Thursday, May 25, 2017

Winter is Coming

"The devil is no fool. He can get people feeling about heaven the way they ought to feel about hell. He can make them fear the means of grace the way they do not fear sin. And he does so, not by light but by obscurity, not by realities but by shadows, not by clarity and substance but by dreams and the creatures of psychosis."
-- Thomas Merton
Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds premiered in New York City 54 years ago and for 54 years audiences have asked the movie the same basic question: Why do the birds attack? You could fill a small library with the monographs and books which have tried to answer the question, almost all of them throwing up their hands in confusion, cliché, or pedantry: God's punishment of Man; Nature's punishment of Man; Fate; Science; the Unknown; the Absurd. Or mere storytelling incompetence and exhaustion on the part of an aging, burned-out director (in Pauline Kael's aging, burned-out "analysis"). Yet the movie, I think, provides the answer, a mystery solved consistent with Alfred Hitchcock's chain of wounded masterpieces beginning with The Wrong Man (1956) and ending with Marnie (1964) -- a run of artistic achievement equal to any of the 20th Century.

When do the birds attack?
Gulls attack Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) when she reverts to posing and primping, after exposing herself emotionally to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) by finding out where he lives, buying love birds for his little sister's birthday, traveling to his family home in Bodega Bay, and dropping off the love birds. Love birds.
A gull crashes into Annie Hayworth's (Suzanne Pleshette's) door after Annie and Melanie have opened their hearts and emotional secrets to each other -- their love for Mitch -- on a night of full moon. Perhaps a warning to them from the witch of the Bay: Lydia (Jessica Tandy), Mitch Brenner's mother.
Gulls attack the children at Cathy Brenner's (Veronica Cartwright's) birthday party -- immediately upon Melanie's revelation to Mitch of her hatred of her own abandoning mother: a crooning that opens the door to Mitch's own mother-hatred -- while Annie Hayworth, the junior witch of the town and its sole elementary school teacher, watches Mitch and Melanie talk among the dunes, as Lydia stands close by watching also. The birds attack the children. . .
Sparrows explode into the Brenner family house as Lydia's hysteria is made manifest, over Mitch's invitation to Melanie to sleep overnight in an upstairs bedroom.
Handsome neighbor Dan Fawcett -- whose chickens won't eat -- is murdered by crazy birds, his eyes eaten out -- mother Lydia's rage killing the man she'd been having an affair with (or hoping to) -- the better to focus on Mitch; the better to keep him near.
Crows attack Annie Hayworth's world, her school and school children, her house where Melanie Daniels is also staying -- the attack beginning instantly after Lydia sends Melanie to the school to check on Cathy Brenner's safety; Lydia willing to risk the sacrifice of her young daughter if it will forever take Melanie and Annie out from between herself and Mitch. Perhaps take Cathy out as well, another future rival.
At last, Lydia loses control, her nightmare of loss released into the open air, as her fury begins to destroy all. Her home and neighbors. Her town. Perhaps Mitch himself.
There are witches in Bodega Bay. And does in lovely human forms. And a cold calculating cunt on her way to becoming a doe. It is always overcast in Bodega Bay, the whole place haunted, the colors muted, earthtones exhausted, like a Braque. The only vibrancy here is the blood red of Annie Hayworth: she is the earth, the wounded, with heart and orgasm -- vows taken for life and the furies of vengeance if one is untrue to the depths of passion.

And something else. The personal panics of Hitchcock's characters seem born of their time. They can hear the ominous, distant drums. The powerful, perhaps smug, confidence of American life growing since the War is reaching a cross-roads -- the Eisenhower consensus is coming apart, so is the Nuclear Family, as sexual repression comes home to roost. Kennedy -- and Rod Taylor could be his twin -- as Fertility God. All the terrors and conflicts to come, as much of the best in American life is about to go away forever. He is in danger! So is the love. The Birds rejects the Kennedy promise. The call for togetherness and love, emotional exposure, sexual relaxation, will be destroyed. The year the movie is released will be the call's high point -- all downhill from here. Hitchcock rejects the promise -- not emotionally or spiritually -- but as a simple impossibility, as something forever out of character with the brutish, hateful, mob-oriented, and violent American "character." Togetherness will not work, cannot, against the furies of reaction to come, Just as he sensed in Psycho (1960) the new-born lone-gun Oswald sickness emerging from the American miasma, here Hitchcock senses the Kennedy hope -- and the doom it will soon face.