THE BIRDS (1963)
IMDB Synopsis: A wealthy San Francisco socialite pursues a potential boy friend to a small Northern California town that slowly takes a turn for the bizarre when birds of all kinds suddenly begin to attack people.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Daphne Du Maurier (from the story by), Evan Hunter (screenplay)
Stars: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy
The most effective horror is horror from an unknown – an unexplainable horror. Climate Change is not this kind of horror, but Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is. Unlike sharks in Sharknado, birds in The Birds do not self-organize and attack Bodega Bay because of some Global Warming induced event. There is no science or reason for the birds in The Birds to attack school children and “innocent” townspeople. I put innocent in quotes because according to many readings of The Birds, Tippi Hedren is a filthy whore.
In stark12 contrast, Chapter 8 of Rachel Carson’s call to arms, Silent Spring (1962) is titled “And No Birds Sing.” The chapter is a collection of personal and scientific observations lamenting the loss of robins. In Silent Spring, birds function as a marker in time of the loss of wildlife.
In The Birds, they serve as an emblem of conservative values attacking The Other, the outsider. Everything in leading man Mitch’s town of Bodega Bay hangs on conservative values. His relationships (mother, sister, teacher) all had defined boundaries. Then along comes Melanie (Tippi), who represents sexual freedom, and the birds rain punishment down on the seaside town. That’s one reading.
“And No Birds Sing” offers a counter narrative to Hitchcock’s. Carson tells us that birds are vanishing due in part to the fact that in 1930 the American elm was attacked by Dutch elm disease, and the solution was intensive spraying of insecticides. Every spring elm tree were sprayed with insecticide, and each spring the returning robins died in astounding numbers. Consuming contaminated earthworms poisoned the robins. This contamination caused not only robins, but also other birds and small mammals to be poisoned. The larger predators then ate these animals, also ingesting the DDT. As DDT moves up the food chain it becomes more and more concentrated. And so on.
When we meet Tippi, she is buying a Minor bird at Davidson’s Pet Shoppe, and tricking Mitch into buying Love Birds. She’s playing love games.
“Have you ever seen so many gulls? What do you think it is?” She asks.
“Must be a storm at sea that’s driving them in,” the actual store clerk replies.
This is not as close to science as we will get in the movie, but it is the closest we will get to an answer for why the birds attack. The closest we get to science will be the bitter-pinched face of Mrs. Bundy, an ornithologist holed up in the diner while the birds attack. Neither Bundy nor any other voice of science offers an explanation. She offers but one moment of some kind of acknowledgment of cause and effect.
“Birds are not aggressive creatures miss, they bring beauty into the world. It is mankind rather that make it difficult for life to exist on this planet.”
Bundy is not Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcum in Jurassic Park rambling on about chaos theory and its linkage to climate change and human behavior. Science is silent in The Birds, and it is so for an important reason – effect. Bundy gets her one line, which comes off more as an opportunity to chastise Hedren than a commentary on man’s impact on the climate.
The proximity to science, to explain of the natural world, is not wanted in The Birds. Hitchcock has said as much. Science runs counter to the strategy of the Horror genre, that of an unexplained threat. Hitchcock uses this narrative strategy much in the way that H. P. Lovecraft did in literature. For Lovecraft, the horror was always unknown, unexplainable and even indescribable. Lovecraft said that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” and this was the underpinning of his narrative style. H.P.’s narrators often died at the end of a story babbling, strug gling to explain the creature or horror that was about to consume them. From The Unnamable (Weird Tales, 6, No. 1 (July 1925), 78–82):
“No—it wasn’t that way at all. It was everywhere—a gelatin—a slime—yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes—and a blemish. It was the pit—the maelstrom—the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnamable!”
This is our Climate Denying Republican Party grappling with their ideology of climate change. Science is their unnamable. In order to protect their opinion, they can’t accept any science; it has to remain an un knowable fear. Just as Hitchcock could not assign the scientific method to The Birds, as Lovecraft refused clear narrative description of a beast, Congress refuses to give authority to science when it comes to Climate Change. To put a point on this ideology: they fear a sense of environmental socialism. The House looks at Climate Change as un-American, as contrary to the American mythos of manifest destiny, as consumption-curbing that defeats free-market capitalism. Science has no home in the House. In The Birds, as in today’s Congress, the separation of Science and State is required to prop up a narrative that supports an ideology of Us/It (humans/earth) as separate entities.
To apply a (any) causation to Climate Change calls into question climate denier’s staunch inaction on the issue. Like Lovecraft’s Carter, DISbelief is a survival strategy, not species survival, but the survival of a belief system, which is easily described in one word: dominion. It is a matter of dogma. The dominion ideology is also the unnamable beast’s ideology, the zombie ideology – eat to eat. It is the bird’s ideology. No reason, just belief.
In The Birds, Hitchcock sets us up using a classic cinematographic perspective. As the town gas station explodes, the camera pulls up and away to get complete coverage of Bodega Bay. We see the town on fire in its entirety – the God shot from the sky. Then a gull drifts into frame and hovers. Then another and another and another. The framing goes from an establishing perspective to one of surveillance and dominion. It is the bird’s omniscience. They are surveying the damage that they have created, picking targets.
In the official theatrical trailer for Alien (1979), we pan over an egg, maybe a bird, maybe a reptile, we don’t know yet. As the heart beat pace increases, and quick flashes of the movie cut into one another, a cat screams and a single line of text appears on the screen. “In space, no one can hear you scream.” It’s a great line, a classic in the horror genre. It is a scary line.
Silent Spring can also be read as a horror story – a prequel to all climate apocalypse tales. But Carson’s version of the Alien line is perhaps even scarier to Climate Deniers:
“In nature, nothing exists alone.”
12 Stephen King wrote a book called the Dark Half about a writer whose pen name was George Stark. “The sparrows are flying again,” was a refrain in the book. This connection is only interesting to me.