My favourite Hitchcock film: The Birds by Geoff Dyer
From the outset, the film is replete with the visual and linguistic trappings of imprisonment. In the pet shop where they meet, randy Rod Taylor tells mischievous Tippi Hedren she "should be behind bars". The man in the general store who gives her advice on how to get to Bodega Bay, where Rod lives with his sister and widowed mum (Jessica Tandy), works behind some kind of cage. The harbour from which Tippi sets sail is lined with lobster nets and traps. And the women are variously imprisoned by the feminine necessities of heels too high to run in, perfectly constricting clothes and ozone-threatening quantities of hairspray.
Tippi is the potential exception. She accidentally frees a bird from its cage in the pet shop and is – or was – wild enough to have once leapt naked into a fountain in Rome. Relatively speaking, she's an animal – well, she's wearing a fur coat anyway. Attacked by a gull on the boat to Bodega Bay, she is both the birds' first victim and is later accused, vampire style, of bringing the avian plague with her. (This is notionally true: the pretext for her visit is to deliver the lovebirds Rod was hoping to buy for his sister's birthday.)
Guilt by association is compounded when she takes off the coat and reveals her true colours: a stunning jacket and dress in lovebird green! (Is it a coincidence that two of cinema's great green outfits appear within a few years of each other, first this number modelled by the ravishing – and ultimately uccello-ravaged – Tippi, and then the coat worn by the psychologically tormented Monica Vitti in Antonioni's Red Desert? Or did Antonioni somehow glimpse the chromatic potential of chicks in green from Hitchcock and quickly borrow the look from him?)
As for the titular birds, what's their beef? And what – if anything – do they represent? Symbolic harbingers – talk about blaming the victims! – of impending ecocide? Or, in the allegorical scheme of things, perhaps they're a plague of invading immigrants, of Mexican origin presumably, coming over here, taking our crops and turning a nice little Wasp town into a place where it's no longer safe to walk the streets. Certainly, this is a view supported by the guy in the diner who, as the bird attacks intensify, translates the racist's standard rant into full-blown speciesism.
Slavoj Zizek reckons the birds coming down the chimney and erupting from the fireplace of the Taylors' besieged home are "explosive outbursts of maternal superego". This is nonsense; the correct diagnosis is that Rod and his sister have a dead Father (Christmas) complex.
The subtler question, for the critic David Thomson, is "why Jessica Tandy and Tippi Hedren have such similar hairstyles". Hairstyles, it is worth adding, which make them both look – in the Michael Caine-ish argot of the day – like birds. Tandy in particular twitches and flinches as if fearing that she could at any moment get pounced on by a cat – or might have to watch her son pounce on Tippi.
Thomson is right to move the discussion indoors, so to speak, since the worst thing about The Birds is, of course, the birds themselves. Not just because the special effects look so creaky by the hyper-real standards of CGI. No, the film would be much better off without them. Alert to this, the Dutch artist Martin Hendriks digitally removed the birds, turning it into a tale of extreme psychological torsion and pure paranoia. Tippi sits outside the school house, smoking Cindy Shermanly, oblivious to the fact that the climbing frame behind her is … just a climbing frame! I say this but I've never seen the bird-free version, because, I'm guessing, some killjoy claim of copyright infringement means that it too has been removed from sight.
This is a shame, since Hendriks's intervention finds its justification within the film itself. One of the flaws of the special effects is that the birds cast no shadows, suggesting that they might not exist, that they are no more than a collective hallucination. The original, let's not forget, came out in 1963 and is set just a short drive north of San Francisco, which would soon become the centre of mass experimentation with LSD. Hendriks's act of inverse spiking persuades us of what should have been clear all along: that everyone is in the grips of the ultimate bad trip, an apocalyptic bummer, a freak-out premonition both of Altamont's Hell's Angels (with their patches depicting a death's head with wings) and Charles Manson's home-invading murderers.
Pity he couldn't find a Hitchcock he actually liked, rather than one he would like had it been different...
Note that in the picture above, you CAN see shadows cast by the birds. However, he has his theory and he's sticking to it.