Some random thoughts on the idea of space in The Birds (1963)

September 20, 2007

Most of my contact with film theory is purely incidental. I try to avoid being saturated with theory and analysis as it completely changes the way you watch films, making it harder just to sit back and enjoy the show. Even so, I am aware that vast amounts of literature have been dedicated to the subject of the meaning of the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film. It’s a critical debate somewhat akin to literature’s search for Hamlet’s tragic flaw – e.g., the source material is so rich and open-ended that the matter will probably never be resolved to everyone’s liking. Being rather joyfully ignorant of the criticism, I know only some of the broad, high-level ideas of what the birds supposedly symbolize in the film – the most common arguments saying such things as they represent nature’s unwillingness to be subjugated, the struggle between repression and sexual freedom, etc. (I actually came across a very insightful blog this past year that summarized in one place all the major schools of thought regarding the meaning of the birds, but alas, it looks like said blog has since disappeared from cyberspace, leaving behind no trace.)

Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it a few times now and have started to notice new things, but I actually found myself with a somewhat critical mindset when I watched the film thebirds2.jpgwith Wifey this past weekend (by the way – it’s getting to be that time of year where more and more creepy films might be showing up on this blog) and was wondering quite a bit about this ever elusive meaning of the birds. In particular, I was pondering what connection, if any, there was between the bird attacks and the personal relationships of the film’s main characters. It was this line of thinking that really got me to thinking about how the concepts of space and boundaries are used in the film. At the risk of beating a dead horse, here are my two bits on the subject, which I’m sure have already been said more eloquently and in more detail elsewhere. . .

Have you ever noticed how much Hitch plays with space and boundaries in the film? The entire film is full of scenes of birds in cages, people hiding in the confines of cars or phone booths, people barricading themselves in houses and reinforcing the windows and doors, etc. From the very get-go, with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in the pet shop, the conversation deals with all the birds trapped in their cages – one of which Melanie accidentally releases, causing a little comedic foreshadowing of what will become a much darker theme throughout the film – i.e., the inability of these manmade boundaries to hold. This impulse of man to set boundaries is evident throughout the film – not only with physical enclosures, but also the psychological and social boundaries people try to set. The subplots involving Melanie and Mitch and his family all deal with variations of this issue. Is Melanie too free in her flirtations and would it be right for her to be more restrained? Is Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), too protective of Mitch, and is that better or worse than Melanie’s father, who abandoned her while she was still young? Bodega Bay itself is a geographic representation of this need for boundaries. It’s a town physically removed from the business of San Francisco (a city described at one time in the film as “an anthill up the foot of a bridge”), and the small hamlet is full of people highly suspicious of outsiders.

As is often the case in Hitchcock films, the conflicts highlighted in these subplots echo the main action of the film. Much as many of the characters try to enclose themselves within narrow social roles and closely guarded rules of propriety, birds.jpgthey also seal themselves indoors, trying to protect themselves from the viciousness of the bird attacks. In both cases, the film seems to come to the conclusion that such manmade boundaries – whether they be physical enclosures, social roles, or just the metaphysical lines of Linnaean taxonomy – are useless. Despite its self-enclosure and isolation, Bodega Bay is not safe from the chaos of the outside world. The birds do not stay in their little pigeon-hole man created for them in the power structure. The boarded up windows and barricaded doors cannot keep them out. Melanie is not as free-spirited and incapable of being a responsible mother figure as we thought she was. Nor is Lydia as heartless and cold.

At any rate, that’s my little ramble on the subject. I just did a quick browse of some of the existing criticism on the Web (it’s plentiful and not hard to find), and it doesn’t look like I’m that far off from what many others have said. Looking at space and boundaries is just one way of looking at what appears to be a major school of thought on the film – one that argues that the film demonstrates how man’s carefully constructed world is always just teetering on the edge of chaos. At any rate, I apologize for the long-winded analysis today. It’s just that The Birds is one of those films – like so many of the great ones – where it is so thought-provoking that it’s tough not to start forming elaborate opinions about it. It’s an interesting subject, and if anybody else has opinions about it, please feel free to share.


6 Responses to “Some random thoughts on the idea of space in The Birds (1963)”

  1. Deni! Says:

    Mark, have you ever considered getting a livejournal? It creates a nice community and you’d probably get more comments on all of your really excellent posts. You could even post here AND there the same things…

  2. msteudel Says:

    Hmmm… maybe I should consider that. When I started this, I really knew nothing about blogs. It sounds like livejournal might be more what I’m looking for, since I do want more of an interactive, community-like atmosphere. Can you still do everything organizationally with tags, etc.?

    This is a great idea, Deni. Thanks for sharing. I’ll definitely look into it in the coming weeks.

  3. Deni! Says:

    yeah you can still tag everything! Danny is on there too. You can also join up with community blogs. there are a lot of movie ones too. email me if you decide to do it (since unlink lj, your blog doesn’t email me when you reply to my comments!). I would make all my friends add you to their list. I’ve been on there since 2001. It’s a good product.

  4. Danny Says:

    Yeah, what Deni said. Also, I love The Birds.

    In me news, I obtained a library assistant position in Lawrenceville, GA.

    I’m in your state!

  5. Paul Says:

    This review is right on target. The birds are just the icing on the cake. There is a lot of edginess in the film and putting it words regarding boundaries and confines are right on. The people, the geography, and so on add tension. I once read that Alfred said this main goal is to make the audience suffer as much as possible and this film does that from the first frame. As a kid, when I first saw this film, I was even thinking that little sports car convertible top would not hold up ten seconds if the birds wanted in! I was on pins and needles. Well said here in this writing. Thank you.

  6. […] via flickr, 50 watts, Mark Steudel, Bryan […]

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