As the last couple of generations to come of age have rediscovered, urban living has its benefits. One of those benefits is the ability to keep an eye on your neighbors — quite literally, given a situation of buildings in close proximity, sufficiently large windows, and minimal usage of drapes. Fortysomething Brooklyn couple Alli and Jacob find themselves turned into voyeurs by just such a situation in Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window, the Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards. “Do they have jobs, or clothes?” asks Alli, overcome by the frustration of looking after her and Jacob’s three young children. “All they do is host dance parties and sleep ’till noon and screw.”
You may recognize Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller, who play Alli and Jacob, from their appearances in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. That film, too, dealt with the envy New York Gen-Xers feel for seemingly more freewheeling New York Millennials, but The Neighbor’s Window takes it in a different direction.
Curry based it on “The Living Room,” an episode of the storytelling interview podcast Love and Radio in which writer and filmmaker Diana Weipert tells of all she saw when she enjoyed a similarly clear view into the life of her own younger neighbors. “Am I supposed to have maybe respected their privacy and just looked away?” Weipert asks, rhetorically. “But it’s impossible because that’s the way the chairs face. They face the window! I couldn’t have not seen them if I wanted to.”
Then again, she adds, “I guess I could’ve not gotten the binoculars.” That irresistible detail makes it into The Neighbor’s Window as a symbol of Alli and Jacob’s surrender to their fascination with the couple across the street. “They’re like a car crash that you can’t look away from,” as Alli puts it. “Okay, a beautiful, sexy, young car crash.” Yet both she and her husband, like any human beings with a partial view of other human beings, can’t help but compare their circumstances unfavorably with those seen from afar. Eventually, as in “The Living Room,” the twentysomethings experience a reversal of fortune, changing Alli and Jacob’s view of them. They also regain the view of themselves they’d lost amid all their voyeurism — enough of it to make them forget that the observers can also be observed.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.