Friday, June 3, 2011

The Birds: Man vs. Nature

I love photographing birds, but some of the pictures come out rather...spooky. They always remind me of my favorite "scary" movie: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

This, of course, is a Common Grackle, a gregarious, and stunningly beautiful creature. Although the recent Great Backyard Bird Count showed that the overall Grackle population in the United States is down, population is booming in our area of the Texas Hill Country. In fact, we have a large, healthy flock that lives in the trees around our house. They have a sharp, loud call that could be seen as intimidating by those who are unfamiliar with bird calls.

The Grackle is in the Black Bird family. Black birds are mentioned throughout The Birds, as are crows. When it comes to spooky, black birds work best. Just ask anyone who has seen The Birds and they will tell you there is nothing scarier than row after row of large black birds sitting on wires, staring down into the camera. And as Black Birds, Grackles and Crows are all extremely intelligent, curious creatures, it is easy to train them to stare into the camera!

A flock of Grackles is called a "Plague." A flock of Crows is called a "Murder." Oh, the horror!

The Birds, released in 1963, is loosely based on Daphne du Maurier's 1952 classic novella. It takes place in Bodega Bay, California, a quiet, little seaside village, occasionally visited by tourists, those wishing to escape big city life, businessmen who drink heavily in the afternoon, and a quirky ornithologist who is inexplicably stunned by the strange behavior exhibited by the birds in this movie--rather than intrigued and excited by the rare opportunity for study.

Bodega Bay is under attack. The attacks start small, and coincide with the arrival of a spoiled rich girl from the city played by the famous scream queen Tippi Hedren, mother of actress Melanie Griffith. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) Hedren's character in the film is named Melanie Daniels.

Rod Taylor stars as Mitch Brenner, the lead male role in this film, though Tippi Hedren is the true star. The legendary Jessica Tandy plays Brenner's mother, Lydia Brenner, and the very talented Veronica Cartwright plays his little sister, Cathy. Suzanne Pleshette plays the dark-haired, deep-voiced, seductive, though not too sexy, schoolteacher/former girlfriend of Taylor, Annie Hayworth. Pleshette has always been one of my favorite actresses, capable of switching easily from a comedy role to drama. In The Birds, her most dramatic scene is not shown. We, the audience, see the aftermath. Like all great classic horror films, the most terrifying aspects of the schoolteacher's demise take place in the viewer's imagination.

Alfred Hitchcock makes his signature appearance in the opening scene of the film when Mitch Brenner meets Melanie Daniels in a pet shop where he is looking for a pair of love birds for his sister's eleventh birthday. Hitchcock walks past the pet shop with a dog on a leash.

Although Hedren was called a "scream queen," she does not scream in The Birds. She gasps, and cries out, but does not scream. In fact, in the one scene where she is trapped in a bedroom with the birds and you would hope that she would scream, or at least call out for help, she raises her arms and says "oh, eh, gasp."

Oh well. That scene aside, it is still a very scary movie. The term "Scream Queen" is most often used to describe the beautiful damsel-in-distress in horror films anyway and has less to do with actual screaming than it does with the image of a helpless female.

Back to the movie. The birds begin to flock, large flocks containing every imaginable kind of bird, but the birds seen most often throughout the movie are crows and black birds, though considering the large population of Grackles in the United States at that time, I would venture to guess there were a few Grackles involved in this dirty deed. Nevertheless, crows and black birds are mentioned most often by the characters in this film. Perhaps because, typically, crows, like vultures, are used as a symbol for death.

The most important aspect of this film that is left to the viewer's imagination is trying to determine why the birds attack in the first place. The audience is clear from the beginning about one thing and one thing only--all of the birds are acting strangely, including pets, and there is nothing about the behavior of these birds that could be considered normal in any sense.

It is hinted, or insinuated, that the birds are rebelling against abuse of the earth by humans, in one scene in the bar when a professional ornithologist, who happens to be in Bodega Bay at the time of the attacks, explains to Tippi Hedren's character, "Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet."

The theme of rebellion against human encroachment is explored more deeply in the 1994 remake, The Birds II: Lands End. The remake received poor reviews and the director removed his name from the film and used a pseudonym, Allen Smithee, instead. The remake was too graphic. It failed in those areas where the original succeeded greatly by showing more than implying. Another remake starring George Clooney and Naomi Watts was discussed in 2007, but nothing has happened as far as production. Tippi Hedren's response was, "Why?" And I have to agree. The original was a classic in every sense of the word. There are so many talented writers on this planet, why does Hollywood insist on remaking the same films over and over? Take a chance, use some imagination, try something new!

Speaking of something new, the techniques used in the original The Birds were both unique and creative. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for special effects that were created by a true genius in film, Ub Iwerks, who co-created Micky Mouse with Walt Disney. Iwerks used a technique called Sodium Vapor Process to combine actors with background footage by having the actors perform in front of a white screen lit with vapor lights.

Birds do attack humans. I have a friend who had his right collarbone rebuilt after he was attacked by a flock of Canadian Geese while riding his bicycle. A male Canadian Goose can weigh 12 pounds. An attack by a small gaggle of geese could be deadly.

There are more than 10,000 species of birds in the world, and 925 in North America. If they ever do decide to mass together and attack humans, we could be in serious trouble!

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