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.

No comments: