Thursday, October 25, 2007

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.

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