• Joseph Kolb

Wild Waiting in the Wings: The Birds

My roommates and I took a trip to Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with friends, some that I hadn’t seen in a year or more. The party theme was Midsommar — a film I’d like to write about in the near future — and we erected a 12-foot decked out maypole, donned our white cotton shifts and flower crowns, and celebrated the summer and each other. The weekend was great, despite all the traveling, until we arrived back in New York and discovered dime-sized black flies had overtaken our apartment. 

The Birds (1963)

Accurate depiction of our reaction to the flies.

It was after several days of trying to eradicate our domestic pests that, one evening, we decided it was most apt to have a viewing of The Birds (1963). Like most people, I was familiar with the film as a cultural touchstone for references and the various gifs that would float around online but had not seen the film before. Unlike the movie, I have not been run out of town by my personal invasion of black creatures, but that might be because I eventually resigned myself to let the few remaining insects I hadn’t hit with my shoes live, or, as someone who lives in a high-density urban area, this is something that I more or less grow accustomed to.

The Birds was apter than I realized in this respect. The film is a reminder of the constant battle between nature and the urban — not, as it likes to present itself, about the threat of modernity. As we watch various flocks begin to terrorize the small waterfront town of Bodega Bay in growing destruction throughout the film, The Birds continually tries to tie this force to Melanie Daniels, who is a seeming beacon of the urban. No, Miss Daniels does not know much about birds, as much as she likes to pretend she does with Mitch Brenner, who easily beats her at her own game. This is how the two know each other: Daniels played a prank resulting in a broken window, landing her in court, where she tried to weasel her way out of it under Brenner’s eye. When Daniels finds herself in Bodega Bay toting two lovebirds in what’s supposed to be a quick, flirty joke, she finds herself get wrapped into the politics of Brenner’s personal life and the town, continually prolonging her stay as the titular birds grow en masse, expanding their reign. 

It’s hard not to feel that this is all related to Melanie’s presence. The longer she stays, the more interpersonal conflict is unearthed as externally more havoc is wreaked. Mitch’s mother is cold and possessive of him, bordering on incestuous. Daniels learns that her new friend, Annie Hayworth, the schoolteacher, was previously involved with Brenner, and has stuck around despite their romance ending short. Does the same fate await Melanie, who, as Mitch’s distrusting mother pointedly articulates to him, is the rich daughter of a newspaper owner and jumps naked into European fountains? 

Melanie Daniel’s perceived threat is presented most obviously following the iconic schoolhouse attack. After updating her father on the events over the phone — which captures the attention of the entire diner — the townspeople begin a heated discussion of the nature of the malicious birds.  Finally, a patron of the local diner confronts Daniels, crying, “They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. Evil!” The camera comes in on this mother in a close-up to highlight this accusation. Yes, Melanie’s timing is bad. But does she not try her best to save whoever she can in the nearest vicinity?

In this way, Melanie proves herself to be separate from the presence and influence of the urban San Francisco. When the family finally is able to get access to radio and listen to the news, they’re disbelieving that all the news can say is that there have been some unusual bird attacks. Later, when Mitch ventures out to the car, we’re satisfied to know that the feathered barrage is accepted as noteworthy, as a crisis, even as little can be done. But most importantly, in what seems to act as the climax of the film, when Melanie makes her rounds of the house for security, she’s assaulted mercilessly by the flock, leaving her bloody and almost immobile. Until now, Daniels had only been present for the onslaught, hardly receiving any injury. This scene affirms that she is not impervious or safe, that, despite her money and social standing, she’s just as vulnerable as the rest of us.

Even as we try to convince ourselves we’ve conquered her, nature is always waiting to swoop in. This morning I noticed a crushed cockroach in the frame of my closet door. The flies are mostly gone, but ants have started a new invasion of our bathroom. And I swear, we have a decent apartment. If you get a chance, I recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. In it, he lays out through extensive and rigorous research what would happen to the earth if all humans were to suddenly disappear at once and what would happen with what we left behind. This is an incredible feat that he tackles from numerous angles, and although some things will affect the earth for an indeterminate amount of time (Yucca Mountain, the moon landing, plastics), in the early chapters and throughout Weisman describes how swiftly our largest cities will succumb to the rapid return of wildlife without our presence and upkeep. 

The Birds sends a similar message. The course of Melanie’s relationship to the Brenner’s and Bodega Bay is concurrent with the aviary ambush, both equally confusing. In their moment of solace, as they escape in the car, Melanie rests her head in Mitch’s mother’s lap, and they exchange a weighted glance suggesting that they recognize they’re in this together. As much as we try, as much as we try to rid ourselves of it or conquer it, The Birds reminds us that nature lays waiting for her chance to fight back At the very least, there are consequences for our actions. In the opening scene of the film, Melanie leisurely strolls through the aisles of caged creatures, pretending that she knew everything about them. In our final scene, Melanie slowly makes her way past all those free birds, wounded and humbled by the wild and unknown.

#filmreview #filmcriticism #hitchcock #alanweisman #birds #thebirds #theworldwithoutus #thebirds1963 #nature #alfredhitchcock #film


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