The Birds

It starts with Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor of George Pal’s The Time Machine) trying to buy a pair of love-birds for his kid sister. But, in a way, all the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film are love-birds. Most of them, though — the un-caged ones — are furies of the repressed, denied, and frustrated forces of love. On the one hand, The Birds is a horror film about the possible end of the human race in a war with a hundred billion birds; on the other, it’s about a mother and her new potential daughter-in-law learning to relate to one another. Seen in this way, it’s even got a happy ending.

When Mitch goes to the pet-store to buy his kid sister a pair of precisely modulated love-birds (“I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative… At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof…”), the only thing that catches his eye is Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a bird of a slightly wilder variety. (She has a gossip-column reputation involving an incident in a fountain in Rome, where she was enjoying La Dolce Vita.) The two engage in a poker-faced battle of wits, ending with Melanie, determined to get the upper hand, buying the love-birds herself and delivering them by hand to Mitch’s city apartment. But Mitch has a carefully compartmentalised private life: he spends his bachelor weeks in San Francisco, and his weekends at Bodega Bay, where he lives with his mother and sister. This particular bird has flown, so Melanie sets out after him.

At the bay, the bird attacks come at emotionally significant moments. The first occurs after Melanie has boated across the bay to sneak the love-birds into the Brenner family home. Heading back, she sees Mitch find the birds and run out of the house. She lets herself be seen, and the two adopt the sort of expressions you’d expect from a duelling early-stage couple in a screwball-comedy, each trying loftily to pretend they’re not that interested in the other. Then the first of our furies swoops down to gouge into Melanie’s perfectly-coiffured head.

The next incident — not an attack, but significant all the same — comes when Melanie has taken a room for the night with local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth. Annie is a previous pretender to the title of Mrs Mitch, and knows what stands in the way: Mitch’s widowed mother, Lydia, who’s terrified of being left alone because she let her now-dead husband do all the emotional-warmth side of things, and now finds she has nothing but criticism and disapproval to keep the family together. Just then, there’s a knock at the door, and as both women are thinking of Mitch, they perhaps hope it might be him. But no, it’s a bird. It’s just killed itself slamming into Annie’s front-door.

The third attack is at a kids’ party. Mitch’s little sister Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright, who’d survive all these killer birds only to fall prey to a xenomorph in Alien) and her friends are playing in the garden while Mitch and Melanie go off a little way to have their first unguarded conversation (in a scene written entirely by Hitchcock himself). Here, we learn that Melanie’s mother abandoned her when she was young, leaving her scornful of the very idea of mother-love. Which makes it doubly difficult if she’s going to try to fit into Mitch’s family: Melanie is a woman who does not want a new mother; Lydia, apparently incapable of love, does not want a new daughter; but both want Mitch, so who’s going to give way? The couple return to the party and, charged as they are with this stirring-up of old, difficult emotions, induce a bird attack. The birds swoop down on the kids, as though to underline the point that all of the coming violence and trauma is rooted in childhood vulnerabilities.

Mitch tries to convince Melanie to stay in Bodega Bay, and Lydia does her best, within civilised bounds, to encourage her to leave. A swarm of sparrows burst in through the fireplace (the hearth being the heart of the home), and wreck the living room. It’s like a poltergeist visitation — pent-up, unconscious forces lashing out with no control. The next day, Lydia goes to see a neighbour to discuss the fact that neither of their chickens are eating. She finds him dead, with his eyes pecked out. It’s a (literally) pointed reminder about her dead husband, and all the reasons she has to fear Melanie’s influence on her family.

Now the attacks become more frenzied and destructive, as though the forces let loose by Melanie’s arrival in Bodega Bay — the warring unconscious wraths of Melanie and Lydia — have given up trying to be specific and personal and are now just going to flail about, smashing everything in sight. Cars blow up, men catch fire, horses run wild, everybody’s screaming. A mother at the café skewers Melanie in an outburst that only makes sense if you think of her as somehow being possessed by Lydia’s dark half, giving vent to what that ultra-controlled, over-cool woman really wants to say to her new potential daughter-in-law:

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said that when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!”

