A few weeks ago, I treated myself to one of life’s sublimely perfect days. The sun and wind had a lovely harmony going, and I decided to spend the day outside, naturally with a book, a coffee, and my treasured spiral notebook. I found a dry spot in North Beach’s Washington Square, spread out my blanket, and settled in for a relaxing day of reading, writing, drinking, and absolutely no uninvited distractions. After a few hours I found a sidewalk table at a neighborhood restaurant and inhaled a sea bass that was so delicious, I sent a picture of it to my dear friend Sandy, creator of the food blog FancyFoodFancy. The North Beach restaurant’s owner and his wife sat and drank wine with me, and we had one of those enjoyable conversations reserved solely for Sunday afternoons. I went back to Washington Square for a bit more writing, but I found the wine flowing through me more than the creative juices. So after another round of drinks with one of my best friends and her boyfriend who happen to live in North Beach, I went home, watched a Madonna concert on DVD (the one I’d been lucky enough to see in-person), and fell asleep a little before 10pm. T’was a smooth yet spontaneous day to remember!
Days like those seem to have become part of my writing process, even if I go through the day without touching my pen. I had just finished my previous post on Psycho, which was a bit draining in a fantastic way, and I had pretty much settled on what film I was going to tackle next. I began writing about it, but for a number of reasons, I had to put that glorious film aside for the time being. As with many of us when we come to a mental crossroad, I looked up into the (mostly) clear blue sky, sure to find my inspiration, direction, or at least a cloud shaped like Bette Davis. Instead I saw a flock of San Francisco residents dance across the park’s ceiling, broadcasting to me the idea that had already been bubbling below the surface.
Like firetrucks with wings, one of these creatures’ most startling qualities is the fact that you can hear them heading towards you before they enter your eyesight. So on this, one of life’s close-to-perfect days, the teeter-tottering of birds across the afternoon sky revealed to me the reason why, hours earlier, I had chosen to reread George Orwell’s Animal Farm that day. You have to admire unconscious advanced planning . . .
Based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, the author who also wrote Rebecca, The Birds was originally purchased by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock for his television show. There had been numerous newspaper articles about birds attacking humans for unknown reasons, but I’m not sure what the deciding factor was in terms of making the transition from television to a feature film. When the technical advisors were brought in so Mr. Hitchcock could see if making The Birds was in fact a possibility, one of them came up with a brilliant inspiration piece for the mood of the film — Munch’s The Scream. When it was decided that indeed yes it was possible to create this world of angry birds, Mr. Hitchcock set out to make what many refer to as his most technical film; a film that tallied a total of 371 trick shots after its completion. The explosion of birds from behind the schoolhouse never fails to tickle me, sort of in the same way my dear Wicked Witch of the West does when she takes off from her balcony for the Emerald City. Something wicked this way flies!
The cast, whose names I recognized in the opening credits but failed to pinpoint during my recent viewing, included Suzanne Pleshette and the great Miss Jessica Tandy, always a pleasure to watch. A young Veronica Cartwright plays Miss Tandy’s daughter, a sweet little girl here, but I can’t look at Miss Cartwright without thinking of her vomiting up the devil’s cherry pits in The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Mr. Rod Taylor rounds out the family as the ruggedly handsome son, brother, and ultimate love interest to one Miss Tippi Hedren. Miss Hedren, who had been modeling at the time, was offered the part of Melanie Daniels when, after a number of meetings and interviews, the Hitchcocks took her to dinner and gave a beautiful broach in the shape of three birds in flight.
It always takes me a few days to decide whether or not I enjoyed a Hitchcock film. Over the years I’ve noticed a number of people (many of whom are around my age) mention that they just can’t pay attention to the slow pace of many Hitchcock films. And I must admit that when I was younger, I felt that way about The Birds. Mr. Hitchcock has such a familiar formula of starting off slow, almost until, as Tippi Hedren described it, the audience just can’t stand it anymore. To me however, his cherished formula works perfectly in a film about multiple bird species that begin to attack humans for reasons unknown. So to my less-than-patient readers out there, I’d recommend just buckling down and getting through the beginning — everything Mr. Hitchcock does, he does for a reason. If there’s one thing to make you stick with it, hang on at least for one of my favorite compulsory Hitchcock cameos when he leaves a pet shop with two small white dogs. As rumor has it, the meals provided for those dogs outshone any that were given to the cast and crew.
