Sunday, October 28, 2007

Allegorical Construct in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963), Part 3



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. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974.

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. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007.

Orr, John. Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema. London: Wallflower Press, 2005.

Smith, Susan. Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour, and Tone. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.

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. London: A. Zwemmer Limited, 1965.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Allegorical Construct in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963), Part 2



The Birds focuses on a young San Francisco socialite named Melanie Daniels who, on a self-satisfyingly lusty whim, decides to pursue a romantic entanglement with hotshot criminal lawyer Mitch Brenner. The first act consists of their antagonistic, vivid games of flirtation, which consists of her going to the trouble of tracking him down to his small coastal hometown of Bodega Bay and sneaking bird cages into his house. There she meets his fragile mother Lydia – emotionally weakened by the death of her husband years ago – and his “emotionally masochistic” (as Raymond Durgnat describes her) ex-lover Annie, an intellectual-type from San Francisco who has relegated herself to being the Bodega Bay Elementary teacher just to “be near Mitch.” Upon arrival, a slew of bird attacks begin to plague the town. The film examines interpersonal facades and the austere postures and “personality regimes” that conceal deep-seated emotional and existential emptiness. Melanie lies at the center of the film, encountering the peripheral characters of Annie and Lydia, all casualties of diminishing emotional strength.

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 (Lydia) or succumb to it (Annie); it is debatable where Melanie Daniels falls. This meta-textual layer is most discernible through Melanie, who essentially spends ninety-percent of the film watching others break down, die, or question her very purpose in the film (she, of course, is an outsider to both the town and Lydia’s family unit): Lydia confesses to her, in frighteningly depersonalized terms, “I don’t know if I even like you or not” (as if there's nothing Melanie can do - or be - to make Lydia like her... which makes their ultimate embrace of each other in the end not didactically sentimental, but instead something scared and uncertain; a bond that is so humanly full of concession, and thus so achingly delicate, it becomes all the more poignant for being imperfect) and a hysterical woman accuses her of being “the cause of all this” (to which Melanie slaps the woman, whether as a moral rebuke or the intuitive response of a former ice princess with ideals of self-respect, we are left to ponder). But til the bitter end, Hitchcock and his film continue to push her to that ultimate potential breaking point as she unconscionably seems to walk stupidly into a bird-infiltrated attic in the very last slice of the film.

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

Allegorical Construct in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS, Part 1.5

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.

Allegorical and Poetical Construct in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS (1963), Part 1

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) is constructed on pure form. It is, as Francois Truffaut proclaimed, a "cinematic poem." This description is as apt as any other is likely to be, for the film takes on the aspects of poetry like no other film. Poetry is pure emotional viscera waxed intangibly in the signifier of language. Thought of glancingly, poeticism - as embodied in film - is likely typically thought of as created through the signifier of images. But what is most remarkable concerning The Birds is its approximation of poetic structuralism through its deliberate, loosely-driven narrative.
Language and images in literature and in film are usually - typically - associated with the following: communication, story, demonstration, and information. But those are things poetry has little to do with. Thus poetry distinguishes itself as something completely its own medium. It is pure rhyme, without apparent need to provide diversion to all, or extended, conclusive involvement. The Birds exists also as a film no other is quite like, in its uncommonly unique and uncommonly effortless distanciation of narrative. Beyond the superficial composure of what so often is the steadied, tangible real of a text's content, both works of poetry and Hitchcock's one supernatural horror film quickly reveal themselves to be texts constructed of feelings, and not at all of story, or of any sort of data - something that, by very definition, has no place in poetry. They are texts of pure emotional evocation, made by the eloquence of verse and devices of formal composition and allegorical structuralism, not by the declarations of story.

