The Birds
Alfred Hitchcock

I. Argument to include it in this class

Romance. Drama. Horror. Mystery. Thrills. The Birds has it all, providing something appealing to all sorts of people. The movie would perfectly fit into the curriculum of our Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Course for the variety of interesting questions we can glean from it:

1. Genre - In this course, we have focused on how to define the genres of "Science Fiction" and "Fantasy" and how the works we have encountered fit or don't fit into these categories. The Birds can add to that continuing discussing, introducing a new subcategory of "Horror". Horror seems to be a middle, gray area between Science Fiction and Fantasy and can help us narrow down the differences between the two genres. In this movie, where no explanation for the bird attacks are given, there is a lot of flexibility to provide either scientific or magical explanations. Or perhaps the movie fits into neither category - as we define them - and should be categorized a different way. This, of course, leads into the questions of what the point of categorizing works by genre does for us and the eventual question of why we even "read". This is especially interesting in light of the "horror" genre, which is not as popular as other genres and so we might not be able to explain it as "escapist".

2. Philosophical and Social Messages - Many of the works explored in this course contained moral or social messages for the readers to uncover and potentially reflect onto their own world. The Birds is no exception, providing a number of different directions to find meaning. Most of the main characters are women, but each one is very different from the other and differs slightly from the men as well. The movie may be taking a stand on women's issues of independence and social statuses. The unexplained bird attacks may be commenting on a certain social or political aspect of the U.S. in the 1960s... or not. At times, different characters seem to represent different philosophies on approaching the world: logic and science vs. apocalyptic vs. aggression vs. following your heart vs. fear. The characters also all respond to fear differently. There are hidden messages in each of these aspects that this course can help uncover.

3. Creativity and Supporting an Argument - By not providing an explanation for the bird attacks, Hitchcock allows adept watchers to explore their own reasons for the attacks. Within a teaching setting like a college course, this provides a great opportunity to have students support their own creative interpretation for why the attacks occur from specific examples in the movie. They can take a metaphorical or literal interpretation for the attacks, as long as it can be supported from specific evidence. While this has always been an assumed skill and requirement in the course, The Birds provides a direct and obvious opportunity to tackle that aspect of reading and writing.

II. Essay Assignment

Response Paper: Why is there no explanation given for the bird attacks? How does that missing information impact the film (Consider genre, audience, your understanding of the characters, etc.)? Or how can it impact the numerous theories given to explain the bird attacks? Use specific examples from the movie to support your claim.

III. Annotated Bibliography

1. Callenbach, Ernest. "Review of The Birds." Film Quarterly, 16.4 (1963): 44-46. University of California Press. Web.

Mr. Callenbach is disappointed in the film. He does not think the setting of picturesque Bodega Bay makes the viewer more attached to the story. Instead, he asserts the viewer cares less. He also doesn't find the bird attack horrifying, claiming it lacks the ability to tap into unconscious fears, like other thrillers tend to do. They are just birds. And it is hard to believe that they can be so dangerous and aggressive. It would be more horrifying if we saw a single bird peck away at someone's eyeball, but Hitchcock can't do that and so there is no horror. Despite Hitchcock's report that the movie is meant to be allegorical - McCarthy style accusations, "birds" as military slang for missiles - it doesn't extend to everything in the movie. Callenbach dislikes the ending too, claiming he doesn't care about the four individuals escaping. It would be more interesting to learn about what had been happening in other places. In terms of visuals, he finds the filming clumsy and shaky in places. The characters are mostly flat and irrelevant. The plot has holes and the danger of the birds seem to be constrained to that area, limiting the overall sense of horror. "A really skillful film frightener takes pains to make his dangers open-ended - there is no telling how bad things might get!" (45-6). Hitchcock, Callenbach concludes, tries and fails to create a horrific masterpiece.

This scathing review of The Birds from when it was released differs dramatically from the   positive reputation the film has today. Though I share some of Callenbach's complaints, I disagree with the effect the complaint has on the overall viewing experience. Callenbach found the attacks unrealistic because he was not convinced that usually calm animals can become violent. I found the attacks unrealistic because the "special effects" are barbaric compared to the possibilities CGI technology can create today. Yet despite the inability of technology in the 1960s to create believable horror, I can forgive the weak visual argument for bird attacks and still accept the premise by suspending my preconceived notions about birds. The movie may not visually convince me that the birds are actually attacking humans, but I can comprehend the concept and still find it horrifying. Callenbach seems unable to use his imagination to accept the premise of the movie. I also disagree with his assessment that the bird attacks do not tap into unconscious fears, especially if you want (and certainly can) interpret the film in light of the Cold War. In the 1960s, humanity was experiencing the fear of complete world annihilation through nuclear weapons and the bird attacks can be a manifestation of that potentially upcoming war. There was no protection or warning for that horrifying future, which applies to the bird attacks as well.