By now Melanie’s only rival Annie is dead and everyone’s in retreat. Holed up at the Brenner house, Melanie has that peculiar horror film urge to go upstairs, alone, to investigate the noises coming from a room (a child’s room?), whereupon she finds herself locked inside it with a tempest of birds, lashed and scratched and screeched at till she’s almost catatonic.

And it’s at this point, finally, that the new family starts to gel. As they leave the house and get into the car, Melanie squeezes Lydia’s wrist and Lydia responds with a smile. It’s only when they’ve both been terrorised to the point of trauma, and the house has been wrecked, that the two women can, at last, begin to relate to one another. Melanie, babyish with speechlessness, has gained a mother, and Lydia, forced to flee her wrecked and violated home, has found the ability to show this new daughter a hint of affection.

From one point of view, the world is on the verge of an apocalyptic war between birds and humans. From another, what we’re seeing is the Brenner family’s true inner landscape revealed — a world filled with small but fierce, barely quiescent furies of thwarted and frustrated love, which everyone must tiptoe around, like so many sharp-beaked family secrets. Cathy brings along the love-birds, and perhaps we can now understand Mitch’s wish to give his kid sister an example of love in its not-too-demonstrative, not-too-aloof form: just look at what repression, possessiveness and jealousy does to the place.

(Mrs Bundy, ornithologist:) “Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind—”
(Waitress, in the background:) “Sam—three southern-fried chicken!”
“—It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.”

Mary Rose by J M Barrie

MaryRoseMary Rose is, literally, a sinister play: right-handed J M Barrie, suffering writer’s cramp, wrote it with his left hand. It is, in a way, the anti-Peter Pan, dealing not with the wonderful adventures of children in Never Never Land, but with the loss felt by those left behind — an adult play, rather than one for children, and a post-World War play, too, rather than one set in the Arcadian Edwardian era of long, golden summers.

It starts with a young man, Harry, visiting the house he used to live in before he ran away to sea at the age of 12. Now empty and a long time on the market, the house is reputed to be haunted, though its stony caretaker, Mrs Otery, is not to be drawn on the matter. The second act gives us the back-story: when she was eleven, a young girl called Mary Rose disappeared, for twenty days, on a small island in the Hebrides, where she had been sketching whilst her father fished. Her parents were frantic; but then Mary Rose returned thinking only a few hours had passed. As a grown-up woman she apparently remembers nothing of the incident, though feels a vague fondness for the island. She tries to convince her husband-to-be Simon to spend their honeymoon there. He, having been told what happened, thinks better of it, until several years into their marriage, by which time they have a two-year-old boy, and Simon has grown to disbelieve the story about Mary Rose’s disappearance. They visit the island, and she disappears again — not for twenty days this time, but twenty-five years. When she returns, she’s not a day older. Everyone else, of course, has aged: her parents are now old, her husband is grey and used to being alone, her baby boy has grown up and run away to sea. The play, which for much of its time is a lightly comic portrait of a rather idealised, Edwardian ‘perfect’ marriage — with the man being decent, strong and a little stupid, and the woman being quirky, wilful and doting — is bookended by a sense of utter loss, both loss-through-absence and an even worse sort of loss, when the presence of someone longed-for or loved but irretrievably changed only serves as a reminder of all that is lost. Mary Rose’s parents, Mr and Mrs Morland, lose Mary Rose (at first through marriage, though she continues to live at home, then to the mysterious island); husband Simon loses his wife; Mary Rose loses her parents and her husband and her child. When she returns after her second absence, the years have come between her and those that remain, and she can only pine for her baby, who is now not only grown up but run away. This multi-generational, omnidirectional sense of loss is even more concentrated on the boy, Harry, whose running away at the age of twelve isn’t explained, but could be seen as an attempt to lose even himself, having spent his early years so overshadowed by the loss of his mother.

