Saturday, December 29, 2007
Monday, December 24, 2007
It is true what Burton and co. are saying - this is a reinvented Sweeney Todd. A number of character interpretations are completely different from the stage play. Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd, younger-looking and slimmer-framed, and so going without the broad-shouldered, aged gravitas of past portrayals, takes on alternative dimensions: before incarceration, he is a consummate namby pamby, newly inculcated in the thoroughly pacified life of the young Daddy; after imprisonment, the namby pamby has tasted the brute's life and realized he has a taste for it. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is a practical but lovelorn doe, so desperate for "a life" she is twisted into amorality - not at all the daffy evil crone of the original play (an alteration more than a bit heartbreaking). The omission of 'Kiss Me' relegates the character of Johanna to a lifeless, near-disturbed porcelain girl, which fits her perfectly into the film's undercurrent of misogyny. The sailor Anthony's love-at-first-sight comes off as egregious objectification instead of the love of mutual purity seen in the stage play. The sacrifices made from the original musical may at first seem like a thorough defanging of the twisted humor, but the newfound sobriety Burton and co. seem to want to infuse into the material, luckily, takes on a living and breathing pulse of its own.
All these changes do take a good helping away from what I so love about the original stage incarnation. That eccentric, baroque evil that permeated throughout the original stage play is almost completely gone. Todd and Lovett are not creepy and evil old people, and their making people into meat pies is no longer a product of unadultered demonic ideology and gleeful abandon. Instead, the film's Todd and Lovett are handsome young people, trying to fulfill the wants of their sex, their desire, and their gratification. They make people into meat pies because it is a good idea and a natural extension of their emotional needs (his need to kill/conquer, her need to make herself a romantic living). The Sweeney Todd movie gives its characters too much mundane (and aesthetically attractive) humanity for the story to really give you goosebumps in this way that the play does - but, in exchange, this humanity it does give them is altogether adult and uncompromising, grim and unromantic, and thus, on its own right, absolutely surprising, refreshing, and dramatically compelling. So it is absolutely commendable, no matter how much the parabolic nastiness of the Broadway play is missed. The film exceeds expectations because, in its scaling the play down to a small human drama, it becomes an actual film of true cinematic intent, utilizing subtle glances in shot-reverse shot patterns, the dramatic detail of careful mise en scene, the active staging of actors moving in and out of frame, a camera unceasingly dynamic, etc. - technique and applications, of course, unavailable in stage theater.
New themes pop up, for better or worse. The original 1979 production goes to great lengths to set its story against a backdrop of Industrial Age London, the set design populated with steel platforms and factory facades. This is largely dropped in the film adaptation. The theme of Sweeney Todd as socially-wrought machine of class abuses gives way to Sweeney as romantically revenge-obsessed meathead, or the "worthless thing" that the pragmatist Lovett calls him while lugging his useless self around after his overwrought 'Epiphany.' An explicit misogynistic streak is beautifully integrated into the film's flaunting of "pretty women" and "caged birds," especially with its two additional dialogue scenes: the first regarding "Whores From Around the World" and the other presenting a rather nasty variation on Fogg, the asylum owner, categorizing his lovelies by hair color. The alarmingly sincere happiness seen in the Judge's face when Sweeney bluffs him about Johanna turning around to him in the final sequence communicates how this film's iron-fisted male brutes are actually really clueless and knuckle-headed when it comes to them getting what they desire. Notice Anthony's daring rescue of Johanna being of little comfort to the girl's mind, her words, when we finally hear Johanna speak near the end of the movie, stunted in the cadences of a girl far left behind and needing much more than a lovestruck boy sailor to help her catch up.
Lovett's 'Wait' is an excellent example of this film's trafficking in subdued passions, her motions to him simultaneously seduction and a plea. Bonham Carter's eyes widen in demented lust as she tells Todd to "plan the plan" - but all Depp's Todd does is bask in the machismo he inhabits in his razors, his "tools," twirling them in his hand with the pride of a highschooler with new rims on his Cadillac. Not long after the disastrous first run-in with the judge, Todd both circumvents his grief and vents his bruised, frustrated pride by constructing his mechanical chair in preparation for his murdering spree. He fixes the old chair up with the same investment (and mechanical know-how) of, again, a teenage boy fixing up and pimping out his sports car. Mrs. Lovett watches from a distance, afraid but unaccountably attracted to this "bad boy." She throws him winks and kisses to delude herself against his non-investment in their physical relationship and still giggles at the slyness with which he goes about his diabolical pastime. Even at her most sorrowful, after having trapped Tobias in the bakehouse, she still cannot suppress the glee and arousal she feels watching him slyly bait the Beadle and comically offer him the sexually-tinged prospect of a "pampering."
