Window: A Cinematic Expression

 

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Architectural Encounter

We are usually not aware that an unconscious experience of touch is concealed within our vision. “As we look, the eye touches, and before we even see an object, we have already touched it and judged its weight, temperature and surface texture” ( 233) writes Juhani Pallasmaa in his seminal book Eyes of the Skin. And this is somehow true, our perception, our entire being-in- the-world is significantly altered by the architecture that surrounds us.

The visual image of a window frame is an architectural unit, whereas looking out through the window, letting the light in and imagination to run freely, is an authentic architectural encounter. In this instance window, being practical and concrete, offers both a utilitarian function as well as the „views that are more than spectacles“ (Lefebvre 224).

Pleasure of Looking

The concept of window encounter in cinema has been used countless times thus far and in order to continue I have to single out two very distinct ways of using windows in the art of cinema. First and foremost, if a window is a main concept of the film, then its usage is none other but for the purpose of reinforcing the notion of voyeuristic gaze as well as to comment on the magic art of cinema within the cinema. What does this mean?

Let’s take for example the wonderful train scene from Clarence Brown’s Possessed (1931). What we have is very real, ordinary scene: a person, the girl, is standing in front of a passing train. However, this ordinary scene turns into extraordinary cinematic expression – a viewer observing the magic of the screen. Reality itself reproduces the magical cinematic experience whereas the heroine’s fantasies are projected onto these windows as if they were cinema screens.

The other example of cinema within cinema could be found in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Rear Window (1954). These two films are two very different approaches to the same idea – the idea of privacy where the moral ethics of main protagonists Norman Bates and L. B. Jeffries are in the least questionable. Both of them have taken on the role of Peeping Toms, however, their goals are quite different and so are their spatial constrictions. In Rear Window the entire building is a stage and according to Walter Benjamin “buildings are used as popular stage. They are all divided into innumerable, simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stages and boxes” (Benjamin 167). Psycho on the other hand functions like the camera obscura [1] and essentially it is a primitive-like one man show. We, the audience, thus become the very extension of moral complicity voyeurs. And needless to say, scopophilia [2] and voyeurism are deeply inscribed in our society; in cinema, the audience is placed at a voyeuristic distance and can unashamedly satisfy its curiosity (Peyer 2). Passiveness, a play with identifications and a consumption-oriented attitude constitute the movie watchers’ position.

Window as a Frame

Backdrop is another example on how to use a window in the art of cinema. In this instance we have to bear in mind that the position and the context of the window has the power to determine the status of the character or to change the entire meaning behind the act. Former could be found in the films such as Taxi Driver (1976) or Rope (1948) where the position of the window – the floor, size, the view it provides, the city where it exists etc. determines the position of the character, whilst the latter could be found in Perfect Human [3] (1967) and 5 Obstructions (2003) where the absence/presence of the window determines and consequently transforms the meaning behind one and the same act.

The story in Rope takes place in Manhattan. With the exception of the opening (title) sequence, the entire film takes place in a penthouse apartment on 54th Street and First Avenue [4]. Penthouses became fashionable film settings around 1930s, at the time that a number of luxurious residential towers with penthouses were constructed in Manhattan. New building methods, feasibility and subsistence of glass panels enabled spectacular views of Manhattan skyline which soon became a metaphor for high life style [5]. Furthermore, this penthouse is mounted in glass which (apart from the socialite background) signals the ruthlessness of the main characters that inhabit it [6].

Logic of Taxi Driver is the opposite logic whereas the position of the character (in vertical order of the city) gets determined by his/hers actions (and not the social background) seen through the eyes of Travis Bickle [7], the main protagonist. Therefore it’s not surprising that Iris, a 16 year old prostitute, resides on the upper floor of the high-rise building while the quarters of an ongoing political campaign are mounted in glass and situated on the level of the corrupt, violent, dirty streets of New York.

In the Perfect Human, for example, the absence of a window leads to the homogenization of space which consequently weakens the experience of being and wipes away the sense of space [8]. Thirty years later, in 5 Obstructions, Lars Von Trier tries to break Leth’s position as an observer by sending him to the most miserable place on Earth. And in contrast instead of letting him show this place he is forcing him not to. Filming a man eating a plentiful meal in face of (possibly) the poorest people of the world without showing their misery is not very elegant – to say the least –, but on the other hand, to show it makes it even worse and somewhat perverse. However, Leth opts for his own approach and solution, a solution somewhere in between, where he put a transparent screen, a window frame, as a backdrop behind him showing only vague bodies of Indian bystanders. The acoustic experience of this scene reinforces and enriches visual experience. The decadent dinner contrasts the lived reality of the Indian citizens and therefore implements completely new dimension to the meaning of the perfect human and the film itself. What was the representation of modern commercialized perfect human, a product of modernity, in the original film here becomes the representation of the perfect human today, perfect Western male who on top of all this has somehow managed to lose the girl too. In other words the concept of family that was so present in the 60s, a unity between man and woman, perfect man and perfect woman, who together construct the perfect human of the 21st century no longer exists. The man is left all alone with his guilty conscious lurking from the other side of the window. What happened with the girl is yet another topic.

