Rear Window (1954)—What Limits You Is What Empowers You

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Jesus said to love your neighbor. He went on to explain who your neighbor is. A neighbor, he said to a critic who was looking for a loophole, need not be someone you have known or seen. Your neighbor might just as well be a stranger from far away. The teaching still applies to us today, of course. But today, I wonder if there isn’t an extent to which we need the opposite message. Who is my neighbor? What if he is, well … my neighbor?

To be a believer in Jesus Christ is to have been chosen. We can succumb to exalting ourselves over this, as in: He chose ME. But that exalting places the emphasis in the wrong place. The truth is, He CHOSE me, because I could not have chosen for myself. The Lord renewed my mind; he gave me eyes to see. He called me out of darkness because I couldn't find the way.

As a direct result of exalting ourselves over the fact of having faith, we overcomplicate the question of what the purpose of our redeemed lives should be. We seek exalted missions for these presumably exalted selves. But what if God is giving simple assignments? What if the creator of the universe, the creator of your purpose and mine, has arranged the universe so that we are near to the purposes he has for us? What I am suggesting here is that the purpose you have the means and opportunity to fulfill right now, quite possibly the one you are already fulfilling, might be the work or the role God has in mind for you in advancing his kingdom. And I am further suggesting that the people near you right now—your neighbors, maybe—are the people God has given you to serve.

The movie Rear Window is about a man who discovers something like this. He discovers his neighbors, both literally and in a sense near to what Jesus meant. L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photojournalist accustomed to traveling the world, but a broken leg in a rigid plaster cast has trapped him in a wheelchair and in his small apartment. To pass the time, he watches his neighbors out the window that faces a courtyard into which many other neighbors’ windows open. And through one of these windows, he believes he sees a crime. The plot and drama of the movie turn on this.

But more broadly, Jefferies sees people. He comes to know them, comes to love them, comes to care about them. And in the case of that one scene in one of those apartments, he becomes personally involved and sees something he can do.

It is not hard to discern the message in all of this. Stewart’s portrayal of the adventurer suffering and bored because of the injury that traps him in a chair gives me an image I can summon the next time I am afflicted, the next time I feel I am stifled because of a development that keeps me from progressing the way I would choose. When I am halted in this way, brought down by circumstance or setback, I can wait, as this character waited. I can watch. I can ask what—or whom—the Lord has for me to see.

*   *   *

A few other observations about this film. I have been watching movies and writing this series of posts to infer what the 20th century was all about. This movie dispels two assumptions I might have made about the people of that century who lived before me:

1. I thought the phenomenon of not knowing the people who live in close proximity to us is a modern strangeness, something we have come to only recently. However, this movie accepts that state of affairs as a situation that all of the audience would have known well. One of the characters at one point (railing to the community about her dead dog, the cause of death she suspects one of her neighbors of knowing) delivers an impassioned speech about the selfishness of people not caring whom they live near. This speech would have fallen flat unless theatergoers then were as guilty as I am of living close to people and knowing little about them.

2. I might have been tempted to think that the practice and awareness of Christian faith were more common and more public in the past. But no, when the verse about “love your neighbor” is mentioned in this movie, it is not as a biblical verse. Female lead character Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) says, “Wasn’t there an old saying about ‘love thy neighbor’?” Of course, to me and to others who feel as I do, this verse amounts to more than an old saying; it is a teaching of the incarnate God. But I think this line delivered by Kelly’s character hints at how there were more churchgoers in the past, which is something apart from there being more lives renewed by faith. Her “old saying” line reveals scripture having been taught as literature, blending in with other books taught to this character as a schoolgirl. The instruction stuck with her sufficiently that it was recalled to mind, but it had no impact on her except as a curiosity that seemed to fit the occasion. Since the movie did not aim to make any point about faith or scripture, this detail from the character strikes me as credible. In the past, there was a larger share of the populace who had heard scripture and more who had attended church, but then as now, the Lord was choosing for faith those whom he would choose.

And one more observation that seems worth making about Rear Window:

3. The premise of the story could never work today. It could not have worked just a couple of decades after the film premiered. The reason is air conditioning, which would soon become commonplace. In the heat of the summer, people would no longer open their windows. Today, we speak of the problem of technology isolating us, but we tend to have in mind the technology in our pockets. Technology having this effect is actually a much older problem than our electronics. In incremental steps, it has been sealing us off. Beginning with control over our personal climates and the way that this removed us from our windowsills and porches, the advance of technology has steadily been taking us away from one another.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)—A Broad-Shouldered Melody?

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

There is a ballet built into Singin’ in the Rain. The ballet’s title, according to the characters in the film, is “Broadway Melody.”