Recall that Benjamin Barker, when he was happy and harmless as opposed to brutish and abusive, seems to always be referred to as "foolish" - but as an untethered beast of a man, he gains the power-rush of indiscriminate murder and the servile affection of Mrs. Lovett (gratifyingly non-matrimonial, too; notice how he removes his hand from her lap when she mentions marriage during 'By the Sea'). Finally, Todd's shockingly spontaneous, swift bludgeoning of Pirelli with the kettle is so effective not only because it is the first moment when we realize the film means brutal business, but because Burton, with such operatic and uncompromising care, makes sure it's clear that what we are seeing is Todd reacting in the dumb desperation of a captured lion, in realization of his own foolishness having allowed this blackmail to happen, and over the less-than-vaunting fact, for a titular hero, that he may be way over his head in getting his hands on the judge and now might not even get his chance. Our anti-hero's satisfaction (akin to the satisfaction demanded in that obsolete male pastime called the duel) is threatened, his pride bruised, and we see it result in petty violence. The glee of pride seen in him later, when he all by himself comes up with the wig-maker plan, strikes one as equally simple, and this communicates a lot about how Depp is playing this character.
It is what makes this movie adaptation so special. It is a movie and it is nuanced like a movie. Its vision is so tight and the emotional points subtly calibrated. It takes risks one familiar with the source material would not expect, and it succeeds in them. Todd almost seems to become a background character because he is so dark, impenetrable, and single-minded. In a move practically opposite of the stage musical, the film is adamant in portraying him always as opaquely as possible. In that way, one begins to see him in the same bracket as the Judge - brutish and block-headed. Never in the stage play is Todd made to be perceived as so ignoble as to be grouped with the man who raped his wife and covets his daughter, but this film does just that. I was certain we'd be fed a tragically dashing anti-hero in Sweeney, especially with Depp in the role, but the film instead gave us a scheming, manipulative cad.
The film is enriched by its devotion to the mood of a horror film, particularly the kitsch of modest Gothic dramas. The dank alleyways of London in the opening sequence, the menacing, sped-up CGI roam through the London streets, the grand guignol luridness of Fogg's asylum, and the rank griminess of the sewers (where we are finally forced to come to terms with Lovett and Todd as true and despicable villains, trying to lure out a hiding Toby for murder), become ad hoc bulwarks to the film's grim convictions of never leavening the ugliness that this work exudes from every pore.
Of course the film has its flaws. First, the film, despite its changes in tone and character, is nevertheless a clear-cut transplantation of the book and libretto to the screen, so it is true the film is not doing too much to create its own liberated cinematic vision. It accepts its place as an adaptation (understandably so...), so does not transgress its source. Burton's not Robert Altman, after all (imagine his Sweeney Todd!). Second, yes, Burton's aesthetic is probably what anyone would expect. I really wish he would drop his penchant for heavy make-up and flattering costuming. The film threatens stooping down into Burton's brand of Gothic geekiness, especially with the period setting not letting Burton's shrewd knack for modernist lampooning (the kind seen in Pee-Wee's and Edward Scissorhands, those probably still his better works) leaven the all-too-expected Merchant Ivory gone Hot Topic look.
Fourthly, and most damagingly perhaps: considering how the film reinvents what themes stand at the forefront of the story (moral parable ==> tempestuous drama), the film falters when it finds itself obligated to impose on itself songs talking about "Man devouring man" (and other such political sentiments found in Sondheim's libretto) when social injustice is made here merely a thematic sprinkling instead of the dominant thematic subtext, as it is in the Broadway production. The meat pies take a major back seat here in the film, I hate to say. One can just feel the minimized importance of A Little Priest within the film. Thus, the film just feels like it is intellectually posing whenever Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler's social commentary sneaks its way back into Burton's standard drama.
Some of the best scenes:
1. The Johanna (Trio). Macabre, cackling nihilism shines through this scene, as Burton dryly cuts between Sweeney slicing away at victims and Anthony wandering aimlessly through less and less proper areas of London. I noticed that throughout the film, that Burton refuses to use any sort of soft-edged transition, like fade to blacks or cross-fades. Everything - from transitions to fantasy sequences, transitions to flashbacks, to the Johanna trio intercutting - all use very sharp and abrupt cuts, which fit perfectly the film's wryly unconvinced feelings toward the romances and mournful memories of these characters.
