18/03/2018

Rear Window/Rope - An Argument For Ambiguity

Thoughts On: Rope (1948) & Rear Window (1954)

A look at how Hitchcock deals with ambiguity and meaning in his films.

  

What are stories for? What are they supposed to do? Are they teaching mechanisms? Do they explain the world around us? Are they a means of exploration? Imitation? Projection? Communication? The history of narrative analysis has many answers.


It is undeniable that Hitchcock is one of the greatest directors of all time. But, if I were to list 10, 25, 50 or maybe even 100 of my favourite films, I might find myself a list without any Hitchcock pictures. It seems that Hitchcock is a hero for two classes of cinefile. On one hand, Hitchcock is all about plot and narrative construction. On the other hand, Hitchcock is all about precise, expressive and consciously pin-point cinematic language. Style and plot. There is much more to Hitchcock: comedy, morality, darkness, psychology, sexuality, adventure, action, deviousness, loneliness and death to mention just a few things. However, Hitchcock is the master of suspense, and a master director; a master of plot and style. Those who love cinema for such things may have Hitchcock high on their lists.

I don't love cinema because of style or because of plot. Rather, emotional resonance that implies and constructs meaning. This may be why I wouldn't lord the likes of Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and North By Northwest. My favourite Hitchcock picture is Rear Window. After that, Notorious and The Lady Vanishes; Notorious because... Ingrid Bergman... and The Lady Vanishes because of the brilliant comedic sensibilities. Rear Window, however, is the most complete and round Hitchcock film I have come into contact with; it is a beautifully contained film about a man who is not just looking into other people's lives, but questioning his future, a dead man waiting to be reborn with someone at his side.


Of Hitchcock's 50+ movies, I've only seen 14. Rear Window rises to the top for me because of its narrative meaning. Much else from Hitchcock, despite being masterclasses of direction and style, feel slightly lacklustre to me. Hitchcock then seems to be a pretty good case study, in my books, of how meaning impacts the function of story.

We have just seen two clips from the ending of the 1948 Rope and then the 1954 Rear Window. These endings, and indeed the greater films too, feel very different. Rope has a huge sweeping punch; it wants to shout something out at you with dramatic flair and explosion. Rear Window's ending is calm, quite and so humanly ironic I can't help but characterise it as beautiful. The ending of Rope is a direct confrontation of the nihilistic, aestheticist themes of the movie. In short, this is about two men who murder a man to see if they can get away with it; they do this for the sake of doing it and to see how it would impact them. Their old school teacher, played by Jimmy Stewart, who taught them the values that they take, run with and use to commit this murder doesn't appreciate this, and thus this is a rather on-the-nose film about moral ambiguity itself - something we shall return to. But, whilst Rope literally screams its meaning at you with the ending, this is a film known for its camera trickery; it appears to be captured in one single shot. (This was a technical impossibility of the time, and so there are cuts, but they're concealed). It is from this formal and stylistic decision that the worth of Rope emerges; it is a kind of spectacle, but also an experiment with preserving a dramatic space as in theatre, and sustaining the viewer's attention whilst drama unfolds in real time.

Let us jump back to Rear Window. There are a few formal tricks in the film, but what is most interesting about its production is the fact that Hitchcock had the full sized apartment complex built in a Paramount studio and lit it for night and day. He shot here and here alone, filming almost always in the apartment of our main character, Jeff, or from the apartment's perspective. The film, as all films in general, is not known for its narrative meaning. However, this formal experiment preserves narrative and subtext, and it sees character support and build meaning. This is what makes the film such a wonder; it's more about substance, not spectacle. It is ironic to suggest this in juxtaposition to Rope, which screams its substance, its meaning, at you - but such seems to be true.

Whilst we could go on from here to talk about the nature of meaning in story, what I want to focus on before this is the projection of meaning via ambiguity. I have never made a huge Hollywood picture, but it seems quite clear that meaning is not a thing to talk about in board meetings. Meaning, in fact, seems to be a thing not to talk about in general. Though I try to write about it on the blog, and though you read about it, if meaning is not a form of spectacle in itself - i.e. hidden meanings - things can get hairy. This is an extension of something deeply embedded in culture - at the least, my own in Britain, but maybe also yours elsewhere. There are, as the saying goes, three things you don't talk about at a dinner table: religion, politics and money. Money makes the world go round. Politics makes keeps a country afloat. Religion (a framework of personal thought) keeps the mind stable. If you poke at these mechanisms, people often don't like it. And this is all because many people are too stupid to be poking at them. We have structures around us that make the world work. It is understandable that we don't want to start pulling beams from the mechanism and placing new supports in to test if it will still stand. As another saying goes; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And that translates back into the three things we're not supposed to talk about at a dinner table. However, whilst 'it' might not be broke, there must be a way of addressing the ways in which it is faulted and also a means of questioning why it even stands up in the first place. Right?

