What If Someone Saw You Looking at Them?
by Alan F. Zundel
The idea hit me while I was standing in a grocery store looking through their big plate glass window, watching the people outside on the sidewalk. What if someone turned and caught me looking at them?
That idea became a scene in my mind of a young woman catching a young man watching her through a restaurant window, then a story—who were these two people and how would that moment of eye contact affect them?—and then a longer story with more characters. By the end of the day I had the basis of a screenplay.
It was early 2014 and my wife and I were visiting our adult children in San Diego when this happened. When I got back home in Oregon I began storyboarding the ideas, then wrote and revised a screenplay before the end of the year. I am now writing it up as a novel and recently scouted locations in Portland to change the setting.
It occurred to me yesterday that my premise was based on what makes all stories interesting, and that is our human propensity to observe other humans. We almost universally check out strangers in public, although generally we try to be discreet about it. Reading stories about people, whether fiction or non-fiction, is an even more shameless way of doing this. We can “observe” the characters in a book, even as they go about their most private business, without much danger that they will catch us at it.
Of course this is even more true of watching movies, when we actually visually observe the characters, or at least the representation of them on a screen, and they don’t know we are doing this. The guy watching a girl through the window could be a metaphor for someone watching a movie, secretly staring because he feels safe indulging his voyeurism.
But what if you were caught in the act?
That, of course, was the subtext of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic suspense movie, “Rear Window,” in which a photographer laid up in his apartment begins watching his neighbors through the windows with a telephoto lens to entertain himself—until one of them realizes he is being watched. The audience’s unconscious guilt at watching the neighbors along with the protagonist turns the tables on them as well. When the neighbor—a murderer—enters the photographer’s apartment to confront him at the climax of the movie, it is as though he has broken out of the confines of the screen to threaten us too.
The acknowledgement of being watched is a device often used with opposite effect by characters in comedies. They wink at us by design, inviting an intimacy in our common awareness that the goings-on are being observed. Laurel and Hardy were the masters of this technique, constantly making eye contact with the audience in a bid for sympathy with their plight. Ollie’s “you can see what I have to deal with” look, or Stan’s “well, what was I supposed to do” one, are only the most familiar of many examples. What skill it must take to look at a camera and play to the eventual audience rather than ruining your performance with self-consciousness of being filmed!
The basic reactions to being observed seem to fall into two categories: either it is welcomed or it is not. It is welcomed in many small towns—you make eye contact with a stranger and both of you smile and say hi. It is unwelcome in many cities—break off eye contact immediately or you might get sworn at.
Sexuality adds to the tension. When woman notices a man observing her, it can be an opportunity for romance or a danger of being accosted by a jerk or even raped. For the man who is caught observing, it can be an opportunity for romance or a danger of instant rejection or even of being arrested.
The observing goes on all the time, but the reactions to it vary. I chose to have my young male character react in embarrassment when the young woman notices him watching her. He looks away and hopes she didn’t notice, but can’t help glancing over again to see if she did and what her reaction was.
He finds her staring back at him, wondering whether he really was watching her or she imagined it. Their second eye contact creates an opening for communication. She tilts her head and raises her eyebrows in a question. He smiles sheepishly to admit his transgression. She smiles back. They have connected!
But now what? That is the danger of eye contact—we want to observe the people around us, but we don’t always want the responsibility of being caught observing. Eye contact asks a question: where do we go from here? The movement can be from observation to connection, and connection with people opens the risk of being hurt by them.
That is the crux of this strange dance we do. We want to know other people, but we fear being known. Books and movies are one way of indulging our desire to know without the risk of being known.
And yet what makes the books and movies interesting? Most often it is when a central character comes to connect with another character, exactly what we seem to be avoiding by reading or watching a movie. Or maybe it’s a kind of preparation, a dry rehearsal. We watch what happens when people connect, then we decide whether it is safe for us to do so.
But there is another odd aspect to all this. As a reader or film-goer we think we can observe in a cloak of invisibility, yet there is a real person (or persons) who crafted the story in awareness that it is meant for someone to observe. The author is often more aware of the audience than the audience is of the author. Which is more invisible?
For me, as I presume for most authors, writing my stories reflects my desire to know myself better and to be known by others through the selective revelation of my thoughts, memories and fantasies. As a reader and film-goer, my desire is to know more fully what it is to be human through someone else’s thoughts, memories and fantasies. There is a human connection going on here, but it is indirect rather than direct.
It is, I suppose, a kind of flirtation.
So if you caught me watching you, what would you do?