Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Birds (1963)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Roderick Heath

“Back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.”

The Birds introduces us to Melanie Daniels, a socialite in the fullest sense of the word. A creature of her big-city environment, comfortable with her social and sexual status, adroit, adept at getting what she wants. Intelligent, wily, occupied, but powerfully bored, indulging her not-very-serious whims until they have serious results. We find all these things out about her in the first scene of The Birds - in the still-got-it smile she gives at getting a wolf-whistle on the street; in how she pretends to be a shopgirl for the benefit of Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor); in how she’s irritated by Mitch having taken her in rather than vice versa, and then chiding her because of one of her stunts that he felt should have gotten her jailed; in how swiftly she tracks down the identity of this handsome, authoritative pest, so at odds with Melanie’s flittering interests. When Mitch ends the joke with the above-quoted line, he identifies Melanie as a prisoner, a practical joker for whom the joke is on herself, in her dissociation from responsibility. The line is, of course, a double pun. In The Birds, humans are living in a gilded cage, fluttering behind bars, delivered from the dangerous freedom of true flight, living in what Norman Bates called “private traps.” Soon the humans will be literally encaged by the birds.

Like so many Hitchcock heroes, Melanie leaves the social womb of a city – here, San Francisco, capital of American gothic – for Mitch’s home town of Bod
ega Bay, at the end of a drive up the radiant Pacific coast. Hitchcock indulges in the hushed, rugged prettiness of Melanie’s drive, preparing the film’s dialectic of beauty and violence and humorously shows two lovebirds rocking to the car’s movements in their cage in the cage like people. Melanie has the best revenge for Mitch’s judgmental swagger, combining this, one of her patented practical jokes with an altruistic gift. The lovebirds, however, are a very unfunny portent of things to come.

In teasing out information about Mitch and his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and adolescent sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), Melanie talks to local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), a transplanted bohemian with a husky-voiced air of bruised, serene discontent. She recognizes the hidden meanings in Melanie’s journey, of which Melanie is herself hardly aware. Annie made the same journey once, failed, and washed up. Melanie successfully plays her prank, leaving the lovebirds in the Brenner’s white waterside house, making a getaway via runabout, only to have a seagull to strike her head and draw a spark of blood that stains Melanie’s gloves, the first note of a gore symphony.

Melanie is one of Hitchchock’s most interesting heroes (despite casting Tippi Hedren, a barely competent actress). She’s a Hitchcock blonde, but is linked less to Grace Kelly’s liquid nitrogen burn or Ingrid Bergman’s intricately suffering damsels than to Roger O. Thornhill in North By Northwest as a representative of a useless class, gossip-column twin to his playboy ad man. Melanie is caught up in charades, games, and jokes enacted with mirthless passive-aggressive precision. Mitch tends to Melanie’s wound with care but interviews her with lawyerly skill, entrapping Melanie in her lies until she’s left with no choice but to come to dinner with his family. The first half of The Birds is a neurotic screwball comedy, without that genre’s “oh, isn’t this hilarious?” nudges, populated by aching characters.

Melanie finds Lydia intimidating, just as Annie did. Annie has spent four years puzzling out the riddle of that sphinx for the next brave soul, and found Lydia’s iciness is not that of a domineering matron but rather of an emotionally weak woman. One of Hitchcock’s most powerful ever shots shows Melanie chatting on the phone to Mitch whilst Annie reclines, apparently disinterested, but tense through to her bones.

As the shot indicates, Hitchcock could have been a Renoir or Bertolucci if he’d wanted to, so acute was he at communicating the psychic workings of his characters. Hitchcock had learnt his craft during a vital two-year stint in Munich in the fulcrum years of the early ’20s. He was most inspired to direct by Fritz Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), which, with its expressionist style and death-and-the-maiden eroticism, casts a long shadow to this film (another future great converted by that work was Luis Bunuel). Hitchcock’s penchant for minimalist frames and charged visual metaphors, influenced by silent era expressionism, here has been razored down to resemble Japanese artistry, especially in the way Hitchcock places figures in relation to landscapes. Robert Burks’ superb cinematography is crucial; Burks, Hitchcock’s long-time collaborator, only made Marnie after this with him, and then died in a house fire. The sparseness of the drama makes The Birds the first haiku monster movie.