coverOften described as a ghost play (because, even though she’s said to have died, Mary Rose somehow lingers in the house to which she returned, acting as both a playful, absent-minded child, and a pining mother), Mary Rose resonates just as much with fairy stories about people who disappear — as in Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, or, much more intensely, Alan Garner’s Boneland — or who disappear then return — as in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale — only to feel severed from those they once loved. The key fantasy element, Mary Rose’s disappearance, is never explained. (The island is known as ‘The Island that Likes to be Visited’, though as a local notes, ‘an island that had visitors would not need to want to be visited’.) Perhaps this is why the overlap between the ghostly and the fairy seems to work so well: it gives the play an uncompromising feeling of dropping you into an utterly unexplained abyss, a terrible fact that is just there, and which can never be assimilated or ameliorated. Which is, of course, what loss feels like.

J M BarrieIt’s easy to see parallels with J M Barrie’s life. When his elder brother (his mother’s favourite) died in a skating accident just before turning 14, Barrie tried but failed to take the boy’s place. Later in life he adopted the Davies children (one of whom inspired Peter Pan), after both their parents died; then Barrie’s favourite of those children, George, died in the War. But it’s odd the play doesn’t feel, to me, to be about death, as such, but about a mix of both absence and presence — and a very physical presence, at that (Mary Rose, as a ghost, is not insubstantial, though the caretaker Mrs Otery says ‘she’s as light as air’, linking her with Peter Pan). Of all the parallels in J M Barrie’s life, Mary Rose herself seems most like Barrie’s mother, depressed after the death of her most beloved child, and failing to recognise that child in Barrie himself, who was trying to play the role.

Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a film of Mary Rose, though it feels like, with Vertigo, he already did, as that film is also about a very physical haunting, centred on a woman who seems trapped in the past and unable to make an emotional connection the male lead desperately needs. If any film captures Mary Rose’s sense of sudden, utterly unexplainable loss, though, it has to be Picnic at Hanging Rock.

tartarus_2004One more connection I’d love to make — and it almost but perhaps doesn’t fit — is with David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. Both Lindsay’s novel and Barrie’s play start with someone going over a house being put up for sale, and both deal with a room in that house which is sometimes, unexplainably and supernaturally, inaccessible. (In Mary Rose, the room is the nursery, whose door, though unlocked, is sometimes ‘held’; in The Haunted Woman, there’s a staircase that appears to some people, not to others, and only at certain times, giving access to an area described as ‘far and away the oldest part of the house’ — just as the ‘held’ room in Mary Rose is also ‘the oldest part of the house’.) I like to think of Lindsay — whose books make a lot of reference to theatres, plays, and so on — going to see Barrie’s play and getting the seed of an idea which sparked off his own, very strange, reinterpretation. Mary Rose was first performed on April 22nd, 1920 at the Haymarket Theatre, London; David Lindsay, apparently, began work on The Haunted Woman immediately after the acceptance of his first novel, which was finished in March 1920. Does this fit? I don’t know. But both times I’ve read Mary Rose, the opening reminds me of Lindsay’s second novel.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, coverMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore starts with Clay, one-time web designer for a hip and trendy bagel store, being laid off as NewBagel, trying to survive in a harsher economic climate, rebrands itself as the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company, and don’t see a flashy website and chatty Twitter account as part of their new, old-time image. So Clay retreats down the ladder of technological evolution by landing a job at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, whose upper technological limit is a ‘decrepit beige Mac Plus’ and a series of old, handwritten sales ledgers.

The store has some odd rules and odder customers, some of whom belong to a sort of subscription service which allows them to come in at any hour, often in a state of frenzy or distress, return an odd-named volume (KRESIMIR or CLOVTIER) and take another odd-named volume out in its place — always from the ‘Waybacklist’, whose books are not for sale, and whose contents (when Clay ventures to look inside) are strings of apparently random letters. Everything has to be logged in the sales ledgers, from the customer’s card number, to any random details of their appearance and demeanour.

