Kaput’s been watching working from home. Peeping through the keyhole with Sartre. At the movies for The Woman in the Window. Making some farmyard buddies. And going to a dream funeral.
O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.*
LET’S START HERE. A fixed shot inside the front room of a Victorian terrace property. It’s summer 1977, Jubilee bunting hangs across the wall above an orange sofa. In the left corner, by the four-panel window, a woman in a floral apron and burgundy dress stands with her back to the lens, hands on hips, apparently puzzled.
Now, why did I come in here, again?
Fixed shot inside the front room of a Victorian terrace property. In the left corner, by the four-panel window, it’s late summer 2020. A tall man wearing dark Lululemon track pants, grey T shirt from Folk, and Muji house slippers, stands with his back to the lens, hands on hips, apparently puzzled.
Now, why did I come in here, again?
If a mental wipeout occurs, and sometimes it happens, he’s taught himself to scan the room, slowly, carefully seeking sight cues to retrieve the lost thought from the short term memory bay – the thought that prompted him to purposefully come in here from the kitchen just five seconds ago.
He remembers he was chopping salad vegetables for lunch. A lightbulb went on in his brain. He put down the sharp knife and changed rooms. He recalls crossing to the far side of the lounge with purpose and being diverted by the ginger cat outside walking along the wall at the bottom of the small front garden. In this moment, the scene-stealing puss claims his attention and he forgets why he came here.
|pussycat keeps coming to my yard
He scratches his head. (The obligatory confused head scratch.) But the idea has gone. The intention so pressing, so recently, has vanished.
Staring out the window is like looking at a picture that’s already been framed. The scene-stealing cat sashays back across the brick coping stopping under the small bushy tree. Feline planning appears to be taking place. He wonders how often cats know what they’re doing. At once, a plump brown bird takes flight from out the tree, less than a yard from the cat sat staring into the branches. He thinks the brown bird’s a thrush. In the flurry of leaves and feathers he believes he just saw thrush clear off. But he’s not great with nature. (He’s much better with eighties arthouse cinema.) He could check the bird app on his phone.
Now, where did I put my phone?
|hmm… now why did I come in here again?
The opening panel of comic book artist Richard McGuire’s Here features the corner of a room in a house in New England in 2014. The corner of the room, though thoroughly unexceptional, is the single focus and lead character for McGuire’s feature-length pictorial depiction of time and memory. The space is a fixed point reflecting change, featuring in every page as history scrolls past. History, geology, biology; animals and people; interiors and quarrels; birthdays and jokes: life across vast swathes of years, from 3,000,000,000 BCE, way before the dinosaurs, to 1,000,00 BCE and onwards through 1307, 1622, 1907, Elvis, round about now, and continuing to 2050, before taking off way beyond, into new epochs and new species, to 2313 and a time of global flooding. The story of universe in the corner of the room.
The years unfurl thematically rather than in sequence. Most pages carry panels from different periods simultaneously, sending echoes and dialogues across far-flung eras. In 1933 a child is attempting a somersault, over and over. A Native American couple making love in 1609 are interrupted by the sound of a dog barking in 1986. A woman is cleaning the room through 1973, 1983, and 1993.
The artwork is simple, but also complex and beautiful, and far from best displayed in a confined blogspace. McGuire’s colours are vivid, his compositions bright, rhythmic and lyrical.
In the opening section of the book, a woman is found standing in the room in 1957, forgetting why she came through. Three hundred pages later, turning full circle, the narrative concludes with the woman still in the room, remembering what she wanted in the end.
|…now I remember
Unfortunately, he still doesn’t understand what he’s doing in his new front room. But wait, look! Here comes his favourite new neighbour.
Having parked his car in the usual spot, the new neighbour’s walking slowly up from the bottom of the hill on the opposite side of the road. He stops to look at his shoes. The cat strolls into frame but the new neighbour doesn’t notice.
It’s been this way the three or four times he’s spotted the neighbour out and about locally, walking to and from the shops. A small man in his early thirties, in lockdown joggers, the new neighbour seems perpetually caught up by his thoughts, mouth wide open, his jaw hanging in the air, staring at the ground. He must find a lot of loose change.
Largely he knows the new neighbour from seeing him sitting in his house across the road. All day, Monday to Friday, sat by the front window, staring at a laptop, working from home. Just like he sits by his window all day, Monday to Friday, barely moving, working from home.