One of the major components of any culture is centred on the address of such things: cultural codes, unwritten though obliged. Britain is know, in stereotype (though, being a citizen of the country, I can say this is kind of accurate) as being polite. Under this facade of politeness is often an alternate truth. Someone may then bump into you on the street. In response, you, yourself, may say "sorry", but mean "prick." There are many instances in which you will be called a prick (or worse--much worse) for bumping into someone in London, but an apology is the quintessentially British response to being bumped into. Nonetheless, why should you apologise when someone bumps into you in the street?

Ask most people and they'll either say they don't know, or that they're just being polite. I think this little piece of dialogue is written into the code of many cultures (British as just one example) for two reasons. The first is the acceptance of fault. Just because you think they bumped into you, you could have not been paying attention. You say sorry. They say sorry. All is forgotten. There is no blame to be delegated, it is accepted by all and immediately dissolves. Second to this, saying sorry to someone who bumps into you prompts them to say sorry back - and this is a kind of passive-aggressive cycle of British politeness (that I knowingly participate in). As much as saying sorry is a means of accepting blame, it is also a delegation. If you put yourself in the position of blame knowing you shouldn't be sat there, you'd expect that the other person - who is equally at fault, maybe more so - would sit down with you. In Britain, we seemingly like to pull one another down and stay there; such seems to shape British comedy (whose point often seems to be: we're all a bunch of blithering idiots) and appears as an ironic response to a historically strict social hierarchy or class system.

To take a step back, we can see how a simple interaction - saying sorry to someone after they bump into you - not only says an awful lot about a culture, but also brings us back to the idea of three things not to talk about at a dinner table. Structure, predetermined dialogue for example, conceals meaning. In Britain, the meaning belying the sorries and the bump on the street is one with implications of equality and universal blame. There is much to be said about this universal blame, about everyone accepting the blame of what may be one individual, but you're not going to stop on the street and debate it after someone bumps into you. You just might defy the custom by shouting "prick!" though. Even if you do shout out in anger, you're not likely to step back and consider how the universal blame may be a stupid idea, and one contradicted by other cultural standards. But, why?

What protects the individual from the chaotic mess that lies outside of collective structures and the tyranny of collective structures themselves is ambiguity. If your life exists in one room and the chaotic real world lies beyond, your room is made of double-glazed glass. The glass that you can reach out and touch, the glass inside the room, is ambiguity. Meaning lies in the space between the inner-pane and the outer-pane. The outer-pane is social custom and structure; politics, religion, money, etc.

Ambiguity is just as important as the structures and axioms of meaning. Ambiguity is a haze that gives structure - which is singular and rigid - fluid potential. Without ambiguity, religion is a set of commandments, politics is written law and story is instruction. With ambiguity, religion is a guide to life that can map onto any circumstance, politics is a way to govern a country and a story is simultaneously an imitation, reflection, exploration, critique and transcendence of life. I like story an awful lot more than politics and religion because it has the most potential. I like art even more than story because it is the meeting of story and form, thus, it has far more potential than story alone. I like cinema most because it seems to me to be the art form with the most potential of all the arts as it can (partially) embody and transcend all of them.

Humans sometimes bump into one another in the street. Two sorries are an ambiguous off-shoot of cultural mechanisms. A story about the bump in the street has more potential than the fact; we can stop and question it. A great film about that bump in the street would do so much more that catalyse questioning. Art brings us into a new glass room, and it too is double glazed. Beyond its outer-pane, beyond art's structure and morality, is the structure of the human world and the chaos of the real world. The inner-pane of this glass structure is, again, ambiguity. Meaning lies in between. And, with that stated, one question arises: Where on earth has the conversation of Hitchcock gone?

