October 13, 2017 (Friday)

by Yule Heibel on October 12, 2018

On our return flight we watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1953) – what a strange (like: really strange) film. I had seen it before, and as with so many of Hitchcock’s films, one tends to remember the frightening aspects. The highlights, …or low lights, if you will: the dark at the top of the stairs, or the sensory deprivation (and simultaneous overstimulation) of being in the shower before the terror really starts (Psycho). But when you rewatch his movies with a more Jungian (as well as Freudian) eye, you’re just amazed at all the strangenesses of all the details: the settings, the characters, the characters’ personality quirks…

In The Birds, Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren), socialite daughter to a rich and influential San Francisco newspaper owner, meets Mitchell (“Mitch”) Brenner in a pet store where she thinks she’s pranking him by pretending to be a salesgirl, whereas he in fact is playing her: he knows who she is from the start and only pretends to go along with her ruse so he can then be rude to her. It’s a typical semi-sadistic little exchange where her ardor is piqued by his cruelty, kind of a stereotypical ploy, a 1960s — almost 1950s — period piece. It works well enough, though, for Melanie subsequently makes the effort, as Mitch runs off without giving her satisfaction, to find out his identity. He withheld it from her, but she’s resourceful enough to suss it out — mainly with the help of staff at the unseen Daddy’s newspaper. She then buys a pair of lovebirds, the item he came to the shop to acquire as a gift for his little sister’s upcoming birthday, and then proceeds to his apartment where she plans to leave them “anonymously” (although obviously he would know where they came from). However, when she gets to the building she learns from a neighbor that he is never at home on weekends and instead spends his time in Bodega Bay, over 70 miles along the scenic route north of San Francisco.

So of course she hops in her outrageously stylish Astin Martin and zips up the coast, intending to drop them at his house (again, anonymously). Once she reaches Bodega Bay, she has to ask around to find out where the Brenners live (Mitch stays with his mother and little sister at the family home), and what the little sister’s name is so she can personalize the gift. The latter bit of information is provided by Annie (played by Suzanne Pleshette), who is an old love interest of Mitch’s and who moved to Bodega Bay to be near him — even though she readily admits that it’s “over” between them. Annie happens to teach at the local school and knows the little Brenner girl’s name: Cathy. Melanie subsequently rents a little skiff and motors across the bay to the Brenner house. Approaching the house by water means she can avoid detection; if she took the road, he would be able to see her approach.

On the way back she’s attacked by a gull. That’s the first incident. Mitch, meanwhile, found the cage with the lovebirds and has taken his car to head her off in town. He arrives to help her out of the boat and staunch her bleeding head.

Annie is an interesting character: she is literally quite dark (as dark as an early 1960s mainstream film might allow). Dark hair, dark eyes, dark mood (mostly), and bereft of agency and resources in an odd way (if she had options, why would she stay in that godforsaken Bodega Bay?). Melanie, whose name actually means “black,” is Annie’s opposite in many ways: very light-skinned, pale and blond, light, resourced, resourceful, full of at times outrageous agency. Annie really is all yin while Melanie is heavily yang.

And yet Melanie, this woman who acts, who takes the initiative, who is the director of her own life, is weirdly inactive, seemingly indecisive, at crucial moments when she’s in mortal danger. When all hell is breaking loose in Bodega Bay itself — the birds are attacking and the gas station goes up in flames — she runs into the danger only to try to seek shelter in a phone booth which she then doesn’t try to use to call for help. She doesn’t use the phone in the booth to make a call, to speak: she is completely silent and as if in a dream, as if unconscious.

This bit of weirdness reproduces itself in the climax scene when she goes, alone, up the stairs (the dark at the top of the stairs), and opens the door to an attic bedroom (Cathy’s?). What she then sees is horrifying: a hole in the house’s roof and an infestation of black (let’s say “melanious”) crows perched in anticipation of their victim, Melanie. She doesn’t scream, she makes no sound at all. In fact she manages to enter the room, as if propelled, and her own body pushes the door shut behind her as the birds proceed to ravage her.

The only way to explain even semi-rationally why Melanie, who is as “white” and yang as Annie, Mitch’s original love interest, is “black” and yin (even though Melanie — the white one — has the “black” name) goes into the attic without first awakening Mitch for help, and then stays effectively silent the entire time she is being done over by the birds, is because she “entered” not an attic, but her subconscious. Annie has already been hacked to death — and had her eyes pecked out — during an earlier attack by the birds. In the aftermath of that attack on Annie, Melanie and Mitch had to rescue Cathy who had escaped with Annie to her house when the birds attacked the school and the children. And so we know, and so does Melanie, that the birds mean business. And we can also intuit that Annie and Melanie are in essence mirror images of one another, archetypes of femininity. But even though she knows the birds can kill, still Melanie climbs the stairs on her own, enters the room on her own, and seemingly succumbs on her own. Then Mitch rescues her — and in the wake of that something very interesting happens.