2. The Judge's final scene. It never occurred to me whenever thinking about the musical that some brutal, mutilating slashing and lots and lots of blood is just what the Judge's death scene needed. It apparently occurred to Burton, and it is pretty damn sweet and pretty damn shrewd of a moment, an emotional climax more than fully realized from stage to screen.
3. The opening credits. Before the film's release, when they released a clip of the opening credits and I read they were CGI a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was not happy. To my astonishment, sitting in the theater and watching the film for my first time, I realized these opening credits were fucking perfect! Although clearly animated, the visuals of the opening credits (as well as Mrs. Lovett's big finish) are perfectly at place in the film's demented aesthetic. The title card - "SWEENEY TODD" - unfurling itself on rotating wheels, menacingly mechanized and furious in their spin, awash in a dim blue, is an abso-fucking-lutely brilliant image, and brought to a slow simmer in my heart fond notions of The Mangler. Yes, I just said that, welcome to the Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society.
To conclude, the film does the unthinkable. One, it made the unforgivable notion of a more benign Mrs. Lovett a forgivable alteration. More, it achieved the possibility of making even the most die-hard purist embrace its whole new vision of the play. I cannot say I was with the film step by step, but it gave me what I look for in film - a disciplined cinematic vision, a cohesive thematic texture, a rhyme and reason to its scenes and their coexistence, and dramatic character nuance that is not afraid to make ambiguous the virtues and emotions of its characters. I will have to watch the film again to see if its surprises (which will no longer be surprises) are diminished or not by the rigidness of the film's strict adherence to the play, its resultantly hurried nature, and the occasional stiltedness of a Burton geek show slipping through the cracks of a new-found Burton maturity, but right now I think the man has outdone himself and his reputation with this film's emphasized subversive streak, forgoing the play's sad, demented, fantastical morality tale for something less demented, but a little meaner and a little realer.
'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' - 8/10
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Sutherland, as her husband, her lover, plays the opposite - a person with the capacity for deeply burdening thoughts, cynicism, and resignations. Sex and ceremony, science and religion, bureaucratic procedure and pure intuition interweave in the film, as pragmatic opiates for the suppression or propagation of deluded sentiments - coping mechanisms in both minds of blissed naivete and hard-edged realism. But when Sutherland finally indulges in sentiments, the chillingly grim message is: "Look where it gets him!"
I have read Daphne du Maurier's short story as well, and it's a nasty little one. Movies tend to be the indelicate ones, between them and the source literature being adapted, but surprisingly, du Maurier's story strikes the amped-up power chord, playing up the ending (which is exceedingly similar between story and film) with a practically flicking sardonic tongue, embittered 1st person prose, and acknowledgment of the brazen crassness of the non-sequitur. The flippancy with which du Maurier describes her final, shockingly random reveal and "Fuck me" realization is contrasted to the more elegiac, operatic treatment in the film.
Don't Look Now - 9/10
Sunday, October 28, 2007
It might perhaps be useful to now look at particular scenes within the film. As the main character, we naturally try to identify with Melanie as much as we can. As has been looked into previously, this is something Hitchcock does not ask of us to do in the same way most films do. The most accessible moments for empathy, then, are in attack sequences, where her bewilderment is similarly ours, and there is a turning point in spirit of this, at which we suddenly become all too aware of what extent a senseless and vicious upset to life has beset Melanie. This is the moment of Melanie's literal “entrapment” in the spectacular town attack sequence, in which the film inexplicably has Melanie retreat into the safety/danger of a glass phone booth. This short sequence is especially striking in its structural placement within the whole scene. Out of nowhere, Melanie decides it is a good idea to retreat from the Restaurant, likely with the intention to go assist Mitch in some faculty. How quickly she aborts that idea of going to him, though, and instead flees inside a phone booth, with the apparent desire to assist by staring out helplessly from behind glass at the chaos around her. What brought her in there to just look, witness to but separate and protected from the death and destruction going on outside? Nothing less than, again, the whims of Hitchcock the director, who launches kamikaze gulls into the glass in a premature attempt to tear down Melanie into that final state she will finally reach in the fateful attic attack. This moment in the phone booth is jarring in its perfunctory nature, her experience inside the booth merely