Two college students are riding the bus together in Ottawa. One says to the other “I had to read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in French class this week and I was so bored because I couldn’t understand a single word. The only word I understood was ‘narcotique’ and I was like ‘Oh, that’s cool at least. They’re doing drugs'”. Her friend replies “Are you sure it wasn’t ‘narcotic’? Like ‘You’re so narcotic’?”
This is one of many conversations I couldn’t help overhearing between strangers that I’ll probably always remember. I’ve got a million of ’em. I like watching people, listening to them, and speculating about them. Like that guy who used to mysteriously sit and wait in our office’s reception area every morning an hour before we actually opened. What his deal was we’ll now never know but Jay and I sure did toss around a lot of ideas.
I’m coming off as a little creepy I’m sure but I really don’t think I’m alone here. Don’t you ever wonder about the people you see ride the bus with you every day or the girl who serves you your Starbucks every morning? It can’t just be me and Rachel, the obsessive alcoholic who carefully observes the young couple living in a house that her train passes every morning in Girl on a Train, one of my favourite books lately. She starts to think of them as the perfect couple and even makes up names for them. Eventually, of course, she starts looking too closely and, after seeing something she shouldn’t have, winds up badly beaten up and in way over her head.
I thought of this when watching Blow Out today, Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller that this post started out as a review of. In the film, John Travolta plays a sound effects guy who goes to the park in the middle of the night to record some wind. He can’t help taking advantage of his powerful recording equipment to listen in on a conversation between two lovers. Before he knows it, he’s witnessed himself a murder. A lot of De Palma’s style hasn’t aged well and it would be hard to get away with making Nancy Allen’s female lead so insultingly dumb if it were made today but I realized, while watching it, that I like movies about people watching people (Coppola’s The Conversation, for instance, or The Lives of Others). They’re a useful reminder that if you keep watching you may see something you wish you hadn’t.
That’s why Rear Window is quite possibly my favourite Hitchcock. James Stewart is in his apartment recovering from a leg injury with little to do but stare out his window and observe his neighbors from across the street. He too thinks he’s witnessed himself a murder, putting himself in some jeopardy. Of course the cops don’t believe him, nor did they believe Travolta or Rachel. Because people who watch people are weird and are unreliable witnesses.
This is what the movies are there for. To remind people like me that eavesdropping- like skinny dipping, ripping off the mob, getting inolved with a woman who you can’t take your eyes off of but who smells like trouble, asking “what could go wrong?”, investigating a suspiscious noise, and showering in a motel room- can be a lot of fun but it can also get you killed.