' Cinema Romantico: Staring Out the Window: A Beautiful Cinematic Trope

Friday, September 11, 2015

Staring Out the Window: A Beautiful Cinematic Trope

---I originally wrote this piece for another site four years ago on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I re-offer it today on Cinema Romantico.

Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a lawyer, is in the back of Max’s (Jamie Foxx) taxi. They have gone through the My Directions Are Better Than Your Directions routine and segued into more pleasant Gettin’ To Know You chit-chat and are on the verge of a More Somber talk, but that will not arrive until the cab reaches its destination. Which it hasn’t. No, right now it is still on the L.A. Freeway and all is quiet, save for the wondrous “Hands of Time” (“Can't turn back the hands of time” and how desperately we all wish we could) on the soundtrack, and Michael Mann’s ever insightful camera of “Collateral” catches Annie staring out the window.


She has that classical expression that is almost a smile but not quite. It is that pre-game moment in so much as she is about to pull – in her own words – an “all nighter”, prepping her big prosecution case, and it’s as if she’s shoring up her energy, or re-considering the wording of her opening statement, or reflecting on just what in the world has brought her here to this point in her life, or wondering why she didn’t become a veterinarian instead, or re-visiting that vacation to Aruba with the dashing Washington policy-writer in her mind, or just drinking in the skyscrapers twinkling in the twilight before she has to pour over papers and legal briefs until dawn. Who’s to say? Her thoughts are her own.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) has come to Tokyo with her newish husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a fashion photographer who flits away to various locales to snap handsome pictures of (I assume) dazzling ladies in clingy outfits. His work distracts him, to be sure, and Ribisi leaves us wondering if maybe this guy’s mental capacity simply can’t accommodate both work and wife. That’s how Charlotte appears to take it, anyway, left off to the side, offering occasional zingers to try and re-gain her own husband’s attention. Why does he pay such reverence to such a ditzy actress (Anna Faris) and treat his own spouse like she’s the OnStar system of his new Acura Integra? And that is how director Sofia Coppola’s camera of her masterful “Lost in Translation” comes to catch Charlotte staring out a window.


Sofia isolates her in front of a broad pane of glass somewhere near the peak of the Park Hyatt Tokyo with the sweep of the whole frenzied city below. Her expression suggests she is adrift in a calm yet expansively empty emotional ocean, as if she wondered who she married, or as if she knows who she married and wonders why she did, or as if she knows who she married and wonders where he went, or as if she wonders how a life that can take her to Tokyo can be as plain as Minute Rice, or as if she has April Skies stuck in her head, or as if she wonders, “Hey, is it too early for a Sapporo and a shot of Suntory?” Who’s to say? Her thoughts are her own.

Onboard United 93 on the morning of September 11, 2001 the airline attendants are acting out safety instructions in time with the accompanying video as the plane taxis as they no doubt have done hundreds of times. Paul Greengrass’s camera catches passengers, as passengers are wont to do, ignoring these instructions. They sleep, listen to music, read, study crossword puzzles. Then the camera lingers just above a seat in the upright position, looking down on a woman staring out the window. The shot is brief, so brief it barely has time register, and yet it registers completely if partly because we know the indescribable terror to come.


And because the film chooses to relay hardly any background information regarding these passengers, we do not possess even the slightest glimpse into this woman’s psyche as she gazes. Is she leaving New York to fly back home to California? Is New York her home and she is flying to California for business? Or pleasure? Is she a wife? Is she thinking about her husband? Is she a mom? Is she thinking about her kid? Is she single? Is she thinking about her own loneliness? Or is she thinking about how thankful she is that she’s single? Or is she not thinking about ANY of those things? Is she thinking about the book just she read? How she wish she got more sleep? How she hasn’t seen her college roommate in years? How she digs the New York Philharmonic? How she TOTALLY is not going to Fisherman’s Wharf when she gets to San Fran because it’s WAY too touristy? Who’s to say? Her thoughts are her own.


In an interview with The Independent in 2006 the mercurial Daniel Day Lewis said he often spends time “just staring out of the window, watching the wind whip across the Wicklow hills. Some people will consider this shamefully neglectful when one considers that there are always more pressing matters at hand, but for me, I have to tell you, it is time very well spent.” The majority of us, I suspect, do not consider spending time just staring out the window, we do not consider setting aside minutes or hours to do so and we do not consider the fact that we are doing it when we are doing it. It is, I also suspect, almost involuntary, and something that occurs – as these movie shots show us – in those spaces between the drone of everyday life.


We stare out the window when we are stuck in a cab. We stare out the window when we are on vacation because we have more time to ourselves. We stare out the window when we are on a plane and stuck on the damn runway. This may sound like a call to arms to take more time to stare out windows but that is not necessarily the case. The romanticism of these shots I have described stem in no small part from the sensation they are stolen moments, that they are graceful breaks on the maddening path of life that somehow runs both unbroken and herky jerky. Interludes of our thoughts and our thoughts alone and the utter lack of endless white noise must be preserved and also not worn out.

And I think it’s why of all the shots Greengrass employs in his very good re-telling of such a tragic event, the one of this woman staring out the window hits me the hardest – harder than any of the still unthinkable real-life footage sprinkled throughout and harder than any of the careful, thoughtful re-creations of what may have happened just prior to 10:03 AM in the sky above rural Pennsylvania fourteen years ago. I guess I like to imagine that as United Flight 93 sat on that runway in Newark waiting its turn for takeoff, all those passengers got the chance to stare out the window and lose themselves in their own thoughts and no one else’s one last time. Because in a strange sort of way we should all be so fortunate to have that opportunity before it’s time to breathe one’s last.

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