Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Horror ...

As I plan to head out and see The Descent this afternoon, scary movies have been on my mind.

I recently purchased a used copy of Camille Paglia's nifty little book on Hitchcock's The Birds in the British Film Institute's "Film Classics" series (BFI Publishing, 1998), which effectively lays out the various layers of complexity that suffuse Hitchcock's weird and scary film. The details Paglia offers are instructive in pointing up the mechanisms used to elicit fear and dread in viewers in the pre-feminist era. (Also instructive in thinkng about this is Carol Clover's fascinating Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, [Princeton, 1992].)

There is a girl-meets-boy undercurrent running through The Birds, with viewers wondering not just who will survive, but also who will end up together? In fact, the movie sets up a love quadrangle, with the male lead, Mitch, surrounded by three attractive women who all vie for his love and attention.

One of those women is Mitch's formidable mother Lydia, played by Jessica Tandy. Tippi Hedren plays Melanie in the film; she's a somewhat feckless socialite who meets Mitch by chance and ultimately pursues him to the idyllic coastal community of Bodega Bay. (Which, it just so happens, is ground zero for an impending apocalyptic bird assault upon the human race.) Annie, played by Suzanne Pleshette, has already failed to navigate past Mitch's mother in order to establish a mature relationship with Mitch. Having accepted this defeat, she's moved to the town in which he resides just to be near him, and is the town's beloved schoolteacher. (The image above shows you what happens to her, in case you were wondering.)

With Annie gone, Melanie has a slightly clearer path to navigate to win Mitch's love. It's clearer, but it's by no means one without remaining obstacles. For in addition to Mitch's not inconsequential mother, Melanie also has to face the millions of birds who are out to kill her.

One of Hitchcock's less-savory subtexts in the film is that in order for Melanie to win Mitch and gain his mother's approval, she will need to be tamed just a bit. She's rich, she's beautiful, she's headstrong, and too used to getting her way. (Several of her mildly "wild" exploits have been reported in the press.) Luckily, a quite efficient taming force, in the form of waves of murderous birds, is on hand to do the trick.

At the close of the film, "a catatonic Melanie ... must be half-carried out, where she sinks into the tender arms of an apparently all-forgiving Lydia." (p. 85)

Amor vincit omnia!

Hitchcock clearly intended for the ardors of the actual shooting of the film to reflect, and factor into, his female lead's performance. (Werner Herzog [Fitzcarraldo] and Francis Ford Coppola [Apocalypse Now!] also subjected actors and crews to hardships that mirrored those central to their own films.)
For the climatic attic scene, where Melanie falls beneath a killer flock, live gulls, crows, and ravens were used - to the surprise of Tippi Hedren, who learned only when she arrive on the set that day that ... mechanical birds had been rejected as unconvincing. Seven days were needed to shoot this horrifying sequence ... Hedren called it 'the worst week of my life.' A cage built around the set contained the birds, which were literally thrown at her from a distance of eight to ten feet by prop men wearing padded, elbow-length leather gloves. Periodically, shooting would halt while makep artist Howard Smit applied latex strips and stage blood to simulate cuts and scratches on Hedren's face and arms. Her hair was tousled, and her green suit gradually ripped. The gull that she whacks with her torch was a dummy, and the real one that bites her on the hand had a rubber cap fitted over its beak. But the terrorization of Melanie was also the terrorization of Tippi, who recalled of the grueling, day-long operations for the scene's final seconds: 'They had me down on the floor with one of the birds tied loosely to me through the peck-holes in my dress. Well one of the birds clawed my eye and that did it; I just sat and cried. It was an incredible physical ordeal.' ...In a state of total collapse, she was forbidden by her doctor to return to work, and so shooting on the film was halted for a week ... (p. 16)

While Paglia acknowledges that Melanie's character gets beaten into submission by the end of the movie, and that the shoot was pretty hellish for Tippi Hedren, she doesn't leave things there.

In closing the book, Paglia informs us of how Hedren ultimately overcame this difficult and trying experience:
Hedren and her then-husband ... later founded an animal preserve in ... California, forty miles north of Los Angeles. Though it began as a movie set, Shambala became a refuge for ... lions and tigers, whose care and adventures she chronicled in her ... 1985 book, The Cats of Shambala ...

In many interviews ... about Psycho, Janet Leigh has repeatedly expressed her continuing fear of taking showers. Tippi Hedren, in contrast, though traumatised by animal nature in The Birds, seems to have actively confronted Hitchcock's challenges. Once her 'consciousness had been raised' ... she refused to wear the fur coat Hitchcock had given her and eventually 'hocked' it to pay feed and maintenance bills at Shambala. As queen of the lions, she beat Hitchcock at his own game ...[I]n her embattled private dialogue with Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren has had the last word.
(pp. 91-3)

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