Singing’ in the Rain is the story of actors and a film studio head making a movie in the 1920s. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagan portray two superstar silent movie icons, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont. For public consumption, the two pretend to be in a romance. To Lockwood, this is entirely a fiction and he seeks to keep distant from Lamont. But Lamont both presumes and expects an actual romance with him, and she is willing to advance schemes in order to have this. Meanwhile, a disruptive new technology has appeared: movies with sound. Lockwood is able to adapt into the medium but Lamont cannot. Unknown to her fans, her voice is shrill and her dialect uncouth. Therefore, in the talking movie these characters are preparing to make, Lamont will lip-synch the lines and the singing delivered by a new discovery, Kathy Selden, portrayed by Debbie Reynolds. Lockwood (Kelly) loves Selden (Reynolds), and the movie’s tension turns on Lamont’s efforts to sabotage Selden’s hope of being with Lockwood or having a career beyond being the famous star’s hidden voice. There is, of course, a happy ending in which Lamont’s machinations are gloriously defeated and Lockwood and Selden go forward together happily, Selden becoming a screen icon whose romance with Lockwood is no fiction.

That is the movie. But inside the movie, as I say, is a ballet. I call it a ballet because, though some of its songs have simple lyrics, its story is told almost entirely through dance. This segment is a portion of the movie the characters are producing as part of the real movie’s story, and we get to see this much of their movie as they intend for it to be seen. In other words, there is a ballet within the movie within the movie. Got that?

The ballet within the musical. Charise
as the woman in the green sequined
dress and Kelly as Lockwood
portraying the hoofer.
Here is the story told by that ballet, “Broadway Melody”:

A young “hoofer” (dancer) portrayed by Lockwood (who is portrayed in turn by Kelly; still got it?) comes to New York City from far away to pursue a career in dance. He is awkward, and dressed strangely. In stylized encounters, he finds his way to one talent agent after another. To each he proclaims in song, “Gotta dance!” To each he gives a demonstration of his talent. One agent ultimately accepts him, rushing him into performing in a club, which—we soon come to realize—is run or controlled by crime figures. We learn this when the hoofer comes upon the woman in the green sequined dress, portrayed by real-life actress Cyd Charise.

Through dance, we understand that the hoofer falls in love with her. Or is captivated by her. We do not know precisely; a ballet’s beauty is realized partially in our own inferences. But she is less devoted to him. The scarred gangster whose signature move in the dance is to methodically flip a coin leads her away by laying riches (jewelry) before her, as two silent henchmen, also flipping coins, bar the hoofer from going after her.

In vignettes, we see the hoofer’s career advance. He gives essentially the same performance in one setting after another that is better than the one before. He becomes a star. At a stylish and elegant party, he is the toast of all in attendance.

The imagined dance between the
hoofer and the woman last seen
in the green sequined dress.
And he is heartbroken. We see this when the woman in the green sequined dress appears at the party. There is an expression on her face; what are we to infer there? She feels something: regret over her choices, or remorse for hurting him, or resentment toward those who drew her away. And then there is a dance between the hoofer and her, with the audience understanding that this dance is being imagined by one or both. The imagined dance is the enactment of the characters’ recognition of what might have been and what now cannot be. Dejected, the hoofer returns to the street, the streets of New York City.

And this is what he finds: He finds a young hoofer, awkward and strangely dressed, who has just arrived from far away to pursue a career in dance. This familiar stranger proclaims in song, “Gotta dance!”

There is a notion that lavish Hollywood musicals date from a simpler time. A contrived and superficially upbeat story such as Singing’ in the Rain could only appeal to simpler audiences ready to be fed on simple themes. Or so the thinking goes. But inside of Singin’ in the Rain is “Broadway Melody,” a shadowed story speaking poignantly about human longing, disappointment, love, and hope. That allegedly simple audience for the film must not have been so simple at all, because they were the same audience prepared to receive this ballet.

In “Broadway Melody,” Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood also portrays the singer introducing the ballet’s story. The lyrics of the introductory song offer a clue to why we might misperceive what the audiences were seeing when they were witness to a movie like Singin’ in the Rain. That song says:

Don’t bring a frown to old Broadway
Ah, you gotta clown on Broadway
Your troubles there, they're out of style
'Cause Broadway always wears a smile

Those lyrics shock today. Your troubles are “out of style,” meaning unacceptable to others? And therefore we should not frown, but instead we are to “clown” and “always wear a smile”? This sounds to us like repression. This sounds to us like being false about what we feel. Maybe it is.

Or maybe not. There is this passage from scripture: We are to “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” but at the same time, and just as importantly, “each person will have to carry his own load” (Galatians 6:2,5).

Perhaps people at the time when this movie was created had a different sense of which portion of their lot was their load rather than their burden. Perhaps they had a different sense of what it was that was theirs alone to carry, smiling rather than imposing onto others. They knew pain; the ballet could not have spoken to them if they did not. But perhaps they also appreciated the lightness of the musical as a counterweight to the pain, a welcome rest against the various loads that each of the audience members—in all the seats within the darkened theater—were exerting the strength to carry.