Slow start or not, he gets me every time . . . I know something is coming; I can hear the flap of the wings or the far-away screech that only seems to get closer instead of louder. And as powerful as Mr. Bernard Herrmann’s score was in the showers of the Bates Motel, his lack of sound in The Birds is what, I believe, makes it so terrifying. The frightening thought of animals taking back the world we believe we’ve dominated is further enhanced by the thought they absolutely have the right to do so! But I don’t feel the need to go too far in analyzing the symbolism of the birds or of Tippi Hedren’s sexuality and its bringing on the attacks; while those conversations are certainly entertaining, it’s one more approach that I feel has been done repeatedly.
Abstract symbolic analysis of The Birds always sounded like over-interpretation to me, especially when I figured Mr. Hitchcock went to great lengths to leave explanation out of the film. I used to love symbolic analysis, mostly when I studied folklore with a Freudian folklorist, and for some aspects of our culture, it seems to be a very useful approach. The more I write about films, however, the further I seem to move from interest in symbolism within the story itself. Absolutely nothing to sniff at, and I embrace interpretations of film on any level, but it’s interesting to notice how my eye has begun to shift. This is one of those movies I want to lay on the laps of my readers, rather than shove it down your throats, and say “well what do you think?”
I do get a kick out the ways in which my current movie of obsession enters my mind while I’m working on it. This one took me some time to get through for a number of reasons, but ever since I started thinking about it, I felt like the birds of the Bay Area had begun to keep their eyes on me. One morning on my way to work, I was sure a number of seagulls were shooting me dirty looks, as if to say “get on with it and write!” And I swear one of them swooped down towards my windshield, pivoting back up towards the sky at the last second. I mention this not to highlight the mechanical silliness of my brain but rather to show the power of a Hitchcock film, this one in particular. Whether I was writing or not, it was affecting me and stuck with me until I finally picked up my pen. But who’s to say that the simple act of writing changed how those birds were picking on me these past few weeks?
One other way The Birds nested in my brain was by bringing back a flock of memories that have to do with bird attacks. I’ve loved two “Catra’s” in my life, the first being a fabulously evil villain on the 1980s cartoon show She-Ra. She-Ra happened to be He-Man’s twin sister, and once again, my childhood psyche found itself drawn to the villain much more than to the heroine. Naturally when our neighbors gave us their cat because too many people in their house developed allergies, I knighted the beautiful young lady “Catra.” And yes, this regal beauty of ours had the hunter’s instinct . . . a number of “presents” were left on our doorstep throughout the years. I had always assumed that the birds lived in fear of our queen, but then we began to notice that one blue bird had no qualms about swooping down on Catra when she was outside. Of course our love for her kicked in and we wanted to protect her, but we also assumed she had messed with (and perhaps ate) the wrong bird family. So fearless was this bird that we truly believed Catra had done something to deserve such repeated attacks. Seeing these creatures that tend to scatter the moment you take a step towards them display such antagonistic behavior is frightening indeed.
The fact that these memories have sprung to mind feels like my personal hat tipping to Mr. Hitchcock and his craft. Creating a film that taps into even the dustiest of memory banks is what draws me in — he makes it real and forces me to acknowledge a few fears about which I may not have otherwise known. I’ve looked and listened to the birds of San Francisco with new sets of eyes and ears, wondering if they sense the new, but perhaps temporary, fear I have of them. While I was sitting in a café trying to sort through all my notes on The Birds, I glanced up to see a roof across the street that was absolutely crawling with pigeons. I felt my heart sank for a moment, and yet a peculiar smile slowly began to take over my face . . .