His new neighbour’s house across the road isn’t directly facing, but one plot further down the hill. The two men are at diagonals. Often through the day, as he dispatches yet another email, waits as a sclerotic programme struggles to launch, or drifts off during a group chat on Teams, his gaze leaves the laptop, tracks away from the table and out the window, across the road, where he nearly always finds his new neighbour, also sat at his table – preparing a report, perhaps, updating a spreadsheet, or bound up in superflous Slack chat. Glued to his desk, eyes fixed on the screen, the new neighbour habitually situates himself in profile, whereas the subject of this blogpost, the one writing this sentence, habitually positions himself facing out. This is his view. There. That is his neighbour’s view. Here.
In the afternoon, if it’s warm (which mostly it isn’t), the new neighbour opens his front window at an angle. Sometimes the light bounces off the glass pane fracturing the reflection and lifting his neighbour’s head so that it appears to be floating in space, severed from his torso. But soon the clouds slide along and as the light alters the neighbour’s head plops back down onto his shoulders.
That is the way with the weather around here, often on the move, rarely settled. Too much change. Too much weather. Cycling through the barometer at knots: from bright to middling to disappointing to slate grey to chill factor ten (in July), to pissing it down. A recent afternoon featured sunshine, clouds, blue sky, grey sky, wind, thunder, lightning, theatrical rain with hissy bursts of hail. All at the same time. Hail pellets came shooting down the chimney, out the open fireplace, gelid and skunk-brown, pinging onto his expensive new rug. He finds the weather excessive. How much more you got? he mutters, realising he won’t be thrilled by the answer.
Indoors, however, all is settled, continuous and sane, as they dutifully do the job, him and the new neighbour, getting their heads down, as they work, and work, and work some more. Every single thing resembling everything else – the last moment a lot like this moment, and the next moment coming up. The same old, same old. (You get the picture.) Forget absent-mindedness, ask how many fresh memories you made in 2020?
|no flies on me
It’s been more than six months with his feet planted under different tables across the country, working remotely, staring out windows. Six months taking mini screen breaks waiting for the variable broadband to catch up, gazing out on different kinds of scenery. Late March through to mid June, his fixed shot peered through the tall glass doors of a West Country cottage, revealing a rough bucolic vista, the cross-section of a sloping field on the side of a small hill.
Gala drove them out of London to a rented cottage in the country. The living room had French windows opening onto a raised deck, stepping down to a strip of grass stretching as far as a barb wire fence, beyond which there was a piece of land circled by trees – a scrubby plot home to a mix of livestock, machinery and, from time to time, a woman farmer with a beaming face and a long green coat.
Ms Farmer’s bringing night feed for a pair of horses, two sacks of hay, crossing the rising grass with big gallumping strides. After numerous mornings and evenings watching from the window, observing animal husbandry in action, he establishes that each horse has its own designated food hopper – the lean chestnut, the brown hopper, the stout black horse the grey hopper. But also, get this, sometimes the horses switch hoppers. He wonders why the horses swap hoppers only some nights, but not others. He wonders also how the lean chestnut gobbles up tonnes more than the stout blackie, and yet blackie’s stout and chestnut stays lean? He sighs as he turns his back on the window and heads for the kitchen to make dinner from tins.
|what do sheep do all day?
Jump cut. Fixed shot of sheep grazing in the middle of the field as the afternoon settles. Jump again. Night, with a glass of wine in his hand, looking through the windows at a montage of field with stars all over the sky.
|chicken peckin’ good
Mid morning, a chicken jiggers over for a visit, just as a spiv blackbird heads off in the opposite direction. The chicken has an elastic neck and speckled feathers. Though she pecks on the glass of the French windows, insistent as a loon, she doesn’t want to come inside – Gala might put her in the saucepan.
|what do sheep do all day?
The jump cuts accelerate. One horse – Blackie. Two mistle thrushes on opposing gateposts. A solitary robin. A bunch of sheep with both horses. An empty field. A pair of magpies swoop down across the grass near to the deck, and rising up again they bank to the right, then swerve left, wings spread wide, feathers white and grey and black and blue.
Sunset. Rain. Last light with the small tractor coming down the slope. Robin, blackbird, robin, two more magpies landing, another thrush, the chicken’s come back. Jump to night with dense clouds and no stars. Rain at dinnertime. Early morning sun as ‘the soul creeps out of the tree’.
Jump. The slate roofs of the big houses beyond the top end of the field lit up red at sunset.
Jump. The hilltop opaque in the mist at six am. He crawls out of bed early to get started, sipping coffee, basking in the tranquility, but missing life.
The sun cuts through the mist. Rain covers the landscape. The horses eat, go, eat, don’t ever seem to sleep, decamp, return, trot off, and finally never come back. A truck appears in the field round morning break time. Bit different. Two large men deposit stacks of metal barrier fences in neat piles and sling bales of wire onto the flatbed and drive away. Ms Farmer has stopped coming into the field. Then the chicken disappears. He liked that chicken. He sent videos to the Annoying Son, faraway in his south London bunker, pictures to friends, some of the people at work. You don’t think someone, you know, cooked the chicken?
