Reading the Birds and the Birds
Morris, Christopher D., Literature/Film Quarterly
No Hitchcock film has generated more controversy over representation than has The Birds. The debate began with Robin Wood's lucid exploration of the logical responses to the question, "What do the birds mean?" (153). He rejected what he called the "cosmological" and "ecological" readings-that the birds are agents of revenge for a deity or for their own species' mistreatment-as leading to absurdity; he also rejected psychological interpretations-that the birds reflect tensions among the characters-on the sensible grounds that this explanation could not account for the birds' attacks on the farmer, Dan Fawcett, and on the innocent schoolchildren. Wood's answer-that the birds don't mean but just are-finally dropped the issue of representation in favor of a rich study of the characters' ambiguity. Concurring with Wood's exasperation with the problem, Thomas Leitch also rejected both satiric and psychoanalytic readings of the birds in favor of the admittedly disturbing conclusion that the bird attacks are "a gag and nothing more" (229). Although both critics' reasons for faulting hermeneutic efforts to understand the birds are sound, their alternatives are difficult to accept and, in any case, have not diminished the critical need to assign some significance to the referent of the film's title. Two recent attempts to revive psychological interpretations of the birds are those of the Lacanian theorist Slavoj Zizek and Robert Samuels, who modifies Zizek's position in the light of feminism and queer theory. Zizek and Samuels read the birds' attack first as a reflection of the maternal superego-Lydia Brenner's rivalry with Melanie Daniels for the love of Mitch Brenner. For Zizek, this initial correspondence is then superseded by the more general understanding of the birds as the irruption of the Lacanian Real into the Symbolic-Lacan's rough equivalents for the Freudian id and ego. Samuels modifies Zizek's argument by emphasizing the genderless nature of the Real, which becomes distorted and subject to ideological manipulation in the Symbolic, and by reading the birds' attack as the cinematic rendering of this originary nothingness or gender confusion.
Zizek and Samuels eventually conclude that the birds' attack neither has nor needs rational justification; nevertheless, each arrives at this point only after grounding this ultimate insignificance in the birds' correspondence both to general intrapsychic forces, that presumably exist in the world outside the film, and to the characters' repressed desires; in this way, Lacanianism, queer theory, and feminism reinstate a privileged relation between signifier and signified that is everywhere else challenged. In doing so, neither can escape the contradiction Leitch found in earlier satiric or psychological readings of The Birds:
Both [interpretations] agree that the fundamental problem in the film is the disproportion between the relatively inconsequential behavior of the characters and the magnitude of the threat they face, and both attempt to resolve that problem by establishing an intelligible relation between the two. It is the nature of the film, however, to resist any such resolution.1
Thus contemporary interpretation of the birds has arrived at a point at which some explanation of the birds seems both essential and impossible, both necessary and arbitrary. Viewers cannot help asking why? but are just as surely disappointed-a critical experience that, on reflection, was doubtless foreseeable, and, in any case, is very likely to persist. These observations suggest that the problem of representation may always have been the film's proper subject and that addressing it directly may shed light on the meaning of the birds and The Birds.
One useful context in which to study the theme of a representation that appears both necessary and arbitrary is Hitchcock's concept of the MacGuffin, his famous neologism for the plot-device of the long-sought object which serves as the rationale for the action of thrillers, while at the same time being a matter of indifference to the audience: for example, the aircraft formula in The Thirty-Nine Steps, the uranium sand in Notorious, or the microfilm in North by Northwest. …