The Birds is propped up by allegorical structures embedded deep within both the poetry medium and the film medium's respective, self-defining compositional techniques - for poetry, the flow, enunciation, and connotation of speech, and conversely for film, the flow, symbology, and expressionism of images. But it being a film that so viscerally feels like a poem, this power hardly relies on symbols and visual pointers. The Birds is a rare work of depth that hardly needs semiotics, Freudian sledgehammers, or any sort of aesthetic affectation. (Rest assured that any perceived camp artifice of the film, or its old-fashioned special effects, or something of such superficial sensory tickling, plays no importance in my view of its remarkable affective poetry.) And since elaborated emotional complexity (in the closely delineated way of psychology or the realistically cohesive life story) is largely inaccessible to poetry (which asks from poets only the shortest, most stirring evocation of condensed cosmologies within their verse), so it is with The Birds that no heavy functionalism (e.g. affirmative narrative exposition or character exposition, as in a biopic, for instance) gets in the way of those attributes so emphasized by poetry: those of pure form (diction, meter, tone, motif, soon translated by Hitchcock to the screen) and those of pure feeling, pure fabulist evocation.
Constructed of universal evocations and not set necessarily in any delineated cross-section of living (if it is, it is the most essential - city life shifting to the provincial, Murnau's Sunrise in reverse), The Birds works just outside narrative conventionality, joining the ranks of his European counterparts like Michelangelo Antonioni, who heralded in the modernist narrative. But even an Antonioni film, even so steeped in allegory and surrealism, finds its narrative reigns within the structures of drama and melodrama. The Birds categorizes more precisely under the realm of "ostensible narrative film," which puts it alongside works of Jean-Luc Godard - his films often being hardly narrative at all but the essay made filmic. Analogously, The Birds is also the transposition of a written form to the screen, in its case, the poem writ on reel (Godard: the essay penned on celluloid), and in both cases, narrative and all its conventions and pay-offs are resolutely missing. Both the Hitchcock poem and the Godard essay manifest knowing, understanding, perceiving, and feeling within the form of their respective literary structure: Godard grafting a dominant essayistic thought process onto a subordinate visual sequence, while Hitchcock shapes plot against the structures of the poem, utilizing in course its numerous formal devices, but most importantly, poetry's singular ownership of non-conclusiveness and unbounded thematic resonances (now being translated to this non-literary, innately diversionary medium, and so creating, through Hitchcock's beautiful rigid vision, one of the most literary and non-diversionary cinematic anomalies conceivable). Also, again in both cases, these films carry more the didactic functions of their wordy derivations, rather than the sweeping, diversionary functions normal to cinema.
Hitchcock wields all the tools and artistic rights which are held by the poet: the freedom to draw broad strokes of poetic conflation, aiming no less than to speak on - and to - humanity as a whole, as an emotional totality, and an existential entirety. The human condition is all but monistic in the allegorical worldview present here in Hitchcock's masterpiece. Poetry does not develop dramatic contrivance and exposition. It does not dwell on inequality. All it is is cosmic intimation of human's very emotional being, through the abstract of language, and likewise is The Birds, which accumulates its power through the abstract of plot.
Has the film even any need of symbols? Despite its ostensible content, it's not a Freudian picture (what kind of kill-joy Freudian picture mentions Freud? Viewers' Freudian quivering is effectively doused with ice water when Annie name drops Oedipus in a quip). "Birds" symbolize nothing in the direct sense and their shape and form are barely focused on or fetishized as reflections of anything in the story. An average killer animal film often makes an effort to establish their beasts as they regularly are, to create the contrast between the normal and the horrifying. Hitchcock makes no such effort, and without the establishment of how humans and birds normally function in presence of each other, the birds hardly even come to represent uncontrollable nature. Contrary to DVD jackets everywhere, The Birds is hardly about humans versus nature, nor environmental cautionary. It is very much set in civilization and our civilization - that is, humans - only (to put it rudely, the film can really give a flying fuck about Nature and the earth). The birds' unknowability is manifest from the very instance Tippi Hedren looks into the bird-amassing midtown San Francisco sky in the first seconds of the picture. The Birds is decidedly a commentary on humans and humans alone. Our nature and no other.