Jump cut. Early morning, mid summer, they pack the car and take off, heading away from the cottage, returning east. The French windows were his view on the world for ninety days but he doesn’t look back.
|West Country Cat says we miss you
After the West Country farm, and before his new house on the sloping street, for six weeks he leases a short-term ‘home’ in a service apartment in the centre of the prosperous northern city.
The apartment on the second floor is deceiving, decked out as luxurious, it’s actually standard hotel anonymous, generating subsonic waves of psychic bleakness the longer you linger. The open plan living space looks out on a courtyard that is three sides service apartments, the fourth the back end of a white four-storey office building that steals much of the day’s light. He’s downhearted he doesn’t have enough sky.
On his arrival from the cottage, the hub of the city is almost entirely shuttered, the streets empty and quiet. For a day or so it’s broiling hot. And then the rain comes and for the remainder of Week One and into Week Two, the air is damp and grey and cold. Out the apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows the metal balcony is dripping with rain. A tubby pigeon lands on the balcony rail as he sits on the sofa scrolling through the bad news on his iPad. The pigeon momentarily distracts him from chains of transmission. His eyes follow a faint-hearted streak of sunlight rising between the buildings quickly sucked into the grey anti-matter.
Later in the morning the fire alarm starts shrieking. A small clutch of residents gather on the pavement, dispersed in the rain, bright trackpants, vests, bed shorts and anklet tattoos, two pink dressing gowns under a golf umbrella. At four pm there’s a second fire alarm. Same pink dressing gowns. But by the third false siren round seven, he’s the only one come out onto the pavement, counting puddles.
In the late evening he stares through the window at the office staff working in the building opposite. He decides they’re the skeleton shift for a call centre knocking off at midnight. A young man with red hair and a black headset sits before a screen and points at something to a colleague stood next to him, not socially distanced and eating Pringles in large handfuls. The colleagues are laughing at something on the monitor. Some of the chewed-up crisps spray the air.
At four twelve am, he falls out of the bed from a bad dream; rolls onto the carpet clutching chunks of fawn duvet. He lifts up off the floor and goes to the batchelor kitchenette to get water. The apartment’s quiet as an urn. The nightmare had him in a sweaty fight at a funeral, wrestling a man with a gun. He feels rattled from the dream which hasn’t set him up well for being awake.
The night sky is lightening to grey already. There are now two tubby pigeons on the balcony rail and an unexplained dark shape which he first glimpses out the corner of his eye. For a second he’s thrilled at the possibility of something different. Only to realise it’s just his clothes draped across the dryer. He put them out yesterday hoping the air might do some good and forgot. They should’ve come in off the balcony before bed. That’s stupid – you need to do better. The stray red sock waterlogged in a puddle on the balcony floor transmits a warning. Letting your sock drown is feeble for a man trying to relocate to a distant part of the country in the thick of a pandemic.
Jump cut. Bright white sky. A time lapse photo-montage captures grey clouds rolling in like a crowd of mourners, bringing quiet persistent rain for the remainder of the day.
Jump. The office worker’s back on shift and is speaking to his screen. But there’s no sound. He’s typing on his keyboard. But the tapping is silent. Leaning back in his chair, often laughing, never looking out his window, the call centre guy is unsuspecting of being seen.
This is useless. He needs to stop watching. He spins away from the window. The last look was longer than a brief glance. Hardly a fixation, but still. He closes the curtains.
Spin through the weeks from summer to autumn. He wonders if the call centre guy is still chained to the screen down in the city centre, while up here, three miles away, three months later, across the other side of the sloping street, his new neighbour sits in his bay window at diagonals.
He doesn’t gawp at the new neighbour. The longest gaze is under five seconds. It’s not stalking. And it isn’t voyeurism. He’s never wondered what the neighbour gets up to after dark. He doesn’t think about them behind the closed curtains of an evening. (He has his big new TV to watch – podcasts, FaceTime, long-reads, books…) He hopes the new neighbour will continue to close his curtains. He doesn’t enjoy the thought of seeing something he’s not supposed to see and actively immediately tries to unthink the notion, as mid morning he walks across his local park by himself.
It’s actually not grey today; and it isn’t cold. Instead a rare searing wave of way-too-hot has descended. The heat has his nose working better than usual with nature’s various scents alive to him, the perfumes so pungent as if all this had never been breathed before.
