Thursday, February 18, 2010

Motion Studies: The Birds

(I don't suggest reading this post unless you've seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds in its entirety.)
It is an ending to a film in the same way John Coltrane’s disintegrating whirl of saxophone, bass and cymbals was an ending to his album A Love Supreme. Bloodied, shock-consumed and bandaged Melanie (Tippi Hedren) is lifted up from the sofa by Mitch (Rod Taylor) and his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), to be brought outside their barricaded house where the birds that have attacked Bodega Bay await her. Rows of crows line the banisters, seagulls stand in a vast mob all over the driveway and lining the road. The white car that is their only escape sits in the center of the mob.

Now will they attack her and finish their work? That is the question that goes through our heads in sync with Mitch and his mother. Melanie cries “” in a voice hardly her own and lurches back. But Mitch and Lydia pull her forward. The camera dollies closer to the car. Then the angle switches to a tight shot of Mitch, Melanie and Lydia, dollying backwards. We glance at several crows perched on the porch railing. They flit their wings and crow. The three humans move closer to the car, down the wooden steps. Now from above, Melanie is carried through the ground-swarm of seagulls, who cautiously scoot out of the path of the three humans whom they are making sure will flee. Melanie is lifted in to the backseat and Lydia climbs in with her. Mitch stands in the doorway of the driver’s seat as his teenage sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) comes to the house doorway and nervously asks if she can bring the lovebirds (which Melanie purchased at the film’s beginning) because “...they haven’t hurt anybody.” Mitch agrees, and we see Cathy and Mitch take the lovebird cage out of the house in a pan from the porch to the car. They both climb in. A weary Melanie looks in to the eyes of her lover’s mother and squeezes her wrist. Lydia smiles and leans her head against Melanie’s. The car pulls away. The seagulls craw. The crows craw and flap their wings in slow motion. The mob of birds craws, hoots and flaps their wings as the car disappears down the road, in the breaking sunlight, and out of sight.

Hitchcock, the master of orientation, displays his mastery of orientation here in full dramatic flight; from the porch, towards the car, with birds on either side; back to the porch, then back to the car, then back to porch and fade out on the birds. This orientative shooting allows us to fear every careful step these characters take out to the car. But Hitchcock also proved himself a master of the mystical and ambiguous ending in this film. The birds do not fly away; only the car moves. What will happen to Melanie and Mitch? Will she be okay? Will they marry? And what of the birds? Are they crowing because they now rule Bodega Bay, or does their crowing represent the closure of some psychological aspect of Melanie’s relationship to Mitch? This does not at all come as a pretentious reading by the end of the film, because Melanie’s paranormal connection to the birds has only been brought up once, briefly, previous to the ending, and only now is it subtly suggested that the main characters are willing to believe it. Hitchcock probably didn’t end another film on such a moody note. All his other films are inclined to pat resolutions, or contemplation of the protagonist’s misdeeds rather than dizzying, metaphysical ambiguity.