Honorable Mention for the 2009 Film Studies Program Best Undergraduate Essay Award

 

Matt Riffle

16 March 2009

English 578: Final Paper

 

Wings of Change

 

 

            The 1960s were a time of immense change in the United States, both from a cinematic and a societal standpoint.  As the tastes of the masses shifted toward a desire for more explicit content in their various media, the American film industry was forced to alter the cinematic recipe for the consumption of the masses.  Gone were the traditional Hollywood themes and characters.  “Happy endings” became cliché, traditional heroes passé, and the journey from a film’s introduction to its climax seemed to contain more sex, violence, and/or profanity-laced language.  Film began to focus less on what was being shown on the screen, and more on how it was being shown.  As Paul Monaco said, it was a shift toward the “cinema of sensation” (Monaco 2).  Alfred Hitchcock relished this opportunity to create under less restrictive circumstances.  With a reputation for crafting film to illicit certain responses from his audience, Hitchcock had essentially been toying with the “cinema of sensation” idea for years, albeit Hitchcock blended masterfully artful, literary content with 60s-era sensationalism.  While Hitchcock’s Psycho is largely considered “the turning point for American feature film” (Monaco 2), The Birds, released only a few years later, contains numerous stylistic nods to 1960s cinema.  Even the structure of the film suggests a departure from traditional methods, as Donald Spoto notes: “The Birds is nothing like a traditional narrative with a beginning, a middle and a firm conclusion” (Spoto 330).   Despite its roots in “cinema of sensation,” the film acts as something of a social commentary or societal predictor, in that the birds in Hitchcock’s film parallel the women’s rights movement of the 1960s. 

            Even the film’s title serves as a double entendre, invoking both the name of Bodega Bay’s terrorizers and the popular British slang term for women.  The film’s star, at times, is even bird-like in appearance.  After Melanie Daniel’s purchase of two lovebirds, we see the heroine dressed almost identically in a light green business suit.  Bright colors are essential for attracting a mate in the wild, and Melanie is undertaking a practice usually reserved for the males in the animal world.  Even Ms. Daniel’s painted red lips seem to mimic the scarlet-colored heads of the lovebirds. 

            Though the feminist movement in the United States would become larger and create more of an impact in the late 1960s, rumblings of the coming change were felt much earlier in the decade.  Those sentiments, likewise, were felt early in the film, also.  In the opening scene at the pet store, Mitch expresses his desire to purchase a pair of lovebirds, but he wants to make sure they’re “not too demonstrative, not too aloof” (Birds).  In keeping with the birds-as-women theme, this line seems to speak to the contradictions faced by women of the time.  They are expected to blend outward sexuality and conservative values, while at the same time repressing sexual urges without crossing the line of frigidity.  They should perhaps remain “aloof” in their public displays of affection, and “demonstrative” around their partners behind closed doors.  Women are expected to keep their feelings caged, just as the lovebirds.

            Mitch ponders this caging himself, asking Melanie how she feels about “Having all these poor little innocent creatures caged up like this” (Birds)?  Melanie replies, “Well we can’t just let them fly around the shop, you know” (Birds)?  This expresses an issue very important to the women’s suffrage movement: the idea that women must be somehow separated from their male counterparts, held to different standards.  Melanie further expresses that the caging is to “protect the species” (Birds), as if the smaller, weaker sex is lost or helpless without the boundaries erected by the men.  Also, when Melanie attempts to retrieve the canary she loosed in the pet store, both she and the shop employee reach for the bird as it circles the room.  Hitchcock shoots the action from a low angle, placing the bird high in the frame while showing the outstretched arms of its would-be captors.  In this instance, the bird is a figure of superiority, and the women are striving to achieve the freedom it has recently been afforded.

