Behind Glass (Michael Wheaton)

The outside of the one-building campus at my community college is half windows. It’s three-floors tall and shaped in a U, a courtyard in the middle surrounded by large panes of glass that wall off one side of each classroom. The blinds are shut by default. On most days, anyone can figure out which classroom I’m using because the blinds of the window next to the instructor desk are drawn just past the top of my head. I like the light, but I also like to see what’s going on in the courtyard. I don’t mind (also do indeed like) that people there can see me too.

But today I keep the blinds down. Nothing weird. I just need it dim. I strike up the overhead-projector and slip a DVD of Rear Window into the Blu-Ray player. It’s the end of the editing unit for the Intro to Film class I can fill once a year, and we’re taking a closer look at the Kuleshov Effect, the idea out of Russia around 1920 that the image we see before and after another image effects the way we read both images. A shot of an expressionless face spliced between a bowl of soup reads as hungry. Reverse a series of shots—a man smiling, then a gun, then the man gasping—and it tells another unintended story. This is an important part of the bigger lesson, about Sergei Eisenstein, who divided this theory of montage into five types, my favorite of which is ideological montage, or juxtaposition that implies conceptual meaning. In 1925, he made Battleship Potemkin, a silent narrative film of agitation-propaganda. The Nazi Joseph Goebbels admired the film’s technique and used it himself, which in part leads to WWII, but also to the biggest lesson in the course: there is no such thing as just a movie.

I don’t know what I want them to do with the information. I don’t know, personally, what to do with it. At home, I spread the lie. Last night, I had the bright idea to make television-watching an even more immersive experience for the family by projecting a Batman: The Animated Series episode onto a big screen in the yard, the noir scheme blending into the night. With explosions and shootings, I knew it wasn’t age-appropriate for my boys, but I let them watch. We were absorbed. At the climax, Batman arrived inside a virtual reality battle with The Riddler, who shape-shifted the setting and replicated himself to dominate Batman. But soon The Riddler was so focused on shapeshifting and duplicating that he could no longer concentrate on keeping the world together. It collapsed. My three-year-old cried, Daddy, get me out of here!

Sometimes I fantasize about being a parent who doesn’t allow screen time. Weekdays before and after preschool, they get a total of four hours. Time there too. On weekends, yikes. I remind myself I got this much time in front a television as a kid, which is why I know it’s a problem. Day-in-day-out, I’m numb to the fact that I could die or maybe truly live at any moment, and everything I experience references itself in my mind to something unreal—a movie, a show, a book, a song. I’m most comfortable with a screen between me and everything else. Maybe then the best way to parent is to control my children’s media consumption for as long as I can—a kind of surveillance. But I can’t monitor it all, and they’ll get it anyway (and like it), which becomes a secret and a shame, and that’s worse. I tell myself this as the credits roll on anything my boys watch, and they say, Again again! They wail when I turn off the TV. They can’t stand the smash cut from the movie reality to the one in our living room.


Deeper into class, we’re at the scene in Rear Window where the murderer returns to his apartment while Grace Kelly snoops around in it. Shot of Jimmy Stewart with his telephoto lens. Shot of Kelly in danger (Stewart’s POV). Stewart’s trembling. I pause the image.Kuleshov, I say. We see it so often now we take it for granted. But this is it. The main reason Hollywood auteurs like Hitchcock in the 20th century could develop techniques to manipulate viewers even better—just for the thrill of it. Now add music. Remember: even before film strip could embed sound, live orchestras or pianists accompanied screenings to provide emotional cues. A propaganda of sight and sound. That’s what we want—to be controlled by it. Un-manipulated, what are we supposed we think or feel? What do we do with free will? A student nods, but I can’t read anything on the other faces. I need Kuleshov to tell me. Still, I continue. As we will learn in our next unit, I say, the push to marry the two most manipulative media was obvious and immediate. The same can be said for when Facebook bought the first affordable consumer VR company, Oculus, but that’s another subject. On their faces, I see only eyelids blinking.

