Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds

While looking for classes to fill up my electives in college, I had stumbled upon a "Film as Literature" class. It was technically considered an English class, but it involved watching lots of movies so I was all for it. The idea of the class was looking at the way a film is shot and how that is used to tell the story. We also read Heart of Darkness and then watched Apocalypse Now, but that felt like something that was forced in as an attempt to tie it to literature. Another one of the movies we watched in this class was Rear Window.

Rear Window was my first real introduction to Hitchcock and I loved it immensely. On my own time since I've seen Psycho (loved it!), North by Northwest (also loved it), and Vertigo (reviewed here). I realized it was about time I caught up with one of the two things I always knew Hitchcock for in my childhood: The Birds. The other is Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is currently sitting in my Netflix streaming queue waiting for me to finish up some other series first.

The biggest problem for modern audiences to face when watching this film is how outdated the special effects are. They used a mix of real birds, puppets/fake birds, and a green screen effect where the birds are flying wildly and it is overlaid on top of the actors' performances. Obviously the real birds don't do any attacking. The puppets can be incredibly unrealistic at times, and it's left up to the actors to make you believe it. With the stars this works pretty well, but when you see them attacking the kids, for example, it's a little too obvious and silly. I really thought the green screen effect was put to good use, particularly when the birds are inside the house. The performances of most of the actors are strong enough that you really believe they're in danger.

Another problem by modern terms is how long it takes for the movie to get going. There's a very slow moving story with this woman and her attempts to surprise this man's younger sister with a pair of lovebirds. There's no real indication that anything is about to go wrong, so you're forced to just sort of wait around until stuff happens about 30 minutes in. In contrast to something like Psycho or Rear Window, which take a bit to build but keep up the suspense the whole time, I was a bit disappointed. Apparently, I've been too far influenced by Hitchcock's other films, because I expected Melanie Daniels to be killed the moment the first bird struck her.

The strongest scene of the whole film for me comes when Lydia goes to the Fawcett farm. The complete silence, the slow movement down the hallway, the slow reveal in the room... it's all just completely brilliant and classic Hitchcock. I also love the way she chokes on her words rather than screaming like so many other horror movies would have her do. I've had so many dreams where I tried to scream but the words wouldn't come out, it seemed so perfect to me. Overall it had that same realistic approach to this situation. People who haven't seen the birds attack are believably skeptical, and those who have are too caught up in a state of panic to spout witty dialogue. In fact, a lot of the best scenes in this movie contain no dialogue at all, and the actors reactions sell the horror and suspense completely.

What was up with that song the children were singing at school? What could you possibly learn from that? It worked to make things creepy, but man, it just kept going and going.. The only time I remember doing stuff like that at school was when it was the last day before a holiday and the teachers wanted to keep us busy but not actually teach us anything new. I guess Annie is a lazy teacher.

While watching the movie I kept guessing as to what could be causing the birds to act in such a way. I think there are clues here and there, though some of them are probably red herrings. I enjoyed the fact that it was never explained and that the ending in itself is very vague.

This is related to absolutely nothing but Rod Taylor looks like he could be related to Robin Williams to me. I kept thinking it over and over again as he appeared on screen.

Another thing I couldn't help thinking of on and off was the Animaniacs short, "The Boids" in which the Goodfeathers are stand in stunt birds for the film. I kind of expected to see Melanie Daniels whack at the birds with her purse to mirror one of the scenes of the cartoon. The cartoon actually is fairly accurate though, as it shows both the playground scene and the phone booth moment.

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