There are several essays in this book that I think of as “deep cuts,” in that they’re not the ones I’d mention if I were describing the book to someone. “Through a Glass, Blindly” is one of them. It’s not non-entertaining, but I’ll admit I sort of mentally went to the restroom while reading this.
That didn’t come out right at all, but you know what I mean.
One reason I zoned out during this one is that Klosterman starts out talking about Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s a great movie, certainly worth discussing, but at this point I’ve read so many essays about it that any piece of writing I encounter nowadays that mentions Vertigo immediately takes on the intellectual flavor of Dinty Moore beef stew.
Observing someone without context amplifies the experience. The more we know, the less we are able to feel.
What interests Klosterman about Vertigo is the first twenty minutes:
Jimmy Stewart plays an ex-detective who’s hired to tail a woman, played by Kim Novak. He follows Novak around town as she engages in a series of actions that appear to have no clear purpose. She buys flowers and visits the grave of someone named Carlotta Valdes. She goes to a museum and studies a painting (of someone also named Carlotta). Then she walks into a hotel, but when Stewart follows her in, the clerk insists she was never there. All of this intrigues Stewart, and he eventually becomes unhealthily obsessed with this mystery woman.
Klosterman’s contention is that what draws Jimmy’s interest (as well as the viewer’s) isn’t so much Novak’s actions as the fact that her motivations are totally unknown. We don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing, or what she’ll do next, and not knowing increases our excitement and involvement in that character.
Yet if these windows were TV screens — if these people had placed cameras in their apartments and broadcast their mundane lives on purpose — I would immediately lose interest. It would become dull and repetitive. Everyone knows this, and everyone feels the same way. But does anyone understand why?
Earlier in the essay, Klosterman talks about watching people at home through their windows, which is interesting (to Klosterman) because the people do not know they are being watched. Presumably, if these people knew they were being watched, they wouldn’t like it, even if they’re just sitting on their couches, reading.
Klosterman has a tendency towards solipsism that crops up now and then, like when he assumes the universality of his responses. I don’t know that it’s true that mundane lives shown on television would be dull to people. Or at least, it wasn’t true in 2000, when the U.S. version of Big Brother debuted.
Although I never watched the show — which followed a group of people confined to a house 24 hours a day, under constant surveillance — and neither did anyone I knew, I and most of my online friends obsessively watched the live streaming feeds from the house. Unlike the broadcast episodes, which were edited in typical reality-TV style, the live feeds were unedited and therefore had no narrative or guarantee of anything interesting happening. Most of the time, all we saw was people sitting around watching TV. And it was fascinating!
And of course, even before that, there was the Internet phenomenon of JenniCam, which was nothing more than a relatively ordinary girl — as ordinary as someone who does this can be — with multiple webcams scattered around her apartment, permitting voyeurs around the world to watch her every action, from eating cereal to having sex, totally unfiltered. Jennifer’s life was thoroughly mundane, yet fascinating to millions of people who paid for the privilege of peeking through her windows.
So I think Klosterman is kind of begging the question here. Yes, people who are only interested in peeping at people who don’t know they’re being watched, are not interested in peeping at people who know they’re being watched. But people also are interested in peeping at people who know they’re being watched — something Klosterman should know, as a huge fan of The Real World — particularly when that view is unscripted and unfiltered. 1
Unknowing feels good to your body, even when it feels bad to your brain.
Although Klosterman’s perspective here is overly narrow, his argument isn’t wrong in itself. We are thrilled by the unknown because not knowing what’s about to come at you is stressful, and that stress induces an endorphin- and adrenaline-fueled rush. We are simultaneously frightened and attracted, and we enjoy being suspended in that tension. Furthermore, fear mingled with physical attraction can result in romantic attraction, which explains why Jimmy Stewart becomes obsessed with Kim Novak.
Klosterman tells an anecdote about having lived in an apartment where he was able — could not avoid, actually — to see into the window of the woman living in an adjacent building, an experience he likens to a nonverbal relationship with an extremely mysterious roommate. He found this woman endlessly fascinating because he had no idea who she was or what she was actually doing, outside of what his narrow viewpoint permitted.
This, for Klosterman, is an example of voyeurism that is interesting because the object is unaware of being watched. Except it kind of isn’t, since he also says that she could, and did, see into his window as well, which means they were both aware that the other could see into their window, but didn’t care enough to close the shades. So I would assume that, unless she slipped up or was intoxicated, she probably would not do anything in view of her neighbors that she would wish not to be observed.
Most of my personal experiences with voyeurism are fleeting and dim in my memory. 2 I suppose I’ve glimpsed neighbors through their windows from time to time. I agree with Klosterman that it is inherently fascinating to see people when they’re totally unaware of being seen, even if they do nothing remotely interesting. I think what I get out of those glimpses, mostly, is a sense of validation — I’m not (that much) weirder, or more boring, than anybody else.