Bored by his long night shifts, Clay brings in his laptop and idly starts building a 3D map of the shop. Spurred on by his new girlfriend, Kat Potente (who works at Google, and is thoroughly immersed in the techno-optimisim of Silicon Valley), he starts to log customers’ withdrawals — and comes up with a surprising pattern that ultimately leads him to the cult of the Unbroken Spine, an organisation devoted to decoding the final great work of Aldus Manutius, ‘one of the first publishers… right after Gutenberg’.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book with a foot planted in each of two worlds. There’s the world of new-tech, as represented by e-readers, digital books and Google (whose vast computing power is, at one point, entirely harnessed to try to decode Manutius’ work: ‘on a sunny Friday morning, for three seconds, you can’t search for anything…’), and there’s the other world of old-style print books, a world known to Googlers as ‘OK’:

“Old knowledge, OK. Did you know that ninety-five percent of the internet was only created in the last five years? But we know that when it comes to all human knowledge, the ratio is just the opposite—in fact, OK accounts for most things that most people know, and have ever known.”

But it’s not a novel that comes down entirely on the side of new tech or old knowledge. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about coexistence, working together, friendship — among people and technologies. For, as Clay points out, today’s ‘OK’ is yesterday’s new tech:

“Printing… was basically the internet of its day; it was exciting. And just like the internet today, printing in the fifteenth century was all problems, all the time: How do you store the ink? How do you mix the metal? How do you mold the type? The answers changed every six months. In every great city of Europe, there were a dozen printing houses all trying to figure it out first. In Venice, the greatest of those printing houses belonged to Aldus Manutius…”

It’s a fun read, driven by an inventive mystery-quest plot and some easy-paced, zingy writing, my favourite example being this description of Kat Potente:

“She’s wearing the same red and yellow BAM! T-shirt from before, which means (a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical T-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.”

I suppose it falls into the same category as Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, a favourite novel of mine that I reviewed on this blog back in 2007. But Flicker takes its narrator on a quest through the history of film, and ultimately leads to him discovering a secret society on the verge of unleashing worldwide destruction. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about books — printed books and ebooks — and its secret cult, The Unbroken Spine, is no way near as dangerous as Roszak’s Oculus Dei.

Another thing that added to the book’s charm was its being set in San Francisco, a city I only visited once, briefly, for a few hours (Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park), but which has somehow come to be a far more real imaginative presence thanks to novels such as Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, and, perhaps more than any of these, Alfred Hitchcock’s films The Birds (which starts in San Francisco) and Vertigo.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I remember seeing Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock on TV, probably when I was about 11 or 12. It must have been my first experience of a film that didn’t provide a proper solution to its mysteries, and my response was to be quietly devastated. Those beautiful, evanescent girls, all golden-lit and white-gowned, climbing into the penetralia of Hanging Rock like a reverse version of Edward Burne-Jones’s The Golden Stairs (of which he wrote, “I have drawn so many toes lately that when I shut my eyes I see a perfect shower of them”) — never to return. Nor to have their disappearance even explained. But that’s the thing I most love about the film now, its refusal to explain what happened, its keeping faith with the mystery. Because, Picnic at Hanging Rock isn’t so much about the disappearance of the girls and their teacher into a million-year-old maze of volcanic rock, but the devastating effect this has on those who remain.