The poem hardly has use for symbols. While a film can get out what it wants to say by having a fairy-tale egg hatch mahogany infants, and then shortly return back to the necessities of story and the banalities of the literally seeable, the poem must unify its imagery to a diaphanous sort of narratology reserved for poetry and that only poetry can achieve. Coleridge's albatross, for instance, although ample allegory, is represented by poetry's diaphanous speech and thus is not just a symbol, but is, or is there, existing within the poem's "narrative" not as a symbol but as the mythic actuality, within the mythic confines of the poem's world/narrative. There is no other albatross but the kind that the Mariner kills and suffers for, the kind that represents Nature itself and Man's divine longings. The Birds and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner function poetically of their allegorical stories and allegorical realities, with no banal realities in opposition (this includes the "banal reality" of attempted poetic movie-making not as wholly successful as Hitchcock is with this film), such that their diegetic symbols do exist, albeit on the same plane of reality they do. Their birds thus exist as flesh and blood, living and breathing entities, in the emotional space of the mythic universe they have created - which is the ideal universal of human existence. In a regular film, of regular narrative prodigality, any metaphoric bird or birds will appear as just that: metaphor, as symbol thrust into unenunciated reality. The Birds does not have its slice-of-life cake and eat it too, but is weened full force into its own cinematic cosmos, smoky and mirrored as it is wholly formed out of the ideal gases of emotional consciousness and nothing more. Hitchcock truly visioned this film, and there is no fat, no unsculpted smoke or arbitrarily placed mirror. It is due to this, the full-blooded creation of its own poetical cosmos (found most notably in the film's absolute structure), that its birds become not a story, a pithy metaphor (think Psycho's "humans are birds" imagery [brilliant in context of that film, of course, but an appropriate counter-example here]), but the story of human existence and its terrors.
How does it achieve this? By nature of its patience, its patience with the superficial narrative and superficial premise that feeds the film's ability to be but the fleeting passage of a terrorizing compassion; a dream of terrorizing compassion, shrouding itself with notions of these physical beings (the characters) and happenings (the plot), but only as stand-ins for existential naggings and the universalism of chess-piece ontology. Thinking of our existence as indistinguishable chess pieces is not dehumanizing as often is thought - it in fact is profoundly humanizing and profoundly humanistic. Recognizing ourselves as beings caught in patterns and even in the control of exterior forces is not defeatist, but in fact the springboard of compassion. It is us recognizing ourselves in the plight of others, and the plight of our film characters, without exclusion of anyone. It is why the careful distancing kept between us and the characters of The Birds is of such importance to the film's profound capacity. The film is thus not just achieving of the feeling of intrinsic pure emotionality of poetry, but the feeling of the intrinsic distance of poetry, as text, and as opposed to cinema. The Birds rejects the verisimilitude of cinema in order to transfer the feel of poetry as emotion embodied in a separate entity. For what is language - to enter further into the realm of Sausurre and linguistics - but an entity completely separate from the real world, that is symbols and metaphor itself?
To move away from its structural ties to poetry, The Birds, in its patient rhythm, follows through in its chosen path of conflating lived life - that which we experience - with the enigma of inner being. It makes the lived world but a manifestation of the deepest anxieties of the inner self. This rhythm being followed through so methodically, the film is then a dream, but one that is as plodding as lived life - one we are doubly "living" with heightened sensitivity to the pain of it all, moving inexorably as if it is indeed one we cannot wake from. This is the film's breath that it sustains, creating all this meaning through sculpting so carefully out of its tone, and rhythm, and structure. This patient narrative rhythm will be described in detail later on, but to begin noticing it, one only has to realize the film as made up of a series of dissolves, a circular film with no decisive cuts or dictating scene changes - even to its last narrative frame.
As a horror film about killer birds, The Birds is aloof in any attempt to actually make the birds threatening or the threat combative. New knowledge or dramatic initiatives are neither gathered nor learned with each rather arbitrary bird attack. As a metaphorical character drama, we are led to neither identify with the characters nor with any growing sense of understanding within them. The characters retain their all-too-human superficiality throughout. Many first-time viewers are quick to compound these distancing aspects as shallow or stilted drama, and find the film especially disappointing compared to the dark and engaging dramatic drives of Psycho and Vertigo. But even amongst those viewers, bewildered by The Birds’ lack of clear narrative payoffs, there is likely a number who cannot deny the uniquely unsettling nature of the film’s harsh and unresolved ending. The ending is the film’s final stroke in communicating its