Last year, on Halloween, I read the first reports about a Mandarin duck inexplicably appearing in Central Park.
Flaming orange frills over a dark plum breast, brushed stripes of black and white feathers, forest green, royal blue, and auburn tufts slicked back into a mohawk at the top of his head — he became a New York City landmark overnight.
In terms of environmental phenomenons, however, the Mandarin duck was arguably the least significant of 2018. Shortly before the duck appeared, the U.N. released an ominous report warning that the world only has 12 years left to limit the inevitable mass devastation that global warming will inflict. For a year that brought record-breaking hurricanes, apocalyptic visions of raging wildfires, and races against unrelenting flows of lava to unceremoniously end with a flamboyant duck traipsing through New York seemed more than shameless; for me, it was portentous.
When I was younger, I learned about global climate change every year at school. Maybe it was impactful at first, but global warming soon became the inert drone of my science classes. It was hard not to feel disillusioned by the lack of progress, unrelenting opposition, and your own powerlessness — to resign and treat the Earth’s fate as a foregone conclusion. Because of this, I reluctantly joined a growing class of detached peers, united by our homegrown fatalism and cynical acceptance of impending apocalypse.
I am still vindictive enough, however, to desire a reckoning for the entrenched apathy and ignorance that keeps us hurtling towards global ruin.
A few days after the duck was spotted, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) for the first time with little knowledge of what I was getting into. The popular film has been lauded as one of the best American films of the 20th century, praised for its thrilling suspense and allegorical leanings.
Admittedly, I am not a fan of most horror movies, being both fairly easy to scare and satisfied with the amount of horror already present in the world. With this movie, however, my friends told me to expect something different, and they were right. I left the room with no stomach churns or clenched jaws. I was surprised, however, by my own disquieting sense of satisfaction.
In his 1963 review of The Birds published in The New Yorker, critic Brendan Gill calls the movie a “sorry failure,” writing that “the sadism is all too nakedly, repellently present.”
In 2019, the jarring brutality of The Birds survives.
Attack scenes are regularly paced throughout the major set pieces of the movie and jolt the idle moments of plot development into an immediate frenzy. Clamoring screeches of crows collide with the terrorized screams of fleeing townspeople. Feathery black and white bullets plunge into crowds and swarm into houses, clawing and scratching and pecking their way to dominance of the frame. Their wrath is both vicious and breathtaking, akin to the quieting chaos of King Kong scaling the Empire State building.
Witnessing the Earth’s channeling of violence in this way evokes the feeling of standing, arms spread in embrace, as a tsunami roars into your home. It can be so freeing to let yourself fall into the collapse, knowing it is neither unexpected nor unwarranted. In this sense, The Birds is the perfect nature revenge porn to satisfy our fatalist urges.
The meager romance story that drives the movie forward is shallow and easily forgettable. Actors Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor begin a flirtatious liaison that is slightly complicated by his overprotective mother and lingering ex-girlfriend.
Oddly reminiscent of actual pornography, the narrative arc seems to be a superficial excuse to begin what everyone actually came for. And in that aspect, it is certainly not disappointing: The bird attacks are indulgent.
For me, the most memorable scenes are when the protagonists seek refuge inside their house. Some sort of small talk pushes the story forward, but it is not nearly enough to fill the vast sense of absence. There is no sense of fearful suspense, however.
There is only anticipation.
In a split-second, an attack begins. Swarming clouds of birds flood through every possible crevice of the house, swooping in through windows, chimneys, walls, and doors. The screen is a torrential flurry of black and brown smears, only broken up by flesh and fabric and blood.
In these scenes, little else distracts from the avian storm. Characters fruitlessly struggle to contain the animals or simply curl up in defense. Their total helplessness makes the attack last for what seems to be a few beats too long. The film forces you to sit with the protracted violence. There is no respite, no clever defense; the attack is over when and if the birds decide so.
These violent episodes are not immediately off-putting because the perpetrators are not human and their motive is unclear, seeming more instinctual than purposeful. It is easy to believe that this a defense mechanism, a vision of how the Earth is fighting back against human exploitation and materialism. This allows the senseless violence to become an expression of rage and self-defense, and moreover, it makes it satisfying to watch.
The Birds is experienced exceedingly well as a vengeful fantasy if you allow yourself to channel your resentment through their flight. It is neither productive nor healthy to have this fatalist pleasure, but it is understandable. In a world where every new environmental development is warning of doomsday, even the beautiful Mandarin duck of Manhattan seems like the fateful red horse riding from the broken seal of God.
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