Thinking Like Melanie: Zizek, Hitchcock, Psychoanalysis
Well, uh, these are for my sister, for her birthday, see, and uh, as she’s only gonna be eleven, I, I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were… too demonstrative.
-“Mitch Brenner,” The Birds
It would be wonderful if psychoanalysis was either a science or a huge mistake. In the first case, it would be easily standardized. In the second, there’d be nothing to talk about.
Unfortunately, psychoanalysis is neither. It is an art, like any feat of understanding between people. It is easy to create plausible, intelligent-sounding psychoanalytic “readings” that are spectacularly wrong. This doesn’t prove anything. Blaming psychoanalysis for these misinterpretations would be like blaming painting for Thomas Kinkade.
Take, for example, this laudable effort by Slavoj Zizek to interpret The Birds:
Slavoj Zizek on “The Birds” on Vimeo.
This video is terrific for two reasons: a) the subtitles are, um, interesting, and b) Zizek says “I want to fuck Mitch.”
But Zizek’s take on the film is not terrific. The question is not, “Why do the birds attack?” The question is, “Why do we care so much?”
Honestly, as monsters go, the birds are super lame. The Birds always seemed comedic to me: an entire movie about people swatting at what are, in essence, giant horseflies. The birds kill — wait for it — two people. Considering there are thousands of them, and they can find their way inside houses, that is a pretty sad total.
Zizek is right that the birds are tearing up reality, but he misses the fact that we want them to tear up reality. The birds are not some airforce in the service of the superego, but rather a visual analogue for ecstasy (jouissance), when beauty and desire rip us open.
For example, a bird attacks Melanie before Mitch invites her for dinner, and the shock of that experience spurs him to make the offer. Zizek is also right about removing the monster: if you do, you have Melanie following Mitch to Bodega Bay, and Mitch responding warmly. The two of them are clashing like Beatrice and Benedick, and risking the security of their respective worlds. The mother is not the bird, but rather the invisible fabric that the bird manages to pierce.
Ecstasy is nice in theory. In practice, it can be really frightening. In The Birds, the physical danger is significant but anticlimactic. One can escape the birds in cars, in phone booths, and so on. What these characters cannot do is handle this perceived threat: as they wave their arms around, batting away little birds, their hysteria provokes anxiety in us. The same language of hysteria recurs near the end of the film, when the newscaster reports that local authorities cannot deal with the birds. In fact, the “authorities” may have to call in the National Guard, a symbol of the superego if ever there was one.
If the birds represented Mitch’s mother, they would hardly be interested in killing an ex-lover or terrorizing children. If, on the other hand, they represent desire, then they certainly are a threat to old flames, to the established order, and especially to “innocent” children.
Zizek really does think like Melanie. Naturally, that means saying “I want to fuck Mitch.” But he says something else as well, something Melanie is saying to herself the whole way across the bay: what am I doing?!
Joseph! I wrote a short story, long before Zizek’s (published) interpretation, in which the “hero” says this about The Birds:
“Out the Ausgang and on the street into the night they walk for a block of ruminative silence until Sariah, who emigrated from Iran with her dissident mother as the Khomeini came to power in ’79, says I believe that is the most religious film I have ever seen.
“Religious?” guffaws Frederick. “Au contraire. The most misogynist rant in film history! Fellini’s City of Women is nothing compared to The Birds, as far as that goes, my dear. ‘Bird’ is working class British slang for ‘girl,’ as you know. Don’t forget Hitchcock was British.”
“I mean, what, you have this hen-pecked bachelor, no pun intended, played by Rod Taylor. Rod. Right? And all the other important characters of the film -his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, his little sister, and his mother- they’re all women.”
He ticks the points off on his fingers. “The girlfriend’s a frigid tease, the ex is a slut -that’s why her hair is dark- and his mother is a clinging, emasculating shrew, and his little sister is a brat, also dark-haired, implying that she’s going to grow up to be a slut too. Meanwhile, the mother and the girlfriend are almost mirror images of each other. Their hairdos are identical, which means a lot in Hitchcock, who was the most hairdo-obsessed director in film history. Our hero, Mitch -rhymes with bitch, if you please -wants to, ahem nest- with a girl who looks like a young version of his own mother, invoking the Oedipus complex. Which ends up putting out the eyes not of Mitch himself but of his ex-girlfriend, in a perfect example of substitution, since the resemblance between Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette, who plays the ex, is uncanny. The birds, like Freudian harpies, pluck out her eyes.”
“The female romantic lead, his girl friend, Tippi Hedron, she goes from being a perfectly-coiffed snob and a tease in the beginning of the film to a disheveled, catatonic loony by the end.”
“Remember that the first blood drawn in the film, in fact, is from Tippi, who’s trying to strike a silly, an absurdly elegant, pose in the prow of a beat up old motor boat. She’s wearing a jade-green Dior dress or what have you. As a matter of fact, as I now recall, she’s even got the nerve to be freshening up her makeup with a compact as she’s sitting there in this filthy boat, proving how vain, how shameless, how typical, or Tippi-cal she really is. Her nose is in the air, her bosom is high and hard, her spun-gold hair is immaculately coiffed.”
“Between the tease, the shrew, the slut and the brat, this guy, Rod Taylor -Rod, for Chrissakes- he doesn’t have a chance! The illogical savagery, the unpredictable pattern of violence, of the birds, is just a metaphor for the daily reality of life for a guy among these women. All women.”
NB: The protag’s apparent views (on Life, not The Birds) are not my own
You get a fundamental fact wrong. The birds kill the man in the house, then several people directly or indirectly during the exploding car episode, then Susan Pleshette’s character. We don’t know how many people they have killed, but it is certainly many more than two.