Stay in the Boat: Rereading Peter’s Walk on Water

Here is a fact from scripture that is relatively well known because it is often discussed: Jesus was not the only one to walk on water. Famously, Peter did, too, for the span of what would appear to have been a few halting steps. The scene is familiar to many, as it is practically a staple in contemporary writings and teaching aimed at Christians. And (in my view) the scene is widely misconstrued.

Specifically, when Peter walked on water, it is widely held that he did something laudable and important, something you and I ought to emulate. There is a Christian book whose title makes this suggestion: If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (John Ortberg). Yet if we do indeed desire to “walk on water”—whether in reality or in the symbolic equivalent of stepping out into some similarly great action—is this a desire we should act upon?

In examining the details of this passage of scripture, I would like to point out that we are in fact not called by this passage to attempt to walk on water the way Peter did. And therefore we also are not called by this passage to pursue some symbolic equivalent of this act in our lives.

We are not called to do what Peter did, because in this story, Peter was disobedient.

I’ll develop this. First, here is the complete passage of scripture describing the scene:

Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After dismissing the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. But the boat was already over a mile from land, battered by the waves, because the wind was against them. Around three in the morning, he came toward them walking on the sea.  When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear. 

Immediately Jesus spoke to them. “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter answered him, “command me to come to you on the water.”

“Come!” he said.

And climbing out of the boat, Peter started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the strength of the wind, he was afraid. And beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand, caught hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those in the boat worshiped him and said, “Truly you are the Son of God!”

—Matthew 14:22-33

This incident occurs only once in time and once in the Bible. After the scene above, never again in scripture do we hear of Peter or any other disciple attempting to walk on water. And only thanks to one gospel writer do we learn of this scene. While Matthew, Mark, and John all recount the same incident of Jesus walking out across the sea, Matthew alone mentions Peter’s similar act. In all this, we see that the people who were witness to Peter’s act and knowledgeable about it do not seem to have responded as though Peter did something exemplary or even significant. Why?

I believe it helps to highlight seven points:

(1) At the start of the passage above, Jesus gave his men a command. He wanted them to get into the boat; he wanted them to travel to the other side of the lake.

(2) When Jesus walked out onto the water to meet the boat a mile from shore, his disciples thought he was a ghost. When they heard their Lord’s voice say, “It is I,” they knew differently.

The text does not state explicitly they knew differently, but we hear no more about their fear after this point. And Peter knows, because he now addresses Jesus as “Lord” and he asks something of him, a call and an empowerment, that he could only expect Jesus to grant.

However....

(3) Peter apparently chose to forsake this knowledge, not accepting Jesus’ statement of identification. In the hope of something more, some special treatment, he asked the Lord to prove himself. If it is you, Peter asked, then give special notice to me.

Again, Peter knew this was Jesus. And Jesus had already given a command (point 1) that Peter now chose to ignore.

And yet....

(4) God honors our choice to be disobedient. He does not wreak vengeance when we go our own way. He even sustains us through the peril of the way we have chosen. Thus, Peter asked the Lord, “Command me to come.” And as requested, though it was contrary to what Jesus had previously commanded, he gave Peter this new command.

But look what happens:

(5) As soon as Peter found himself in perceivable danger, he embraced what he knew all along. That is, as soon as he was sinking, his words were no longer, “If it is you.” All of a sudden, his words became, “Lord, save me!” The truth of Peter’s willfulness was revealed.

(6) Look who gets rebuked in this story. Once the rescue has been made and the story is done, who gets scolded? Answer: Just one person. Contrary to the premise of the book title mentioned earlier, Jesus has no criticism for the people who stayed in the boat.

(7) At last, when Jesus got into the boat—that is, when Jesus joined his disciples in the place where he asked them to be—there was peace. As scripture says, the wind ceased.

Peter in this scene was disobedient. He sought to practice something like the power of Jesus for the sake of his personal glory or thrill. We are not called to this personal exaltation. Peter fell. Jesus saved him. Thereafter, Peter was never seen to attempt something like walking on water again. Much later, when Peter was at sea and he saw the risen Jesus on shore, Peter jumped into the water and swam (John 21:7).

We consider Peter’s action to have been exemplary because he performed a miracle. However, Jesus cares nothing for miracles, at least not in and of themselves. To the ones who claim to belong to him because of the miracles they have done in his name, Jesus says, “I never knew you; away from me, you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23). In the incident of walking on water, Peter’s miracle was self-aggrandizing and vain. The call of the Lord is not like this. The Lord calls us into faith because of the power our transformed lives will have in advancing his kingdom, whether that happens by miracle or not.

Thus, the way of Jesus is potentially very simple. It might even be peaceful in the midst of the storm. The Lord has work that he leads us through. He has places he assigns us and he has roles for us to perform. Our time within these places and roles is brief, amounting to just a short journey, a little time within a boat. If the Lord calls you into such a vessel, how do you come to believe the better choice is to step out of it?