Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hitchcock: Theories on The Birds and Psycho

Since my last list of films, I've seen a few others... Renoir's Rules of the Game, Port of Shadows, Fellini's 8 1/2, Murnau's Nosferatu, and most recently, two essential Hitchcock films that I'd never seen: The Birds and Psycho. I've focused my viewing habits a bit more in order to attend to seminal works of European and American popular film, and I've discovered some interesting trends. For instance, it seems to me that European film naturally groups itself into movements, often nationalistic and stylistic (Italian Neorealism, Poetic Realism, German Expressionism, etc) whereas American cinema organizes itself into genres that are specifically semantic and topical in nature (film noir, Western, horror). This is probably worthy of another blog post in the future; however, for today, I'd like to reflect on those Hitchcock films.

Hitchcock's experimentation with sound is among the most cosmetic, but the most striking, of the innovations appearing in these two films. I've seen three wildly different approaches to music in Hitchcock: in Psycho, the music was essential to the mood, and some extended scenes... like Marion's long drive to the Bates Motel... were entirely dependent upon the soundtrack. The music goes far beyond the famous screeching violins, and sets the unbalanced, trembling tone for the whole film. In The Birds, there is no music, which is one of the most unsettling aspects. This is not a movie about humans and their need for order and aesthetics, after all, and the lack of a soundtrack highlights the alien character of the natural world which envelopes them and threatens them with its tempraments. In Rear Window, which I saw a year or so ago, there is a soundtrack, but it's always created within the scene (i.e. diegetic music). I'm not going to focus on this film, but I thought it worth mentioning, since it's a third example of an experiment in audio-visual synergy.

The soundtrack for Psycho is perfectly suited to the tone of the film. In the key scenes, Hitchcock spends his time bringing us into the psychological space where Norman Bates resides, and the film's interiors represent this. Apparently Zizek hypothesized that the three levels of Bates' home represented his superego, ego, and id, respectively. This draws attention more generally to the fact that this was a film of interiors, and especially of the interior of Bates' mind. We spend some of the early scenes in Marion's head, where she hears the voices of her acquaintances as they decide how to pursue her. However, through most of the film, we're so close to Bates, and so involved with his anxiety and his complexes, that we're essentially seeing through his eyes, albiet with some contextual omnipresence added for effect.

What does this have to do with the soundtrack? Simply that the jarring violins and cellos were well-suited to representing an unbalanced mental space. The presence of music sets a mood and an atmosphere, and even a personality, within the space of the film, and this particular soundtrack played as a struggle to bring order to world that's ultimately drowned in anxiety and fear. This is Norman's soundtrack: his world is always at a slight tilt, jarring and uneven, and Bernard Herrmann's music is maddeningly effective.

The Birds feels a lot different, and represents something very different, and the difference in soundtracks indicates one of the basic contrasts between the films. In The Birds, there is no overriding consciousness to bring order to the strange events of the world, so there is no predictability and no explanation... no shrink detective appears at the end, explaining the phenomenon that made the birds attack the residents of the Bay. The clientelle of the diner offer a few tentative explanations, but these all seem woefully inadequate in the face of the simple physical facts of the attack. There is no solution, because there isn't even a plausible explanation, whether from science, or from religion, or from paranoia.

In this world, the human mind is no longer central, but peripheral to the unfolding events of the film. Music is no longer appropriate, because music is an ordering of the biological -- rhythm, harmonic melody, and atmosphere -- according to the patterns of consciousness, and in the hostile natural world that's overtaken Bodega Bay, there is no place for the metanarrative of the human mind. The characters are left to improvise and flounder, and their attempts to attribute any rationality to their environment are always in vain.

In fact, even the audience is left to struggle in vain with the problem of explanation. John McCombe points this out in the Spring 2005 Cinema Journal in his article on The Birds and English Romanticism... he says, "the viewer attempts to construct a cause for the violent attacks by these normally passive birds." This was true, at least for me, through the whole film -- though I didn't hope to find a clear, scientific/symbolic/rational explanation for the attacks, I kept searching for a running theme that could drive an interpretation. Was there a certain time, a certain symbol, or a certain object that united the attacks? Like the characters, I was left looking for some transcendental motive in nature's hostility, and like the characters, I was unsuccessful.

I felt that among the three explanations offered by the diner customers, the most plausible was the one offered by the paranoid mother, who suggested that Melanie was cursed. I wouldn't say that she was evil, per se... but she seemed cursed, almost from the outset of the film. The first on-record bird attacks were both in her vicinity, and toward the end of the film, when the attacks had started to make the news, the announcer noted that they were still centered around Bodega Bay. This isn't the whole world of nature going insane -- this is one small part of California, reacting negatively to bad energy, and some indicators point to Melanie as the source.

What could Melanie have done to earn the wrath of the natural world? Perhaps it has to do with her interest in overturning established orders, pulling pranks, invading a small town, and disrupting a tense maternal relationship. Maybe Lydia is a witch, or her anxiety is resonating through the natural world. Maybe, because she imprisoned the love birds, and because her own disposition is light and avian, Melanie has been chosen as nature's Pariah, a sacrifice to make up for humanity's petty fascist crimes.

It's worth further investigating the relationship between Psycho and The Birds, and I suspect that some theorist may have done this already. Mitch is no Norman Bates, but in a sense, his relationship with his real mother is reflective of Norman's relationship with his moralizing, internalized "mother" personality. If we continue along this line of logic, we discover that Melanie is like Marion, or like one of the girls who Norman murdered: a threat to a strained, controlling maternal relationship, an instigator throwing off the family's Oedipal balance. If this is truly her role, and if (as the previous paragraphs suggest) Melanie is actually the birds' target, then their wrath could be read as the reincarnated anger of Bates' mother, embodied in the same birds that preoccupy her son Norman.

And when this anger leaves Norman's head and enters the world, it's no longer contained in the jarring, pathological order of the violins and cellos... instead, it becomes a force that's disembodied, unstoppable, and unsettlingly silent.


Anonymous said...

very nice :) and very iluminating.

Anonymous said...

Nice link up of the two films. I like the idea of comparing the birds wild nature to Norman's psychopathic violence - unexplainable to humans and deadly. My thoughts about the birds were simply to do with female energy. There are women everywhere in this film could it be a bit like hell knows no fury like a woman scored? A glamorous woman arrives and none of the women are too happy about it. The mother in particular. Melanie is a threat. When she walks around the corner in the diner it is suddenly all women staring wide eyed at her like a flock of birds. The idea that it represents a deep mental rage or Norman is great but could it also be hysteria?

The other thing that strikes me about the film is solitude. There are no couples in this film apart from...the love birds. The teacher is unrequited, possibly lesbian, Mitch mysteriously single, the younger sister cut off from the rest of the family by her age. Melanie herself is a mysterious loner, so is pretty much every character in the diner/town. Crucially - the mother is lonely after her husbands death, hysterically so as she screams on the bed. Perhaps the terror in this film is to see two love birds cage themselves off from everyone else. The closer Melanie gets to Mitch the worse it gets. The birds are loners in mass like the whole town trying to destroy the love birds out of jealously?