peripheral to the real battle with the birds and the fire that Mitch and the other men are preoccupied with. When Mitch finally comes to her rescue and her brief stint within the glass cage is forgotten in the characters’ minds, the barrage of stimuli that had just occurred - the 360 degree view of destruction, the sound of shattering glass, the 3-D images of suicidal birds causing sparkles of glass to shower like painful glitter, all this occurring within no more than 10 seconds - still lingers within the viewer in its aggrandized intimacy. Throughout it all, we were in that booth with her, as Hitchcock’s camera, internalizing for ourselves the sense of the walls entrapping her. During this sequence, the camera never pulls back wide from Melanie and never leaves the phone booth. The camera is stationed with her throughout, either giving the viewer close-up of her face or a glimpse of what she sees from inside the booth. One shot is an overhead of her (thus in the confines of the booth still), angling straight down on Melanie as she spins around in dismay. This rigid formal insistence creates the true effectiveness of this scene. Here the film further comes into its own as Hitchcock’s personal machine meant to process and break down this character in an allegorical calculator, devoted to her and piecing together her existential development. This brief interlude with Melanie in the phone booth strikes a rhythm that encapsulates Melanie’s character in a most compact way: cursorily she is exposed to pain, to passion, but instead she finds sanctuary within a glass cage of emotional suppression, complacency, or, in this case, plain, overwhelmed uncomprehending. In this brief minute, Hitchcock makes manifest the terror of existence Melanie is living with, whether as a person or meaningless automaton. It is the nature that this moment lasts but a glancing moment that emphasizes preoccupation with allegorical, poetical performative instead of narrative, and the magnitude in which the film works, pure, ballet-like, and bullet-like, in symbolic allegory. The aesthetic as well as emotional vividness of this moment makes it probably one of the film's most convincing analogies to a poem's stanza - her experience in the booth is a moment of pure evocation, not of development.
Hitchcock is not preoccupied with realism – he is invested in artifice in film and the observing camera, for, like Peter Wollen says, “For Hitchcock it is not the problem of loyalty or allegiance which is uppermost, but the mechanisms of spying and pursuit of themselves” (Elsaesser, 3). This perfectly describes Hitchcock’s approach to directing in any of his films, and in the case of The Birds, it is almost literally true in its study of self-realizations through external observation. The camera in The Birds functions mostly in two ways: observing the characters and observing what the characters themselves observe. Hitchcock finds much insight in the character’s gaze, for it is always in the face that the “pursuit of themselves” ultimately manifests. Following the film’s sparrow attack on the living room, there is a scene consisting of Mitch speaking to the town sheriff while Melanie and his family surround them. Throughout their conversation, Melanie silently observes Lydia as she wanders around straightening up the sparrow-strewn living room. This small scene is particularly noteworthy in its aesthetic-thematic collusion. The scene opens with a striking shot of Melanie from her back, her figure large in the foreground and lighted in a way such as to separate her with shadow from this broken family and their broken home that she has suddenly interloped into. In a series of reaction and point-of-view shots, we follow Melanie’s eye-line as she observes a weary Lydia trying to salvage the broken order of her house. Melanie watches with an impenetrably blank gaze as Lydia picks up broken teacups, frets about where to put it, and in the most affecting moment, tries to straighten the portrait of her dead husband that presides over the living area, only for a dead sparrow to fall in front of her and startle her. Melanie’s troubled gaze seems to intimate a dawning understanding of this woman’s precarious grasp on meaning in the face of deep self-weakening and an increasingly empty life. The scene intercuts continuously between Lydia’s movements and Melanie’s gaze, and while Melanie's expression reveals very little, the very issue of her troubled fascination with this sad woman’s futile gestures is of course a reflection upon herself. In this way, this scene is Melanie continuing the emotional realizations the film forces upon her and a strikingly subtle presentation of characters’ “pursuit of themselves.” Robin Wood sees Melanie’s gaze at Lydia as “the clearest possible visual communication of the unspoken questions: ‘Has life any purpose? Has this woman’s life any purpose? Has my life any purpose?’” (Wood, 138). Wood gets down into the nitty-gritty of the film’s existential evocations, seeing the film’s portrayal of transitory relationships and the destructive recurrence of abandonment as corroboration of the “futility” (as Thomas Leitch calls it) (Smith, 127) of life, or the “triviality” and “habitual play-acting” that is life (according to Wood) (Wood, 129).