Additionally, I disagree with Callenbach's interpretation of the last scene as limiting. The focus of the film is on Melanie and the Brenners, purposely avoiding showing the bird attacks' global effects. It seems that Callenbach has missed the movie's intention to explore the role of family and women. In terms of overall horror, the ambiguous ending, on the contrary, opens the possibility that the bird attacks could be spreading to the rest of the world. Without a solid ending, the horror is unrestrained by what we see in the movie, leaving the thought of "there is no telling how bad things might get!", exactly what Callenbach claims is the effect of skillful film frighteners. In my opinion, Hitchcock succeeds in frightening the audience.

2. Bishop, Kyle William. "The Threat of the Gothic Patriarchy in Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds'." Rocky Mountain Review 65.2 (2011): 135-47. Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association. Web.

Hitchcock follows in the gothic tradition, not just providing horror, but exploring the psychology of family relationships manifested in female independence, patriarchical control, family traditions, and social class tension.  The birds just help move the gothic elements of the story. Melanie in the end is destroyed as an independent subject not by the birds, but by the power of the Brenner family - a patriarchal house. The house and the patriarchal family is a  gothic trope that Hitchcock develops in this movie. The Brenner house is first established as a retreat, a familiar hospitable home. Yet throughout the film, the house becomes increasingly unfamiliar and uninviting, converted into a dark fortress to protect the family against the bird attacks. The Brenner's house is protected by the picture of Mitch's father, ensuring the patriarchal structure of the family is maintained. Mitch is meant to take the role of his father - which is why his mother Lydia disproves of any woman who may take him away from them. Melanie breaks this status quo by invading the family through her independent actions, which are usually followed by a bird attack. Eventually, Melanie's independence is subdued, and she becomes dependent on the family, with Mitch maintaining the position of father, just as Lydia wants. The movie is more than "a series of frightening supernatural events; at its core, the movie manifests anxieties concerning the independence of women and the threat that autonomy ultimately means for the traditional, patriarchal family" (144-5).

Bishop provides an excellent analysis of the film, using specific evidence to support his compelling claim that Melanie is a disturbance to the patriarchal family. It helps explain many aspects of the film, including why the film focuses on this family and not on the birds themselves, what Lydia's issues are, and - most importantly - why the birds attack.  Yet Bishop might be overreaching in some of his analysis. He interprets the symbolism of Melanie grabbing a flashlight as a clear attempt to grab the independence of men, since a flashlight is a phallic shape. Melanie's move from the public downstairs rooms to the private upstairs room is an indication of sexual intention - since sexual intercourse occurs in the bedrooms. Yet, Melanie enters Cathy's bedroom, not an adult bedroom. And Lydia is single and still in love with her dead husband - sexual intercourse doesn't seem to occur at all in this house. Beside the few overreaching analyses though, Bishop provides a compelling metaphorical interpretation for the bird attacks, an understanding that can fit with our understanding of Hitchcock's view of women throughout his other films as well (see next source).

3. Jhirad, Susan. "Hitchcock's Women." Cinéaste 13.4 (1984): 30-3. Cineaste Publishers, Inc. Web.

The women in Hitchcock's films are idealized women, what he wished he could have. The men in his film represent impotence and sexual repression. The women, although sexy, appear cold and unattainable, yet are not innocent and pure. They are guilty or corrupt, perhaps deserving of the violence done upon them. He openly said that he dislikes domineering women who take control of relationships. Yet Hitchcock's treatment of women on screen still seems humane; his treatment of the actresses he worked with could be seen as sadistic. He decided to film one scene with Tippi Hedren in The Birds with real birds, leaving Hedrin with a gash on her forehead. He became obsessed with her, yet she would rebut his advances. He created distorted images of women in his films, as cold, perfect blondes whose independence and dominance are the cause of their own downfalls.

This is an interesting article to discuss authorial intent and cultural readings of works. Here we are given some background to Hitchcock and his approach to women, which can help explain and interpret his films. The transformation of independent Melanie into a subdued child can be interpreted as either a critique of a stifling society or as warning to an open and accepting one. With this knowledge of Hitchcock's negative attitude towards independent women, the latter seems more of a possibility. But should this affect our original interpretation of the film? I don't think it should. Additionally, Hitchcock as a man seems to be quiet sadistic and hurtful to women (see next source). Can we separate the artist from art? I think we can and should - as Tippi Hedren says in the next source, we cannot take away from him his contribution to the motion picture industry.  

