The Birds

Review by Adam Blair

By Camille Paglia
104 pages; published 1998, by BFI Film Classics

This book is part of a nifty series published by the British Film Institute, which commissioned a gamut of writers to pen short, pocket-sized books about a classic film that has special significance for each of them. The combination of professional provocateur Camille Paglia with one of Alfred Hitchcock's coolest, coldest films, The Birds, goes together like strawberries and whipped cream.

Shake a film fan awake in the middle of the night and ask them "What is The Birds about?" and they're likely to mumble "man vs. nature," then may add "Tippi Hedren getting pecked to death." Neither answer is quite correct. Hedren is attacked but survives, although she's practically catatonic as the film closes. And according to Paglia, who admittedly is somewhat obsessed with the sexual side, The Birds is less about nature striking back at man than about the war of the sexes writ large.

Paglia makes a strong case for this thesis, using Hitchcock's well-known emphasis on visual rather than verbal storytelling to make a number of her points. (A film professor of mine once said that Hitchcock made silent films that just happened to have soundtracks, and he meant it as a compliment. Watch Psycho with the sound off some time and you'll see what he means.)

According to Paglia, what's unsaid - or rather, what's said with gesture, body language and visual signs and symbols - is far more important than the words that are spoken, which are, with a few exceptions, rather banal in this film. I heard Paglia speak about this before a screening of The Birds several years ago, and her overall message was, don't listen to the words the characters use - they lie and mislead with what they say. Watch what the people do and how they interact with each other to see what's really going on.

Take the opening scene, set in a large pet store in San Francisco. It's the first meeting of Hedren's character Melanie Daniels and Rod Taylor's Mitch. Not only do both characters - the cool, sexy Hitchcock blonde and the gruffly masculine hero - not say what they mean, they're actively involved in impostures from the moment they lay eyes on each other. Hedren pretends to be a salesgirl in order to help Taylor pick out a pair of lovebirds; Taylor pretends not to know that Hedren is actually an irresponsible heiress-playgirl. Both also pretend not to have the hots for each other, with varying degrees of success. It's a meet-cute with shades of foreboding (Hedren lets a bird escape from a cage and it flies wildly about the shop, until Taylor captures it with his hat. Unfortunately that's about as successful as he gets at controlling and capturing birds for the whole rest of the film.)

Paglia also focuses on the all-important female relationships that string webs throughout The Birds: Melanie and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette, the whiskey-voiced Bodega Bay schoolteacher and Mitch's ex-girlfriend); Melanie and Mitch's mom (Jessica Tandy, frosty as an icy country morning); Melanie and Mitch's sister (Veronica Cartwright). Paglia catches that in this film's mating game, it's the woman, Melanie, who does the pursuing, using gifts, tricks and stratagems to capture the prize (Mitch). In fact, with its competent, confident heroine, The Birds is almost a 1930s-style screwball comedy, at least at the beginning. As in the screwball form, the men - even and especially the romantic "hero" - are often obtuse and misinformed (Melanie asks several men for the correct name of Mitch's younger sister, but only gets the right answer from Annie). Later, when The Birds moves out of the screwball vein, the men are portrayed as foolish and inadvertently destructive (a man lighting his cigar sets off the fiery holocaust that is the film's centerpiece).

Paglia is also alive to the nuances of performance. She takes a paragraph to compliment Jessica Tandy's handling of a telephone call, a basic bit of business that nevertheless conveys important plot information and helps thicken the creepy mood. She quotes Tippi Hedren's raptures about Ethel Griffies, who played the old woman in the coffee shop who imparts crucial scientific information about birds that also sets up the truly frightening last third of the film. Paglia writes:

Despite her tender feeling for birds, the crushing statistics that Mrs Bundy [Griffies] pedantically unleashes provide the scene's climax: 'Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since archaeopteryx - 140 million years ago.' There are '8,650 species of birds' and '100 billion birds' in the world today; should all these species band together, 'we wouldn't have a chance!'

Much as I like this book, I'm well aware that Paglia's authoritative, I-see-more-than-you-do style, with its constant references to other films, paintings, books, etc. can get on people's nerves. My friend Michael described it very well: reading Camille Paglia is frustrating because you agree with her so incredibly wholeheartedly in one paragraph and disagree so violently the next. She's such a forceful writer, and so certain about the validity of her opinions, that it's like being swung back and forth on an enormous pendulum. It's dizzying - but fun, if you have the stomach for it.

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