I’m not a fan of the cinema in general, but there are certain directors I like, and one of those is Alfred Hitchcock. I think his work is clever, and I also think it’s what film ought to be. Hitchcock said that the audience ought to be able to understand what is happening in a film if the sound was turned off, and I think that’s the key to great cinema. The plot ought to be transferred to the visual domain and the dialogue can then dance and weave around it. But I really don’t know much about movies and that part of my critical brain is a bit addled. I tend to choose easy, candyfloss movies to watch, and I like the old ones, when it was about great acting and a witty, snappy script rather than special effects.
Anyhow, this weekend we watched The Birds and I was stunned by it. It’s a horrible movie, profoundly frightening in a queasy, menacing way. I realized half way through that it deserved to be situated in the horror genre and that it was, therefore, the first true horror movie I had ever sat through. Or sat almost all the way through. The last half hour or so builds to such intolerable tension that I found myself going to make cups of tea, and considering blogging, just to get away from the screen. It’s the simplest of stories; birds begin to attack people in a small coastal resort north of San Francisco. At first the attacks are brief and intermittent, but quickly the numbers of birds involved in each escalates until the town is inundated with these murderous marauders. The film eschews all possible reasons for this phenomenon, choosing instead to scare us all witless by the absence of comforting explanations. Horror is what happens when reason goes absent without leave, I think. The more desperately reason is required and the more its reassurance is withheld, the closer we get to the experience of the horrific.
So, caught up in these attacks are Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who begin a relationship whilst the terror takes hold. Melanie has met Mitch in a pet store (and they spar over a pair of lovebirds, symbolically enough), and coming off the worst, Melanie buys the birds, finds out where Mitch lives, and ‘delivers’ them secretly to his home. It’s an attention-getting ploy that works, and she is quickly welcomed into the family – although not by Mitch’s mother, the supremely and brilliantly neurotic Jessica Tandy, who has never recovered from the loss of her husband and is excessively possessive of her son. Mitch has a younger sister, Cathy, and he has an ex-lover who has yet to get over him (Annie). So the film starts in a way that promises to play out these emotionally-laden relationships, but then veers off into a desperate struggle for survival against a vicious, persistent and determined enemy. Now, being a literary type, I thought it intriguing that these interpersonal plot lines should all fade away, but I figured that their abandonment was meant to indicate that these subtle, nuanced relationship issues are only open to us when we’re not fighting for our lives. It’s what we do when survival isn’t an issue. And I suppose I thought it might also be about the battle man v. nature, which man is always destined to lose, despite his so-called superior consciousness. It’s not much use to him when faced with a flock of birds all determined to peck his eyes out. But then trawling around the internet to see what other people thought, a very different picture emerged, summed up by this critic:
It is about three needy women (literally ‘birds’) – and a fourth from a younger generation – each flocking around and vying for varying degrees of affection and attention from the sole, emotionally-cold male lead, and the fragile tensions, anxieties and unpredictable relations between them. The attacks are mysteriously related to the mother and son relationship in the film – anger (and fears of abandonment or being left lonely) of the jealous, initially hostile mother surface when her bachelor son brings home an attractive young woman. […] On an allegorical level, the birds in the film are the physical embodiment and exteriorization of unleashed, disturbing, shattering forces that threaten all of humanity (those threatened in the film include schoolchildren, a defenseless farmer, bystanders, a schoolteacher, etc.) when relationships have become insubstantial, unsupportive, or hurtful.
When I first read this I had the feeling I wonder whether other people have when they read my literary criticism. I thought, blimey, is that for real? Did we both see the same film? Anyway, I thought about it some more, and I can see that the disjunction between the two halves of the film, the first inter-family relationship part, and the second horrific, attacking birds part, is what gets all the critics going. It’s crying out for explanation, and inevitably the viewer wonders how it is that Melanie’s arrival in the town seems to trigger the murderous behaviour of the birds. There’s a scene in the local café when the inhabitants are all trying out possible explanations for the attacks and none seem particularly plausible. The birds attack again and then one hysterical mother points her finger at Melanie and screams that it’s all her fault. And yet I still hold to my instinctual feeling that narrative is particularly frightening when it refuses to explain itself, and so it’s more frightening to wonder whether it would be possible to be the cause of some terrible catastrophe than to know for sure, one way or the other. Maybe it’s Melanie and her rather appropriative passion for Mitch, but maybe it isn’t. Watching a film is all about identification, I think, slipping into the characters skins because it’s so easy to do, sitting in the darkness of the cinema. And horror is about identifying with the victim in a very uneasy way, feeling the ghastly flutter of the birds wings about your face, it’s claws dragging at the nape of your neck, its beak pecking aggressively at your vulnerable skin. So as a woman I watched this (though laced fingers in parts) and identified with being thrown into a life-threatening situation that might be the result of bad karma but might just have happened in the cussed way that life does, as I was getting to know a nice man, despite his nightmare of a mother.
At the end of all this, I found myself left with a conundrum, which can be expressed as: do the critical interpretations of this film try too hard? And is that why literary and film analysis get bad names for themselves, because they seek always to go beyond the obvious, which is arguably not the best idea? I thought the complex explanations were fun, but they didn’t touch me. I didn’t read them saying: oh, of course that’s what it meant! The overriding experience of the movie for me was just to come away eyeing the pigeons in the garden with a wary and deferential respect. But I’m a child when it comes to films, so I’m quite ready to believe that I have it all wrong.