The park near his house leads to tennis courts, a bowling green, and onwards to a parade of independent shops. He climbs steeply up from the start of the grass enclosure at the bottom. As he gets higher, behind him the trees part like a curtain at the theatre, opening out on a view across the valley towards the facing escarpment, where raked and cross-hatched tiers of detached mid-century properties ascend the upward slope, culminating in treetops at the crest of the hill. Although the view is widescreen and spectacular, he finds he can only partially admire the outlook, regretting it’s not Florence at sunset, or a five star Norwegian fjord.
If he ever came to paint, an improbable scenario, he’d likely be better at foregrounds than bringing the larger scale onto canvas. And now as he pauses at the top of the hill, as he contemplates all the flowers, suddenly so beautiful, he loses his thoughts again and is unsure at the best way into the next event. He decides it’s not just the pungency of the blooms but the heat of the day. The warmth at first was a pleasant change to the recent dreariness, but is already getting to be overwhelming. ‘Far too hot,’ he says out loud, aiming for a little higher up and some necessary shade. ‘Far too hot today. Too much weather. Again.’
He imagines few if any contemporary artists paint landscapes with symbolic intent, where that springy bush represents fertility, or that gnarly grassy bank is standing in for a lifetime of challenges. The viewer isn’t invited to infer meaning from the diamond pattern of the tennis court fencing, or a bed of daisies as far as the eye can see – we no longer do the iconography.
Arriving under a large green tree, he looks back towards where he just walked from, which already appears distant. It is a favourite dimensional riddle. How could it be that only minutes ago he arrived onto the grass down there, at the bottom of the slope, and yet somehow his steep laboured trudge-like plod has carried him this far away from his starting point. He both understands perspective and finds it a puzzle. (Linked spaces, narrative progression in a single view.) He thinks about it at the cinema. In Hitchcock the compositional tension between near and far, of background and foreground, is used to create suspense. In the foreground, Cary Grant gets off the bus in the middle of a vast prairie and waits by the side of the road, while at the back of the screen a far-away crop-duster airplane gradually draws the viewer’s attention. At first its presence is bewildering (‘there ain’t no crops’), then menacing, putting a perplexed Grant in lethal danger. Often the spatial relationship between far and close is reversed in Hitchcock, bringing the near viewer – not just the protagonist, but the audience, us – inside the question that’s being posed, the question of the gaze – the interpellating, containing gaze. We recognise our point of view, but what are we doing here watching James Stewart trailing Kim Novak round San Francisco, observing Jimmy Stewart spying through a telescopic lens through his rear window, scoping the neighbours doing their business?
On the shady side of a bench under what he now recognises for an oak, he spots in the middle distance his new neighbour out schlepping. He tracks his progress up the slope, watches him climbing the near pavement at the western perimeter of the park. The new neighbour is out with his partner who he lives with. The partner is walking up the hill quickly, a yard ahead of her man. She is taller and wearing purple athleisurewear and is saying something over her shoulder, but her boyfriend’s staring into his phone. Possibly she’s reminding her boyf about his mouth hanging open, but she seems in quite a hurry. His jaw-to-the-floor faceology makes the new neighbour look unintelligent, but also suggests a near permanent state of worry, that of feeling lost even in his close surroundings.
The new neighbour is tangled-up in his thoughts because of Covid stress perhaps; or feels dense with corona boredom. Or not this at all, but specific issues going on in his world consuming a lot of headspace. As we wander off down the street, head in the clouds, we all of us ought to recognise, at least now and then, that every person who passes is equally living through the middle of an existence just as complex as our own life feels complicated to us. He finds this hard to acknowledge, but is working on it. Not just routines, habits and hopes, but doubts, dilemmas and grief. He read online that Germans call it ‘Sonder’ – the re-realisation of the load on others.** All of life isn’t simply just your personal legendary tale. The guy at the bus stop by the cemetery gates, him wearing a poppy in July, has his own sprawling epic going on. You featured fleetingly just now when you walked past. It’s challenging placing yourself as an extra in another human’s deep background. As a thought experiment maybe five minutes self-abnegation daily might be good for the ego. He reckons he could do five minutes. His readers the same.
He can’t say for certain, after all his mum is German, so it’s possible, but he thinks it’s unlikely his dad knew about sonder. His father was not on social media. Dad’s only experience of being trolled was getting honked at for driving too slow in their village. (Everybody knows down country lanes you gotta go fast.) Never having been hardened by flamewars online, the endless response, counter-response, and counter-counter-response in which people encounter the other as text-spitting foe, Dad continued to actually enjoy talking to strangers; more so, in fact, than communicating with his own family.
Dad talking to strangers confused him and his siblings. He has pledged never to become that kind of person. We don’t need the next generation chatting up folk outside the green grocers. He will restrict to merely observing the new neighbour, now and then. Don’t talk to the guy. Leave him alone.
The new neighbour never sees him anyhow. He thinks it will continue this way but likes to imagine their eyes meeting from their windows for one time only. A single shared gaze of mutual recognition, at diagonals, concerning the psychological undercurrents of this unique moment across the planet, haunted by what’s been lost, but afraid of the simulacrum. Fearing they are ghostlike. Like the two white sheets in Ghost Story talking in subtitles. How long have you been here? I don’t know. Who are you waiting for? I can’t remember.
At a bookshop Q&A on the launch of a new version of Here, the author Richard McGuire explains to fellow graphic artist Dave McKean the problem he has forgetting things. He wonders how much he’ll remember of this conversation. Driving through London to the event, a thought came to him in a flash, a new insight on his work he was eager to share. Only to lose the bright idea getting distracted by a shop sign passing through Brixton. He’s also forgotten what it was about the shop sign.
McGuire acknowledges how what started out, back in 1989, as a short laconic comic strip, concerning how we might make sense of and hold onto some of this torrential time rushing past, keeps developing and growing and conceivably he could be returning to Here – Generation X’s Four Quartets – for the rest of his life.***
The bookstore interview explores background influences. The author and interlocutor share a fascination for the short animation Tango (1982) – another artwork centred around a fixed delineated space moving through time. After the podcast, after downloading the interactive Here, he heads for YouTube and Tango…
…A ball bounces through the open window of an empty room. A young boy furtively climbs in the window to get his ball back and sets-off a mini pile-up across time.
The boy grabs the ball and exits by the window. But before his ankles disappear over the sill, the same ball comes sailing back through the window swiftly followed by the boy. The ball lands in the same empty room, set-up like a theatre stage with no fourth wall, featuring a single bed, small round table, stools, a cot, empty shelves, three doors, and the open window looking out on a green grey exterior.
The boy retrieves the ball and disappears out the window exactly like before. But this time, as his ankles slide over the sill, a mother and a baby emerge from the door in the far hallway. The mother starts feeding as the ball flies through the window a third time.
The camera stays fixed throughout Tango. It doesn’t move or change focus through eight minutes. The mother and the boy have no interaction, plainly unconnected, sharing the same space in parallel time zones. She tends the baby and he grabs the ball, while a third film loop arrives as a shifty man in black coat, black gloves and shades enters the scene and seizes a parcel from the top of the shelves.
The pile-up gathers pace. A small bloke in a red hat and coat enters the increasingly busy room with the same brown parcel the shifty man just stole; and is about to steal again. The four loops soon double to eight loops, with a teenage schoolgirl, an old man eating soup, a jogger doing a handstand, and a woman back home from the shops.
To the pile-up is superadded some baked fish, a plumber toting a toilet, two lovers, a railway ticket inspector, a beaten-up drunk, one man and his dog… So many loops. An utter schlamassel, as a single room’s multifarious historic timelines play out simultaneously, everything that ever happened here is happening here right now.
As the scene reaches maximum chaos the crowded room stops admitting more loops and begins thinning out. The heedless hoards reverse and depart. Soon the set is almost empty. The boy leaves and his ball doesn’t come back. An old woman lying on the bed sits up and surveys the space and exits. All is calm. The distant sound of traffic – fade to titles.
Tango represents the high point in the career of Polish filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczyński. Both an aesthetic and critical success, Tango won the 1982 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. At the notoriously long LA awards ceremony, Rybczyński stepped outside for a smoke, but a security guard wouldn’t let him back in. Even after Rybczyński waved his Oscar to show he was a winner. Despite this setback, Rybczyński settled in the US for some years, making experimentia and music videos for Art of Noise, Simple Minds, Lou Reed, Pet Shop Boys, and the eternal Mick Jagger.
While it is well known Mick Jagger has had many lovers, with eight children as proof of life, it’s a less shared fact how the classic Hollywood actor Edward G Robinson spoke eight languages. Or that the star of The Woman in the Window was born in Romania. Directed by Fritz Lang, Woman in the Window has Edward G in the lead role, playing Richard, a professor of criminal psychology who has grown painfully bored, feeling stranded in midlife. ‘Life ends at 40,’ he complains. (He’d probably say fifty if the story was now.)
In the thick of a scalding city summer, Richard waves his wife and kids goodbye at the train station as they head off on vacation. Alone in Manhattan, each evening Richard dines with two male friends at their members club. All three men are drawn to the painting of a beautiful woman on display in the art gallery window next door. They marvel at the seductive beauty of her portrait. Their ‘dream woman’ they call her. (‘Dream woman’ – an elbow nudge for the attentive viewer?)