An endless “pursuit” is communicated rather deftly by the film’s use of dissolve as a transition. The film is literally made up of dissolves. The film consistently moves from sequence to sequence with a cross-fade. Other than being constructive in emphasizing the film’s directionless narrative, ceaselessly periodic repetition of attacks, and perpetual muting of catharsis, there are numerous times the film fades out on a character staring blankly in a moment of troubled, eternally unresolved discontent. From the fade-out on Annie, vividly placed behind her deep red mailbox, as she stares off at Melanie driving away, to the one on Lydia’s sad gaze after Mitch tells her, “I know exactly what I want” in their kitchen, these tentative expressions, aided by the pure sensuousness of the mise en scene and vivid Technicolor, are stirring examples of characters in pursuit of themselves, united in a strong associative sense by this dissolve. Lydia's selfish need for her son is a pathology that will never ever allow her the complete contentment of a stronger woman who, perhaps, happens to value her son for who he is instead of what he brings her. Annie will never be with Mitch yet she's out to live her whole life staring off into space while a melancholy fade-out happens in her head. These transitional dissolves on a gaze are very effective in establishing the film’s limbo world of characters unaware of or hopelessly stagnant in their emotional ruts.
Wollen also says of cinematic mastery: “[It is to] speak a rhetoric which is none other than the rhetoric of the unconscious” (Elsaesser, 4). The Birds is essentially that, a movie about movie characters given unconscious existential quandaries that they never explicitly address, only to allow those quandaries to manifest themselves in the film’s mastered allegorical construct and rhetoric of meaning, and the camera subjectivity (in which the camera eye occasionally jumps into a character’s consciousness and point-of-view), bringing to light the characters’ unconscious just as Wollen says it should. This sort of meta-layered back-bending exemplifies the film’s disciplined allegorical construction. In the end, The Birds is a singular, challenging, wholly profound emprise by Hitchcock into modernist humanism. Hitchcock has made his reputation being a commercial filmmaker whose formalism effectively blurs him into the arthouse realm. The Birds, I find, is his first and only through-and-through arthouse film, a film that is not concerned with narrative but with structure, and a poetic and allegorical one.
Durgnat, Raymond. The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock: or, The Plain Man’s Hitchcock.
Elsaesser, Thomas. “The Dandy in Hitchcock,” in Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, ed. Richard Allen & S. Ishii-Gonzalez, pg. 3-14 (London: BFI Publishing, 1999).
Hare, William. Hitchcock and the Methods of Suspense.
Orr, John. Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema.
Smith, Susan. Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour, and Tone.
Toles, George. “‘If Thine Eye Offend Thee…’: Psycho and the Art of Infection,” in Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, ed. Richard Allen & S. Ishii-Gonzalez, pg. 159-178 (London: BFI Publishing, 1999).
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films.
Friday, October 26, 2007
The Birds focuses on a young
The cinematic language of The Birds, as Hitchcock’s take on the “existential modernism of Antonioni” (Orr, 21), can be directly compared to Antonioni’s 1960 film L’Avventura. Upon a re-watch of that film, I was amused by how heavily The Birds seems to be influenced by that film, at least on a purely mechanical level. Chilly, desolate coastal locations are used as the backdrop of both films and establish both film’s aesthetic of austerity. In addition, Antonioni’s film also sports an unexplained event (a girl’s sudden disappearance) as an allegorical catalyst which thrusts its female protagonist into a journey of emotional realization. The Birds takes allegorical construct even one step further than his European counterparts, though, for while Bergman or Antonioni use diegetic drama as the ostensible shells of metaphor or allegory, The Birds not only uses its diegetic birds as manifest of its emotional themes, but also the very structure and perspective of the film itself, taking on a pronounced meta-textual level that cements the film’s extraordinary formal exclusiveness.
While the film borrows largely from thematic and ambient elements of L’Avventura, the rhetorical tone The Birds creates falls outside the comparison. In Antonioni’s film, the female protagonist (played by another blonde-haired beauty Monica Vitti) is more a surrogate for Antonioni and his world view, not a subject for pondering and scrutiny like Melanie Daniels is for Hitchcock (Wood, 130). Antonioni’s heroine embodies his world-weariness, the camera tracking her intimately as she carries the weight of knowledge and realization on her shoulders, like Hamlet with his soliloquies. Melanie Daniels’ knowledge, on the other hand, remains consistently practical, superficial, and unaware; she is just one of the multitudes of bustling, superficial humanity (much like the bustling, indiscernible multitude of birds), whose substance and awareness is under question. Our introduction to her is a distant shot of her crossing a street, the camera pivoting matter-of-factly and following her movement. Surprisingly, it's an incredibly vivid way to begin the film, as it's vivid for its utter plainness. The camera is established as detached from her, a camera pointedly "hidden" to capture her behavior and the way she lives her life. Robin Wood describes this as Hitchcock restraining himself from using the “audience-identification techniques” he used with Marion Crane in Psycho (Wood, 130). For Antonioni and his Monica Vitti, or Shakespeare and his Hamlet, the camera or audience is there for them to project their anguish onto, their anguish emanating from it. Hitchcock, on the other hand, ever the proponent of voyeurism, cherishes his subject’s ignorance to the invisible audit her life is being placed under. She has no bearing on its point-of-view, nor does the camera have any obligation to convey her emotional perspective.
