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Literature Film Quarterly (2000) - Reading the birds and The Birds




Morris discusses the connections between Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and Aristophanes' play by the same name, questioning the meaning of the attacking birds. The characters' attempts to teach the two birds to talk at the beginning of the film can be seen as the attribution of present of absent significance.


Reading the birds and The Birds

No Hitchcock film has generated more controversy over representation than has The Birds. The debate began with Robin Wood's lucid exploration of the logical responses to the question, "What do the birds mean?". He rejected what he called the "cosmological" and "ecological" readings -- that the birds are agents of revenge for a deity or for their own species' mistreatment -- as leading to absurdity; he also rejected psychological interpretations -- that the birds reflect tensions among the characters -- on the sensible grounds that this explanation could not account for the birds' attacks on the farmer, Dan Fawcett, and on the innocent schoolchildren. Wood's answer -- that the birds don't mean but just are -- finally dropped the issue of representation in favor of a rich study of the characters' ambiguity. Concurring with Wood's exasperation with the problem, Thomas Leitch also rejected both satiric and psychoanalytic readings of the birds in favor of the admittedly disturbing conclusion that the bird attacks are "a gag and nothing more". Although both critics' reasons for faulting hermeneutic efforts to understand the birds are sound, their alternatives are difficult to accept and, in any case, have not diminished the critical need to assign some significance to the referent of the film's title. Two recent attempts to revive psychological interpretations of the birds are those of the Lacanian theorist Slavoj Zizek and Robert Samuels, who modifies Zizek's position in the light of feminism and queer theory. Zizek and Samuels read the birds' attack first as a reflection of the maternal superego -- Lydia Brenner's rivalry with Melanie Daniels for the love of Mitch Brenner. For Zizek, this initial correspondence is then superseded by the more general understanding of the birds as the irruption of the Lacanian Real into the Symbolic -- Lacan's rough equivalents for the Freudian id and ego. Samuels modifies Zizek's argument by emphasizing the genderless nature of the Real, which becomes distorted and subject to ideological manipulation in the Symbolic, and by reading the birds' attack as the cinematic rendering of this originary nothingness or gender confusion.

Zizek and Samuels eventually conclude that the birds' attack neither has nor needs rational justification; nevertheless, each arrives at this point only after grounding this ultimate insignificance in the birds' correspondence both to general intrapsychic forces, that presumably exist in the world outside the film, and to the characters' repressed desires; in this way, Lacanianism, queer theory, and feminism reinstate a privileged relation between signifier and signified that is everywhere else challenged. In doing so, neither can escape the contradiction Leitch found in earlier satiric or psychological readings of The Birds:

Both [interpretations] agree that the fundamental problem in the film is the disproportion between the relatively inconsequential behavior of the characters and the magnitude of the threat they face, and both attempt to resolve that problem by establishing an intelligible relation between the two. It is the nature of the film, however, to resist any such resolution.1

Thus ...

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Christopher D. Morris, Norwich University

Notes & References

  1. Leitch 229. For a psychological reading Leitch takes issue with, see Horwitz. For a more recent psychological reading, see Paglia.
  2. Gottlieb cites an early use of the term "MacGuffin" in a lecture Hitchcock delivered in 1939 as well as later uses in 1950 (267, 122). An instance from 1968 appears in LaValley's collection, 43-44. Spoto quotes another use of the term in a letter from Hitchcock in 1975 (299-300). For suggestive comments on the MacGuffin consistent with my own thesis, see Cohen, 257.
  3. Hitchcock used the term "springboard situation" to refer to the expository section of the film, usually the first reel, in which the basic dilemma confronting the hero was set forth. See Gottlieb, 273.
  4. In Aristophanes's play, two Athenians, Peisthetaerus and Euelpides, exile themselves from the city out of disgust with its growing autocracy and litigation. Seeking a better place, they come upon Tereus, formerly a mortal and now a hoopoe. Peisthetaems encourages Tereus to lead a rebellion against the Olympian gods in the name of the birds, whose claim to authority rests on their creation prior to Zeus. Mobilized, the birds are indeed able to create a kingdom, midway between earth and the heavens, to which the Olympians must sue for peace. Peisthetaerus is rewarded with the woman of his choice. But, ironically, the new bird kingdom turns out to be just as autocratically governed as the Athens the two men fled.
  5. See the articles by Counts and Boyle.
  6. Hitchcock's original ending - in which the Brenners arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge only to find it teeming with birds - suggests an apocalypticism that is not necessary, since the imagination can well extrapolate the effect of billions of birds, in the ornithologist's reckoning, massing against the human race. In any case, Hitchcock's "openended" ending continues the undecidability of the birds, refusing in the final analysis to make them signal either the defeat or the victory of the human race.

Works Cited