After dinner, and several drinks, the three men repair to the smoking room, where Richard confesses to a gnawing restlessness. ‘I hate this stolidity, this stodginess…’ One of his friends is the city’s District Attorney. He cautions Richard concerning men letting disquiet into their hearts, he’s seen it before, dudes of a certain age acting recklessly, then desperately.
Richard acknowledges how easily a life can come apart. That it’s best he keeps his hankering for fast times suppressed. As his friends depart for home, he settles down for a nightcap and a read in the club’s comfy library. He picks a leather volume from the shelf to dip into: The Song of Songs, a celebration of sexual yearning…
At 10.30, Richard leaves the club, heading home for bed. But first he takes a last look at the portrait in the gallery window. As he stares through the glass, at once he sees the beautiful woman’s reflection hovering next to her own likeness. The real-life model for the painting emerges like an apparition in a dream.
The woman introduces herself as Ann. She says now and then she comes to the gallery to watch passers-by stare at her portrait. Richard and Ann talk a little longer. It’s late, he’s had a few, she suggests they have a few more. They walk off together, bar hopping all the way back to her apartment situated in a racier neighbourhood, where she invites Richard to come in and see her sketches. The viewer assumes this is a set-up. It’s film noir and, after all, what could this attractive young woman see in stodgy midlife Richard? There has to be an angle. We watch and wait.
Richard and Ann peruse drawings while swiftly draining a bottle of Champagne. Richard is struggling to open a second bottle when matters take a dramatic twist. Ann’s jealous lover bursts in on them, suspects the worst and tries to throttle Richard – who kills the psychotic lover in an act of justifiable self defence.
Plainly Richard has tumbled rapidly and wildly out of his comfort zone. In an instant his life feels headlong and catastrophic, with no reverse button, or much time to think. He says he’ll go to the police and explain. The cops will understand. No, wait, they will be suspicious, they may not even agree the homicide was justified. At best, they will accept Richard’s version, but there will be scandal nonetheless, public humiliation, career disaster, concluding almost certainly with personal ruin. Faced by a heap of dread and with the clock ticking (there are clocks all over this movie), Richard elects to skip the police bit and do his own thing, to dispose of the dead lover’s corpse in a woods outside the city. ‘Few films,’ writes movie historian David Thomson, ‘make so engrossing an ordeal out of the ordinary man’s alarm at being trapped in situations more appropriate to cinema.’
The ordinariness Thomson flags is striking. The crime films of Fritz Lang often situate protagonists at risk in domestic settings. (This is also true of several Hitchcock narratives.) In Woman in the Window, it’s because Richard cuts his finger trying to open the second champagne bottle that Ann hands him the kitchen scissors, which he subsequently uses to kill the jealous lover.
Typing this up from his new home on the quiet street on the hill. Ensconced in his privileged domestic surroundings in this prosperous northern city, staring across the street, watching his new neighbour, he remembers once upon a time how his curious gaze put him at risk. Looking through a keyhole when he should’ve knocked first.
In his early twenties, on holiday in Sicily in August, the summer of Steve McQueen and Prince on the Walkman, he and his partner at that time (Ex No1) spent two weeks on the island’s southside, in a searing one-horse town, baking daily, laid out on a beach close to a pile of classical ruins.
They had a basic double room in an overpriced cheap hotel. The room had a balcony but no en suite. They shared facilities with eleven other sets of holidaymakers, with a bathroom at each end of a long, dark corridor. On their first evening, just back from the hot beach, they decided on a plan for best access. His partner would go to closest bathroom, and after a while he would pitter patter along and knock for her to let him in, so he could take his turn in the shower. The plan worked fine. So, the second night, they followed the same routine. He went to the near bathroom. He knocked. She let him in. He had his shower. The third evening the same.
On the fourth night, for reasons he is still unable to explain, he didn’t knock. He pittered-pattered along the corridor as usual, but stood there confused outside the familiar bathroom door. Maybe he’d had too much sun. He knew she was in there, on the other side of the door, and yet he had to be certain. But tonight, knocking on the door feels wrong, risking a loud, awkward conversation with a stranger through a thick wooden door, probably in pidgin. He didn’t want that. He had a bright idea. Why didn’t he just look through the keyhole? Confirm what he knew had to be true, that it was his partner under the showerhead. So, he’d see her, taking a shower like usual, and he’d knock, and she would let him in. Straight after having this stupid thought, without considering the obvious flaws, he acted on it. He dropped to his knees and looked through the keyhole.