4. HuffPost Live. "Tippi Hedren: Hitchcock Ruined My Career HP." YouTube. Youtube, 7 Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Dec 2014.

Tippi Hedren details how Alfred Hitchcock tried to control her and caused an abusive, volatile relationship to develop between them. She calls him "evil", yet still loved working for him as a director and feels indebted to him. She is able to separate between the man and the artist.  

It is reassuring to see the how despite the overtly negative analysis of Hitchcock's psyche in the previous article, his "victims" still respect him in some way. Although probably beyond the scope of any discussion, this can lead to a larger analysis of whether the perspective of the victims should have any bearing on how we interpret the crime. But beside that, this article helps blunt the sharpness against Hitchcock. Interestingly, she doesn't mention the supposed "abuse" she received during the filming of The Birds. Perhaps that manifested in a way that wasn't as evil as the previous article implied. As an actress, she enjoyed working with Hitchcock; it was only their outside of work relationship that was abusive.

IV. Class Discussion

Part I of class: Discuss the specifics of the movie

1. Messages of the movie:

  • a. Women - How does Melanie, Lydia (Mitch's mom), Annie Hayworth (the ex-girlfriend) differ from each other? Do they represent different models of the ideal Woman? How does Mitch act around each of these women?
  • It seems that Melanie is a strong, independent women in the beginning of the film: the way she acts and walks around San Fran, how she takes initiative in pursuing Mitch, how she is characterized in the media, etc. Lydia complains how alone and scared she is without her husband, clearly needing a man for support. And Annie used to be like Melanie but her time in Bodega Bay and interacting with Lydia seemed to have subdued her.
  • Mitch is attracted to Melanie's independence (and presumably was to Annie's), perhaps as a counter to Lydia's need to depend on men. Yet he fits the role well of taking care of his family. It is unclear which one he really prefers.
  • b. Responding to Fear - how do the different characters respond to the bird attacks? In the restaurant, people take different approaches to the bird attacks (science and logic vs. end of the world vs. let's kill them all)- what's the message behind providing those different approaches?
  • Although we, as viewers, are probably attracted to the cool-headed scientist's explanation (note: who is a woman, albeit not portrayed as "ideal" like Melanie), it doesn't seem to explain the bird attacks!
  • c. Mirror to Reality - Is there a message about the U.S. in the 1960s here? Or the woman of the 1960s?
  • The U.S. was in the middle of the Cold War, afraid of nuclear missiles ("birds") suddenly raining upon the country. Melanie = U.S., to bold and confident, entering an area not her own seems to cause destruction upon everybody.
  • A lot of different ways to go here

2. Melanie's "Growth" Arc

How is Melanie different here than she is in the beginning of the movie? Is the difference a "growth"- so this is a coming of age movie? Or perhaps she had gone back in development? What do you think.

Why is Melanie "evil"? (Note: Tippi Hedren calls Hitchcock evil in her interview... Meta-analysis: is is the same evil?)  

Why then do the bird attacks start when Melanie comes?

- Seems like Melanie is the catalyst. She is clearly doing something differently than the other women in the area. Notice how she tries to help the others, while all the other women stayed back here in the restaurant hiding (even the scientist).

3. Setting: Bodega Bay

- Why is the setting in the small, peaceful town of Bodega Bay? How would the movie be different if it took place in San Francisco? And what is the point of having the action start in San Francisco but then move to Bodega Bay?

- Other apocalypse works focus on the entire world's destruction (War of the Worlds, The Walking Dead, etc.). Why do you think this horror is constrained within Bodega Bay (potentially)? And why does the movie focus more on the characters than the birds - the first half of the movie is more of a love story than a horror. Why is that?  

Leads up to: WHY DO THE BIRDS ATTACK? Do the birds symbolize anything?

Bishop's article and the ideas of challenging independence can be of some assistance here.

Part II of class: Discuss the larger themes and questions.

4. Genre

Is this science fiction, fantasy, neither, or both? Why? What about other works of horror - Dracula, The Walking Dead, or Psycho?

How does this being "Horror" and not more mild Science Fiction or Fantasy change the way we approach it? Horror isn't as popular as other genres and people avoid it at all costs. Why do some people love horror and others hate it? A different form of escapism?

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