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.

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