            A particularly important scene, both from filmmaking and narrative perspectives, revolves around Lydia Brenner’s trip to Fawcett farm.  Soon after entering Farmer Fawcett’s home, Lydia’s eyes become transfixed on the shattered teacups hanging in a cabinet.  Hitchcock, by focusing on Lydia’s own broken teacups only a scene ago, invokes a sense of impending doom.  The audience can see the concern in Lydia’s eyes as she reluctantly turns to search the hallway.  The camera’s stationary position behind Lydia gives a sense of entrapment, as if the walls of the foreshortened hall are closing on the helpless woman.  The camera remains “too far removed from where the action is apparently going to take place” (Giannetti 93), seemingly refusing to walk with Lydia, and almost begging her not to continue the investigation.  Finally she turns toward a room, and a quick cut reveals the chaos inside: A shattered window, a bloody seagull lodged within the pane.  The bright red immediately attracts the eye, as it is (to this point) the only instance of red in the entire scene.  Lydia slowly looks down to catch a pair of legs, obscured from the knees-up by the doorframe, their bare feet cut and bleeding.  As she peers around the doorway, she finally makes the gruesome realization of the farmer’s lifeless body, his eye sockets dark, hollow, and oozing.  Two subsequent shots are quickly edited together, each one taking the viewer closer and closer to the slashed and empty face, until the head fills the frame.  As quickly as a pair of terrified heartbeats, the viewers’ eyes shift to the negative space where eyes once rested.  The gore associated with this scene is reflective of the increasingly lax censorship rules by the Motion Picture Association in the 1960s.  Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense is also on display, his adept use of cuts, timing, and mise en scène to draw a specific reaction from the viewer.

In terms of the story, farmer Fawcett’s is the first death directly associated with the bird attacks.  Not surprisingly, the first victim is a male.  It should also be noted, the man was maimed, with his eyes taken along with his life.  These eyes are indicative of the male gaze which tended so often to objectify and distort women.  These eyes refused to see beyond outward appearance to the potential within the opposite gender.  Farmer Fawcett is used as an example of the coming changes ready to be unleashed by the flock.

Lydia’s shock at the scene is deeper than simply terror at the sight of death.  She represents the woman of an era passed.  She is indicative of the attitudes displayed by previous generations of women.  Throughout the film, Lydia fears losing her son to Melanie and constantly laments the passing of her husband.  Without either of these male figures in her life, she feels helpless.  While she lies in bed following her discovery at Fawcett Farm, she reveals to Melanie, “I wish I were stronger.”  And when she remarks on the absence of her husband, she reveals, “I wish I could be like that.”  In the words of Camille Paglia, we see “how staid and grandmotherly Lydia is” (Paglia 44).  She thrives in the traditional motherly, housewife-type role to which the birds seem antithetical.  It is this reluctance to embrace independence that also puts her at odds with Melanie, who exhibits more modern thought patterns and tendencies.  

This would also explain Lydia’s friendly relationship with Annie, following Annie’s failed attempt to court Mitch.  Annie’s hunt for Mitch is an example of the reversing gender roles Lydia finds so unnatural.  More than just the fear of being replaced in Mitch’s life (a recurring theme given her perceived intentions of Melanie), Lydia cannot help but be disgusted with the unladylike actions of Annie.  Though Anne has since settled down and taken on the traditional role of “schoolmarm,” it is apparent that she was once very similar to Melanie in attitude.  Both traveled out to Bodega Bay alone, both with the intention of hunting down their game.  But somewhere along the way, Annie lost her fire for change, began dressing in drab, neutral colors, and accepted her predefined role.  Not surprisingly, the relationship between Lydia and Annie strengthened at this point.  The relationship between Annie and the birds, however, did not.

