October 2013
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Hitchcock's The Birds, on a twentieth viewing, remains a cool masterpiece. Marshal McLuhan, of whom I was shocked to find a graduate student of my acquaintance had never heard, posited that film is a hot medium, rendering the audience passive because it does all the mental work for you. The Birds, by contrast, is as cool as the Hitchcock blonde at its center, Tippi Hedren. Most famous Hitchcock films of the 1950's and 1960's, such as North by Northwest and Psycho, make no sense but pretend they do. It was a truism even back then (at least when I started seeing new ones as they came out, circa 1966), that you didn't comprehend the holes in a good Hitchcock flick until the day after you had seen it. But one thing that differentiates The Birds is that it doesn't even try to make sense. Contrast Psycho, which ends with minutes of very dull exposition from a psychologist character we have never seen before, explaining Norman Bates' split personality. The Birds could have ended like that, and even introduces an amateur ornithologist character who could have told us at the end that the bird were suffering from a rage bacterium or some such thing.

In the world of the film, its not really important why the birds are behaving that way, and the film avoids the classic narrative tactic, more used in science fiction than horror, of allowing you to understand the rules by which the monsters act. The greatness of the first two Alien movies, was that they described, then expanded, the rules of alien life: they way they ate, bred, laid their eggs, the stages of their life-cycle, etc. By the end of The Birds, we are only dimly beginning to understand there are rules. The bird attacks come in waves, and in between you can walk through a flock of angry birds without being harmed, so long as you don't step on one--this is the rather anti-climactic end of the movie.

This withholding of information means that, having watched the movie over and over since it was first televised in 1964 or so, I am still trying to figure out if there is a thing or action meant to be partly visible in the movie which triggers the bird attacks. This time, after so many viewings, I became aware that in some, but not all of the scenes, there is fire: birds attack people who are lighting cigarettes, swoop down on the town when the gas station is on fire, and attack the protagonist's house when there is a roaring blaze in the fireplace. But there are other attacks, such as the very first one when a gull bites Hedren in a motorboat, where there are no open flames visible. Perhaps internal combustion equals fire? But the attack outside the school still wouldn't make sense. Other theories I have heard involve the caged lovebirds Hedren brings Rod Taylor as a present, and the one expressed in the movie itself, that Hedren herself has somehow brought the calamity to town. You could also formulate a Freudian theory that Rod Taylor's jealous mom, played by Jessica Tandy, is causing the attacks to keep women, Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette (who dies) from taking her son away.

Its flawed Hitchcock, partly because of this confusion, but is carried off with such flair, such self confidence, that I still think its a better movie than North by Northwest. It contains what I think is the best set piece in any Hitchcock film, and almost any suspense or horror movie ever made, and that is the attack on the town, which is both funny and frightening. There is a long scene in the diner first, where the townspeople are talking inconsequentially about whether to believe bird attacks are happening, and what to do about them if they are. The ornithologist emerges in this one scene, to represent the Official Narrative, that birds can't possibly be attacking, because they haven't the "brainpan". She gives a bunch of statistics about the number of birds on earth, how many separate species, that they don't flock together, etc. And during all this, gets change, buys a pack of cigarettes from the machine, and lights one.

Things then deteriorate via a series of interconnected disasters of which James Cameron has made himself the post-Hitchcockian master, in movies like Aliens and The Abyss. A man attacked by birds drops the gasoline hose, and gas pools on the concrete. Another driver lights a cigar, while people scream at him from the diner, and then goes up in flames when he drops the match. There is then one of the most amazing shots in all of American cinema, of the burning gas station and surrounding town from high in the air....as gulls start circling into the shot. Hedren, who barricades herself in a glass phone booth as birds fracture its sides and bite people to death just outside, winds up back in the diner, where the strangely silent townfolk stare at her, then burst out with accusations: she brought the birds!

In a more normally narrated movie, this would be the end, the big pay-off. But Hitchcock chooses to conclude the movie with two more attacks at the house, a lot of waiting in between, and then a rather low key escape past agitated but nonviolent bird flocks.