Let’s call it what it was – he peeped. He kneeled there and peeped through the keyhole. But, he didn’t see his partner. He saw another young woman sitting in the bath, rinsing her hair under a dribbling shower. It was like a disc shot at the cinema, the different woman held perfectly in cameo. He should’ve stood up again and walked away from the bathroom door really quickly. He failed to do that. He didn’t get up immediately, but stayed on his knees, seemingly driven to look. The voice didn’t go off in his head – the voice saying you’re doing something wrong that is also dangerous. There are eleven doors on this corridor and one of them might open any second now. (!) He froze, eye screwed to the keyhole, for one, two, three, several seconds… And then, the sound of a man singing in a nearby bedroom broke the spell. His stomach lurched, doing a major tummy drop. He’d wandered close to the edge of a cliff and become engulfed in self-consciousness. He jumped up quickly, raking his nose against the door, and turned and walked away fast.
Never before had he felt so aware of being him; with all the other people in world being them. At which point the door to the other bathroom, the one at the further end of the corridor swung open, his partner wrapped in a while towel.
What you doing there?
She smiles in the gloom at the dumb question. Shower?
But we use this bathroom. Right thumb pointing back over his shoulder.
It was busy.
His routine trip to the bathroom on the fourth evening in southern Sicily took a wrong turning, risking a level of public shame he was not emotionally equipped to handle. He decides none of this would’ve happened if his partner had stuck to the same bathroom as agreed. She didn’t understand why he was put out by her improvising.
It was years later he explained, that he owned up about the keyhole. She said Sartre uses the same scenario in Being and Nothingness, to explain his theory of self-awareness. The voyeur in the hotel corridor staring through the keyhole is unaware of his own self, writes Sartre, wholly absorbed in the process of looking. Until they are seen by another hotel guest. Once the voyeur is the object of another’s gaze, he becomes self-aware, fearful of being perceived as some kind of dodgy peeper. In this way, his partner explained, Sartre suggests our self awareness is actually the reflection of the perception of others, and that we are never truly solely self-aware.
She said this to him, and he thought, this is one of the dividends for going out with brainy types, they can intellectualise anything. But he didn’t much dwell on the implications of Sartre’s theory, being a materialist at heart. Now though, up here in his windy northern city, sat working at his table, peering out between tasks, he sees that we look, and therefore know that we are there to be looked at.
As the late afternoon gathers shadows and extra texture, his gaze rises up from the table to find that the new neighbour at diagonals isn’t sat in his usual spot. Oh dear, his neighbour isn’t there at all. His eyes shift away and down to the trees at the bottom of the road, before they pan left in a rush. Something he glimpsed seconds ago just caught up with him. Sweeping across the front of the facing terrace, his view flies past several first floor windows. Then stops with an excited jolt. His gaze settles. There’s a woman stood at her bedroom window looking at him.
He is, of course, startled. To be caught watching is unsettling, perhaps unnerving for both. But the woman doesn’t flinch on being discovered. She continues to look down at him. She has her hair in a bun. The way the light falls it’s hard to figure her out as twenty or fifty, as she holds her position. And although it’s too far away to suggest their eyes meet, nevertheless some kind of connection occurs. Finally the woman moves back. She doesn’t turn away, or retreat, she recedes into the interior of her room, enveloped within the darkness.
He suspects the woman is still hovering, continuing to watch back there from the shadows. He wonders how guilty she feels. Guilty for peeping, or for being caught? Just like he’s been gandering a little too often. But in this moment he feels a kind of relief, for his guilt is being passed along, handed over to the woman with her hair in a bun. It’s something we do with our bad stuff, we snap it off and sling it over the road for other folk to juggle the self-reproach in the penetralia of their psyche.
The drama thickens in The Woman in the Window. The lead couple plunge into a pit of pain after the corpse of the murdered brute is found in the woods. The deceased was a well-known businessman. News of his death is all across the papers. Richard’s friend the DA is appointed to direct the police investigation and can’t help bragging over dinner how much information he already has on the murderer. Confidentially he leans towards Richard and whispers that he knows the killer’s height, weight and length of stride. What kind of shoes he wears, the type of car he drives, and to some degree of accuracy, the killer’s socio-economic class. The genius of forensics.
Richard tries not to squirm, but fails. All these traceable fragments of guilt, a line of crumbs left in the woods. There’s also his monogrammed pencil, the dead man’s watch. The DA insists Richard accompany him to the woods to observe the police investigation in action – some vicarious excitement for ‘Bored Richard’. At the same time, Richard and Ann (a character who remains curiously ambiguous throughout) are taken up by a small time crook who starts blackmailing Richard until he’s all out of savings.
Richard decides the obvious next step, the only thing he can practically do, is to kill the blackmailer, using pills for poison. How far our stolid midlife Richard has travelled. Spiralling from stodgy through justifiable homicide to pre-meditated murder. This mild-mannered apparently stalwart pillar of society ‘the gentle bourgeois sucked into sordid murders,’ writes Thomson.
