BFI Classics: The Birds

 Author: Camille Paglia

Hitchcock’s films once again come under review, this time by feminist and literary reviewer and writer, Camille Paglia. Better known for her literary reviews, she begins this book on The Birds (1963) by quoting Romantic poet Coleridge, and introduces the Romantic tradition of the femme-fatale against the rawness of nature. I must say that I was expecting a more feminist critique on Hitchcock and the film, but instead she goes into a scene by scene analysis.

At times, her opinions seem more like a random flow of thoughts. When she talks about the protagonist Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) first arriving at the schoolhouse at Bodega Bay in pursuit of Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor) she states “at this point in the film I customarily intone aloud: ‘We all go to school in Bodega Bay!’ It’s my Nicene creed”. This doesn’t seem to make any sense nor does it really have any relevance to the essay (and is rather pretentious). Paglia continues this cultural name dropping throughout the book from literary and artistic references to Greek mythological ones. She dismisses previous feminist critiques about Hitchcock being a misogynist and his alleged cruelty towards Hedren (Hedren was left with cuts and bruises after the now famous scene where she is attacked by both real and mechanised birds – she described it as “the most terrifying week of my life”). Both Hedren and Paglia recognise that there was little other way of doing the scene and still making it effective. In fact Hitchcock was miserable for the whole week and locked himself away until he was ready to shoot. The end result is, of course, amazing. (Where were the health and safety police then?) Paglia then talks about Melanie Daniels’ alligator purse as a “hunt bag in which to stuff [her] male quarry… Hitchcock portrays the vagina as a male jail.” Sometimes this is going a little too far, even though it has to be said that Hitchcock’s films are a feminist/psychoanalyst’s dream cinematic case study.

When she’s analysing the film scene by scene, she makes strong observations about the characters and subtext. She also discusses the impressions that an audience viewing the film, and other Hitchcock films, for the first time are left with. She’s interested in how those images linger persistently in the mind for years (such as when the gulls first strike, the scene where the town is under attack shown from a bird’s eye view (no pun intended), the shot of the farmer with his eyes pecked out, the scene where Hedren is unaware of the birds gathering on the jungle gym climbing frame behind her or the film’s final shots as the protagonists make their getaway in the dawn’s early light), yet some of her own random personal impressions do become irksome.

Many of Hitchcock’s films are geographically specific and The Birds is no exception. As he also gave a great impression of San Francisco in Vertigo (1958), the British director does the same for both San Francisco as well as the small fishing village of Bodega Bay, just north of SF. Hitchcock gives the place an eerie murky quality which has not gone unnoticed by Paglia, and she makes interesting points about what remains of the town since the film was shot, as well as a geographical description of the locale.

Unfortunately the overall impression of the book is pretentious; 90 per cent of the text in brackets could have been edited out making for a more concise and engaging book of the film.

 Chris Hick

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