In October we watch horror movies and hope to be scared. The other 11 months of the year, horror movies are broiling cauldrons of rich, delicious subtext, which is almost as fun as wanting to cover your eyes for fear of what's under the hero's bed or the backseat of his Lincoln Continental. Lately we haven't even had to try to find meaning hiding in the signals coming from our televisions as they play DVDs or re-run movies we thought we had a pretty good handle on. The meaning crawls out like Samara Morgan or The Tingler. It finds us. This may be because the conversations we're having as a nation are increasingly hard to understand because for the first time, we've all been taking part. Discussions of basic human rights have been totally democratized. This means everyone can now talk about the fact that their government is torturing people and realize that voting is indeed an incredibly important right we need to exercise. It also means that when a woman goes on Facebook to share a story about being harassed on the street by a terrifying stranger looking for solidarity, to remind people sexism still goes more or less completely unpunished, or maybe just to vent, there are one or two men who comment on it in less than helpful ways.
Olivia Collette wrote a chilling article on the dangers of getting home at night when you're a woman, something most men don't even attempt to understand because they feel they don't have to or lack empathy. When a friend of mine reposted the article on her Facebook page, a guy commented on it: "It's gotten to the point where you can't even have a conversation with a woman without her telling you she has a boyfriend." #notallmen as the twitter saying goes. As smarter people than I have pointed out, this is just a different kind of misogyny, and smacks of entitlement the same way catcalling someone on the street does. I mean well, thus, I don't deserve your suspicion. I'm not like other guys. This isn't what a rapist looks like. You should know to let me into your life and assume I won't put you in an uncomfortable situation. It's like being mad at defensive driving. Persecution complexes rarely help anyone see an issue clearly, and along with full-throated pleas to be respected as human beings, the preponderance of slut-shaming and the unbridled vitriol women experience everyday online, in movies, in print, on tv and in person from sexist manchildren, the waters get muddier everyday.
Olivia's brutal piece and the reaction I saw it receive online kept returning to me as I revisited Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" before Halloween this year. In college I read Camille Paglia's excellent analysis and was taken with her relating Melanie Daniels' ordeal to the domestication of single, free-spirited women in the 60s, but I don't know that I really gripped how pervasive that particular idea was until this viewing. Back then I was too enamored of Hitch as a stylist to do much reading, fondness leftover from my childhood when the film was just an exceptionally wonky horror movie. I started watching the film looking for Paglia's anti-liberation reading, but quickly saw something else that took over. "The Birds," like the casually diseased menace of its title, had been waiting. Biding its time until our culture's hysterical mishandling of our culture's disastrous misunderstanding of sexual violence came to a fever pitch. In every piece of dialogue about the attacks there's a hugely obvious analog in social media. I felt like someone had rewritten a movie I'd seen 75 times.
Tippi Hedren's Melanie Daniels starts as one of the most fun characters in cinema history. She's spoiled rich, which means she has no real responsibilities, and this isn't a problem until her love interest makes her check her privilege. We meet her as she decides, on a lark, to pretend she works at a pet shop. Then, for the sake of an elaborate prank on a slightly stuffy white collar stud, drives two birds something like two hours up the coast to his house in Bodega Bay as a stealth gift. She then charters a boat, rides across the bay, breaks into his house, leaves the birds, and flees. Fantastic. Utterly marvelous. What keeps Daniels sense of fun from seeming at all fatuous is her voluptuous purpose. It's the look on her face when she realizes just how much more work she has to do for the punchline. Fun is that important to her. And the only reason she can do this is because she's not attached to a man. Settling down with Rod Taylor's Mitch Brenner means giving up her freedom, but also that look on her face. The more she stays with Mitch, the less freedom she has to be who she wants to be. She does not embrace marriage, she has to be led into it, catatonic and out of her wits.
Daniels' trouble starts with an attack. On her return trip from the Brenner house on her rented boat, she is attacked by a single bird. Deke Carter (Lonny Chapman), the manager of the diner they go to clean her wounds, worries that he'll be sued. Her pain is secondary. It's a warning for Daniels, with her furs and gloves, to go back where she came from. Women with personalities this big won't last here. She'll be told this very explicitly later by a mother who believes the trouble somehow lies in Daniels herself. Her only ally is the schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette, who, with the incremental hoisting of one eyebrow, steals every scene she's in), who's let the torch she carries for Mitch keep her tethered to white picket fences in another way. She may never settle down and have kids of her own, but she's stuck with a dozen of them every weekday. She gets one look at Daniels and knows the fight to stay sane in Bodega Bay is going to get harder. If Daniels is here for Mitch, she's not leaving without him. Pleshette communicates continents of disdain for this unchained woman in a few looks and pauses. Her tacit shaming will cool when she realizes the real problem isn't Daniels, but by then it's too late.
“They’re different, daddy” Melanie says absentmindedly. “Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind, rather…who insists on making life difficult on this planet.”
The drunken derelict in the corner leaps in next. “It’s the end of the world!” is his refrain, followed by a smattering of scripture. Nothing we can do, just embrace our problems. A waitress quotes the bible back at him, temporarily silencing him. A sea captain ambles over and joins the conversation just as a high-strung mother asks everyone to lower their voices. “They’re scaring the children.”
Mrs. Bundy comes at Daniels with more scientific reasoning as a defeated looking man in a suit saunters up to the bar and before taking a healthy sip of scotch says “Kill ‘em all, get rid of ‘em, messy animals.” I can't remember the amount of times I’ve said to anyone who will listen that most men are like dangerous animals let out of the zoo to harm anyone they encounter. Olivia’s article mentions that there was a spate of sexual assaults in Montreal cabs. The police responded by telling women not to get in cabs alone anymore. It’s often hard not to view my fellow man as a dangerous species that has wondered down from the hills to take whatever it wants.
