Camille Paglia Meets Alfred Hitchock!

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The Birds. By Camille Paglia. London: British Film Institute Publishing/Indiana University Press, 1998. Pp 104. $10.95.

Camille Paglia has been warning us for some time that the second volume of her magnum opus Sexual Personae will focus on popular culture. This is not particularly good news, considering that her greatest strengths lie in deflating feminist egos and steering academics away from asinine theories of classical literature and art. Her fawning essays about specific pop icons or genres-Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, rock 'n' roll-have produced more than a few embarrassing bits. I fear that if Paglia delivers, as promised, a tome with chapters on other favorite enthusiasms-the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, American football-- the project may prove her undoing. Like a pop diva, Paglia has tremendous gifts that must be applied to the right material. Otherwise, she's just bellowing into the microphone, strengthening the case of her detractors, who are legion.

It was with subdued expectations, then, that I approached Paglia's examination of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 horror film, The Birds. Asked by the British Film Institute to contribute a book-length essay to its Film Classics series, Paglia chose, from a list of some 360 archived works, a movie she had first seen as an impressionable teenager. The result is a long discourse in which enthusiasm is bestowed unflaggingly on a film that doesn't warrant it.

It's easy to see what would initially attract the author of Sexual Personae to Hitchcock's film, the central conflict of which concerns "nature's demonic malevolence" and the havoc it wreaks when various species of birds spontaneously unite in a series of attacks on the inhabitants of Bodega Bay, a small fishing village up the coast from San Francisco. Furthermore, the main character is played not by a trained actress, but by a model-Tippi Hedren-whose impact on the screen as a static icon of female sexuality is striking. Hedren's characterization of Melanie Daniels is all mask. As an actress she shows ambivalence toward the spoken word or any other non-visual actor's tools. "Tippi Hedren was and remains for me the ultimate Hitchcock heroine," Paglia writes, basing her evaluation, I believe, entirely on the character's appearance, which we are told the director obsessed over. In fact, everyone in the film looks great: not just Hedren, but love interest Rod Taylor, Hedren's would-be rival Suzanne Pleshette, and especially Jessica Tandy, playing Taylor's mother, Lydia Brenner.

The problem is that the visuals do not compensate for the movie's basic shortcomings, chief among them the lack of resonance to the film's story. Critics have long noted Paglia's relative weakness in dealing with narrative. She is most comfortable examining a composed tableau, a fixed object, or a still image capturing one character's dominant personality traits. That she cannot elicit meaning from this narrative, however, is no slight on her. There is no meaning. Dialogue in which members of the cast consider the chaos around them only underscores the problem. "Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since archaeopteryx-140 million years ago," intones the skeptical Ethel Griffies as the local ornithological expert. "Why would they suddenly band together in attack now? Doesn't it seem odd that they'd wait all that time to start a war against humanity?" Indeed, it does seem odd. Why would they? Paglia, familiar with the Daphne du Maurier story on which the film's script is based, observes: "Both the story and the film keep the reason for the bird attacks mysterious." This may be the first time in four books that Camille Paglia is guilty of understatement.

Hoping to anchor the narrative somehow, Hitchcock places the three female leads, including Tandy, in open competition for Taylor's affection. The "clinging, manipulative, widowed mother," writes Paglia, "is a theme based on Hitchcock's own early family experience that obsessively runs through his work. …