Over at Blog Meridian, John B. has written a very nice post on aspects of desire and voyeurism in Hitchcock's Rear Window.
To this I should like to add a few observations of my own, mostly prompted by my perception, upon re-viewing the film, of a resemblance between a certain scene towards the end, and a scene from another film to do with watching and being watched. I speak of Samuel Beckett's 1965 Film. It was at one time available for download from the thoroughly brilliant UbuWeb, but I can't seem to find the direct link right now; it's well worth tracking down if you have a spare 22 minutes.
For those who haven't seen Beckett's Film, the gist of it is this: a camera, shooting always at an oblique angle from behind his back, pursues Buster Keaton as he makes increasingly desperate attempts to avoid being seen. He hides from the gaze of other people who look upon him with horrified expressions; he finds himself in a barely furnished room, from which he strives to remove all traces of the other's gaze (this part includes a very funny scene with a cat and a dog). He eventually settles in a rocking-chair, where he is finally confronted by the eye of the camera itself.
There is a striking resemblance between this final confrontation and the scene in Rear Window in which Jeff is confronted by Thorwald. Up until the point at which Thorwald notices Lisa's signal to Jeff and looks directly into the lens of the camera, he has been the object, seen but not able to see. At that moment the polarities reverse and Thorwald becomes the viewer, Jeff the object of his threatening gaze. Thorwald enters Jeff's room, and the two face each other directly, both of their faces obscured in shadow. This sequence is filmed in a shot/counter-shot alternation, exactly as the final section of Beckett's film, in which Buster Keaton's "O" (the object of the camera's gaze) faces "E" (the camera's 'eye', manifested as the double of Keaton himself).
There are several points of similarity: before Thorwald enters the room, Jeff struggles to rise from his wheelchair, but is unable to move further because of his broken leg; Buster Keaton's character half-rises from the rocking chair but falls back, apparently paralysed by fear. Keaton wears an eye-patch on his left eye, both as "O" and in his manifestation as "E"; the eyes of Thorwald and Jeff are concealed behind a veil of shadow. In the shot/counter-shot sequence there is a close-up shot of the eyes of "E", which has its counterpart in the close-up on the bespectacled Thorwald. As Thorwald advances, Jeff uses the flash-bulb three times to blind him; there is a tight close-up on Thorwald's eyes, to which he raises his hands; Keaton's "O" repeatedly closes his eyes and raises his hands to cover them, apparently in terror at the sight of "E".
The reversal of viewer-object roles at this point in the narrative of Rear Window is figured in the relative positions of the characters: Thorwald stands, towering over Jeff, who is forced to remain seated in his wheelchair (previously Jeff's position had been 'above', his window being on a slightly higher level than the one opposite), just as "E" stands over "O", who sits back in his rocking-chair. It is interesting that Thorwald's first words to Jeff are "What do you want from me?", emphasizing the ambivalence of aggressor and victim, viewer and object.
The philosophical underpinnings of Beckett's Film (see, for example, this blog post) are to be found in Berkeley's formulation esse est percipi: 'to be is to be perceived'. (And this is the crux of Murphy's dilemma, too.) My understanding of this, in the light of the comparison to Rear Window, is that there is no act – of viewing or of performance – that is free of consciousness on some level, whether it be self-consciousness (as is obviously the case in Film), or the consciousness of some other. All actions are performed for the benefit of the gaze of the other, of the symbolic order which structures every aspect of our self-experience – including (or especially) the erotic act.
Which brings me to certain issues raised in the post I linked to at the start of this entry. I agree with John B's observation that the tenants of the other apartments figure just as importantly in the film as Thorwald, thematically speaking. The occupants of the apartments are actors, performers: the ballet dancer, the musician, even the 'Lonely Hearts' woman, who acts out the fantasy of a romantic encounter with an imaginary suitor. For whom is this fantasy played out? Not for herself exactly, but for the gaze of the other, in which her enjoyment, her pleasure is located. It is not enough to dream: she must go through the motions of the idealized encounter in order to experience her own desire as such. And of course, Jeff, in his voyeurism, is only acting out a part too – whether of the amateur sleuth of detective stories or of the Peeping Tom of sexual fantasy; for whose gaze if not the gaze of the other through which we order and experience our desire?
This brings me to another observation made by John B, about the framed negative image of Lisa which Jeff keeps in his apartment. He is surely right to point out that this signifies that their relationship is not yet 'developed'; but there is something else, I think. The negative portrays the face of the object of desire in a monstrous light: she appears almost inhuman. (This relates, I am sure, to Vertigo, in which Judy is the obscene negative of Madeleine, and is portrayed as such in the shot of her profile in grotesque green light.) In the great scene at the start of the movie, in which an ominous shadow falls across Jeff's sleeping face – Lisa, who wakes him with a kiss – he playfully asks her: 'Who are you?'. His uneasiness around her cannot be reduced to anything so banal as 'fear of commitment'; rather he fears that she is something entirely other, that there is something in her that is more than herself: the obscene object of desire. 'To be is to be perceived'; and just as it is terrifying to be confronted with the inescapable 'there-ness' of consciousness, it is also terrifying to contemplate the loss of the illusion of our own autonomy, to open up to the other and to involve ourselves in them completely. No, the other's gaze must always be kept at a certain distance for desire to continue to function, and for the fantasy of romantic love, like the fantasy of 'Miss Lonely Hearts', to continue to be played out.