Mitch has a mother, Lydia Brenner, widowed some four years earlier. Since her husband’s death, she is terrified of being left alone. She cares for her daughter Cathy and lives for having Mitch come to stay on weekends. She distrusts the women he’s interested in: it’s very clear that there’s something almost dangerous in her approach to Melanie, who is used to getting her way (albeit till now in an almost empty, reckless manner) and who now runs up against this maternal obstacle, this adamant rock which won’t budge. Annie warns Melanie about Lydia, and there is a suggestion that Lydia doesn’t want to lose Mitch. In other words that she’s the all-consuming (bad) mother who won’t let go. Melanie’s response to Annie is very telling: she tells Annie that Lydia wouldn’t lose a son, she would gain a daughter if Mitch married. That’s kind of left hanging — Annie neither affirms nor counters Melanie’s comment.

Later, Melanie and Lydia have a chance to talk one-on-one. Earlier that day Lydia had discovered the body of a farmer (and I got the impression she was rather fond of him). He was hacked to death by the birds (and he, too, had his eyes pecked out). The discovery prompted a near nervous collapse and Lydia is resting in bed, still extremely agitated, when Melanie and she have their moment alone together. Lydia tells Melanie that she’s not trying to thwart Mitch’s love life, but that she is concerned he make the right choice. She’s not convinced that Melanie is the right choice, though: she had heard of her reputation for wild living — but Melanie already set Mitch straight about that, and has talked about how she actually works: she volunteers, she does this and that, she’s trying to be a “serious” person, not some frivolous bimbo who’s out every night and all day with a bunch of fools. In other words, she is trying to be a woman. She is nubile, she wants to take on the mantle of mature womanhood, to marry, presumably to have a family, too.

But Melanie has a troubling past of her own: when she was a child — probably Cathy’s age — her mother ran off and abandoned her. She says that her mother abandoned “us,” and it’s unclear whether there was a sibling or whether Melanie meant herself and her father. At any rate, no one has seen her mother since or knows where she is.

So now we have it, the key players: Annie, the totally yin woman who remains sterile (unmarried, childless, and furthermore with eyes pecked out — talk about sexual metaphors!); Melanie, the nubile woman who wants a mature womanhood and a life with meaning; Cathy, the young girl only on the cusp of puberty, who happens to be the age Melanie was when her own mother abandoned her; Lydia, the seemingly dominating (but not really) mother who above all fears abandonment — it’s not that she wants to entrap Mitch in some eternal state of juvenility, she just doesn’t want him to be abandoned (as she was when her husband died). Hence her distrust of “unserious” — and likely also of sterile — women.

Now, in the wake of entering her subconscious (the attic room), of having the birds tear at her and then being rescued by Mitch, Melanie is in a state of catatonic shock. She is even “whiter” than before, melanin drains from her, her lips are ghostly white, her eyes empty. It is decided she must be brought to a hospital, and so the little troupe — Mitch, Cathy, Lydia, with Melanie in tow — make a daring escape in Melanie’s car. At the last minute Cathy begs Mitch to allow her to take the lovebirds — because, as she puts it, “they haven’t done anything wrong.” Mitch agrees, and he hustles Cathy and the caged birds into the car. Melanie and Lydia are already in the car, where Lydia is cradling Melanie — like a child. At this point, Melanie comes out of her catatonia and back into consciousness. She looks up at Lydia, into her eyes, and then you know: the love story is complete. Melanie has refound a mother, Lydia has gained a daughter. Neither will be abandoned again, and each will be able to fulfill her sexual role according to the dictates of nature. The birds are calm now.

Melanie had gone on a quest not just to bring lovebirds to Mitch’s little sister Cathy, a quest not just to marry Mitch, but find (refind) her own maternal other.

There’s so much more here, but just one last detail: the amateur ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy, who argues with Melanie over Melanie’s own experience, telling her she can’t possibly be correct because birds just don’t behave that way, this Mrs. Bundy is another incarnation of sterile sexuality — a bit too much of caricature, actually. She is quite beyond gender — trans-gender. She smokes like a man, she looks mannish even though she’s a “Mrs.” and is wearing the typical 1950s, 1960s suit (skirt, blazer, blouse, hat), and she throws around facts (data about birds and bird species and behaviors) like a man. But she doesn’t really use her eyes or her intuition, she’s not open to experience at all, and she’s completely dismissive of Melanie’s actual experience, of what Melanie saw happen. Of course the revenge comes on thick and strong when the town almost goes up in a conflagration caused, indirectly, by the birds. It’s not nice to think you’re smarter than Mother Nature, to think that facts and figures tell the whole story…!

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