When I started teaching here, I didn’t have this course yet, but I still felt a non-existent responsibility to show classic cinema to young people. Usually, when people use Rear Window in the classroom, the dominant reading is that the movie mirrors the experience of watching a movie. That it’s all voyeurism. We like to watch people watch people unaware that they’re being watched. I agree, but we’re not watching real life in the movie. We’re watching actors who know we’re watching something made by even more people who hope we’re watching. It’s not voyeurism. It’s more like surveillance. A kind of gateway for a teacher to connect to larger issues of recent history like the Patriot Act or Snowden’s NSA leaks.Is surveillance for “our own safety” ethical? Stewart brings justice to a murderer, but it’s not his intention while spying on people through their windows. But my students rarely took the bait. They preferred to connect it to social media: If your window’s open, don’t other people have the right to look inside, and based on that, behave however they want in private? You could close your blinds.

Even then, when I was more transparent with students about my life, before I realized at any moment someone could be recording me saying something very stupid in the eyes of administration, I steered clear of voicing where my mind quickly went, which was to a scene of me in college jerking off any one of a million times in front of a Facebook profile photo in which the subject was fully clothed. It was the distance, what I couldn’t see, that I found erotic. This reminds me. Once, in an off-campus apartment, my roommates and I sat on the porch passing a joint when, in the window across mine in the next building, a girl appeared post-shower, no towel. We watched her dress, amazed. All the next day, from my bed, I staked out her window, where in time it happened again. Sometimes, even now, I’m sure she saw us there, maybe even saw me pumping away alone the next day as she undressed, but I never went knocking. I find it interesting that the thing I looked through to see my neighbor and the thing I looked through to see profile photos are both called windows. In each case, I’m sitting there stuck behind glass. Once James Stewart interacts with the world outside his room, shit goes awry.


One thing I didn’t mention about the class I just finished teaching is that much like the night on the porch when I saw my neighbor’s naked body, I was a little stoned.I’m what you might call a high-functioning pothead. Sober, I struggle with transitions. In and out of rooms, in and out of buildings, on and off task, on and offline. Anxiety, at worst. Boredom, at least. Lately it feels like I’m having a hard time concentrating on keeping the world together, like everything is so busy shapeshifting and duplicating at high speeds and I’m getting dominated by it every time I arrive somewhere else. I like things to be edited, but I don’t experience life that way, so I simulate the natural qualities I struggle to achieve without the drug—happiness, calm, insight, wonder. Or maybe it’s just another way to put glass between me and everything else. A way to stay in the fictive dream. It’s dumb, but I’m trying to make you judge me less for being a little high on the job. Today my plan after this is to pick up the boys from preschool, make them a snack, sneak into the garage with a lighter, and return ready to play on the carpet for a couple hours. But it’s inevitable, like sleep, to transition from anxiety or boredom to our consumption. I have the job I have because talking about media in classrooms makes the consumption seem useful.

In Hitchcock’s most famous film, Psycho, the shower scene uses 52 cuts in 45 seconds. At 24 frames a second, that’s 1,248 reproductions of staged images under a minute. That’s a lot of concentrated unreality. We give ourselves away to it. What most people like about montage is the velocity of the changing shots. I like that, unlike scrolling endlessly on social, the separate pieces amount to something aside my general dissatisfaction. I want a director and an editor, not an algorithm. And I much more enjoy being the actor than the audience. When you know someone’s watching, reality is no longer reality, which is exactly how I prefer reality to be. But while I may want to be seen, I don’t really want to know to what extent. Anonymity feels like death, exposure like life, and I’m terrified of both. I’m safe here, almost maybe alive, with this laptop in the courtyard, where closed blinds could open unnoticed, or someone might see me through the wide-open all-glass walkway between them, outside of my view.


Michael Wheaton’s writing has appeared in Essay Daily, DIAGRAM, Bending Genres, Burrow Press Review, HAD, and other online journals. He edits Autofocus and hosts its podcast, The Lives of Writers. Find links and more at