The couple botch the killing of the blackmailer as the police investigation closes in. Noir cinema’s iron law of fate cannot be denied. It will get you, one way or another: capitalism, desire, psychology, a loose paving stone – something’s going to trip you up. Richard’s caught in a trap. He can’t walk out. The only exit, he concludes, is to take his life. The pills as poison. Richard swallows a fistful in desperate resignation and sits back in his armchair as his eyes start droop. Gradually, then quickly, Richard fades away…
But wait a moment, what if there is another way out? A re-route giving fate’s sticky logic the slip? How about none of this happened – that it was all a horrible dream? That first night at the gentlemens club, when Richard read in the library, he actually tumbled into a deep sleep. He only imagined he left the club, met the woman in the window, killed a thug. It was all a dream.
It’s every movie buff’s nightmare – the dodgiest cop-out. And yet. And yet, Richard’s fevered dreamwork, exploring his forbidden desires and what makes them hair-raising, these graphic warnings from under the floorboards, stirrings in the undercoft concerning a latent capacity for wrong doing, such night terrors serve as a florid reminder of not only dreams but what movies also often do so well, processing mayhem. Sleep time as more than a place to lay your head.
‘You find yourself singing a song…’ muses a character in Here, thinking out loud in 2015. ‘Then you realize the lyrics are the perfect commentary on your thoughts. Your subconscious has selected them like a jukebox.’
One more item, then stop. The mid-summer nightmare in the service apartment, when he rolled out of bed and onto the carpet at 4am. It took months for the bad dreams’s carrier message to make sense.
The nightmare starts with him at a funeral. The service is for someone known to him a very long time, but is not identified. The dream is staged as authentic and real, it even smells like a church. He sits alone mid way back. There’s a man he doesn’t recognise sat in his row. The mystery man is wearing a grey suit and a bright red tie. He is at once convinced Mr Grey has bad intentions. Mr Grey looks nervous and is sweating in his jacket, even though it’s chilly. Distracted from the occasion, calculating what to about Mr Grey, carefully he slides his bottom along the pew, in small increments, closing in on the nefarious villain.
The funeral service begins. Soon introductions and a first round of prayers are complete and it is time for the eulogy. Mr Grey lifts up his hands previously bunched in his lap; and as he starts to reach into his jacket, it becomes obvious something terrible is about to happen. From inside the jacket breast pocket Mr Grey brings out a gun. The firearm looks old, from the World War Two. Mr Grey stands and aims the weapon at the priest. The church bells ring out as the dreamer jumps on the shooter.
Which in reality means that the dreamer jumps out of bed and onto the carpet. The last sliver of the nightmare has him on the floor of the church wrestling Mr Grey. But his physical reality finds him landing with a bump in the early morning dark, clutching hunks of fawn duvet in both fists. As usual, he is confused. For several moments he doesn’t know where he has landed, before he recognises this is his new bedroom in the service apartment.
He shakes his head, disappointed it’s happened again, and gets a drink of water and goes back back to bed. The confusion of this moment is more than the usual mental disarray from acting out a nightmare. There is also a leftover perplexity concerning the gun. He lies there, his brain tossed with second thoughts. He realises it wasn’t a gun. He had Mr Grey wrong. Mr Grey was on his team. Not a bad guy, just reaching for a roll of handwritten notes in his jacket pocket. The eulogy. The real eulogy, not the imposter travesty the priest was about to foist on the funeral party. The speech he wrote that Mr Grey held onto as a favour. He shouldn’t have tackled Mr Grey, he should’ve taken the notes up to the lectern to address the congregation – who were now stuck in dreamland, waiting. But he can’t get back there to sort it.
Three months before he dreamed this, in mid March, his dad was unwell and went into hospital and never came home. He died half way through August. It wasn’t a surprise but a shock. He wrote his dad’s eulogy and read it at the funeral.
(Later, looking through his Notes, he found an entry from June about a nightmare featuring a funeral and a gun. An account he’d written in a hurry and instantly forgot.)
Now, why did I come in here, again?
Oh yeah, I know, to write this…
|until next time…
* WH Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening.
** Sonder. He read somewhere sonder’s just a made-up word on the internet, and nothing to do with Germany. But he prefers this not to be true.
*** An interactive version of Here, released exclusively on Apple Books, allows readers to press on the year number using their iPad and release more content. The only problem is it doesn’t work. He downloads the book and starts poking the screen but nothing happens. He prods and presses. His fingers feel fat and stupid. He thinks of the apes at the start of 2001 confounded by new technology. Eventually, he approaches Apple. They write back saying yeah we can see there’s problem. Apple contact the publisher. The publisher say, yeah the book’s not working. He gets a refund. But he really wanted the interactive experience.