Sam the cook comes out next and asks what the fuss is. Mrs. Bundy and the uptight mother answer before anyone else can. It’s not their story, so they don’t get the facts right. The man in the suit tells another horrific anecdote, adding to the feeling that everyone is now just reading stories on a Facebook thread, retroactively giving the conversation an air of “How awful…oh well. What's Taye Diggs up to?”
And then of course, they attack a minute later. No one believes Melanie Daniels until it's too late. Her ordeal is far from over. After being caught in the disaster outside, she and Mitch seek shelter once more in Deke’s diner. Huddled in the corner are several waitresses and patrons, all of them female, including the mother from before. They all give Melanie quietly disgusted and horrified looks and Mrs. Bundy has turned her back. The mother’s the only one who voices what they’re clearly all thinking. “Why are they doing this? They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil. Evil!” The last word is a desperate shriek that I don’t think anyone who sees "The Birds" ever forgets. The birds are no longer the problem. It’s the woman with the loose morals who invited this kind of behavior by standing out. The mother wants to blame someone other than the culprit, as we so often do. Easier to find a soft root cause than accept it as a catastrophe that needs a huge solution. Why pull together and make an effort when you can blame one person and look out for yourself? Paglia in Time Magazine: “Too many young middleclass women, raised far from the urban streets, seem to expect adult life to be an extension of their comfortable, overprotected homes. But the world remains a wilderness.” Daniels has brought San Francisco with her to Bodega Bay, which is sort of hilarious because with every passing year that’s meant more than it could have in ’63.
Daniels’ ordeal is far from over. She and Mitch go next to Annie Hayworth’s house. She’s been savagely murdered by the birds and lays spreadeagled, undignified, outside her front door. Her assailants are perched over her body on the gutters of her house. Mitch grabs a rock to throw at the birds, but Melanie stops him. What if they attack again? Don’t make a scene. Leave with your life. Man’s first reaction is violent resignation. No reasoning with an inhuman attacker, better to just lash out. “Kill ‘em all” like the man in the suit says. Mitch brings his family, his mother (Jessica Tandy) and little sister (Veronica Cartwright), and Melanie into his house and boards up the doors and windows. The house Melanie strode into so easily before the birds started attacking is fortified to repel an invading army.
Despite their best efforts the birds get in. The curiosity that brought Melanie to Bodega Bay to begin with sends her up to the attic to check out a strange sound. She is overcome and the door won't open behind her. If what happens next isn't rape, Hitchcock didn't want anyone to know it. It's the most uncomfortable scene in the movie. You realize exactly what happened to Annie Hayworth, another San Francisco transplant adrift in small town America, before Mitch and Melanie discovered her. Paglia once more: "young women do not see the animal eyes glowing at them in the dark. They assume that bared flesh and sexy clothes are just a fashion statement containing no messages that might be misread and twisted by a psychotic. They do not understand the fragility of civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature." That's an insanely bleak way of looking at it, but Hitch clearly agrees. Daniels crime is her desire for a man.
The birds throw her into unwanted domestic complacency by showing that what's outside that house is so much worse than overbearing Ivy League knowitall Mitch Brenner. But that doesn't make him right for her. Her fate ultimately lies in a warning Annie Hayworth gave her about Mitch's mother. "[she's] afraid of any woman who'd give Mitch the only thing Lydia can give him…love." When Melanie is carted off at the end of the film in the backseat of the Brenner's car, she rests on Lydia Brenner's lap, doomed to become Mitch's mother. Giving up is presented as the safest option, but safety, like so much else, is a lie. Melanie's independence has been superseded and she's still alive, but the avian landscape ahead of them suggests that the future is bleak regardless of any decision she may have made.
"The Birds" presents a horrific dichotomy that gets aired every day on social media. "She'd date me if I was an asshole like the guys she usually spends time with." Vs. "This bitch was asking for it." One or the other. I'm not to blame. I. Me. Them. It separates us. Men aren't willing to take a long view of the situation. I'm guilty of despair as much as anyone, but braver, smarter people don't believe in the bleak bottom line. As awful as men and women can be towards each other, there is no opinion that can't be gently reversed, even if it takes generations. Mania seizes people and we embrace what's easy, but that's a dead-end. Evolution means asking for directions. The only hope is exploring and embracing the in between we all seem to forget exists (not without cause, mind you).
Take the lovebirds that Melanie carts with her to give as a gift to the Brenners. When they leave Mitch's sister Cathy insists on bringing them in the getaway car. "They haven't hurt anyone." Are they the exception? Or is there hope the other birds may calm, too? Not all birds, it seems. A better example can be found when Melanie asks Annie why she, a Suzanne Pleshette character, would be in a place like Bodega Bay, she has a noble answer about teaching, and an honest one about Mitch Brenner. "I wanted to be near Mitch. It was over, and I knew it, but I wanted to be near him, anyway. You see, I still like him a hell of a lot. That's rare, I think. I don't want to lose his friendship... ever." That's how you have a conversation about men and women. She's realistic about her feelings and her expectations for her future with the man she wants. Annie Hayworth doesn't make much more than eyes at Mitch, despite what are clearly overwhelming feelings. If every man planning to catcall a woman had even half of Annie Hayworth's restraint, maybe, MAYBE women wouldn't need to come up with ways to get home without feeling like they were being spied on by dangerous predators. And if men could acting like dangerous predators or shabby misanthropes without swinging over into the boyish caricature of Mitch Brenner, women might not be terrified to be caught in conversation with them. The world looks a hell of a lot like "The Birds" right now. Let's fix that.