August 27, 2010


I saw a photograph the other day of Grace Kelly when she was attending a premier of “Rear Window,” the Alfred Hitchcock film (1954) in which she co-starred with James Stewart. Anyone who has yet to see the film should remedy the omission as soon as possible. Call me opinionated, but no one today makes a suspense film like Alfred Hitchcock. I miss his glossy, tension filled style, a tension that arises out of our imagination rather than from a gory scene played out upon a screen. His characters enjoy a sang-froid that allows them to face danger while pausing to adjust their cuff links, gold cuff links, naturally.

What most marks Hitchcock’s style is the clash between the ordinary and the extraordinary. We are exposed to fear where fear seems the least likely: Cary Grant faces death in the middle of a peaceful cornfield; Cary Grant with Eva Marie Saint escape the villainous James Mason by climbing down Mt. Rushmore; Tippi Hedren makes her way down a quiet street while being observed by hundreds of birds.

“Rear Window” is another example of this dynamism. What could be more ordinary than a man with his leg in a cast who whiles away the time by peering into the open windows of his neighbors? What could be more extraordinary than discovering one of them is a murderer?

When I was a kid, about 4 or 5, on Friday nights my parents would drive to the center of town in our small community and watch the pedestrian ebb and flow. We couldn’t afford a movie and there was no television, so ordinary citizens going about their ordinary lives became our entertainment. If my father recognized someone, my folks would get out of their car and talk to the acquaintance who’d pat me on the head and remark on how tall I’d grown. Perhaps sitting in my father’s Ford on Friday nights is where my penchant for people watching began.

I suppose none of this has anything to do with books unless one sees them, as I do, as a place where one can people watch too. Between the covers of a book, life presents itself in all the stark reality that comes with human conflict. I meet a lot of interesting characters through books. A good number of them, I recognize as fugitives from the real world…if the artist is observant and knows his craft.

If we’re honest, most of us have a penchant for people watching. We are fascinated by each other and with good reason. Ordinary lives can be full of surprises, some of them good and some of them bad, but stories worth noting. A writer waits to capture these moments and bring them into focus. That’s how the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.