Books Features Live Action Movies

The Birds
(BFI Film Classics)

Author – Camille Paglia – 2020, 1998 – BFI / Bloomsbury – £11.99


I immediately warmed to Camille Paglia in her 2020 introduction to the new edition of her book about Alfred Hitchcock’s avian shocker The Birds (1963), originally written in 1998, when she lambasted academic film criticism as “egregiously unhelpful, failing in the crucial humanistic mission of interpretation and enlightenment”. She talks about a shift in audiences from wanting to see film in a cinema as essential experiences in the sixties and seventies to films as one of a range of possible technological entertainments in our own time.

She then goes on to talk about her issues with #metoo and the problem of expecting great artists to live exemplary lives as a premise of Victorian moralism. And discusses in passing the one minor change she would make to the book were she to write it today. (Really? Only one?) Which is to do with interpreting one character in the film as gay.

In addition to watching the film multiple times, it’s clear that Paglia has read many of the books and articles written about the film itself of Hitchcock’s wider body of work. Robin Wood keeps coming up and there are honourable mentions for, among others, Francois Truffaut and Elizabeth Weiss. Not all of them, though: Tania Modleski’s notably absent, feminist volume The Women Who Knew Too Much doesn’t cover The Birds as one of its seven films, however given Paglia’s focus on the film as a study of women in crisis that book in particular might well have thrown some interesting light.

Instead of breaking her book down into chapters or headings, Paglia’s approach is to traverse Hitchcock’s film chronologically, making observations about it as she goes. She admits to being vexed by the moment the heroine Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is trapped in a car without a starter key but she doesn’t think to put the car in neutral and roll downhill. She loves pointing out how characters are placed next to shops signs saying things like ‘absolutely no credit’. Which from what one knows of Hitch’s sense of humour was almost certainly a deliberate ploy on his part.

She’s clearly impressed with Hedren, citing the scene where the actress sits smoking while crows mass on a children’s climbing frame behind her to note that although Hitchcock’s evident technical agility here has tended to overshadow the actress’ performance, the latter bears some considerable examination. Indeed, she suggests that Hedren’s pro-animal career post-The Birds and Hitch’s subsequent Marnie (1964), with her evident love of dangerous animals, notably lions, saw her confront the fears of her character in The Birds head on in a way that Janet Leigh did not, professing a fear of taking showers after Psycho (1960).

In the end, the purpose of these books is to bring classic films to life and make the reader want to visit them for the first time or revisit them for the umpteenth. Paglia packs a riot of provocative detail into her watching / reading / description of The Birds, likely to enrich the reader’s subsequent viewings of the film.

Here’s a teaser trailer for the film:

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