“What’s that thing?” -A boy points out the Sydney Opera House to his grandmother, overheard on a train crossing the Harbour Bridge, 21 July 2010. During a recent screening of Rear Window at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I became preoccupied by the audience’s reaction. For me, Rear Window was a “gateway” film, an open door into the beautifully fraudulent world of cinema. I had not seen it for a long time, and watching a good 35mm print with an intelligent audience was a good chance to assess its true impact. In the cinematic canon, if such a thing exists, Rear Window seems to have come to rest partway along the spectrum between familiar, comforting films, say, It’s a Wonderful Life or Gone With the Wind, and perpetually unnerving experiences like, to name two of the blackest noirs I’ve ever seen, Scarlet Street or Detour. Films in the former category tend to generate formulaic responses which paper over any disturbing themes, and allow the work to be arranged as part of the cultural furniture. Films from the bad part of town, by contrast, refuse enclosure in a tidy package. Beyond whatever unsavory aspects of human nature they might reveal, these disturbing films demand to be viewed at 1:1 scale, as though for the first time, every time (this is not a simple distinction between blanc et noir, when Swing Time screened at the Gallery the week after Rear Window, any stirrings of featherbed nostalgia among the audience were quickly overcome in the presence of 103 minutes of sublime cinematic bliss). Rear Window retains characteristics of each extreme. Jimmy Stewart’s voyeurism now seems relatively innocent, at least compared to what people are into these days. The audience reacted to his obsessive nosiness with the same sighing, nostalgic little titters emitted by a gaggle of thirty five year olds watching The Breakfast Club. At the same time, certain moments of Rear Window remained shocking, particularly Stewart’s almost brutal coldness to Grace Kelly. Perhaps every classic film might be found somewhere along this imaginary line between Scarlett’s Tara and Ann Savage’s consumptive cough in Detour.
Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and holds a BFA in film from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. Alan Miller reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, and other sports in his letters from Sydney. He won the 2011 Architects’ Journal Writing Prize.