Tuesday, September 18, 2012

RUTZ Classic Movies: "The Birds"

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock    

Line that stays with me: “Don't they ever stop migrating?”


Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.

The pleasure of watching a great Hitchcock film to me is so varied. Very few film directors have worked as hard as Alfred Hitchcock did to offer us so much on an emotional level. He is known as the “Master of Suspense” rightfully so, and suspense is the key emotion to all of cinema.  A film should always keep your mind stuck on “What’s going to happen next?” Meaning, you forget about your troubles for the next two hours and instead become emotionally involved with what is happening on the screen. To me that is very pivotal for a film, to make people jump through an open window and get lost on the other side. Sadly, not many films offer us that sort of experience these days and when you watch a great Alfred Hitchcock film like “The Birds” you instantly notice the difference in approach. Most films today spoon feed you realities; Alfred Hitchcock created beautifully thought out realities very akin to paintings and wants you to look around. Alfred Hitchcock understood that every human being is built with a natural hunger for voyeurism. Not much of a surprise, the way we are thrown into this world who wouldn’t have an appetite to know what’s happening around us and the unknown. As children we would peek over fences, I remember being in 2nd grade sneaking around the school parking lot to catch my teacher smoke a cigarette. Why? Because it was interesting to watch, I kept wondering, what’s bothering her? To me that is cinema at its best, the visuals set the scene and we become emotionally involved. A bad film will go straight to dialog, giving us a lot of blah, blah, yada, yada scenes that are stale setups and couldn’t be blander. Hitchcock’s nakedness with his voyeurism gave his films room for you to breathe. Dialog is not used in a feverish manner but instead saved for appropriate moments to properly move the story forward. It is a great balance that many films lack these days and it isn’t horrible but it just makes those film experiences as comparable to a fast food restaurant. Hitchcock always offered us a five star meal.

Beauty is very important in Hitchcock films. I love him for that. You can almost sense his tension that comes from looking at a beautiful woman. Alfred Hitchcock never really wrote his own scripts but history shows that he worked very closely with his screenwriters in developing the stories he wanted to tell. That’s why I think his films always feel very personal even when the story seems to have nothing to do with his private life. “The Birds” is a perfect example of this theory.  I believe “The Birds” is Hitchcock’s visual poem to women.  This theory fascinates me for various reasons. For starters, let us not forget that Alfred Hitchcock was imported from the UK. Bird in British slang is defined as:  a female, usually very attractive. This is a big clue to understanding the many facets of Hitchcock’s film. All three main female characters, Melanie, Annie Hayworth and Mitch’s mother Lydia are very attractive females. You can tell that Mitch’s mother was once a beauty and it adds a layer to her character that is crucial to the film. Alfred Hitchcock is elaborating on the “Pretty Complex” if you are knowledgeable with his work; you know that Alfred Hitchcock thrived in psychoanalysis. In this boring America where you can’t call someone ugly, films that use looks in this manner I very much crave. Most films use women’s beauty as a plot device; you know “distract the guard”. Alfred Hitchcock was always attuned to the power of images and understood that beauty is a powerful tool. Through his characters he displayed the emotional weight that comes from living a life as being recognized as one of the beautiful people. Melanie’s attitude throughout the films confirms this. Any lawyer will tell you that appearances matter, bottom line pretty people get more breaks than ugly people. Nothing to cry about, but it is great when a director recognizes these factors and uses it to make his characters hold some sort of truth. 

 From the first scene in the bird shop we can see Melanie in all her true colors. The way she was dolled up by Hitchcock and the legendary Edith Head is stunning; she looks like a walking Barbie doll at times. In the bird shop she exuberates energy thrusting with confidence and control with the flair of someone that can get anything she wants by blinking her eyes. Without even noticing she makes the clerk in the bird store uncomfortable and discreetly forces her to deliver the birds to her house. The beauty aspect of Melanie’s character also correlates perfectly with the story as she is tired of being treated as a plaything. She wants Mitch to take her seriously and put the fun days of “Rome” behind her. Hitchcock’s careful tact in creating his characters makes great use of Tippi Hedren’s beauty. She is not just up there for show but her whole appearance is an integral part of the story. The brilliance of this film is hard to cage and gets even more impressive when Melanie and Mitch’s mother Lydia meet.  It is easy to make a film called “The Birds” concerning some random group of people. (Like most disaster films) It is another thing entirely to create a strong visual metaphor to match your story. When a film is this thought out you can’t help but watch it again to discover more of its grand ideas. Usually when a bird attacks you it is because you are too close to its nest.  In the film we have two women who have created a sort of nest around Mitch. When Melanie arrives on their territory is when things begin to go haywire. She meets Annie Hayworth first; you can sense the conflict between the two but Annie decides to stay calm thus filling her mind with a quiet rage. Shortly after that, Melanie is attacked by a Seagull. One of the theories why the birds attack goes like this: Since birds use the Earth’s magnetic fields to travel, the emotional disturbance felt by Lydia and Annie brought upon Melanie’s arrival is causing the birds to wreak havoc. It makes sense if you follow the film closely. Doesn’t matter if it’s true, no truth on the matter is ever revealed. Like a mesmerizing painting “The Birds” is instantly beautiful, yet forever long filled with mystery. 