George Toles speaks of this “strange separation between his [Hitchcock’s] characters and a subject that resists formulation,” in which he refers to The Birds and its characters (Toles, 172). He refers to the pawn-like nature of Hitchcock’s characters in relation to the conflict Hitchcock’s narratives inflict on them. Antonioni’s philosophical films focus on the nature of autonomy of the human being in the real world, so that questions of intellectualism and love are filtered through humans knowing of their dubious place in nature. Hitchcock feels no need to allow the audience a character wise to the intrinsic in his more artificial film worlds. In Vertigo (1958), the hero Scotty plunges headfirst unknowingly into his [intrinsic] neuroses of acrophobia and complicated sexual desires, without knowing he is being played. In Psycho, Marion Crane unwittingly falls victim to institutionalized [intrinsic] ideas of American and monetary wholeness, only to pitilessly, inexplicably be brought to consequence by a deranged Oedipal familial order. In The Birds, Melanie’s ignorance of the [intrinsic] emotionally transitory and futile weightlessness of her life so far is finally brought to trial also by an inexplicable, deranged occurrence: bird attacks instead of a knife-wielding psycho. Just as Marion’s pitiable, degrading societal entrenchment depicted in Psycho’s first quarter is cut short in a shocking narrative shift, likewise is Melanie’s blindly shallow romantic gamesmanship (also devotedly depicted in this film’s first quarter), cut short by the humiliating castigation that is the seagull's minor yet all-too-potent, and completely public, attack on her in the motorboat (which acts as The Birds’ shocking narrative shift). The sudden and inexplicable nature of both scenes originates from the fact that both women were not expecting those harsh and extremely strange rebukes in any way. In these films' leaving their main characters in the philosophical dark, The Birds retains the clinical non-romanticism of Psycho instead of converting completely over to the angst-driven existential fantasias of the European artists. Despite its riding the waves of the European art film, The Birds places itself firmly as a work of Hitchcock the auteur, known for always finding such great pleasure in withholding knowledge from his characters while letting the audience in on it.
In this case, it is perhaps more revealing to compare Hitchcock’s formalist meta-narrative and directorial voice to the similarly detached tonal-aesthetic camera and point-of-view of [the also mordantly God-like] Stanley Kubrick. The Kubrick film most analogous with The Birds, then, would have to be his 1975 film Barry Lyndon. Both films work in a similar way, both formal exercises meant to scrutinize and literally plot (dual meaning intended) against its blank slate main character(s). Just as The Birds aims to have its blithe heroine – at the whim of Hitchcock’s vision of existential inscrutability – remain largely clueless to the film’s scrutiny of her existence and forthcoming breakdown, Barry Lyndon’s titular passive pragmatist – at the behest of the director’s own vision of historical ambivalence – remains blind to his own meaninglessness and downward spiral. Both films utilize a precise formal construct to convey their meta-textual examination without obscuring it with character-identifying sentimentality. (Barry Lyndon’s aesthetic construct is dry and ironic – the consistent use of static and jarring wide-shots throughout convey a tone devoid of emotional attachment, in line with its sardonic study of its main character’s instinctual, comfort-inclined pragmatism but utter lack of inner self. The Birds utilizes a decidedly different construct to maintain its tonal distance, using, for instance, fluid dissolves instead of sharp cuts for its sense of storytelling authority, and a dynamic third-person-objective camera instead of Barry Lyndon’s static, if you'll allow me to coin a phrase, "God-person-objective" wide shots.) In the end, the films share a strikingly similar tonal structuralism: the main characters in both films struggle to maintain their complacence with the lack of meaningfulness held within the lives they lead, all the while being tossed around and thoroughly violated (almost literally in the case of The Birds) by the stories they inhabit.