Hitchcock came from the lively tradition of Cockney black humor, with its obsession for interweaving sex, crime, comedy, and death that turns savage serial killings into the subjects of children’s nursery rhymes. From Lang and other German masters, Hitchcock’s native bent happily met the Germanic tradition of taking the psychological content in gothic and crime stories seriously. Perhaps aware that his standing as an artist and a commercial force was at its pinnacle, Hitchcock took risks with The Birds. Dispensing with music, traditional narrative, and star names, Hitchcock was selling The Birds on the back of his cinematic skill, using mere sound and the lack of it for generating suspense.

Most intriguing is the cue he takes from the Italian films of alienation. The Birds' lack of explanation for its horrors and question-mark finale dovetails the arbitrary cruelties of the macabre tradition with modernist narrative deconstruction, loudly introduced to cinema audiences by Antonioni with L’Avventura. The Birds makes a most pointed reference to La Dolce Vita. Melanie, talking with Mitch at Cathy’s birthday party, demystifies one of her most infamous stunts, cavorting nude in a fountain in Rome and states her recent stabs at altruism resulted from her Roman experiences: “It was very easy to get lost there.” She also reveals the true gap between her and Mitch, which has nothing to do with money or place of birth but with emotional bedrock. Whereas Mitch has a family who loves him almost to the point of suffocation, Melanie is consumed with loathing for her mother who “ran off with some hotel man in the east” when she was a child. Annie, supervising the party, watches them connecting with mournful expression.

The film also plays with the apocalyptic hint of La Dolce Vita’s finale – that the rotting, hedonistic world will keep fiddling as beasts lurch from the sea. To catch Melanie’s La Dolce Vita reference is to think of that film’s characters, the threat she felt of being “lost” amongst them, and the urgency of destruction around them. The Birds seems a near-sequel, distilling its ’60s paranoia of nuclear holocaust and social-moral collapse, transmuted by Hitchcock’s Anglo-Catholic censoriousness into a parable of decay and struggle. Explanations for the birds’ behavior are posited – that they are affected by an illness; that they are a fulfillment of biblical prophecy; and, according to an hysterical diner patron, that Melanie is a kind of Typhoid Mary bringing bird attacks in her evil wake. Each of these explanations is mocked. But Melanie, whom the birds have targeted, does seem to be an avatar of everything wrong in the human world. The first three incidents - the gull that clips Melanie’s head, the bird that slams into Annie’s door, the attack on the children’s birthday party – come as the humans are playing some sort of emotionally fraught game, and the birds provide savage metaphysical comment.

Still, Hitchcock, though a moralist, was never a hanging judge. He held the rich and the sexy, the happy and the hollow, the common man and the uncommon woman, in a dialectic of delight and disgust. He put his heroes through character tests of medieval rigor. The ironies of The Birds’ story develop logically even as worldly logic evaporates, and the characters each fall under the microscope that determines their fates. Mitch, one of Hitchcock’s familiar momma’s boys, is actually one of his most straightforwardly macho heroes. His rescues of Melanie are only metaphors for his rescue job of her psyche. Lydia, apparently loathing potential rivals for her son’s affection, is, in fact, projecting her own fear of rejection and desire for maternal intimacy onto them. Annie’s long-ago failure to fight through is mirrored in her tragically brutal end.

Melanie’s passage through the fire is central. She has not one, but two “shower scenes.” The shots of her driving through the vast, beautiful landscape find their ultimate reversal when Melanie is trapped in the cage of a phone booth, watching unimaginable carnage, her world gone from ennui-producing plenty to terror-provoking entrapment. Later, the inhabitants of the Brenner house pass through several circles of hell - a not-at-all-coincidental, infernal red glow from their fire is the only light as demons peck, shred, and smash their shell. Melanie is caught alone in an upstairs room by birds that have penetrated the ceiling, and she’s being torn to shreds as she shouts first for Mitch, and then, barely audible, cries for him to get Cathy and Lydia out of the house. It is only at this point that all the Brenners arrive to save her. Melanie, in that final renunciation of self-interest and offering her last breath for others’ salvation, gains her the right to existence and have a family. The last image of her is of a near-catatonic, blood-spattered woman folding gratefully into the arms of mother Lydia. Hitchcock’s films are filled with heroes who finally gain their salvation by taking great physical chances, bordering on masochism, for their lovers.

