Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

03 Mar 2017

(Movie - 1963) The Birds directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

(Reaction) Puzzlingly horrifying by: Jose Angelo Singson

The 1963 film The Birds has long been considered as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces and a pillar of the horror genre. It has been extensively scrutinized by a whole gamut of experts from film aficionados to psychoanalysts in an attempt to make logical connections between the avian attacks and the strangely intertwined relationships of the characters. Despite all these efforts at trying to make sense of these events, two things are absolutely clear: there are truly no clear answers given in the film and the audiences don’t really care to make a connection between these events. Watching The Birds is a pure visceral experience, much like a diving off a cliff into the sea. It is all about the buildup and the sudden plunge.

I consider the film to be a progenitor of the global apocalyptic sub-genre of horror. This for me is the film’s legacy and most enduring contribution to the industry. One can easily see the influence of The Birds in countless other horror movies after it’s release. The film, despite being an almost textbook example of the "man against nature" conflict formula makes a couple of interesting, very original twists. Significant differences being the disparate combination of unexplained sheer malevolence displayed by quotidian, relatively harmless creatures and the near omnipresence of the antagonists. In The Birds this situation of “man vs. nature” the victor is clear: nature wins by a landslide and man, well…man is supplanted by a smattering of sparrows.

It also took the tried-and-true formula of the monster movie and gave it a completely original arrangement and angle of attack. Previously, monster features were confined to single frightening entity---a werewolf, vampire, or a giant lizard making a mess of downtown---and the creature is tied to single locale. This formula creates distance from the experience and the object of fear. This voyeuristic, vicarious experience of the spectacle prevents what most horror film directors desperately want to achieve: the suspension of disbelief. In short the audience watches with the mindset “…man, that’s awful; I hope that never happens to me…” diluting the fear experience into a temporary, quickly forgotten interlude ending with a sigh of relief and maybe a muttered statement “…glad that could never happen in real life…” The Birds however accomplishes what no other monster-horror movie of its’ day had achieved: the lingering suspension of disbelief.

Hitchcock is able to effectively screw with the mind of the viewers by using a unique two-fisted approach. First, he gets the audience to think “…how awful and yet highly probable and completely possible!” by taking the elements of the ordinary, in this case harmless, everyday fauna treated no differently from a building brick or a chunk of asphalt; then he gives them an uncharacteristic malice. Second, he makes the extraordinary events being perpetrated by the ordinary simultaneously occur all over the world. This creates an atmosphere of constant danger for the viewing audience. This in turn creates the thought: “…there is no place safe for any of us…” and it is this surprising pairing of harmless and hurtful combined with the feeling of ever-present danger that really grasps the audience by the jugular.

Now, the horror experienced in the theater stays with the viewer. It lingers, causing them to ask questions that shake their notions of safety. A viewer now asks questions like “…is that really possible?” or “…I live in a port town swarming with seagulls; stuff like that only happens in the movies, right?” Here we see the brilliance of that approach. Hitchcock effectively reverses the natural order of things: birds---sparrows, parrots, parakeets, and seagulls---all of them are now effectively bloodthirsty monsters hell-bent on destroying humanity; and in another excellently executed reversal, the director makes the audience realize that not only are there monsters but these monsters are free and the only safety to be had is inside of a sealed house…just another kind of birdcage if you think about it...

More than the ubiquitous air of danger presented by the titular birds and perhaps the most frightening aspect of the movie is the air of confusion that permeates everything. The bird attacks are sudden and without pattern but with a ferocity that is uncharacteristic and deliberate. Human violence very typically is deliberate---motivated, therefore can be understood, at least within a modicum of explanation. The violence inflicted by the birds however, despite the seeming intentionality is indiscriminate.

It may be safely assumed that Hitchcock was avid enthusiast of chaos. His films have a common denominator: characters are plunged into improbable situations they have no control over and the audience gets to watch them traverse through the mayhem. The Birds is no different and it, or the director rather, seems to take a perverse delight in ripping away the façades of civilization and exposing the fragilities---our fragilities---underneath.

One realizes how thoughtfully and delicately balanced our society actually is. Humanity and the sense of normalcy that we enjoy are kept together by a carefully orchestrated set of rules and acceptable responses that result in a complex hierarchy of interactions of organisms. In short, mankind lives by rules and those rules result in man being on top of the food chain. This is normal---our normal---and it is this sense of normal that is yanked out from underneath not just the characters in the film but even the viewer. This is achieved through an actual and an allegorical collapse of society in the film.

The birds physically destroy the possessions and establishments that separate and define animals from humans: they crash through the windshields of vehicles disrupting commerce and travel; they attack families playing in the park halting any sort of leisure. As the devastation happens and humanity’s established way of life comes apart at the seams, the birds also effectively sever relationships between people as the need to survive becomes paramount. This in turn servers people from the world around them. The Birds, perhaps more than any other of Hitchcock works, succeeds in demonstrating the futility and tenuousness of “human civilization” as a concept and construct as it is consumed in the pandemonium. This complete breakdown of norms also adds another dimension to the fear it creates.