These “filmic machinations” are the crux of the most elusive subtext in The Birds, which revolves around its main character Melanie Daniels. Melanie is, as the main protagonist, at the center of the film and present to soak in the insights of almost every scene. [To further emphasize this, it is striking that the two turn-of-events she is not present for - Lydia’s discovery of Dan Fawcett’s body and Annie’s self-sacrificial death - are only the two scenes representative of the agency of the two other women (and in both instances, she is in the caring arms of Mitch while they exacerbate their suffering in subconscious proposals to the man they are hung up on).] The film exists with one predominant determination: to put this character of Melanie through the meta-filmic “proverbial wringer” – a series of narrative machinations with the purpose to make Melanie face the voids of her existence. Hitchcock, through the screenplay's methodical structure and his distanced cinematic grammar, establishes the film as a sort of purveyor of disembodied existential judgment (with Hitchcock himself acting as its consciousness). He restrains the possibilities of emotional chaos beneath the surface narrative at first, but he inches closer and closer to calling out the characters’ complacency with each bird attack he doles out. He does this until the characters either lay themselves bare (
The scene is unmotivated and perhaps seems “shoe-horned” in to give us one last bloody attack. But its existence, in all its knowing inexplicability, is integrally tied to the poetic structure of the film. It is clearly what the film has been leading up to from the very first moment, and Melanie’s baffling actions are less determined by the authority of the character, but by the whim of Hitchcock the auditor - as well as Hitchcock the poet - taking narrative and forgetting any needs of literalism, instead creating narrative by way of pure structural and allegorical invocation. As his running time reaches the two-hour point, he decides the time is right for this final blow, and the attic attack is very purposefully made the climax of the film. It leaves our heroine catatonic for the final stretch of resolution, and so very pointedly the film deems Melanie’s completed deconstruction the most necessary and important end point, at which it could finally wrap up its previously ever-tightening story. The intentions behind the final state the film decides to leave her, traumatized and bloodied, is up for interpretation: it can be seen as a cathartic gesture of pity, letting the poor character suffer her “Passion of Melanie” in order to allow herself full divestment of all the emotional needs bottled inside her... or, perhaps, it is a gleeful “she-had-it-coming” imposition by Hitchcock, the pot-bellied tortured artiste. Whichever, the film’s allegorical construct is at its most pure and unique with regards to this precise and wonderfully bitter, unshakably anguished structuring.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
A visceral surrealism is given priority over any menace or blatant supernaturalism. Dead seagulls strewn across a desolate road show us they are nothing more than birds. When the birds in the film slam into doors and windshields, they still break their fragile little necks, drop to the ground with a thud, and so resolutely disengage with a consciousness they hardly knew they had. The film would not nearly have the same sort of semiotic power had it been bees or rats (too minuscule) or dogs (too endowed with sentience and emotion). The dead birds' stiff and petrified bodies, from those of tiny sparrows to massive gulls, seem already stuffed and ready for mounting, hardly any more inanimate and unthinking dead as they often could seem when alive.
The wholeness and purity of the film's symbolic essence can be said to spring from its very conception - in the very choice of its animal aggressor. The stare of birds are inimitably aloof, insufferably implacable, lacking any register of emotion, and yet their solidity, size, and warm feathered bodies bring them also insufferably close to being warm-blooded mammals - mammals without sense of the gifts, joys, sensations, and terrors of emotional being. (Forgive me, bird lovers out there.) So what better animal, numbering in the trillions with the entire human race in complete accessability to them, to function as machines of allegory to call out the existential fears of the modern world? The birds of the wild - present in all environments of the world, from populated cities to untouched jungle - are hardly considerate of us, even as they fly about us, and above us, many with the human race perpetually in their gaze; corollary, with them perpetually in ours. It has been a fact that has, whenever thought about too long, alway struck me as strange, that these wild animals - birds - are just perpetually co-habiting the same terrain of living as the human race in such unregulated numbers. Then there is the matter of their "lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes, when he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living" eyes (permit me to take the quote courtesy of that other revered work of man-vs-nature terror, Jaws, immaculate I suppose, but certainly nowhere near The Birds). Hardly of any sort of independent will, they fly in flocks and they think only as some unknown, unseeable nature and instinct dictates to them. Thus there is a sense of awe at their sudden unnatural aggression. The symbolic power of birds acting as wagerers of a war campaign (think about it long enough and it's the first completely secular and unpoliticized one in human history) capitalizing on the troublesome knicks of the human psyche (again, ones distressingly non-partisan and non-denominational - instead, emphatically emotional ones that everyone shares, no matter of politics or religion: human fears of change, of ephemerality, and mortality) is indelible.
