- Orson Welles’ tale of Falstaff combining Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V may by the most impressive Shakespeare adaptation I have ever seen. Welles creates vivid imagery, and his Falstaff is full of pathos. For those of you who think “Citizen Kane” is the only great film Welles made, think again, Welles also mentioned this was his personal favourite. Released in Criterion

Honorable Mentions: “L’Avventura”, “Detective Story”, “Le Chienne”, “Lady Snowblood”, “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance”

Fashion Emmy Nominees

This photo released by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper in “Mad Men”. (AP Photo/AMC Frank Ockenfels)**NO SALES** ORG XMIT: NYLS202

Favourite Television Show I saw: Mad Men Season 7- Having finally caught up with the final season of my favorite television drama ever, “Mad Men” did not disapoint. Basically I binged through the whole series getting to season seven which was one of their best. All characters had some sort of closure, and all seemed the more fitting. “Mad Men” contains some classic episodes, but this season felt like the most emotional, none more so than the penultimate episode “Milk and Honey Route” which just floored me. Jon Hamm finally received the Emmy he so rightfully deserved so all is right with the world. “Mad Men” may be the most dense television series ever, and is worth repeated viewing, I loved this show, may it reign supreme.

Honorable Mentions: “Archer” season 6-7, “Stranger Things” season 1

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Favorite Book I read: “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin- I read this late September as the Presidential election was heating up, so much so I couldn’t bear watching any of it, and decided to retreat into this wonderful novel on the political life of Abraham Lincoln, how he established his cabinet of people who equally supported and opposed them. Together they would establish a historic political legacy. I had read a biography of Lincoln a few years back, and found so much to admire in him, he is honestly one of my heroes, and it gave me hope to hear about a politician who was kind hearted, thoughtful, and above all patient even with the weight of the Civil War on his shoulders. Goodwin weaves a labyrinth of stories that brought Lincoln to power and established his most historic accomplishments. But this would also go into great detail on the greatness of his Secretary of State William Seward, who started off as Lincoln’s chief rival, and his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who at first hated Lincoln but grew to love him in the end. A fascinating political history.

Honorable Mentions: “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert, “Emma” By Jane Austin, “TV: The Book” By Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, “Pure Drivel” by Steve Martin,  “My Life and Films” By Jean Renoir

Favorite Song That I Heard for the First Time This year.

“If you Knew My Story” from the “Bright Star” soundtrack: This year I was able to go to New York for the first time. I’m sure “Hamilton” is as great as everyone says it is, and while I hope to see it some day, the one Broadway show I was most excited to see was “Bright Star” mostly on the basis that it’s story was written by Steven Martin and his collaborator Edie Brickell. I fell in love with the laid back tunes of Martin’s banjo and Brickell’s lyrics. Not to mention the wonderful voice of Carmen Cusack who made me fall in love with her. In a lot of ways the music here feels slight and simple, but it was probably the most optimistic music I heard this year, and just made me feel good. The play was pretty good too. I bought the soundtrack as soon as I got home from New York.

Honorable Mentions: “You want it Darker” Leonard Cohen, “Searching for Sugarman” Rodriguez, “When you get to Asheville” Edie Brickell/Steve Martin, “I Wonder” Rodriguez

Professor Moriarty’s Notoriously Nettlesome and Nefarious New Years Day 2017 Movie Quiz

Happy New Year everyone, I’ve been in hibernation for much of December, busy with family, friends, and a whole heck of a lot of other stuff, but I’m hoping to be posting more new stuff soon. In the mean time, I thought I’d start 2017 off with a fun movie quiz!

This quiz comes courtesy of Dennis Cozzalio’s blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule which is a blog I greatly admire, and it’s always a welcome treat to get one of Dennis’ quizzes particularly on a festive time like this. Here’s looking forward to a new movie year.

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1) Best movie of 2016: I am still playing catch up on some of the films I still want to see before my official top ten list but so far I have to say the best/funniest/weirdest/darkest/most delightful movie is “The Lobster”. A deadpan masterpiece of finding a mate in a world where you can only be compatible with someone who you share a certain commonality with. The film touches on so many themes of love, loneliness, and companionship, and what that means to each individual.

2) Worst movie of 2016: For my money, no other film felt more like random pieces put together from a studio Frankenstein monster lab than “Suicide Squad”. Despite good tries by Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and MVP Viola Davis, this film felt overly stuffed, with a plot and character development that made no sense. It introduced its characters at the beginning as if they were players from a video game where we saw snippets of what they were capable of. When these band of misfits get together “Guardians of the Galaxy” style, we are meant to care about them, and then believe that they have quickly become the best of friends who would die for each other. My favorite moment is when Robbie as Harley Quinn plays dead while dangling from a helicopter wire, only to pop back up again smiling and laughing like a live rag doll, the only time this film caught me by surprise, if only that one moment of fun and playfulness would translate for the rest of the film.

3) Best actress of 2016: 

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Again playing catch up on a lot of films, but certainly my favorite performance from this year came from Kate Beckinsale in “Love and Friendship”. Backinsale with the help of Whit Stillman, and Jane Austin created my favorite character of this past year. Her Lady Susan is a wry manipulator and cunning conniver in her pursuit for wealth as she exploits her own in-laws in order to stave off poverty. Beckinsale is more than capable to pull off the script’s witty dialogue and had me in stitches through most of the film, Lubitsch would’ve loved her in this.

