Monday, August 27, 2012

Scene from 'The Birds'

In a film of many a controlled, commandeered set piece, from a filmmaker of generally much bold maneuvers, this incredibly soft-pedaled scene strikes deeply because of its artful modesty, its subjugation to the caveats of a cinematic consciousness conscripted to a conscionability of style that denies all other commands but one to humanness -- an unfettered (and no more feted) humanness of the camera, of a sort of rumpled, ruffled, unpresumptuous cinematographic empathy.  Not quite the painstaking, storyboarded masterclass of the usual Hitchcock sequence, all there is to this scene is its unassuming formalism and structure of sensitivity, found in its simple progression from medium wide frames to an emphatic jump closer to the Jessica Tandy character, accompanied by a suddenly animated camera that imbues a simple panning motion with a surfeit of compassion and wise, sagacious pity.

The scene is accompanied by the background sound of Debussy's "Arabesque No. 1" on the piano (being played off-screen by the Tippi Hedren character), and it's much apropos this scene - with all of Debussy's civilized yet barely contained melodies of longing for glistening, heavenly ideals - of a conversation between a self-reliant son and his civil mother, who actually hides within herself a perpetual terror (the one-half of perpetual longing).

The scene finishes off on the piece's most plaintive section, the final fade-out on the mother's fearful face accompanied by a false resolution in the piece, fading out on demure A-major notes that perfectly reflect Lydia's carefully maintained emotional containment, which is not so much a mask of repression as it is the one, faintly resigned avenue in keeping from that complete terror.

I maintain quite coincidentally, but this is very much a companion entry to the previous "Scene from" from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The simplicity of the scenes are very much the same, and shared between them is the same sort of unpretentious camera movement - essentially that of a swiveling/panning human head - in response to the insistent movements of the characters before it. While the scene from '2001' communicated with its very corporeally restrained camera the clinical documentation of our future history, the camera in this scene from 'The Birds' is hugely emotive in its [precisely] floundering camera eye.

Neither scene are grandiloquent, neither of utterly self-possessing cinematography.  Yet they are composed and precise in a way of high rhetorical effort, the result of which they become most notably of a terrible sensitivity, with regards to equity, charitableness, and human courtesy (after all, the camera is placed entirely at our level) to the people or event that takes place before them.  Here in The Birds, a camera is wholly human - alive with a carefully mimicked sense of genuine human nervous reaction to Mitch's repeated entrances, and seeming to ache in feeling as much as Jessica Tandy's character in the story, whom the scene is devoted to presenting to us.

Scene from 'The Birds'

A kitchen talk between mother and adult son.  One of those casual conversations that isn't casual at all.  It begins with the business of their hands (Lydia, washing the dishes; Mitch tidying a table) distracting them from how easily they betray themselves in what they say (his superficiality, her superciliousness and agitation).  [Actually, let me briefly compare this scene to the Toolbox Murders "Laundry Scene" I looked at here - just the beginnings and their depiction of characters wholly disclosing the metaphorical essence of their relationship, through their speaking to each other while caught up in a second, although ostensibly primary, action.]

"She's a charming girl, isn't she, Mitch?"
(offscreen) "Hm?  Yes."
"Certainly pretty.  How long have you known her?" 

To begin with, two medium wide shots, jointly separate. They alternate steadily, but not entirely according to who is speaking, as it is edited with true attention to the emotional subtext of the scene.
"Now I told you, dear.  We met yesterday."
"In a bird shop."
(Mitch, confirming:) "In a bird shop."
"She was selling birds?" 
"Well, no, no.  I just led her into believing that I believed she was, and then... Well, it's all very complicated."
"But she did buy the love birds..."
"... then drive all the way up here."
Mitch walks around the table to the other side of it. Not cutting to him, though, the movement becomes a part of Lydia's allotment of the scene.  This can be seen as effectively the first official, formalist hint that this scene belongs to Lydia -- Mitch the one who acts upon the one who owns the scene, effecting her portion of the space as he does now and, as we'll see, continues to do to a most explicit degree as the scene follows.
(offscreen) "Mother?"
"Where did you go to law school?"
Mitch, now on the other side of the table, delivers on his adult charm with a mollifying quip.  The blocking is active - the next step is to make it crystal clear in the visual design, and Hitchcock does just that, with the added grace of using this changing of place to emphasize this moment showing in full form Mitch's unflappable being, his utter security.
And with this moment of unflinching, unwavering charm, we cut to the closer frame on Lydia, utterly wavering, intractably without charm to balance her shaky existence and ease her fears:
She laughs it off.  "Forgive me.  I suppose I'm just naturally curious about a girl like that."
"She's very rich, isn't she?"
"Yeah, I suppose so."
"Her father's part-owner of one of the big newspapers in San Francisco."
We maintain this closer frame of Lydia throughout now, allowing us to remain attentive to her, and we quickly see her retreat to her cultivated pettiness, defense against her deeper troubles.
"You think he could manage to keep her name out of print."
And so, what begins now is an uninterrupted shot from here on out to the end of the scene.  It is this shot of Lydia at the sink, as she makes her remaining stream of petty, mannerly comments regarding gossip of Melanie Daniels.  She does it intractably, still without charm, her back fixed towards Mitch - and so, he is forced to gravitate towards her to speak to her, being still the accountable son to his mother.

The camera deals with this with a gentle sense of humor, which is wholly a part of its gentle sense of sympathy, to both inconvenienced son and self-suppressing mother.  It pans casually leftward to compensate the entrance of Mitch into the space behind her:
"She's always mentioned in the columns, Mitch."
"Yes, I know."
He exits.  Again, with its very gentle humor, the camera swivels back to center on Lydia, now that Mitch has swiftly evicted himself from the gravid space around his mother.
"She is the one who jumped into a fountain last summer in Rome, isn't she?"
The shot remains uninterrupted, and Mitch returns to the space behind his mother.  The camera repeats the same motion, panning leftward.  With this play of camera, the scene has effectively become a structuralist cinematic representation of a relationship.
"I suppose I'm old fashioned... actually, the newspapers said she was naked."
"Yes, I know, dear."

Impeccable performances by both actors in this scene.  Rod Taylor's Mitch is a fascinating figure of perfect masculine constancy, his emotional response to his mother's inappropriate gossip-mongering not arrested-development impetuousness, nor fully-mature adult disapproval, but simply an obtuse impatience.

And again he spirits himself away from his mother, agitated by his inability to make a decisive move.  The camera again whisks back to center on Lydia.

"Of course it's none of my business, but when..."
"... you bring a girl like that--"
(interrupting) "Darling?" 
Mitch returns, having had enough and knowing how to nip this in the bud.  The camera whisks back to accommodate the two shot.

Hitchcock's mise en scene is perfectly natural, perfectly unassuming, but still absolutely composed, a fascinatingly proportionate portrait of mother and son (looming son, isolated head of mother).

"I think I can handle Melanie Daniels by myself."
"Well... as long as you know what you want, Mitch."
"I know exactly what I want."
Steady pan back to a one shot.

Hitchcock's camera presents to us a rhetoric, a way of speech about what is before it.  It is not expressionist terrorizing (think of the scene if it used a frontal shot of Lydia, Mitch looming behind her, all information contained in the single shot of overblown identification with Lydia, or Mitch), or romanticist exaggeration (imagine the scene with a smooth crane that tracks the length between Mitch and Lydia, the mechanical limitlessness of the camera suddenly pushing more the humor than the compassion).  This scene knows of the analytical reaches of restraint, and it locates artistic exquisiteness in modest form, contentment in unobtrusive profundity.