grand and overarching theme - that of the notion of unending incomprehension. This idea of “unending incomprehension” lies at the very center of the film’s dramatic concerns, whether the unexplainable bird attacks or human beings’ very existence as meaningless or fragile things. But even acknowledging this film as the existential mood piece it is would fall short of expressing the extent of the film’s allegorical construct. The Birds’ insidious power is meant to emerge not from mere traditional narrative and emotional rewards but from the film’s incredibly precise formal construction which act to create its thematic vision. The tonal consistency and allegorical arrangement the film builds within its narrative necessitates the harrowing impenetrability of Hitchcock’s fine-stroked emotional milieu of inner desolation.
The film drifts through a plotline so spare, so obliquely simple that the viewer is less thrilled as he is lulled by a plot pacing not too far off from that of real life… at least life as it is strolled through by persons of the most banally placated and unavailingly self-possessed sort, like the characters of this film, which Hitchcock is kind enough to antagonize so demurely for us. They are hardly as interesting as the cynical bacchanalians, deadened bleeding hearts, or even cross-eyed bourgeoisie of European existential dramas. Social, cultural, or class awareness are only feebly grasped by Hitchcock's characters and their offhand social engagement: our hero is a practitioner of that most individualistic of service systems, judicial law, and our heroine apparently is biding her time playing philanthropist with "getting a little Korean boy through school." Hitchcock is not interested in the psychologically derailing rock star or the social restitution of the elite. The film does not want to sensationalize, particularize, or make topical its universal contemplations. His characters are intentionally the blankest of slates.
For despite the film's focusing primarily on well-to-do white people, the thematic points it makes are truly ascendant in their universality. Antonioni and Hitchcock's other European contemporaries may have struck the existentialism ore more prematurely and are decidedly more socially engaged, but their works tend to be very particular ruminations on adult ennui and romantic and/or intellectual disaffection. Hitchcock's emotional concerns are with the banal, not the sexily angst-ridden, where both the man and the woman stew - with something painfully almost like pleasure - in their existential juices (whereas Hitchcock's sex is, evidently, more conservative, Catholic, patriarchal... unsexy... the woman doesn't need to enjoy it - but in the end, neither really do his men. The fact we see the woman suffer is not Hitchcock's sexism, but his terrible identification with the female being). Unlike those European sister films like Fellini and Antonioni's 1960 works, The Birds has a very pertinent generality rooted in the unglamorous, and it lies in its non-aggrandizement of its characters' emotional and intellectual substantiality. Hitchcock has always created films that portray characters in very external ways, such that we see first hand that they hardly know what has hit them until they are knee-deep in something thick and morassy. The Birds, as in many of his works (although I would argue never to this poetic of an extent), weaves this auteurist sensibility into the piece's very fabric of humanist compassion. These characters are made to be thoughtless and entirely skin-deep; they do not aggressively seek their enlightenment or destruction like the characters often do in Antonioni's existential films; instead, the characters of The Birds stumble blindly throughout the film, following emotional instincts dictated to them by Hitchcock, who is completely aware of their needs and their ultimate weakness to their needs. This is often taken for clinical moralism, but in The Birds, it is full-fledged grappling with our existence as wanting, feeling entities.
Allegedly when asked why the birds were attacking, Hitchcock said the film was an indictment on "complacency." At first I scoffed at the reply, thinking he meant mainly "complacency with man's place in the natural order" (as the DVD jackets like to claim). But now, I realize it is a rare instance when a filmmaker, in public statement, gets a film of his absolutely right. "Complacence" is the perfect description of the film's thematic target, and I wonder why I did not realize sooner that it so fully encompasses every single human fear and impertinence the film depicts and works so methodically to denigrate and expose. Its searing brand is meant to burn on every skin.
The film holds sway over a consummate entirety of humanity: anyone who has ever lived carelessly, self-satisfyingly, blindly, shallowly in a state of comfort and deluded self-confidence. This comfort and confidence is innumerable in variations (Melanie Daniels does not have the same emotional comforts and emotional vulnerabilities as those of, say, a powerful druglord), yet The Birds manages to cut to the bone universally for all types of people.
There is a pure extent of emotional pedestals to which I feel The Birds can so universally topple.
I recently watched William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration and it managed to address the powerful sway the persona of the "soldier" (or, if you'd like to, read: "killing machine") has over the male psyche. Blatty's film has the inspiration to fascinatingly meld that masculine persona with the persona of the gentle philosophizer (so expertly executed by the lilting, gentle tones of the simultaneously physically formidable Stacey Keach), which is something also done in Malick's The Thin Red Line, in Jim Caviezel's saintly Florence Nightingale of Kentucky soldiers. Even further the film continued to fascinate me, for it goes on to indulge what would certainly be a vicarious curiosity: what would happen in the following oft-speculated smackdown: Renaissance Man-Killer-Demon-Angel versus Biker Dudes with Eyeliner? These morbid curiosities are born from natural insecurities, in which we imagine ourselves in challenging, unfamiliar environments and wonder if we would be able to survive with our dignity. The vicarious imaginings of the neurotic human being are the opposite extreme to the blind confidence of one's sense of competence and invulnerability, which Hitchcock works to belittle in The Birds. The Mist is another creature feature that does this, using supernatural monsters to show how everyone's sense of standing can be rattled. The religious nut woman can be easily beaten up by the biker dude, but she uses her charismatic power to gain an army as her testosterone. The biker dude is actually a really sensitive, generous man. Nevertheless, he gets thrown to the wolves and eaten. The hero of The Mist gets a free ticket out of putting his life in danger because he has a little son with him. Swaggery dock worker boasts his masculinity, but he may envy that man with the little boy, which frees the man from having to prove his manliness because he's settled down as a caregiver. Maybe the caregiver would prove to be a coward if he did not have his responsibility for his son to hide behind. All these particularized circumstances and the play of insecurities entangled in it expresses the general fragility of having blind complacency in one's own skin. Many things can shake you out of the idea that you are the strongest person in the world.
The Birds aims to upend comfort for everyone, for its threat is completely inhuman, embodied in an immense force of cosmic nature. Mitch Brenner being able to take on biker men and woo their biker babes might make him an ultimate man, but birds are immutable nature and no amount of human bravado can limit the inexplicable terror of this unstoppable flip in the natural order. Nor do they have any bearing on pride, sexuality, strength (physical and emotional), or any facet of the human ego - facets that need constant boosting lest it result in an ego in constant denial and in constant, incorrigible internal weakening. Lydia Brenner's lack in emotional strength, for example, she constantly hides from others and from herself by emotionally domineering her son's girlfriends. The bird attacks break this denial down full force.
While The Birds is not at all about anxieties in masculinity (its focal characters, after all, are women), it still manages to tap into this anxiety in me, for the film succeeds in portraying the inevitable disruption of our comfort zones in an incredibly general and encompassing way. This ability to make us relate to the film - despite most of us not being rich newspaper chief-publisher's daughters - lies in the fact that self-awareness has no convincing role in the film's affect. Most films have character arcs. Inherent in a film having character arcs is a certain awareness in the characters that, in approximately 2 time-elipsing hours, they will reach a conclusiveness in their emotional states. In The Birds, this awareness is non-existent because the characters are driven toward no sense of meaning and purpose in their being. The characters are blind to the deep meaning they help create in the film.
Similarly, in the real world, people live their lives blindly, denying the fact that somewhere in the world is circumstances that will reveal you in a vulnerable state, making you see in yourself that nagging pathological flaw you cannot escape, whether that be a lack (or excess) of self-confidence, weak emotional strength, a lack of a sense of humor, a lack of libido, being too happy, too depressive... anything or everything. Universality lies in The Birds' depiction of the plight of the blind. Just think about Dan Fawcett's vacant eye sockets... the shattering glasses of the little girl... the children slapping at attacking creatures out of their line of sight... Mitch picking up a rock to throw at a single, arbitrarily targeted crow, a silly and futile gesture not only because he might provoke an attack but because the threat is not one bird, but a diffuse and limitless, practically metaphysical, force of the birds. During the climactic house siege, Melanie's strange, demented rolling against the walls as she hears the sound of the birds is so hard to understand because the fact is, she is looking at nothing. Nor can she really imagine this awesome lurking fear, unless really she imagines the whole world, engulfed in the darkness of this swarming stand in for inner despair and utter emotional desolation. When she claws at the camera after the assault in the attic, we are finally sure she is seeing this total engulfment as her arms grab desperately towards both nothing, and us.