Rope is very much so a film about the nature of ambiguity itself. With structures of thought taken literally, all potential is sucked out of them and they either become useless or tyrannical. If you believe that you should only seek beauty and perfection in the world, then what is to stop you from seeking the 'perfect murder'? The commentary from Rope, whilst it is poignant and true, is presented thusly:


This is a rather eloquent response to the presented conundrum of the film; what happens when intellect has no morality? However, this is, ironically, an intellectual and literal response to intellectualism and literalism turned tyrannical. Because this ending is so rigid, it bears a tyranny. Rope's tyranny has reigned over much of cinema, and even Hitchcock's cinema, for the entirety of film history. When films then try to say something of substance, they default to this mode of storytelling: screaming and shouting morality. This, to put it simply, is not good. Rope is a very obvious example of such a phenomena, but blunt--almost tyrannically blunt--morality tales are rife in the cinema and beyond. Again, not good; art without ambiguity is mere instruction. Bad television shows are particularly expressive examples of this, and so the following video essay on Seinfeld says much about what we are discussing:


What this video picks up on is the inability of many televisions shows before Seinfeld to integrate ambiguity into the expression of narrative meaning. But, whilst Seinfeld may have signified a turning point for television in the late 80s, cinema had produced the likes of Tarkovsky, Bresson, Ozu, Coppola, Fellini, Kubrick, Bergman, Buñuel, Mizoguchi, etc, etc, etc, far before this. And all of these directors, a little like Seinfeld as a comedy show, deal with the idea of 'nothing' as potential, 'nothing' as ambiguity, 'nothing' as a source of everlasting art. After all, what is Tarkovsky's Mirror about, Bresson's Au Hasard Balthezar, Fellini's 8 1/2, Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Bergman's Persona? Too much and nothing we've really seen before. The same is quite true with Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Unlike Rope, Rear Window ends visually. The conundrum of the film is based upon the virtues of married life and a bachelor's life. Should Jeff marry Lisa? Should he conform to what she wants? Will they be happy?


The ambiguous beauty of Rear Window lies in Lisa swapping her Himalayan guide book for her fashion magazine. Jeff has seemingly settled down with her and maybe sacrificed a life time of adventure? He's got two broken legs and a wife, she got the man she wanted and, after he goes off to sleep, she'll continue with her magazine. There is no literal, strict and direct moralising. Whilst marriage is said to be a good thing, and settling down something every man and woman should do, this isn't the end of the story. Jeff has looked out into the courtyard to see marriages dissolve, started and tested all around him; he has seen a man murder his wife. He now sleeps in his own home with his own wife. How will his life turn out? The inside pane of his apartment window is clouded by ambiguity. The outer-pane is the structure of the culture around him - is a structure for the eyes that peer in and demand he get married and settled down. Outside are lives in the process of being lived. The camera, the story, moves between and transcends both worlds and all before our eyes.

Structure masked by ambiguity, the stuff of great stories... sometimes... maybe... it depends...

When we contrast Rope and Rear Window, we seemingly see one film (Rope) in which a writer sat down at a meeting and said, this is what my film is about. He put this in the script, and the moralising remained. Hitchcock works around it. With Rear Window, maybe meaning wasn't talked about at the board meeting. The ending was a nice, ironic joke that everyone got, but no one analysed it much. It put to bed the story with a harmonious last note. Hitchcock expresses this with his camera beautifully. The writer and the director bump into one another on the street, and they both say sorry. Why they say sorry doesn't matter too much; the story works. However, this act of saying sorry is on the screen, and so we ourselves can ask of its purpose.

To bring things towards a conclusion, we can begin to see that meaning is what stories strive towards and away from. Cinematic stories have great potential to explore meaning if they don't want to focus singularly on plot, character or style. Ambiguity is a tradition of preservation that not only allows for the exploration of meaning alongside explorations of character, style, plot, etc, but it also universalises meaning. In the same way ambiguity allows for a conversation between director and writer in Rear Window, it also opens up conversation between filmmaker(s) and audience. Like British people have a penchant for universal blame as we excessively apologise to one another, cinema has the potential for universal meaning through excessive ambiguity. The more ambiguous a film is, the more open to interpretation it is and, equally so, the freer storytellers are from the rigid structure or studio or society that already has its networks of meaning; the freer audiences are from the prejudices, theorems and thoughts of everyone. (Which is not to say that the more ambiguous a film is, the better it is; there is a balance that is, in my view, weighted more towards the ambiguous end of things). As self-obsessed and solipsistic as this sounds, it seems that this (cautionary) dismissal of every thought that is not yours brings people together; we assume we all agree on some grounds when we are given the space to think ourselves. This is the source of the harmony in the end of Rear Window and the reason why the conclusion of Rope feels quite clumsy. In one, ambiguity is embraced to a good degree, the other... not so much.

To end, I can only leave things open to you. What does ambiguity do for movies in your view? Is Rear Window better than Rope? Is Rear Window better than other Hitchcock films, or is its meaning-making not strong enough to overcome the stylistic expressions of Vertigo or the plot constructs of The Birds?






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