Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fear of Birds; or How Hitchcock taught me about modernism

Alphabetical Film Festival: THE BIRDS: My mom took me to see this movie when it first came out in theaters, which would mean I was 7 years old at the time--this is the same mom who took me to see Bonnie & Clyde when I was 12, God bless her. Bonnie & Clyde traumatized me (I had nightmares for weeks) but The Birds helped teach me about an important element in the arts, and in real life, too, I suppose: ambiguity. At 7, I was already a big monster movie fan and I was used to traditional closure in those movies; as bad as the monsters and mad scientists were, they always got what they deserved at the end, usually death, and the forces of good/God won out. I was also used to having everything mysterious explained by the end. Even in movies like Dracula, where the supernatural was taken for granted, there were still explanations (a bite on the neck caused vampirism) and rules (Dracula could be fought with crosses and sunshine).

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was a bit different. First of all, the horror wasn't some spooky being in a cape hiding in the shadows; it came from the skies, in broad daylight, and from something one usually associates with nature and Disney cuteness: average everyday birds. The plot: a flirty, scandal-prone ingénue (Tippi Hedren) plays romantic games with a non-game playing average Joe (Rod Taylor). While they're chasing each other around Bodega Bay, a small coast town near San Francisco, something strange starts happening: common, everyday birds begin attacking people, adults and children, and in some cases, pecking them to death. The tightly knit community of Bodega Bay blames the trouble on the scandalous interloper Hedren, though Taylor, his neurotic mother (Jessica Tandy), and his ex-girlfriend (Suzanne Pleshette) all have enough problems to keep a couple of analysts busy.

The use of special effects, indeed any photographic effects beyond placing a camera in front of actors, is not among Hitchcock's strengths; the bird attacks work OK, though a different director might have made more of an effort to make them more realistic and more graphic. And they worked well enough that I have a vivid memory of screaming like a banshee a couple of years later when a bird dive-bombed me during a picnic in a woods; I was certain that I was going to get chased and pecked like the schoolkids in the movie. But the strength of the movie is the growing atmosphere of unsettled dread, mostly because of the constant possibility of more terror from the skies, but also because most of the characters are rather unlikable people--Taylor is the most sympathetic person here, but even he has a bit of a mother problem that keeps him, in today's lingo, from reaching his full potential as a modern man (he's good looking and nicely built, but doesn't seem like good husband or father material).

But onto the ambiguity (and inevitable SPOILERS): 1) we never find out why the birds are attacking--some apocalyptic man vs. nature message is toyed with now and again, but not seriously; and 2) the film ends with no closure; a sort of truce is reached as the furious flocks of birds that had Hedren, Taylor, and his family trapped in their house suddenly stop attacking and let them take the car and leave. The last shots, of the physically and mentally traumatized family members (pictured) making their way outside to the car and driving away as hundreds of birds are still menacingly massed, are unforgettable and truly shocking, not in a BOO!!-startled way, but in a "what the hell is happening?" way.

I remember being very confused at the age of 7, and asking my mom on the way out of the theater, "What really happened? How does it really end?" as though there had to be a secret, more traditional story and ending that I missed. Poor mom couldn't explain it, and still, over 40 years later, no one has. There is a famous theory that the birds attack to make Hedren, Taylor, and Tandy become better at their most important jobs, being a family to each other, but if I accept that, I have to accept Shyamalan's dreadful Signs, in which God sends aliens to lay waste to the earth just to teach Mel Gibson to be a better father.

I prefer to think that Hitchcock was on the cutting edge of movie modernism, following European directors like Antonioni and Godard in bringing ambiguous unclosed narratives to the local movie theater (and perhaps making the world safe for Bergman's Persona and Kubrick's 2001). I remember being every confused, and a little angry, that Hitchcock didn't explain everything away and punish the forces of evil, but I wanted to see it again anyway. And of course, eventually, I learned that, more often than not, issues of good and evil and morality have more in common with The Birds than Frankenstein or Dracula (or Casablanca, for that matter).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Alphabetical Film Festival goes to the garden

Wow, it's been over two weeks since I posted here, and even longer since I wrote about our ongoing project of watching our 3 shelves of DVD favorites in alphabetical order. In real life, we're up to the letter "F," but in blog life, I've only just started on the "B"s, so I'll try to plow through several in the next couple of weeks, not necessarily to catch up, but so I don't feel so much like a slacking slaggard.

BEING THERE: Usually, in the battle between films and literature, literature loses; very few books have been adapted to the screen without losing something major in translation (The Godfather, coming up when we get to the "F"s, is one of the few films that is considerably better than the book). This adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's novel gets around the film/novel problem by becoming a somewhat different creature from the original. As I recall (and it's been over 30 years since I read the book), the novel is very short and reads almost like a fable: a gardener named Chance, who has been isolated in the mansion and grounds of his employer since he was a child, has to leave his comfortable home when his employer dies. All he knows about the world comes from his knowledge of gardening and from watching television. Because he speaks so simply, he is taken by others to be a genius, using metaphors (drawn from gardening and TV) to spout wisdom, and winds up becoming a national figure in business and politics, never really understanding why or how powerful he has the potential to become.

The book, which is about 120 pages in its mass market paperback edition, was turned into a movie with a running time of over two hours. Aside from having a very different (and to my mind, better) ending, I can't pinpoint the differences between the two, but the movie fleshes out the characters, or at least makes them feel fuller even if we don't know that much more about them. Of course, the movie has the advantage of having Peter Sellers as Chance. Though Sellers was not always a very subtle comic actor (see any given Pink Panther movie or Murder By Death), he gives a marvelously controlled performance here, delivering his dialogue without accent or affect, looking cosmically serene without seeming stupid.

An example of his wit (and Kosinski's) is the scene in which Shirley MacLaine is trying to seduce him in a bedroom while a TV is playing in the background. He basically ignores her pawing of him, saying simply, "I like to watch," meaning he'd rather watch TV than have sex. But she interprets him as a sexual voyeur, so she proceeds to masturbate in front of him. He ignores her, but she feels liberated and thinks she owes it all to Chance's wisdom. Because he is soft-spoken and has a dignified manner, people feel compelled to interpret his simplistic utterings. When asked by the President if the economy will recover, he begins talking about the garden and its cycle of seasons; the President looks mystified briefly, but then decides that he's recommending optimism, that as nature does, so does the economy.

Sellers and the clever script, with its implicit critique of mass media (still potent today in our world of reality TV and the level playing field that allows bloggers to speak their simple little minds with no credentials) make this movie a classic. MacLaine is good, as is Melvyn Douglas, in an Oscar-winning role as a dying presidential advisor. There is one great use of a pop song, Deodato's version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" as Chance leaves his mansion and heads out into the world for the first time. There is also a very amusing string of outtakes under the end credits showing Sellers struggling with a line involving the word "asshole," and prefiguring the now-universal appearance of such clips as extras on DVDs.