Klosterman goes on to discuss Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which for me is sort of the Chef Boyardee’s Beef Ravioli to Vertigo‘s Dinty Moore. However, Klosterman’s take on the film is interesting.
In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart is a photographer laid up in his apartment with a broken leg. He spends his recuperation wheelchair-bound, hanging out with his wealthy socialite girlfriend, played by Grace Kelly, 3 and peeping through binoculars at the residents of a neighboring apartment building.
The problem with Rear Window, according to Klosterman, is that what Stewart sees through his neighbors’ windows is “too lucid”:
It does not feel like he’s watching strangers; it feels like he is watching a collection of one-act plays. Miss Lonely-hearts (the pill-eating spinster) stages imaginary dinner dates in her kitchen and cries constantly. Miss Torso (the bombshell ballerina) has cocktail parties and invites only men. A struggling musician sits at his piano and writes silly love songs, thinking out loud as he plinks out melodies. There is never anything confusing or non sequitur about how Stewart’s neighbors behave.
This is true. The neighbors’ lives as seen through Stewart’s binoculars comprise entertaining micro-stories within the main storyline, but that’s the problem: they’re stories, with coherent narratives. We never wonder what’s happening in anyone’s apartment, because it’s always straightforward and clear. Nothing random or meaningless occurs. They’re vignettes with no resemblance to anything one would realistically see from Stewart’s vantage point.
I’ve never found Rear Window all that compelling, for reasons I could not define, and I think Klosterman’s analysis nails it. The narrative is too rational; the plot is programmatic where it should be chaotic. Klosterman describes voyeurism as a Lynchian experience, which recalls the scene in Blue Velvet in which Kyle MacLachlan hides in a closet, watching a batshit insane Dennis Hopper violently dry-humping Isabella Rossellini while inhaling gas. Although far weirder than anything Stewart sees in Rear Window, the randomness and lack of narrative coherence in that scene somehow feels more true to life. 4
It was a little past eleven o’clock. We were listening to ELO. During the chorus of “Don’t Bring Me Down,” we noticed a bachelor friend of ours exiting the newspaper building; he had been working late on a concert review and was going home. He did not see us, so we decided to follow him.
As far as I’m aware, there was nothing about my personality in high school that was particularly attractive to voyeurs or stalkers. However, I had close friendships with at least five people, none of whom socialized with each other in any way, where one of our primary social activities was surreptitiously following other people, and/or staking out their residences. I was always the driver, probably so that my friend could fully savor their unsavory behavior without distraction.
With two of these friends, the thing we did was follow certain teachers after school. They would drive off in their Toyota Celicas or Camrys (for some reason, fully three-fourths of the teachers at my school drove either Celicas or Camrys) and we would be at a discreet distance behind them.
Usually, they’d just drive home, and that would be that. Once in a while, though, they’d run errands — in which case we’d wait with absurd anticipation to see what stores they shopped at — or go to a house that was not their own. (WHAT THE!) 5 The only thing we saw that even approached scandalous, though, was seeing our Latin teacher — imagine a blander, more soft-spoken version of Stephen Tobolowsky — emerging from a liquor store carrying a big bag full of booze.
As banal as these experiences were, they were still incredibly exciting for some reason. The friend Klosterman followed didn’t do anything particularly notable, yet for Klosterman “it was a wonderful, memorable night.” He later offers the example of an old man building a bookshelf at 3 a.m. (boring), versus secretly watching an old man building a bookshelf at 3 a.m. (interesting). Why?
For Klosterman, it’s about mundanity: the meaningless act of watching a meaningless person perform meaningless activities makes Klosterman aware of his own meaninglessness. And because we live in a culture that expects, even demands, lives full of meaning, purpose, and significance, it’s gratifying to peer into another person’s life and see its insignificance. Their ordinariness is comforting — we are all the same — and relieves the constant pressure we feel to be special and important. 6
Seeing the secret lives of others removes the pressure of our own relative failure while reversing the predictability of our own static existence.
This is true for Klosterman, and it may be true in general, but I don’t know that it describes the thrill that voyeurism aroused in me and my friends. I think that, for us, stalking and peeping was a way of asserting power over our targets. It’s saying to someone, “I can see you, but you can’t see me.” You, the oblivious watched, are at a disadvantage. I, the watcher, have power over you, because I have knowledge you don’t (that I am watching you), and because your obliviousness makes you vulnerable. It is an ancient, primal thrill.
Following our teachers was satisfying because they were authority figures, and stalking them reversed our power roles. Staking out the houses of people we had crushes on was satisfying, because to be infatuated with someone is to be powerless before them, and stalking them helped restore a measure of control.