4) Best actor of 2016: I have not seen the big awards contenders yet, but again I have to go with Colin Farrell from “The Lobster”. As Farrell has shown with his work with Martin McDonough, if he gets the right role, he can be dynamite, and his sad-sack, yet selfish, lonely heart won me over. Farrell is the hero of the film, but he’s not afraid to become unlikable, even cowardly on some occasions, so much so we’re really not sure what his big decision will be at the end, whether he’ll sacrifice it all for love, or take the coward’s way out, Farrell creates a wonderful comic creation.

5) What movie from 2016 would you prefer not hearing another word about? Why? I would appreciate never hearing the merits or demerits of any super hero movie that was released this year ever again. Super hero movies can return to the comic book pages from whence they came for awhile, I don’t feel all that inspired one way or another by them.

6) Second-favorite Olivier Assayas movie “The Clouds of Sils Maria”, my first being “Summer Hours” which to me is one of the best films I’ve seen in the last ten years.

7) Miriam Hopkins or Kay Francis? Oh Hopkins of course, you’ll always end up with her in the end.

8) What’s the story of your first R-rated movie?

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 It was at the big North Hill cinema in Calgary which is no longer with us, and “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” had come out. I was 14, I went with my brother and friend. I loved the theatre, I had been there before for the release of “Jurassic Park”, and “Back to the Future Part 2” in my younger years, but “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” was going to be my first R rated movie. I was a fan of the first two films, and I remember liking this one quite a bit, but I was a little disappointed that unlike the first two films, this one didn’t take place at Christmas. I was also upset to see that John McLean was once again separated from his wife (Did he not learn a thing from the first film?) Also I enjoyed Samuel L. Jackson who was somewhat of a new face back then after breaking out in “Pulp Fiction” but I was also upset not to see McLean with his real soul mate Al Powel (Reginal Veljohnson) from the first two, I thought it would’ve been fun to finally have those guys team up for real and not just be on the other end of a walkie talkie or telephone. All in all it was good, and I really liked Jeremy Irons as the villain.

9) What movie from any era that you haven’t yet seen would you be willing to resolve to see before this day next year? So many to choose from, but since I am such a huge Buster Keaton fan, I would love to finally see “The Cameraman” which is a film by him that has eluded me all this time.

10) Second-favorite Pedro Almodovar movie: Can you believe I have not seen an Almodovar movie? Don’t shame me.

11) What movie do you think comes closest to summing up or otherwise addressing the qualities of 2016? One movie can’t do it alone, I don’t think one has been made. “Idiocracy” is the one that comes to mind, but I don’t like thinking of it.

12) Chris Pine or Chris Pratt? Pine please.

13) Your favorite movie theater, presently or from the past: The Princess Theatre in Edmonton

14) Favorite movie involving a family celebration: 

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I’ll go with my New Year’s movie of choice George Cukor’s “Holiday” with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. There is a big family celebration on new years as Grant announces his engagement to Hepburn’s sister. However he feels more at home with Hepburn’s black sheep and her drunken brother in the family play room. The more I think of what this movie says, the more I love it.

15) Second-favorite Paul Schrader movie: “Affliction”, if I could count “Taxi Driver” as number one.

16) Ruth Negga or Hayley Atwell? Ruth Negga

17) Last three movies you saw, in any format: “La La Land (2016)”, “Fourteen Hours(1951”, “No Way Out (1951)

18) Your first X-rated, or porn movie? “Midnight Cowboy”

19) Richard Boone or Charles McGraw? Charles McGraw

20) Second-favorite Chan-wook Park movie I have only seen “Oldboy” I know, I know, don’t shame me.

21) Movie that best encompasses or expresses loneliness: 

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I’m cheating a little with this but I would say the films of Yasujiro Ozu in my opinion best express the idea of loneliness in the world. When a character is alone in an Ozu film, that’s all the is needed, he perfectly encapsulates this in “Tokyo Story”, “Late Spring”, “Late Autumn”, and “An Autumn Afternoon” the best. If I were to pick probably the father in “An Autumn Afternoon” who is full of nostalgia of the past, but with his daughter married off, he is left with nothing, and probably the saddest image in any Ozu film for me (although there is so many) is the father returning home at the end of the film, drunk and alone. It’s a fitting, sad conclusion in what would be the great director’s final film, and it tears my heart out each time I view it.

22) What’s your favorite movie to watch with your best friend? Gosh, well I have a lot of best friends, and I wouldn’t say I watch a lot of movies with them. My movie watching is kept mostly in a solitary pursuit, but a good comedy is always nice. Recently I had a great time watching “The Hudsucker Proxy” with a friend, also a nice “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or “The Jerk” has always been great to watch with friends alike.

23) Who’s the current actor you most look forward to seeing in 2017?

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 Good Question, I am mostly unaware of any actor appearing in anything, but if Michael Shannon were to pop up in anything, I know I would love to see that. Just recently seeing him in a bit part in “Loving” put a smile on my face, that’s when I know this guy must be something special to me.

24) Your New Year’s wish for the movies: I wish for more individual stories in the studio system. I long for some sort of implosion in the blockbuster mentality to happen and to have us revert back to the type of films we got from the 1970s. Especially since there is so much talent out there that hasn’t been given their due. I know it’s wishful thinking with Marvel and DC making a list of movies till 2020, and a new Star Wars coming out every year now, but till then I’ll haunt the art houses whenever I can and appreciate a great studio movie when it happens.