As I said before Hitchcock’s “The Birds” to me is very much a poem to women and all the roles that they play in many men’s lives. For example all the important characters in the film besides Mitch are women.  Melanie is the new love interest, Annie, the ex-girlfriend, Lydia, the mother and Cathy, Mitch’s baby sister.  As you can see these are important roles that almost every man has to deal with on a day to day basis. We never truly get to know Mitch, we learn more about Mitch through the women in his life. The point of this set-up to me adds a great foundation for the film’s theme on female psychological behavior and how drastically women change throughout their lives. We have a young girl excited about her surprise birthday party, a fierce pretty young lady whose looks allow her to approach situations with very little boundaries, a bitter broken hearted woman and the abandoned mother. If you put all those pieces together you will realize that all those characters represent women in a sort of chronological order.  Most women will start life as Cathy and end up being afraid of being alone like Lydia. Mitch (which is just one letter away from Hitch) is a very simple man and that’s the whole point.  Women are emotional creatures thus go through more intense changes in life. Men do not have much maternal instincts so like Mitch we get caught in the middle of all the emotional madness. That’s basically what you are watching in “The Birds”. Mitch, dealing with an aging mother, a strange stalker-ish ex-girlfriend, a possible new love interest who demands to be taken seriously and his innocent little sister who he must protect. The horror that Hitchcock is truly trying to get across in my opinion is that the women we love are all those things at once. This represents a strong sense of fear that Hitchcock has towards women, which is apparent in many of his films. I love the honesty of what he is trying to say with his feelings, it doesn’t sound righteous but it is very honest. It takes all the silly dreams of grandeur that many people have about beautiful women and flushes it down the toilet. “The Birds” invaluable insight on these beautiful creatures called women is fascinating yet he never relies on making a point. Alfred Hitchcock, a man dedicated to voyeurism knew that there is no need for a point when behavior itself is beyond interesting.  Which when you think about it that is very akin to the feeling you get when you watch a bird flying through the sky, fascination. 

I very much admire Alfred Hitchcock’s dedication in creating a well thought out movie with many layers for us to discover, but I also love how he respects a genre. This film has some classic disaster/horror clichés which Hitchcock wisely uses as comical relief and to make the film feel like a movie. We meet an “expert”, the stubborn old lady in the diner who knows everything about birds and later in a great moment of shame hides her face in defeat. There’s the hilarious crazy drunk at the bar who speaks of the end of the world and quotes the bible. The “freaked out mother” character who worries about the children and later manically blames Melanie for the birds attacking. The characters I just broke down can be found in countless genre films like “The Birds”, and keeps the film from becoming too serious or realistic. Hitchcock made movies; he was not trying to capture some oblique truth about real life like some lost film student. He was interested in making great popcorn movies filled with suspense and interesting characters. Making popcorn movies is an art form that involves great writing, grand vision, and the talent to highlight moments from life that would bode well in a popcorn movie. What makes Alfred Hitchcock a legend is the fact that his movies were created with popcorn movie intentions but are stuffed with a wide variety of sub-text, and technical beauty that truly make them a work of art. He had the ability to confront mainstream audiences with dark truths almost on a sub-conscious level all the while keeping them exquisitely uncomfortable. 

Many of the best directors of the last three generations are creative children of Hitchcock. Watch Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (The kids in the jeep scene is an homage to a similar scene in “The Birds”) Brian De Palma has dedicated much of his career to reworking some of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant techniques.  His dedication to creating films that have grace and beauty of the kind that only a perfectionist can deliver is a reason I believe his work will continue to inspire future generations.  A shot of Annie Hayworth standing next to her mailbox is epic because he decided to take the time to find the BEST way to frame that shot and coordinated the colors on the screen for the optimal viewing pleasure.  None of his films mired in mediocrity. He loved to be innovative and desired for us to follow him down dark tunnels that will lead to new cinematic experiences. His classic horror film “Psycho” was created with that mentality and that film changed the horror genre forever. “The Birds” works in a similar way as the film begins with Hitchcock’s love for interesting situations and later it becomes an interesting situation that gets attacked by birds. Unlike most films where it’s usually a very bland situation (with dull characters) peppered with an attack by aliens, comets or whatever Hollywood hacks agree on as a strong selling point. Hitchcock was very different in that regard; he wanted his work to mean something to transcend time. The only way to do that is to elaborate on some human truths that will never go away. Love, pain, fear, jealousy and dealing with a mother. His grand style at first makes his films seem very impersonal but if you listen and pay attention, you will begin to hear echoes of his screaming heart.    

ABOUT RCM: RUTZ Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown"


1 comment:

  1. You best described why Hitchcock is a legend: his films truly are "exquisitely uncomfortable". Enjoyed this essay, thanks!