Annie seems to be at the center of one of the film’s largest gatherings and demonstrations, which occurs outside the Bodega Bay school.  Slowly, quietly, only a few at time, the birds assemble on the school’s playground equipment, directly behind Melanie who awaits the dismissal of young Cathy.  Hitchcock again builds suspense by using a plodding, deliberate schoolchildren’s verse, looped over the entire scene, mimicking a clock or a countdown.  The heroine waits unsuspectingly, calmly smoking a cigarette while the camera occasionally shifts to the danger mounting behind her.  With each cut, the frame fills with more and more birds, soon enveloping the equipment’s metal bars.  Melanie’s attention is drawn to a single black bird as it flies overhead, its path traced by both the camera and her eye, until landing with the rest of the flock.  Tippi Hedren’s eyes tell the rest of the story: shock, surprise, but an underlying determination to quietly alert Annie and the children.  She and Annie take charge of the situation, pulling the students together and trying to round them to safety.  The birds, however, would have none of it.  Swooping and diving at the kids, the birds peck and slash the traditional notion of motherhood.  By making human offspring the latest targets, they reinforce the ideas of women’s independence.  The birds relay that women are no longer content to simply settle down, start a family, and wait round the home for the school day to end.  The brutal attacks almost imply a sort of contraceptive.  The primitive form of abortion being acted out by the birds could be traced to the first birth control pill released in the early 1960s, which “changed women’s lives dramatically, mainly because they could now postpone or avoid bearing children” (Ching 76).    

By the end of the attacks, we find that Annie has not been spared.  While attempting to protect Cathy, one of the birds’ targets, Annie is killed.  Consider it punishment for abandoning the progressiveness she exhibited earlier in life, and for now deliberately standing in the way of the birds’ own progress.  After the arrival of Mitch and Melanie to Annie’s house, Mitch carries the body inside.  Upon exiting, Hitchcock shoots the house from head-on, placing Mitch, Melanie, and Cathy in the bottom two-thirds of the screen, while a handful of birds occupy the dominant upper third of the frame.  The birds are again placed in a position of superiority. 

Melanie would not suffer the same fate as Annie.  Toward the end of the film, with the family boarded up within the Brenner house, Melanie hears a disturbance in the attic.  She chooses to examine the source of the disruption alone, which is the key.  Despite Mitch playing the masculine role of protector for the entire evening (building with tools, giving orders, and fighting wild animals), Melanie ventures into the attic alone.  Of course, the space is brimming with birds, making Melanie’s attempt ultimately futile.  Mitch is soon dispatched to pull her from the room, and despite emotional and physical shock, Melanie survives.  She is spared because, even though her attempt to handle the situation was unsuccessful, she tried.  In the face of fear, Melanie would not abandon her belief that she is as fit for the task as anyone.  This attempt even granted the family safe passage as they piled into Melanie’s car and ventured toward San Francisco.  The flock parted and allowed Melanie and the Brenners to leave, perhaps sensing that their message had been received by this group of humans.

            As with most revolutions, there is pain involved.  The pain inflicted upon the residents of Bodega Bay is a physical manifestation of the emotional turmoil surrounding the women’s rights movement of the 1960s.  The discomfort of stepping out of line and changing the status quo, of not knowing where these actions might lead, and dealing with the consequences of change, are reflected in the characters of The Birds.  Inside the diner, the ornithologist suggests that the birds are right in this regard, saying, “Birds are not aggressive creatures; they bring beauty into this world.  It’s mankind that insists on making things difficult” (Birds).  Some, like Mitch and his mother Lydia, grow to accept the changes spurred by the birds and live with the new landscape.  Others, like Annie, are unable to thrive in the transformed world, and perish.  Hitchcock used the veil of “cinema of sensation” as a means of commenting upon the upcoming changes to the social landscape.  By incorporating new creative freedoms afforded him by the changing 1960s film industry, Hitchcock crafted a film which could be easily shown in either an art house or a multiplex.

 

 

Works Cited

 

 

The Birds.  Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perfs. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor. DVD.  Universal

            Studios. 1963

 

Ching, Jacqueline, and Juliet Ching. Women's Rights (Individual Freedom, Civic

            Responsibility). New York: Rosen Group, 2001.

 

Giannetti, Louis. Understanding movies. 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson

Education, 2007.

 

Monaco, Paul. The Sixties, 1960-1969. Berkeley: University of California P, 2003.

 

Paglia, Camille. The Birds. London: BFI. 1998.

 

Spoto, Donald. Art of Alfred Hitchcock fifty years of his motion pictures. 2nd ed. New

            York: Doubleday, 1992.