Picnic At Hanging Rock

The film starts with a vision of intensely Romantic adolescence: the girls of Appleyard College swapping poetic Valentines, then setting out, white-gloved and straw-hatted, for Hanging Rock. (They’re told that, as the day is hot, they may remove their gloves, but only after they’ve passed through the nearby town, as though the sight of so many nubile female fingers might set the working classes into a frenzy.) There, in the midst of a mid-day swooze, four girls set out to explore the rock. Everything assumes an unreal, almost ritual air. Moany Edith cries, “Where in the world are they going? Without their shoes?”, and the answer is, of course, that they aren’t going anywhere in the world, they’re going out of it, and the fact they’re not wearing shoes is like one of those odd bits of folklore about the dead, such as that their heads are on back to front, or they cast no shadows. The girls engage in a bit of dreamy philosophising:

“A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.”

and:

“Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place.”

Then… they disappear. There are some odd, UFO-like details that emerge, such as the fact that their teacher, Miss McCraw, was last seen without her skirt, and that the recovered girl Irma was without her corset. (The doctor who examines both Irma and moany Edith is always sure to point out that the girls, apart from a few scratches and sunstroke, are “quite intact”.) This loss of garments seems to be more about shocking the proprieties of the ultra-conventional upper-middle classes than providing any clue to what really happened to the girls.

Picnic At Hanging Rock... Without their shoes

There are three levels of reality in Picnic at Hanging Rock — or, two of reality, one of unreality. There’s the “reality” of those upper-middle classes, which mostly consists of an education in deportment and senior needlework, the attendance of overdressed garden parties, and sitting dully under the shadow of Hanging Rock, looking at nothing, feeling nothing. Faced with the incomprehensibility of mystery, this level of “reality” shakes its head and retreats behind the wings of an overstuffed chair, to read about it in a newspaper. (Squeaky Miss Lumley, who teaches at the girls’ college, finds it almost frightening that someone should do such a strange thing as sit on the stairs in the dark, so it’s no wonder she can’t face the idea that some of her charges might have disappeared altogether.) Then there’s the grounded reality of the working classes, the servants and local townspeople. Theirs is a much more human reality, all about the simple pleasures, and the simple un-romantic love of two servants in Appleyard College catching a spare moment to jump into bed together. Faced with mystery, they resort to lurid theories and melodrama — kidnappings and Jack the Ripper style murders. (Only the old gardener knows the right way to face this kind of situation: “There’s some questions got answers, and some haven’t.”) Finally, there’s the unreality of the evanescent — the adolescent girls wrapped up in their poetry and idle philosophising, evaporating in the heat of the Australian sun before they have to face the reality of their looming adult lives. (The exception to this, of course, is the scientific-minded Miss McCraw, with her “masculine intellect”. Why she disappears is a mystery about this particular mystery.)

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Fithurbert

Michael Fitzhubert (played by Dominic Guard, who also voiced Pippin in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings), though part of the self-blinded upper classes, finds one of the girls — Irma — but only after searching obsessively enough in the outback heat that he falls into a fever. It’s as if he has to pass from reality into unreality to fetch her. (“I’d give my head to really know what happened up there,” the doctor says, after examining the concussed Irma, and it’s probably the price he’d have to pay — though it would be the loss of his rational, sane mind, not his actual head.)

The original theatrical release featured a brief, failed romance between Fitzhubert and the rescued Irma, later excised in Weir’s director’s cut. It’s a pity, because Fitzhubert’s inability to fall in love with Irma, and his continued obsession with the absent “Botticelli angel” Miranda, is all part of the devastating effect the mystery has — you get the feeling that this young man will never get over the disappearance of a girl he only ever glimpsed once, crossing a stream in a beam of sunlight, and will in fact be unable to love any real woman. She didn’t just take herself from this world, she took his soul, too.

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of those rare films that sustains a ghostly, fantastical air without any resort to the supernatural. For me, it fits perfectly alongside films such as The Spirit of the Beehive, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as being set in the liminal zone between outright fantasy and interior psychology — “a Dream within a Dream”, as it says (quoting Poe) at the start of the film.

(The film Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on a novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, who was married to the artist Daryl Lindsay, who was brother to the artist & writer Norman Lindsay, who featured in the 1994 film Sirens.)