The Birds is Hitchcock’s last great film. Marnie and Frenzy have elements of greatness, but are uneven. Marnie especially attempted to cross into new territory of a dramatically sustained, stylized psychodrama, but was too late and unfashionable an effort. The Birds has its ropy moments, like the campy “wooo, spooky!” bits when Melanie and Annie notice birds doing funny things, and the halfhearted make-up of mangled Melanie after her attack. Despite Hedren and Taylor’s anemic performances, Pleshette and Tandy are brilliant, and there are great cameos by Ethel Griffies as one of Hitchcock’s pet kooks, a know-it-all ornithologist, and the ever-sturdy Charles MacGraw as a gruff fishing boat captain. Hitchcock had one of his best writing collaborators in the great, recently late Evan Hunter, who provides a superbly suggestive script. Such was his seismic force and artistic vitality, that Hitchcock, despite only making two real horror films, The Birds and Psycho, created with each a brand-new genre strand. As Psycho pointed forward to the slasher film, so The Birds promises such varying works as Night of the Living Dead (which borrows the house-siege situation), Jaws (1975), (1977), The Hills Have Eyes, Aliens (1986), and even John Sayles’ Limbo (1999) with its theme of family found through trial. l

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Chicago International Film Festival

I'm at the CIFF for the next two weeks, so Ferdy on Films won't see too much activity until after the show is over. If you want to catch my reviews of the films I will be seeing there, go to The Beachwood Reporter and look under the People, Places, and Things section. I've already seen a couple of outstanding films and am looking forward to the variety of documentaries and feature films I have lined up, as well as one silent film, Chicago (1927). l

Friday, October 06, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #12
Why I Blog

Yesterday, I got the surprising request from an on-line publication called Reconstruction to write a piece and post it here on why I blog. Why surprising? I’m always surprised when someone finds me here among the billions of words on the internet and talks to me—that is, now I am.

At first, I thought my blog would be a steady stream of content from me and commentary from my readers. In fact, I get very, very few comments. I think that may be a function of writing about obscure films. How can you comment if you haven’t seen the films. “Gee, I like your writing?” “I’ll put that in my Netflix queue?” I have taken it on faith and am content that people will find me, read me, and some of them will come back again to see what’s new on my site.

Why do I blog? I am a professional writer and editor who makes a living covering subjects about which I have an interest, but no fervency. It never seemed worth the time and effort to write pieces about my personal interests and submit them to publications that might not have the desire or space to publish them, and so I didn’t. I’m not the type to write only for myself; I’m not a diarist, which I suppose sets me apart from a lot of bloggers.

Of course, like many people, I instantly recognized the potential of the internet to help me reach beyond my immediate surroundings to people and places I would never meet in a lifetime of searching. When I went from film fan to serious film buff, I became intensively involved on a film discussion board with approximately 40 regulars. At this omnivorous stage of my film education, I was hungry for information and views that could expand my horizons, as well as to express my own views to a knowledgeable “sounding board.” I also liked meeting new personalities from all over the world and making “friends.” I felt part of a community that seemed like a foreign country to people who were staunchly offline.

After several years, however, the limits of discussion boards became all too apparent. It was hard to attract and engage new people into the established group, which had a virulent hostility to newbies (my own acceptance into the group was a very long and agonizing process). As such, the opinions and behaviors of posters about film became predictable and of decreasing value. Personality clashes and a chat room atmosphere began to take the place of information exchange and the camaraderie of mutal interest, making the board very disagreeable to me. Additionally, I found out that, for me, friends are made on the ground, not in cyberspace.

I had begun to write reviews of films for this discussion board, but was painfully aware that they were virtually ignored. At the same time, my film knowledge and growing acuity as a film critic were becoming apparent to me, to the few people who did read my reviews on the board, and to members of the film community in my hometown I met in classes and at screenings.