Conclusion

Whether we are talking about the window of a building in our street or a window that is used to reinforce the cinematic expression, whether the curtain opens onto the stage of action like in Rear Window or onto the backdrop like in the case of Rope these ‘fragile eyes’ (Pallasmaa, “Imagination and Imagery” 130) of the building never inhibit the visual, on contrary, they always encourage. Hence the paradox, for each window, real or imaginary, is a hole in a wall, a barrier in both physical and mental sense but at the same time, with this barrier we let the light in. The window thus gets both heads and tail and our story two sides.

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NOTES

1 The camera obscura (Latin; “camera” is a “vaulted chamber/room” + “obscura” means “dark”= “darkened chamber/room”) is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen. It is used in drawing and for entertainment, and was one of the inventions that led to photography.The device consists of a box or room with a hole in one side.

2 Scopophilia or scoptophilia, from Greek “love of looking”, is deriving pleasure from looking. As an expression of sexuality, it refers to sexual pleasure derived from looking at erotic objects: erotic photographs, pornography, naked bodies, etc. Alternatively, this term was used by cinema psychoanalysts of the 1970s to describe pleasures and other unconscious processes occurring in spectators when they watch films. The term was borrowed from psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and Otto Fenichel.

3 Det Perfekte Menneske (The Perfect Human, 1967) by Danish film director Jorgen Leth is a stylish but ironic, poetic short film about human behavior, inspired by the world of advertising and set in a white room with a man and a woman portraying the actions of daily life.

4 An address curiously close to Lisa Fremont’s on 63rd Street and Park Avenue DODATI

5 see Donald Albrecht, Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies, Harper & Row, New York, 1986

6 Characters of Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan were inspired by Leopold and Loeb (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) who killed a 14-year-old Robert Franks in 1924. Leopold, age 19 at the time of the murder, and Loeb, 18, believed themselves to be Nietzschean supermen (which is also reflected in the title of Hitchcock’s film) who could commit a “perfect crime” (in this case a kidnapping and murder), in other words Rope is based on the idea that one might murder someone just to prove that one could. (for further reading see The Leopold and Loeb Trial:A Brief Account by Douglas O. Linder. 1997)

7 Travis Bickle is a fictional character from the 1976 film Taxi Driver, played by Robert De Niro. He is widely considered one of the most iconic characters in film history, and De Niro earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of him. He is greatly inspired by Arthur Breme, who attempted to assassinate presidential candidate George Wallace on May 15, 1972

8 When the narrator says, “The room is boundless and radiant with light. It is an empty room. Here are no boundaries. Here is nothing,” is he merely describing the lack of scenery or has he turned into a poet building metaphors? Is he presenting the perfect human as an anthropological experiment or is he using it as an excuse to reflect on life and existence? It is always both, the one functioning alongside the other, expressing both the concerns of the material and the immaterial. Leth makes use of the power of words and images to conjure the realm of lucid interval, to mock everyday life human reality filled with uncanny insight and absolute ambiguity.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Albrecht, Donald. Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies. Harper & Row, New York, 1986. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. Naples, Reflections. Schocken Books, New York, 1978. Print.

Lefebvre, Henri. Writing on Cities. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Oxford, 1996
. Print.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. Eyes of the Skin. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, West Sussex, 2007. Print.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Embodied Image: Imagination and imagery in Architecture. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, West Sussex, 2011. Print.

Peyer, Siri.  ONCURATING 3  Curating Film, 2010. Print.

 

FILMOGRAPHY

5 Obstructions (2003), dir: Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, Zentropa, Denmark

Possessed (1931), dir: Clarence Brown, MGM, USA

Perfect Human (1967), dir: Jørgen Leth, Laterna Films, Denmark

Psycho (1960), dir: Alfred Hitchcock, Paramount and Universal Pictures, USA

Rear Window (1954), dir: Alfred Hitchcock, Paramount and Universal Pictures, USA

Rope (1948), dir: Alfred Hitchcock, Warner Bros., United Artists and Universal Pictures, USA

Taxi driver (1976), dir: Martin Scorsese, Columbia Pictures, USA

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