I also watched Psycho again, a movie I don't really like (too violent and upsetting) but have also seen twenty times or so. What I concentrated on this time, and which I think is brilliant, is the deliberate choice to withhold a protagonist until quite late in the movie. First we think its Janet Leigh's movie, and then she is killed in the shower. Then, for ten minutes or so, its about the detective....but Norman Bates kills him too. Finally, it becomes the younger sister's movie, and stays there. Next time I watch it, I will time the moment at which she comes to the forefront; it must be more than a hour in, during which time we keep desperately transferring our allegiance and hoping someone can defeat the monster.

I have been very caught up in Breaking Bad, which is the best television of the last twenty years after The Wire. The series finale is coming up in a few nights, and I hadn't planned to write anything until after. But, on the next to last episode, the series threw away a single mom, a kind, likeable, hapless character who had been on since, if I remember correctly, the second season, and that got me thinking about the moral commitments television makes, or ignores, to its audience.

Television writers in particular who are accused of not constructing shapely, satisfying story arcs, bending towards justice, are prepared with responses about writing "outside the box", surprising the audience, and avoiding Trite Tropes. I disagree carefully, because it almost sounds like I think the outdated and lame Hayes Office movie standards should apply. Despite the fact, however, that the Hayes Office required that gangsters die at the end of the movie, that does not mean we are now compelled to have them survive and triumph. Whether you believe in Aristotle's theory of "catharsis", or my alternate theory that (even if we are not purged of emotions) a well constructed story line (in TV, plays, and movies) ends with some sort of satisfying "click", a story which does not end with some sort of rough justice being done may not satisfy us. We are programmed for structured narratives, and only some of those narratives are trite or lame. A story (even if you've only invested 2 hours and not one or two hundred) probably shouldn't end in a non-sequitur. Violent gangster stories which don't end with justice, some of them, tend to be sadomasochistic in nature, such as the endless glorification of Hannibal Lecter where we live vicariously through his murders, and even, in the novel Hannibal, his terrible humiliation of Clarice Starling (a plot line changed for the movie because so unpalatable).

Apropos of Ms. Starling, in Silence of the Lambs Harris created a self confident, autonomous heroine not dependent on any man, then chose to transform her into a sex toy for his psychotic killer in the sequel. This reminded me of Larry McMurtry's choices in the endless sequels to Lonesome Dove: teenage Newt is killed by a horse, Lorena marries the ridiculous Pea Eye, etc. I saw an interview with Larry McMurtry once, in which he said something like, "They're my characters, I can do what I want."

Past a certain point, though, that's not quite true. Your vision (and its not good TV or good anything if you have none) must meet your audience somewhere. They watch your show week after week for five or seven years or (increasingly) devote weeks of their time binging on it on Netflix. Because of that reliance factor, you don't have the right to do, for example, what Chris Carter did on The X-Files, and just stop telling the story. Killing off a blameless character in whom we are invested falls into an intermediate category, of something you need a pretty good reason to do.

Of course, shades of McLuhan, the medium is the message and some of these story line changes are driven by circumstances beyond the writer's control, actors quitting or the network demanding radical changes in a sinking show, and all that. But this didn't seem to be one of those. A young woman, who lived on the margins of the criminal milieu but wasn't part of it, and whom Jesse had gone to great length over the years to protect and support, was murdered to teach him a lesson. A person portrayed on a show can be mere set dressing, like the scores of thugs who get gunned down in action movies, or a plot twist, like the black police chief you know is going to get killed by the bad guys in the first twenty minutes of a 1980's suspense flick. But this actress had been on the show often enough and for long enough to become a believable character. Did the writers always intend she would be a plot twist in the end? Will the finale contain some sort of expanded catharsis that compensates us for losing her? If, instead, it takes the story in a completely different direction, and her loss doesn't mean anything, I will take that as bad writing, bad audience relations, and, even though she was fictional, even an immoral act.

Later--I watched the series finale. It was well written and very satisfying. At some point I hope to write a lead essay for the Spectacle about television story-telling, comparing this finale with that of Sopranos, which I found offensive.

However, the killing of this character still seems gratuitous. In perspective, it seems to be what we call in Playwriting 101 "raising the stakes" so that we know someone is Really Bad and are especially satisfied when they get their comeuppance. The problem was that the stakes didn't need raising, because the bad guy was already established as maximally evil and completely deserving of the end he met on the finale. I would love to ask the writers someday what they were thinking when they decided to include this scene.