When I made the decision to leave the film discussion board, it was with the intention of starting a publication-quality blog where I could indulge my love of writing and film at the same time, with total content, illustration, and layout control. I hoped to provide unique content by following my offroad approach to film viewing and analysis and thereby fill a need. I focus on every type of film, from every era and country, with a strong complement of reviews of silent films and documentaries, and a handful of overlooked current releases. I also review some television miniseries of particular worth, and provide commentary on issues about which I feel strongly, though the latter concern is a relatively minor part of my blog. I have a contributor who also left the film discussion board for much the same reasons as I did. His writing and knowledge of film are first-rate, and he adds immeasurably to the quality of my blog.

I have decided to align my blog with a website that complements my personality and whose work I admire. I have mixed emotions about this. I won’t be as obscure, which may, happily, stimulate more discussion. But I rather enjoy being somewhat unknown, like the films I review, to allow for more freedom of movement without pain. I’m also worried about losing creative control. If that happens, I’ll go back to being an independent blogger. My blog is a labor of love, and while it is not confessional in any major sense, you can probably learn a lot about me from the way I write and what I have to say about these flickering images of the human condition.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #11
Had Enough?

Another school shooting. This time it was among peace-loving people who are so basic in their living that they didn't even have a telephone in school to call for help when the mad man struck and killed their little girls. Two other communities in the last week and a half also suffered the agony of a school shooting. There have been many school shootings. The most famous of them all, Columbine, riveted the world in 1999. Yet, no federal legislation targeting gun manufacturers and dealers came out of it. Instead, incredibly, a commission was formed to take aim at the entertainment industry for allegedly putting violent ideas into children's heads, not at the people who put guns in their hands. A pretty good summary of where we stood on gun control in 2004 can be found here. I haven't found anything more recent so far, but I'm pretty sure not much has changed. Nobody seems to want it to, and the pro-gun lobby wraps itself in the Constitution whenever there's a challenge.

What I know is that the Second Amendment of the Constitution has never been used to form a standing militia to fight an unjust government, which is why it was written in the first place. The Confederate states didn't use it. They just left the Union. The only people who cling to the Second Amendment are people who like to shoot things--targets, animals, people. Republicans who say they are strict constitutionalists ought to look at gun control laws and pass them right through. They are not unconstitutional because they do not speak to the right to form a militia to fight an unjust government.

But, frankly, I think gun control isn't going far enough. Guns need to be outlawed. Period. We can't go around trying to find every nut who wants to shoot up a school or kill his brother-in-law over a card game. Better we should remove the instrument of destruction completely. What do gun manufacturers add to the world? Guns. Killers. Grieving families and friends. We should work as hard to stamp out guns as we did to stamp out polio. Guns are a killer disease.

I wrote a letter to my senators and congresswoman. I'm posting it below for you to use to write your own letters. Send an e-mail to your representatives. Here's where you can find their e-mail addresses and links to their snail mail addresses. Here's what you send them (or put it in your own words):


The Honorable NAME and ADDRESS

Dear NAME,

The shooting of innocent children in their schools has shocked the nation yet again. Thoughts are focused on what we can do to prevent this from ever happening again. The entire community must help stem the causes of violence. But as my representative, I ask you to play a big part in helping.

The kneejerk reaction is to do more to deter the crime by making the penalties stiffer. This will not work. The only way we can avoid another sickening display of violence against schoolchildren is to take the guns out of the hands of the people who would use them.

I know gun control is a hot issue. People claim they have a right to bear arms as guaranteed by the Constitution. I say that the right of teachers and children to be safe in schools and for parents to expect to see their children every day, safe and sound, after school trumps the NRA and those who support its position.

I am heartsick to think that I might have to wake up one morning and see another headline about children lying dead in their classrooms. It’s time to get the manufacturers and dealers of guns off the streets. Then we won’t have to worry about looking for the needle-in-a-haystack lunatic who will kill our children with a commercial product we don’t really need.



Do it. Do it today. I've had enough. Haven't you? l