Homes, schools, businesses, and places of worship are overrun. No place is truly safe from the marauding birds. Again and again, we see the eponymous birds subverting the inner sanctums of the characters, crushing whatever hopes they have of escape or assistance. However, it is not just the birds that endanger the lives of the human population. Humanity is a danger unto itself and the danger surrounding the characters only serve to bring their baser natures. One of women in town starts to single out the character Melanie Daniels, blaming her for the attacks simply because they only began to happen when she came into town. Despite having no hard evidence she finds it fit to blame her because she’s the new girl in town thus making her the easy, natural target of the mob.

The characters try their best to physically hide themselves or tune out the chaos around them. Hitchcock however reminds the audience that like some malevolent puppeteer pulling the strings, the characters in the film are completely helpless and that safety is at best, temporary. After successfully finding refuge in a house, the chaos dies down and Melanie, despite all that we have learned from horror films, unwisely decides to investigate suspicious noises she hears coming from upstairs. She is promptly and savagely attacked by a bunch of crows and seagulls, naturally. This near mauling causes her to lapse into a state of catatonic shock, almost as if to say that the only escape from the horror of nature gone mad is to go mad yourself and give in to death and oblivion. Consequently, the film becomes an allegory of humanity’s tenuous relationship with nature. The film posits the theory that, in the event that nature turns against us, we, as a species---put it bluntly---would be utterly doomed. Whatever measure of control we have over nature is a myth.

Even the relationships the characters have seem to be chaotic: the lead male character Mitch is a self-righteous blowhard who uses depreciating remarks to come on to Melanie; Mitch, ironically is harried by his uber-possesive mother, Lydia and Lydia---well, she’s a mess. She is still haunted by the death of her husband and desperately clings to her son. Melanie is a wealthy but troubled socialite who ends up becoming an unkempt wreck of a woman. Annie, perhaps the only truly altruistic character in the film, dies a gruesome death while heroically saving Cathy; and the residents of unfortunate Bodega Bay are a banal bunch---just the sort of people ideal for creating scenes of senseless, gratuitous violence.

Various reviewers have tried to make connections of these characters associating meaning to their interactions but the thing here is this: The Birds is a much deeper film than it is given credit for. There are erudite themes hidden beneath the horror and the violence and it is a genuine treasure-trove of metaphorical elucidation. Personally I feel that the very act of scrutinizing the MacGuffin in The Birds is a symbolic postulation---the viewers attempt to assign substance and meaning to a component of the film that might have been intentionally presented by the director as completely devoid of meaning---a pure spectacle robed as a film intended to illicit very visceral reactions from the film viewers. We the viewers therefore, are interpreting the film in a particular way. This may be established on whatever biases we have, similar to the characters in the film… They try to determine, to give rhyme and reason to why the birds are attacking, attempting to wrap their minds around the why of the violence they are currently experiencing. Personally, I feel that this is the point of the The Birds: violence, no matter what the explanation will truly be justified---violence regardless of who does it will be just that: utterly pointless.

Review:

Hitchcock films were primarily plot driven and thus reliant on big name stars of the day to convey the emotions of the story. The general plot of the The Birds seems banal, even stupid, when you really think about it. There is nothing frightening about garden-variety birds turning against mankind, but this is where the director’s genius really comes in. Take elements of timing, layering of scenes, focus, and the delivery of carefully selected actors and you end up with an odd gem of cinema.

I had watched this film a long time ago and decided to give it another whirl just to see if the chilling effect was still there and it didn’t disappoint. I also noticed something that I never observed when I first watched the film: there is no music whatsoever in the film, only natural sounds and some possibly machine or sound stage generated effects. This was one of the key ingredients to creating such impactful horror. There are few things more frightening than the sound of a thousand or so massed living creatures flapping and screaming in unison---more frightening than any orchestra produced soundtrack and more lasting in it’s effect.

Despite the utter lack of solid interpretations in the plot of the film it is however rife with visual metaphors that may be interpreted in a number of ways. These metaphors are arranged in increasing intervals as buildup and cue to the audience that all normalcies are about to exit in grand fashion. One of the images Hitchcock uses to highlight this departure from the normal is broken crockery. When the sparrows attack they first target the crockery, and this upsets Lydia greatly; and again she sees the broken crockery in the form of broken cups when visiting a farmer friend. The unusual numbers that birds start to gather in is also a visual cue for the audience that little by little something terrible is about to happen. We notice them in ever increasing numbers perched on telephone wires as Melanie drives to Bodega Bay and then we see a clearly agitated Melanie following a crow in flight and then being genuinely shocked when she the mass of crows, hundreds of them, that have gathered on the playground equipment.

I also noticed that The Birds might just well be one of the first horror films to make use of the high panning shot to give the audience a view of the extent of the damage wrought by the birds. The audience is shown a town in flames and then another brilliant scene of one bird swooping in and another hovering close by. This is followed by one more and then another and then another…until the screen is filled with birds.

Shattering glass is not only used for effect but also as a motif. Bird attacks are initially viewed through the diner’s glass window, the phone booth and car windows. The horror is viewed with a morbid, vicarious fascination, until that is; the viewers also experience the same horror---as if to say that all horror is merely a glass pane away and we would be foolish to think that we are ever truly safe from the things that we fear.

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