Why We Laugh at “The Birds”

It’s hard to deny it: The Birds is funny.

Hitchcock’s 1963 masterpiece certainly does not seem like a comedy on paper. A horrific polemic on the end of humanity, the film ought to draw screams, not giggles. And yet something about it is simply hilarious. Rather than feeling sympathy towards Melanie Daniels and company as they fight their way through hordes of monstrous birds, modern audiences can often be found laughing at their feeble attempts at survival.

One could see this as a failure on the part of this once-mighty film, and Hitchcock himself, to withstand the test of time. One could say that our cruel laughter seems to hint that The Birds has lost that most rare and essential quality of cinema: to make us care.

But Hitchcock is not so easily outplayed. It’s pointless to try to guess what “exactly” the Master of Suspense imagined his film as doing. And yet perhaps we can still say that our experience of the film as funny is not a divergence from Hitchcock’s vision, but rather plays directly into his sadistic game.

As a film, The Birds erects what the critic Edward Bullough calls “distance” between itself and its viewers, assuring them that this is, indeed, fiction, and that they can suspend some measure of emotional commitment to the drama. Thus, we do not flee Brattle when the flock of crows descends on the helpless schoolchildren of Bodega Bay. The filmgoer is able to distinguish between the screen and reality; we walk into the theater ready to put our commitments to the actual world aside. This distance is healthy for cinema; it ensures that we get to experience films as films.

But when we laugh at The Birds, we do so because something has gone wrong with this natural distance. It has become warped, extended to its furthest extreme. Not only do we understand the film’s artificiality, we now feel emotionally detached from the drama. We do not care, that is, what happens to these fake characters.

Take, for instance, a moment in the film, after the birds attack the township of Bodega Bay in full force. Melanie (Tippi Hedren) flees into a phone booth, where she watches the carnage in terror. And then, all of a sudden, a man hits the side of the glass phone booth, scrabbling at the clearly-fake birds attached to his face, from which too-bright blood runs. Even upon watching this scene for the upteenth time, I could not hold back a chuckle. His melodramatic acting, the archaic production value, Hedren’s shocked face; the end result of these factors was a truly sadistic laughter, a laughter that took me out of the dramatic milieu and changed this character from a sympathetic victim to a heartless attack into an object of mockery.

This seems to hint at a possible explanation for our the film’s unlikely comedy: time. Like the critic Susan Sontag argues, as an artwork travels through time it becomes outdated, old-fashioned. And as the film becomes more outmoded in its cinematic techniques, its morality, its understanding of human nature, we begin to care less about the emotional and dramatic intentions of the film’s creators and more about the outmoded nature of the film itself. The Birds is perhaps a perfect example of this. After sixty years of thrillers and monster stories and environmental horror flicks and disaster movies, it has, in an important sense, been outstripped. We do not rely on stuffed dolls for our monsters, but groundbreaking CGI creations straight from nightmares. “Melodramatic” has become a mark of shame, as actors are forced to greater and greater levels of Revenant-style method acting and realism.

To a modern moviegoer, The Birds thus appears outdated. And so, like Bullough warns us, we detach from the film. We laugh at Melanie’s plight because we just can’t bring ourselves to care about this woman, this actress, streaked with red syrup, running through stuffed feather-balls tossed by PAs just off-frame.

But is this all that can be said about laughter and The Birds? Some insight might be gained from that great and frustrating question that the film refuses to answer: “Why?” Why have these monsters swooped down from the sky to lay waste to the earth? What drives the birds of the earth into such a bitter frenzy, and drives the world, the end hints, to its apparent end? The film refuses to give us closure, refuses to let us in on the joke. Instead, as the final shot fades to black, we realize that this growing horde of birds is not only unstoppable, but unexplainable. They are a force of nature, and as a force of nature they have no intelligible plan, and no ulterior motive. The true terror of the birds is not only the harm done unto human beings, but the absolute lack of rhyme or reason, the pure mindless sadism of it all. They do not hate us, they do not hate their victims. Hate is not meaningful for these creatures. They see Melanie and her lover and her friends not as oppressors or violators or even victims, but as meat, living meat to be torn, and nothing more. In the beady eyes of these avian terrors, the human dramas of the film, Melanie’s schoolgirl crush and Mitch’s love for his sister and Lydia’s stuck-up ways, is meaningless. Humanity and its concerns are powerless under a wave of mindless destruction. The characters have found themselves lodged in a universe where they do not matter, where the only response to their pleas for mercy is the flapping of innumerable feathered wings.

Image via imdb.com.

Is our mockery of the human fears and pains and realities of the film so far removed from the cruel caws of the birds circling above Melanie’s head? Both emphasize the absurdity, the unimportance, of human affairs. Both distance themselves from the emotional crisis of Melanie and company, reducing these characters to toys, playthings. While laughter may seem radically out of place in a horror film, what could be a more grim confirmation of the very fear this film seeks to capture – that of our own significance – than peals of laughter following the brutalization of the human body?

Perhaps the numerous aerial shots, with which Hitchcock shows us the people of Bodega Bay from the perspective of its airborne terrorists, ought to clue us in to the similarity of these birds to the audience itself. Like the birds, we sit and watch the drama from a distance. We laugh because we feel detached from the petty concerns of human life and death, because we see their futility before the pure callousness of the birds. The objects of our mockery are pure meat, living meat to be torn apart by sharp talons and sharp laughter.

Perhaps, then, we laugh not only at The Birds as outmoded, but at ourselves as out of date, on the verge of being replaced by an unfeeling Mother Earth. Perhaps our laughter is just another way of screaming. Whether or not Hitchcock meant for us to chortle at the shrieks of schoolchildren, he certainly meant us to leave the theater with a new understanding of our place on a world that existed long before our arrival and will continue to do so long after we are gone. This may be cause for desperate wails, but in the theater, the histrionic flailings of a dying species laid bare with fake blood and puppets on scratchy 35mm, one cannot help but smile.

Nicholas Whittaker is a senior at Harvard University, graduating this spring with a degree in Philosophy. He writes for the Harvard Arts Blog, Harvard Crimson, and Theater Mirror, focusing on the nexus between art, politics, and theory.

Independent Film Festival Boston • April 24 – May 1, 2019
Nicholas Whittaker Written by:

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