It is important to acknowledge the true function of the film's birds. The birds do not exist as an unstoppable or at all powerful deadly force, nor really any sort of crazed manifestation of evil or environmental acrimony. As demonstrated with the sheer amount of dead birds in the film, extinguishing their lives as if only obedient robots of industry (or, in this case destruction) and discontinuing themselves under notice of their malfunction, the film never treats them as being any more than mindless birds. Having them be cognitively advanced would have undermined the symbolic parallel the film makes between the mindless complacence of the birds and the mindless complacence of the humans with their respective ontological states of being. If they were made efficient killing machines (for example, if they swarmed the fallen girl with the shattered glasses instead of letting her retreat uninterrupted to safety), then the mindlessness of the chaos and rupture they create would be lost. We see they peck out the eyes not because they are cruel or angry, not just because we suspect they know to by instinct, but because we ourselves expect them to - to go after our most vulnerable of parts, both as the squishiest of our physical organs and as "windows into our soul."
As they are, the birds serve merely as the bringers of considerable emotional strain on the main characters who do not die, acting as manifestations of the “sum of all… fears” (Orr, 22) – the Jessica Tandy character’s fears of disruption, change, abandonment and inadequacy; the film’s own philosophical fears about the temporality and failure of human relationships, etc. This effect of not making the birds malicious killers - merely instigators of disruption and fearful inward realizations - is constructed through a number of different ways, which can be broken down into three facets:
FIRST, the film never separates the narrative from its main characters. Thus the only attacks the audience witnesses are those that directly affect the main characters, making the birds seem more omnipotent than monstrous. SECOND, all the attacks follow a shared rhythm and uniformity between themselves: 1) they all seem to begin arbitrarily within a moment’s notice, 2) they are (uniformly) random in method (each bird attack is clearly made distinct from one another, largely – but not solely – through the use of different species of birds), and 3) they are all executed as rather short but potent bursts of violence and chaos. The THIRD and most important aspect of the bird attacks is usually the first thing picked up in analytic purview – the very structure of the film’s narrative is a steady, undeniably deliberate alternation between character scenes and bird attacks. The bird attacks are placed throughout the film so that they immediately follow and seem to punctuate various characters’ displays of self-realization and emotional complacence. The very first attack on the ‘Tippi’ Hedren character in the fishing boat sets the precedent particularly well, the gull’s swoop occurring as practically a direct retaliation against a revealing display of self-conscious, increasingly self-aware coquetry on the part of Hedren’s character Melanie (Smith, 137). Following instances are less instantaneous and pronounced, but the pattern does begin to reveal itself. The pattern itself is a testament to the film’s poetic nature. Donald Spoto provides evidence for this, stating Hitchcock “attached yards of brown paper to the walls of his office and had graphed the rising and falling of action in the story” (Spoto, 487). He also writes that Hitchcock himself wrote the striking dialogue scene between Hedren and Rod Taylor’s character on a hill (the one immediately prior to the birthday attack scene) in a clear attempt to keep consistent this pattern (Spoto, 489). These segments of calm and then attack work well to affirm the “poem” analogy, these “phrases” working in a cumulative sense and not necessarily a narrative one.
Being unnatural and unexplainable, the attacks in the film are nothing more than arbitrary horror, to the viewer and to the characters. The Birds’ narrative rhythm actively lends to the attacks this sense of arbitrariness. Purpose is instilled into a film by the very act of creating anticipatory engagement, and Hitchcock takes great care to circumvent such attachment to narrative drive by making the bird attacks commence in sudden and unexpected bursts, as well as concurrently giving them a predictability in the cyclical pattern of their surges. Bird attacks happen without moment's notice, and yet we are conditioned to know of their approach through the pattern of their plotting within the story and the film itself.
These three aspects of the bird attacks’ narrative construction and composition cement the fact that the birds are less the film’s villains and more the organic expression of the "existential malfunctioning" of a modern emotional world these characters inhabit, which Hitchcock envisions as crumbling in on itself. The attacks are intimated with the very outline of the emotional study. This triple-faceted construct of the bird attacks as structured from within the film - using, as previously listed, 1) intimacy, 2) similarity and repetition, and 3) interval - not only reflects the irrationality and inexplicability of the circumstances, but single-handedly creates the sense of repeating and endless emotional entrapment that lies at the core of the film’s emotional undercurrent.